How Many Hours to Learn a Foreign Language?


I’m often asked how many hours it takes to learn a foreign language, how many hours the asker should plan to spend on learning language X, (more rarely) how many hours it took me to learn a language. Here’s an attempt at an answer.

It is a difficult question because there are so many variables. You can get a first idea at Wikibooks:Language Learning Difficulty for English Speakers, because the language you’re learning (and the language(s) you speak already) are the most important factors. If you’re Chinese and trying to learn Dutch, you may need more than 2000 hours, while as a native English speaker you only need around 600 – and if you’re a native German speaker with some knowledge of English, you may be able to make do with 300 even!

So that table is not the end-all of estimates; it also depends on which languages you have learned already and if you have any experience at all in learning languages. The first foreign language is always the hardest, which is why Benny Lewis (author of “Fluent in 3 Months”) and I recommend spending at least 2 weeks learning Esperanto (which is completely regular and easy) in order to wrap your head around a lot of features that would be much harder to figure out when learning a less regular language.

Apart from your language knowledge and experience, the next biggest factor is the level you’re trying to reach. The numbers on the site I gave are all going for the lower end of professional working capacity. If you have a less lofty goal, you may be able to reach it faster, especially if you optimize for what you want to achieve. As you can read in this blog article I wrote for Benny’s site, I have been able to understand a Japanese TV series after 30 days, test at A2 level in Finnish after 30 days, give a public speech in Indonesian after 6 weeks, and so on. It’s all a matter of optimization for your goal. Few people really want to be an expert at every aspect of a language, at least not urgently. They urgently need one skill, but they develop all skills at once because that’s what textbooks and classes generally do. It slows them down a lot though. When I needed to urgently get comfortable reading Spanish in order to quote Spanish linguistics journals for my thesis, I reached that level in a few dozen hours of study rather than the 575+ that the FSI cites – but I don’t have professional working capacity in Spanish, I just learned enough for my purposes. It’s another example of the optimization I’ll do, accepting lopsided language knowledge in exchange for achieving surprising feats very quickly. Unfortunately, you don’t really get an idea of how to optimize your path until you’re already an experienced language learner. Here a coach may be helpful.

Note also that intensity is an issue. The FSI assumes that you will study very intensively, as their students do, at least 4 hours a day. However, the average adult language learner only studies two hours a week or so. At that speed, you will forget much more and waste time having to review it, so you will inevitably need longer than their estimates. The more intensively you study, the less total time you’ll need. I recommend intensive study especially at the beginning, to quickly leave the textbook stage behind and reach a level where “study” becomes self-motivating and fun, for example because you’re watching movies or reading interesting articles in your target language.

And that’s the real key: motivation. The more weeks and months you spend on a language, the more motivation you need in order not to quit. The vast majority of language learners quit before they reach their goal. So ensure that either a) the language is easy enough to pick up quickly or b) you’re studying very intensively or c) you have enough motivation to sustain you for the really long run.

Good luck!

So Many Ways to Learn Esperanto

The Master List of Resources for Learning Esperanto. Courses, grammars, exercises, vocabulary, pronunciation, lots of reading materials from easy readers to literature, ways to improve your writing, listening practise through podcasts, audiobooks and videos, and much more. Must bookmark!

I wrote books about 72 Ways to Learn Spanish using free resources, similarly 72 Ways to Learn German, 72 Ways to Learn French, even 72 Ways to Learn Japanese. Why no Esperanto?

I thought writing such a book about Esperanto wouldn’t be read much. There are fewer people interested in learning Esperanto (why learn Esperanto?), and those are more aware of free resources, aren’t they? However, then I saw that already more than 24000 people are waiting for the Duolingo Esperanto course to come out and I can’t just abandon them. So as a quick fix – less detailed than the books, but still very helpful – here’s as full a list of free Esperanto resources as I am aware of. If you find another resource that’s worth mentioning, please tell me and I’ll add it ASAP.

Index of resources:


Courses

Communicative Approach courses

The focus of the communicative approach is to learn to communicate above anything else. Some Esperanto courses featuring this approach are:

Grammar-based courses

In these courses, understanding grammar is the key. Great if grammar is your weakness (or your passion).

  • Kurso de Esperanto – a software for learning Esperanto. Includes sound files and some self-correcting exercises
  • Grammar of Esperanto – actually a course and not just a grammar. Very extensive, but assumes that you’re familiar with grammatical terms.
  • The Esperanto Teacher – similar to the above in that it’s an extensive and old-style course, written for people who don’t know grammatical terms
  • 10-lesson Pacujo course – also available with a free tutor to correct your exercises

Direct-method courses

With the direct method, the key idea is that you will “absorb” the language without referring back to English. Hence all instruction is in Esperanto. Rosetta Stone is an example of a direct-method language program.

Upper-beginner and intermediate-level courses

These courses are best used after you already have an idea of the basics of Esperanto. However, if you’re an experienced language learner and want something to sink your teeth into, feel free to start with these.


Grammar

Detailed Grammar, another awesome Lernu resource.

Plena Manlibro de Esperanta Gramatiko, aka PMEG, is THE reference grammar for Esperanto speakers. It’s all in Esperanto.

How to Talk Dirty in Esperanto – you may laugh, but this NSFW page actually teaches you all Esperanto grammar.

La puzlo Esperanto – practising word construction in a puzzle form.

Esperanto for the Impatient Linguist – introduction to the affix system with lots of exercises for a few essential affixes.

Esperanto Affixes Exercise – very complete set of exercises for mastering the affixes – go over this from start to finish and you’ll speak much more fluently in Esperanto.


Vocabulary

Vivo – look up words in several dictionaries at once. Includes Reta Vortaro, Wikipedia, Majstro, Komputeko, Lernu and Wiktionary among its sources.

Picture Dictionary

Lernu Word of the Day – never let a day go by without learning a new word in Esperanto!

Anki deck for Esperanto – Anki is my favourite software for learning vocabulary, so of course I created a deck for Esperanto. It includes all the must-know basic Esperanto roots according to magazine Kontakto. For $10, you can also get a more extensive version with audio recordings of each entry and even more words.

Esperanto words by category

Tatoeba for Esperanto – if you’re not sure how to use a word, you can find lots of example sentences at Tatoeba. (also for other languages)


Pronunciation

Forvo – find recordings of any Esperanto word you can think of. (also for other languages)

Rhinospike – have fluent Esperanto speakers record any text you like. (also for other languages)

What better way to practise your pronunciation than to sing Esperanto karaoke? The files at Karaoke are rather basic compared to the amazing video karaoke Eobo organizes at Esperanto events, but they’re still good for practise.

Also check out the Practise Listening section.


Reading

The Lernu Library is a great place to start reading Esperanto because you can click on any word in order to see its translation. This means you can tackle any texts that interest you, even if they contain many unknown words. J.R.R. Tolkien famously learned Esperanto by spending 2 hours on grammar and then just reading a lot of texts.

Bliubliu also allows you to see translations while you read, though their recognition of Esperanto grammar is not quite as good. In return, they keep track of which words you already know and try to show you texts suitable to your level.

Facila Vento hosts many interesting texts in easy Esperanto, often also with audio recordings.

Gerda Malaperis or any of Claude Piron’s easy readers (the ones under the alias Johán Valano) are a great first book in Esperanto.

Fajron Sentas Mi Interne – Let me recommend this novel in particular to you; it’s quite easy and yet a famous novel originally written in Esperanto.

Project Gutenberg includes interesting classics in Esperanto, including translations of Grimm’s fairy tales, “Alice in Wonderland”, “Hamlet”, “The Wizard of Oz”, “Robinson Crusoe”, Mark Twain novellas, Charles Dickens’ stories, Ibsen’s dramas, as well as original Esperanto works by greats such as Edmond Privat and Kálmán Kalocsay.

Esperanto translations of German literature – Brecht, Büchner, Kafka, Rilke, etc.

Jack Vance in Esperanto – translations of this award-winning fantasy and science fiction author

Index of Online Literature in Esperanto

LOTS of ebooks in Esperanto

UEA Katalogo – Mail-order books and other learning materials in Esperanto. The Flanders Esperanto Association Store also has modern ebooks (epub / pdf) in Esperanto.

Cartoons in Esperanto

More Cartoons in Esperanto

Vojago – Travel stories and exotic cultures, easy reading in Esperanto

Esperanto CRI – Everyday news in Esperanto by the Chinese national radio

Le Monde diplomatique – Analysis of world news in Esperanto

Libera Folio – News from the Esperanto world

TED talks with Esperanto subtitles – a great way to learn something and practise Esperanto at the same time.

Verda Filmejo – when you next watch a movie, switch on Esperanto subtitles! You can find them here – recommendations of awesome foreign movies included!


Practise Writing

Lingvohelpilo – automatic spellchecker and grammar checker for your Esperanto texts

Lang-8 – write a text and get corrections for free; it’s as simple as that. (also for other languages)

Lingva Konsultejo – ask for translation help.

Esperanto.com – social network especially for Esperanto speakers

Index of Facebook groups in Esperanto – if you always wanted to read/write about sports, Linux, language-learning, gardening, cycling, or in Esperanto, there is certainly a group for you here. There are also national groups, useful for finding local Esperanto contacts.

Babilejo – text-chat in Esperanto


Practise Listening

Podcasts and Radio

Muzaiko – round-the-clock radio program in Esperanto. Caution: rapidly changing music styles.

Radio Verda – podcasts in Esperanto from Canada, in relatively slow Esperanto

Varsovia Vento – podcasts in Esperanto from Warsaw

Radio news in Esperanto – from the Chinese national radio

Chinese culture – podcasts with accompanying texts make for great listening practise

More radio stations in Esperanto – long list, not quite up-to-date

Explore Music in Esperanto

Audiobooks

Elerno – a number of free audiobooks in Esperanto

more audiobooks in Esperanto

Videos

TV in Esperanto

Easy Esperanto Talk Videos – Recommended videos for learners because they feature slow and clear Esperanto, many of them videos of lectures.

Children’s stories told in Esperanto – Bookbox creates videos based on lesser-known children’s stories from around the world. These contain both narration and subtitles, so they are a good tool for listening practise: try to understand just by listening and use the subtitles if you don’t understand. The narrators change for each video, some are much better than others.

Archive of Farbskatol’ – Farbskatol’ was an interesting place to find new and often funny videos in Esperanto. Unfortunately they went under, but their content is now archived here.

Videos of Esperanto concerts/ – only one per band; find more on Youtube or on Varsovia Vento Elsendoj.

Interviews with Esperanto singers and presentations of albums


Practise Speaking

List of Skype contacts – People from around the world who’d love to speak Esperanto with you

Skajpanoj – Post here to find more Skype contacts

Events – Find a big international meet-ups. For smaller, weekly meet-ups in your hometown, ask your national Esperanto association.


Teachers

Several people have contacted me about finding Esperanto teachers, as there are none on iTalki. I’m ready to take on a few Esperanto students myself – I already teach Esperanto locally – and otherwise you’re certain to find Esperanto teachers by asking around on this Facebook group. Contact me.

 

Launching a Special Challenge

I created the 6 Week Challenge several years ago and it has been faithfully running four times a year, always starting on February 1, May 1, August 1 and November 1, for a pattern that’s roughly 6 weeks on, 6 weeks off. The next challenge is almost upon us, starting on May 1. And this time, I want to mix things up!

Considering the Polyglot Gathering takes place in Berlin from June 15-18, just after the 6 Week Challenge ends, I thought it would be fun to have a special 6 Week Challenge that includes the possibility for people to show off their results locally at the Gathering (while not excluding those who can’t make it). And I was even able to convince some people to provide really awesome prizes for the winners!

So here’s the special challenge: give a short presentation in Esperanto after only 6 weeks of study, just like I did for Indonesian! If you manage to do so, you have a chance to win a week-long vacation, a book or a DVD.

There will be two brackets: one for people giving their presentation in-person at the Polyglot Gathering, and one for people who upload a video of their presentation to Youtube. The prizes are for each bracket – so we’re giving away not one but TWO free vacations!

If you were always considering learning Esperanto, or if you can’t resist a good challenge, this is your chance. Read more here.

Good luck!

Interviewed again!

This time I’m exploring how to make the best use of a tutor, on the Language is Culture podcast with David Mansaray:

* What makes an amazing tutor
* How to spot a bad tutor
* How to organise a productive session with a tutor
* Learning vocabulary with a tutor
* Improving pronunciation with a tutor
* Studying grammar with a tutor
* The importance of having a good rapport with a tutor
And much, much more…!

http://www.languageisculture.com/episode12/

I was Interviewed!

I’m on the Actual Fluency podcast! Talking about

  • motivation
  • learning languages with view of different goals
  • using tutors
  • studying Latin, Esperanto, Chinese, Indonesian

and more! Chris Broholm and me had a really interesting conversation.

Listen to the Actual Fluency podcast!

Practise Numbers Using a Fun Game

If you’re learning Chinese, Japanese, Arabic, Persian, Thai, Khmer or any of the Indian languages, you’re probably annoyed that they don’t use Western numerals (0123456789) but other symbols for their numbers. These will require a lot of practise until you can read them as effortlessly as you can read Western numerals. So here’s a fun way to practice, an addictive game that I adapted in a spare hour:

Sample board for the Chinese 2048 game

Play it at 2048 on LearnLangs!

Indonesian Video Materials

I’m getting quite good at reading Indonesian – I’ve read more than 350 pages of parallel texts – so now is a good time to improve my listening comprehension. I asked friends for recommendations of online Indonesian videos and received the following recommendations:

Children’s stories being read (subtitles in Indonesian)
Jalan Jalan Men, a fun travel series – The authors also do other fun series. (subtitles in English)
Random skits, the mini-series Malam Malam Minggu was particularly recommended
Jelita, an Indonesian drama (subtitles in Malay)
Berita Harian TV (some news programs)

I also received a recommendation for the martial arts movie “The Raid” (Serbuan Maut) because it’s one of few Indonesian movies to make it outside of Indonesia.
And “Macabre” (Rumah Dara), though I won’t be watching it because it’s a horror-slasher.

Apparently Youtube has a neat feature where you can see what the most watched recently-added videos or most shared videos are for any country, gender and age group. Try it for your target country!

If you have more suggestions, please comment below.

Increasing Productive Language Hours

I’ve tried many to-do lists, dont-break-the-chain, habit builders and so on, but
a) They were all boring
b) They didn’t support all the things I need to track, only one or two types of tasks / habits.

Since I freelance and have a lot of time to waste every day, I want something that lists everything: things I need to do today, deadlines coming up next week, productivity goals I want to meet every day, non-daily habits I want to encourage… and it should be fun to strike things off the list (without preventing recurrence).

I FOUND IT!

www.habitrpg.com is perfect for me. I must say that I never play RPGs, so I was sceptical at first, but it turns out that by “RPG” they mostly mean that completing tasks makes little bars go up in a very satisfying way and it gives you gold to spend on rewards you can define for yourself (Great idea! I deserve some cake now). Also, if you fail to complete daily tasks or do bad things, you lose health, so you get feedback on that as well. The incentives are all silly and virtual, and you can obviously cheat by awarding yourself points for tasks you didn’t do, but for me it works.

It’s open-source and free. The only downside is that it’s currently not possible to use the site on an iPhone, so when I traveled, I set myself as on vacation – probably a good idea anyway, as the regular tasks don’t apply.

Give HabitRPG a try!

What NOT to do in Germany

It’s not enough to speak a foreign language – if you want to fit in while abroad, you also need to know the cultural norms, the expected behaviour, so that you don’t inadvertently offend people. There is often some leeway for foreigners, but some things are considered “universal” by the locals, so even foreigners aren’t allowed to get away with them (no matter if these are actually universal constants or not).

Someone on Quora asked me about the things that a foreigner visiting Germany should absolutely not do. My answer:

As far as I’m concerned, there’s only one “absolutely not” rule for Germany: don’t do the Nazi salute. Not even in jest. It’s a crime and every year there are tourists arrested for it. Also don’t carry any Nazi symbols on you.

If you not just want to avoid getting arrested but also keep the respect of the Germans you meet, the following rules are important – a lot of these are the same as in other Western countries:

  • Don’t stare. You’d appear either uneducated or mentally ill.
  • Dress somewhat better than the average American. T-shirts are only acceptable if it’s above 20°C outside. Avoid tennis shoes unless you are actually in the middle of exercising.
  • Remember all the things your mother and grandmother told you about manners and about doing things the right way? That really matters in Germany, otherwise you come across like the scum of society. There are a lot of rules for this on very diverse issues, from being on time to not speaking with your mouth full to using an appropriate level of formality/festivity when the occasion calls for it.
  • Don’t talk about money – not about your salary, not about someone else’s salary, not about how much you paid for something and particularly not about trickle-down economics. If you’re wealthy, don’t flaunt it.
  • Don’t talk about religion.
  • Don’t talk about politics unless you can agree with the basic consensus I outlined here. This is tricky. Many Germans like to discuss the news or argue about what should be done in an armchair expert way, so you may be drawn into a political discussion anyway. Disagreeing with each other on political issues is not a big deal in Germany – except if you disagree with the basic consensus of our country, people will lose respect for you until you present a really thoughtful argument. These issues are supposed to be obvious to everyone. Kind of like trying to argue for limits on freedom of speech in America. Which Germans might try to do.

Then, if you want to make friends with Germans, keep in mind:

  • Don’t strike up conversations with strangers at a supermarket or the like; that’s creepy.
  • Start out addressing people as “Sie” unless you are 100% sure that you are in a Du-subculture.
  • Avoid coming across like an over-eager puppy in your early interactions. Germans like to gradually warm up to people and taking the time to really get to know them before acting like BFFs.
  • Ask if you should take off your shoes when visiting someone’s home.
  • Don’t wish someone a happy birthday before the day. Same for anything. The origin is a superstition that something bad will happen to them (they might die) before their birthday if you do, however this rule is not limited to superstitious people. Even bright, rational Germans will feel uncomfortable because it’s just not done. I guess it feels similar to congratulating someone on passing an exam before they have taken it…

72 Ways to Learn Japanese – New Book & Limited Time Discount!

I just released “72 Ways to Learn Japanese for Free”, the latest installment in my “72 Ways to Learn a Language for Free” series of ebooks.

This ebook will be available at a special deep discount for 0.99 EUR instead of the usual 2.99 EUR for the first week only – on November 17th I’m raising the price, so get your copy now! This way I can reward my loyal readers who have been waiting for the release of this book for a while.

Already the book made it onto Amazon’s bestseller list for Japanese-learning books:
72 Ways to Learn Japanese for Free on Amazon's bestseller list

It’s going to be big. Thank you so much, everyone!