You Won’t Learn a Language in 3 Months (Probably)

My job since 2012 has consisted mainly of language learning. First, I spent 6 months studying at the Graduate Institute of Applied Linguistics (now Dallas International University). A big part of our coursework involved language and culture acquisition and analysis. We then spent 16 months in France participating in an immersive program in the Alps.

After France we moved to Cameroon. We moved into a village with the Kwakum people in January 2015 and spent nearly three years pretty much exclusively studying the Kwakum language and culture. We spent a year and a half completing a Master of Arts in Applied Linguistics, mainly focused on analyzing Kwakum. Now we are back in Cameroon, finally beginning to move forward with translation.

I say all of that to make it clear that I have a background in language learning. Throughout this entire time I have gone through several levels of Rosetta Stone and Duolingo in French. While still in the US, I went through a course in French at the Dallas Alliance Française. Plus, we have had the opportunity to work alongside of many people also doing language learning. And with all of that experience, I can tell you (with almost complete certainty) that you will NOT be speaking a language confidently in just three months, as this ad I just saw on Facebook says:

There is a guideline for rating language learning ability called the CEFR or Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. This scale helps you to gauge what you are able to do in a language. I found the below image on Pinterest which gives a good idea of the overall language process. When you first begin at A1 you are able to “read a very short rehearsed statement.” At A2 you can “give a short, rehearsed, basic presentation on a familiar subject.” This progresses until C2 where you can “present a complex topic confidently and articulately to an audience unfamiliar with it.” You can see the rest of the stages below.

So, the next question is: How long does it take to get to the next levels? The Wikipedia article on CEFR has a nice chart on the cumulative hours of study needed to reach each level, see below.

So, following this chart, using French as an example, to be able to “read a very short rehearsed statement” you need to spend 60-100 hours of study. How much time are you going to invest in language learning using that pretty software or website? Let’s say you did an hour a day, five days a week. That would be 12 months to get to an A1 level. Are you willing to do more? 3 hours a day, 5 days a week would get you 60 hours a month. So, in 3 months you could have 180 hours, which is the middle range for A2. So for 3 months, you could “give a short rehearsed, basic presentation on a familiar topic.” Here are a couple other descriptors from Wikipedia for A2:

  • Can understand sentences and frequently used expressions related to areas of most immediate relevance (e.g. very basic personal and family information, shopping, local geography, employment).
  • Can communicate in simple and routine tasks requiring a simple and direct exchange of information on familiar and routine matters.
  • Can describe in simple terms aspects of their background, immediate environment and matters in areas of immediate need.

Honestly, to me this is not how I would describe “speaking confidently.” We spent 16 months in France, and for probably 12 of those months we were consistently doing 40-50 hours a week in study, both in and out of the classroom. We were also living in a French speaking town, shopping in French, greeting neighbors in French, attending a French-only church. When I left France I tested above a B2 level (but not quite C1) on the above scale. I would not have described myself as “speaking confidently” until probably another 6 months in Cameroon daily speaking French.

Some of this is subjective. What exactly does “speaking confidently” mean? It probably means something different to every person who reads it. I was recently told of one person who spoke Portuguese confidently after a month in Brazil using Duolingo and YouTube videos. I don’t know her. I can’t say whether or not this is accurate. If it is true, she’s probably a genius. No one (except my mom) thinks I am a genius, but that’s the point! These ads are not targeted at geniuses. From experience, I can tell you for certain that most people are not going to “speak confidently” any language after 3 months of using a software or website. And if they are speaking confidently they need to stop. Language is complex, and it takes lots of time to learn new ones.

I write this for two reasons: 1) I want you to know what to expect if you are buying these programs. I love language learning and think more people should do it. But you will likely never be fluent in a language if you only use a software program. In reality, you will probably never be fluent unless you live in a country where you can be immersed in that language. 2) I want you to know that your missionaries need time to do language learning. I have heard many missionaries say that they were not truly effective in ministry until they had been doing it for 5 years. I think a lot of this has to do with language.

Learning a new language is hard, and it is worth it. We are just beginning to see the power of God’s Word among the Kwakum people. God’s Word is only powerful when it is understood. God speaks all of the languages he created, and we are able to learn a few of them in a lifetime. But it takes time, hard work, hair-pulling, and much, much more than what these programs have to offer.


Author: David M. Hare

Dave is a husband, father of four Africans, and is currently helping the Kwakum people do Oral Bible Storying and Bible translation in Cameroon, Africa.