When I first started learning Japanese in high school I had one burning question, “how good can I get?”
I wanted to know if I could ever sound like a native speaker or if I would always sound like some American version of a foreigner with a thick accent as parodied on TV. I also wondered if it mattered which class I took or what study method I used. And if it was possible to sound like a native, how long would it take?
The answers I found all seemed to conflict with each other.
Several books and tape sets I found at the bookstore advertised that they would teach me to “speak like a native.” Scholarly articles told me that if I was outside the critical period of 12 years of age then I would never be able to speak another language correctly, let alone sound native. Commenters on internet chat boards said, “duh, of course you can speak native, it’s just a matter of learning.” And finally, my high school Japanese teacher said that I’d come back fluent after spending a semester abroad in high school.
15 years later I’ve learned to speak Japanese and Korean fluently, spent four years living abroad, passed the highest level of the Japanese proficiency test, spent a summer translating documents for attorneys at an American law firm in Tokyo, and married a Korean. I’ve tried just about every learning approach, taken dozens of classes, and have a library full of self study materials.
Along the way I’ve also met hundreds of other language learners, and come up with some surprising answers on what it really takes to learn a foreign language and how well you can learn to speak it.
Problems defining fluency
One of the major problems with learning to speak “fluently” or “like a native” is defining what that even means. It may seem fairly obvious, someone should sound natural and speak without an accent. However, it’s not that straightforward.
The most readily available examples in America are Mexican immigrants who learned to speak English as a second language. If you couldn’t see them and were talking to them on the phone, some of them would be indistinguishable from native speakers, some would phrase things in ways that sound very natural but still have a noticeable Mexican twang to their pronunciation, and some would speak in broken chunks of words with very thick accents.
All of them are communicating to some degree, but where do you draw the line on fluency? Is the person who sounds natural, but speaks with an accent fluent? If he occasionally makes a grammatical error or doesn’t know how to say something, but otherwise speaks correctly 95% of the time does that count as fluent?
Also, let’s say someone sounds native 95% of the time, but occasionally has a bit of an accent on words they aren’t familiar with. Does this person “speak like a native?” Or in the case of one of my ex-girlfriends, sounds native except for when she gets nervous then hints of her accent come out. Where do you draw the line?
Education level is another way that language fluency has been defined.
Let’s say we define fluency as speaking at a high school level. Does that mean that born and bred Americans who drop out of high school aren’t fluent in English?
Or what if someone who learned English as a second language has a college level vocabulary, but still a noticeable accent. Is she more or less fluent than a native 10 year old with a 4th grade vocabulary?
I could give many more examples, but it should be clear by now that fluency is actually a huge gray area and it’s more accurately viewed as a spectrum than as some specific threshold that you cross and are now “fluent.”
Levels of fluency
In my experience, there are a number of general levels of fluency that seem to come in about the same order when learning any new language.
- Rank beginner – you know a few words that are enough to get around (bathroom, restaurant, phone, food) and identify a few basic road signs. Conversation is not possible, but you can get by on the basics of life with a little bit of pointing and gesturing to make up for lack of words.
- Basic conversation – you can carry on a basic conversation about what you did or what you’re going to do, order food at a restaurant, and do simple day-to-day things.
- Intermediate conversation – you can now go beyond just describing the simple who, what, when, where, and how of events and begin to talk about what you thought and felt about things. When new words come up, you can understand it when people explain them to you. While you still don’t understand everything, your vocabulary begins to explode at this point.
- Watching TV – once your conversation skills are fairly developed you can begin to understand (most of) your basic sitcom and drama type TV shows that use everyday language. News and shows about complex subject matter are still difficult to grasp.
- Reading the newspaper – at this point you can read the newspaper, albeit with the aid of a dictionary.
- Watching the news – eventually you begin to acquire enough vocabulary that you can make sense of the news.
- Take classes taught in a foreign language – this will be tough, but doable if you have a dictionary on hand and keep up to date on the texts for the class. Some of it also depends on the subject matter.
- Advanced conversation – you can pretty much talk about anything you want to. Even if you don’t know the right words or don’t express things in a sophisticated way, you have enough vocabulary that you can talk around something and communicate it just as effectively.
- Reading literature – you can start reading literary novels, albeit with a dictionary. Reading literature is perhaps the most difficult thing to do for a non-native because there are many “book” words that aren’t used in everyday speech and there is so much nuance to the writing that makes it difficult to follow.
As a caveat, this is only a broad outline and someone else might list the levels differently. In general your in-person conversation skills and reading skills will vastly outpace things like your ability to understand TV, speeches, or plays. I speak Korean fairly well–my mother-in-law calls me a “fake foreigner”–but I still have a difficult time with TV.
Another twist is that women are generally easier to understand than men (apparently we like to mumble and speak incoherently).
Also, even if you speak very well one-on-one, you may find that the speed of group conversations leaves your head spinning.
How good can you get?
So then, back to our original question, how good can you really get?
First, the bad news. The scholarly papers do seem to be correct in that you will never really sound native if you start learning a language after about the age of 12. And the possibility starts to drop off rapidly as you get older.
By way of example I have a Bulgarian friend who moved to the US when she was 13 and her sister was 15. Both girls are razor-sharp smart, so should have had equal mental capacity to pick up English. However, my friend sounds mostly native except for the occasional Bulgarian twang, but her sister still has a pronounced Bulgarian accent and sometimes phrases things oddly.
Just below the threshold, I had a Japanese friend who attended part of elementary school and junior high in America before moving back to Japan (about age 8-12). He sounds American as apple pie except for his obviously limited vocabulary.
Even having an extremely high aptitude for language learning doesn’t seem to overcome the age barrier. Some years later I ran into a guy from one of my Japanese classes at Stanford who commented that he was impressed by how easily I picked up Japanese and thought that “the rest of the class was just holding [me] back.” You might be fooled for a little while talking to me on the phone in Japanese or Korean just because you aren’t expecting a white guy, but if you talk to me long enough it becomes obvious that I am not a native speaker.
I have never met or even heard of someone who started learning a language in high school or later who managed to fully sound like a native. If you learn a foreign language as an adult you will always, even if ever so subtly, have a bit of a twang to your accent.
That said, there is good news. You can get good at a foreign language as an adult–really good.
You can learn to do all the things that really matter for day to day life. You can pick up enough fluency to have deep conversations with friends, laugh along with others at jokes that are no longer lost in translation, take classes in a foreign language, read foreign literature, or work for a foreign company.
How long will it take?
Aye, there’s the rub.
How long it will take and how far you will get depend greatly on a number of things like motivation, how social you are, what language your significant other speaks, time commitments, and whether you live in the country or not.
First, I would posit that if you don’t live in the country where the language is spoken natively or can’t do so for at least a full year (ideally longer), you will never achieve any meaningful degree of fluency beyond the very basics. You would be better off spending your time on the couch watching TV. It just ain’t gonna happen.
That said, if you can live in the country where the language is spoken, living circumstances matter. If you have an English-only speaking wife in tow, work for a foreign branch of a company where the office language is English, and don’t have a lot of free time otherwise then you probably will not make much progress learning the language.
I have many friends who’ve gone to Korea and Japan as English teachers in hopes of learning Korean or Japanese while they were there and come back with barely more than they started with.
Under ideal circumstances–you live in the country, are dedicated to taking language classes full-time the first year, have many native friends and/or a significant other who speaks it natively–you can expect to achieve results in some fairly predictable time frames:
- 2-4 months – basic conversation abilities (level 2 above)
- 6-8 months – intermediate conversation abilities (level 3 above)
- 1-2 years – most practical abilities (level 7 above)
- 5 years – full confidence in nearly any situation you’d encounter
In other words if we look at this from the perspective of the 80/20 rule and diminishing returns, you can learn the 80% of what you need to know in 1 to 2 years studying abroad. Picking up the remaining 20% and feeling really confident in most situations you will encounter takes a minimum of 5 years under ideal circumstances–even if you are super smart.
To put that in perspective, in 1 to 2 years you can be about as fluent as a Russian mobster portrayed on TV who speaks English well enough to understand the news and do business in the U.S. but still has troubles expressing himself eloquently. But to be really fluent in the way that you are most likely thinking of it will take 5 years or more.
NOTE: It has been pointed out to me that my observations on language learning progress are–perhaps not surprisingly–similar to the CEFR guidelines. So it’s not just me!
Why does it take so long?
WTF? 5 years Brian?
Think about how much English you knew when you were 5 years old. Not much.
Of course that’s not an entirely fair example, but think back to your high school English classes. You were still memorizing reams and reams of vocabulary words for tests. And even more words for the SAT.
In other words, you weren’t done learning English yet. Even with a full native advantage and speaking English every day of your life for 18 years, there were still lots of words that you didn’t know yet.
We find that vocabulary follows the 80/20 rule. About 400-500 words make up 80% of everyday conversation. But an educated adult might know 15,000 – 20,000 words on average.
It should be fairly obvious that you can learn 400-500 words a lot quicker than you can learn 15,000 – 20,000 words. Not only that, but it’s easier to learn the core 400-500 words because they are used the most frequently.
Picking up the remaining words takes longer not only because there are a lot more of them, but because they are also used less frequently and context specific. If you’re living in a foreign country your car might have to break down before you learn words like transmission, spark plugs, or A/C compressor. You might have to visit the dentist before you learn words like cavity, molar, or braces. And none of these are even words that most native English speakers would consider big words!
It’s even harder to pick up and remember words like iridescent, superfluous, and magnanimous that you might only see occasionally–and might even only have a general sense of what mean in English.
What really makes learning a foreign language take so long is not any inherent difficulty with the language, but the sheer volume of what you have to learn.
I presume if you are reading this post you are most likely over the age of 12, which means that you will never be able to “speak like a native.”
However, speaking like a native is mostly a matter of sound and accent. While you will always have a bit of foreign twang, if you are dedicated to it you can learn to speak a foreign language fluently. And if you practice your pronunciation diligently, you can smooth off the rough edges of your accent and speak well enough to impress the natives even if you don’t 100% sound like one.
To achieve a meaningful level of conversational fluency you should expect to spend at least a full year abroad dedicated full-time to language classes and conversing with native speakers. For full mastery, you will need at least 5 years abroad–even if you are really, really smart.
There is no short or easy path to learning a foreign language, but the prize is there for the taking if you want it.