Reality Check

Let me bring you back to a small classroom 10 years ago to eavesdrop on a conversation I had with a new student whom we shall describe as a true beginner:

Teacher: ‘Why do you want to learn French? What is your goal?

Student: ‘I want to be fluent in 3 months (because my company is sending me to the Paris office) and most importantly don’t want to speak with an American accent.

Sigh… In my accentuated broken English I told him that he would not achieve his goal of fluency in such a short period of time and that he’d better accept the fact that he would most probably speak with a slight accent due to his age (he was not 16 years old anymore).

Et voilà: unrealistic -and therefore unattainable- goals is the main reason why most students fail to achieve basic proficiency in foreign languages. Even worse: it feeds the idea that learning a foreign language is … well… impossible. Marty Abbott, ACTFL Director of Education, says it best:  ‘We have this national psyche that we’re not good at languages. It’s still perceived as something only smart people can do, and it’s not true; we all learned our first language and we can learn a second one.’ [1]

So here are some basic Q & A for anyone thinking about learning a foreign language:

1. How difficult is the language or L2 you intend to learn?

Category I languages are the easiest ones; Category IV the hardest.

2. How many hours of instruction (or contact hours) does it entail according to ACTFL (American standards) and CEFR (European standards)?

* Let’s round up our numbers to 50 hours of instruction per semester.
** Graduate schools territory starts here.

07/2013 UPDATE Here is what the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service (ACE Credit) says on the topic:



3. How many years (alas not months) will it take to achieve various levels of proficiency when one starts as a true beginner?

And we are not even discussing what ‘fluency’ actually means.

4. What about false beginners
Depending of circumstances (placement test, advisor, professors, confidence, goals, etc.), they might skip between 1 to 3 introductory courses.


5. Can I study more and progress faster?
Doing your homework and using every opportunity to be exposed to the target language (movies, news, cultural events, basic conversation with native speakers, etc.) will help your confidence and intercultural competence. A good rule of thumb is to spend as much time working on your skills outside the classroom as you do in the classroom.
And don’t forget to have fun! For example learning new words in context will help you retain them. And don’t be afraid to make mistakes because you will make them anyway and will learn from them. I guess these people won’t make the same mistake twice.
However taking 2 or 3 courses at the same time to save time won’t work. You will experience brain fatigue. Think of language as science: ‘[…] a student who fails to absorb the key lessons in one class will flounder in the next.’ [The New York Times, Why Science Majors Change their Minds (It’s Just so Darn Hard)]


6. I’ve taken x number of courses and still can’t achieve the level of proficiency I’ve set my mind to. Why?
Sadly our level of proficiency (or competences in various areas) in our first language will influence how we do in our second language. The less educated I am in my first language, the less proficient I will be in my second language.
This should hopefully help some understand why their foreign-born neighbors for example still speak ‘little’ English despite having resided in an English-speaking country for decades.
Now it is never too late to improve our proficiency in our first language. Students say it best: ‘Learning French helped me greatly with my English grammar.’


Another possibility would be to have hit the ‘Intermediate Plateau’. When it takes us 100 hours or so to move from Novice to Intermediate Low, it will take us 3 times more (or an additional 300 hours) to move from Intermediate Low to Advanced Low. The good news is: when you’re there, you’re in.



I’ve been using the ACTFL Proficiency Guidelines in this post but you can use the European ones if you prefer:
A1, A2 = Basic User
B1, B2 = Independent User
C1, C2 = Proficient User
[1]  Sparks, S. (2010). Science Grows on Acquiring New Language. Education Week, 30 (09).

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