Language Learning

As a kid, I hated language learning. I was all about the mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering and saw no reason for me to learn French or German (my only two options).  However, almost 40 years later I hate being the guy in the room that cannot speak a second language.  This has spurred me on to start language learning again. 

To further my language learning I have given myself a goal of becoming a polyglot.  The definition of a polyglot appears to be a little vague but I think most people agree that you need to be fluent in at least three foreign languages.

My chosen languages are German, Spanish and one as yet undefined.  I might go with French or I might go with Polish.  I am leaning towards both but with Polish first. 

In order to improve my language skills I use this blog to post writings in my target language.  here you can find these writings.

How difficult are languages to learn?

Languages can be grouped by difficulty.  There are a number of organizations who do this but the most well known is The US Department of State.  The US Department of State rates language difficulty on a scale of 1-4 with 1 being the easiest to acquire and 4 being the hardest.  

Category 1 - Most like English including Spanish, Danish, French
Category 2 - A little harder, including German 
Category 3 - Significant differences from English including Polish, Finnish
Category 4 - Hardest for English speakers to learn; including Arabic, Cantonese

They also consider how long it take to acquire the language to fluency, through a number of weeks for intense study and practice.  For category 1 languages the time is 24-30 weeks (or 600-750 hours), but for Category 4 languages it takes 88 weeks or 2200 hours of study.

How do we rate proficiency?

The council of Europe have a proficiency rating called the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR).  The CEFR rates proficiency in language, on a scale as follows:

A1 - Beginner                            B2 - upper intermediate
A2 - Elementary                        C1 - Proficiency
B1 - intermediate                      C2 - Mastery

It should be noted that there are other scales out there so this is not definitive by any means.  By checking out sites like the Goethe institute, they maintain that a level of B1 in German can be attained in about 18 months of home study, and with immersion C2 can be achieved in 3+ years.

Language Fluency

So this begs the question; what level is fluency?  I think the answer depends on the individual.  What level of a foreign language do you need and for what purpose?  For my purposes, I need the language to help make travel and short term living in the target country a reality.  I need to deal with:

Travel: customs, airports, trains, announcements, car rental
Food: restaurants, ordering, food, drinks
Living: paying bills, shopping, every day life
Tourism: general questions, directions

What I don't need is business, technical, regulatory, or political language. So fluency for me would probably be around the B1 level which is defined as:
  • Understand points regarding family, work, school or leisure-related topics.
  • Deal with most travel situations in areas where the language is spoken.
  • Create simple texts on topics of personal interest.
  • Describe experiences, events, dreams, and ambitions, as well as opinions or plans in brief.
B2 adds professional, technical and academic communication to the above and for me that is simply not required, so for me a level of fluency would most likely be about B1, perhaps bordering on B2 as I am an engineer after all.

So looking at the information from CEFR, US State Dept. and Goethe, we can estimate that I should be able to reach a level of proficiency via home study in about 18-24 months for level 1 & 2 languages.