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Learning a language

How long do you reckon it takes to learn a new language to the point where you can have simple conversations with native speakers of that language?

Specifically, how long do you think it would take for someone who can already speak at least two languages to learn an unfamiliar language, when they are in an environment where the unfamiliar language is spoken by everyone and they are working on picking up the language as the main thing they are doing?   Assume that the person has the assistance of someone who can speak both languages, and that the structure of the language is similar to those already known.

I reckon two weeks would be more than enough, but then my attitude to languages is a bit Top Gear.  Pp, who has A's at O Level in several languages he can't speak at all, feels that two weeks is a ludicrous underestimate. 



( 38 comments — Leave a comment )
24th Oct, 2015 18:27 (UTC)
Depends on the setting for the conversation.
I learned enough German in 3 days that I could hold conversations in theAprès ski bars and clubs in Austria.
In that situation, there are only 4 topics of conversation:
What you are drinking?
Where are you from?
Where you have skied . (Since you've been here, and where else in the past)
How bad is this music? (What do you like to listen to when not being forced to dance to this crap?)

I also learned the word for Cigarette Lighter, because anyone coming up to you in the street and saying anything to you that included that word was asking to borrow your lighter.
Also: Mobile Phones are called Handies. Boys saying anything that included the word 'Handy' were asking for your Number. :D

I picked up enough Italian in a week to get any meal, coffee, transport/admittance tickets or directions I wanted.

None of these Conversations were particularly deep and meaningful, and I was by no means understanding every word, AND the native speakers in these convos were definitely doing all the heavy lifting, but I'm totally agreeing with you that it's possible.

Edited at 2015-10-24 18:29 (UTC)
24th Oct, 2015 18:57 (UTC)
I think that was the level of conversation I was envisaging: simple sentences about obvious topics. Personally I find it easier to understand people talking than to assemble vocabulary to actually say anything, but I've never really been in that situation of being completely immersed in a language that I've not previously studied at all.
(no subject) - ozisim - 24th Oct, 2015 20:02 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - carmarthen - 31st Oct, 2015 18:04 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - andrewducker - 24th Oct, 2015 20:18 (UTC) - Expand
24th Oct, 2015 18:27 (UTC)
I think two weeks would give you enough for halting conversations at a very basic level, if you were immersed in the language/culture.

(In a similar language. I can't speak for picking up Chinese from scratch.)
24th Oct, 2015 19:01 (UTC)
Thank you! I'm thinking of fairly closely related languages. (Well, OK, I'm wondering how long it would take someone who spoke Archaic Welsh and at least one dialect of Old English to learn modern English.)
24th Oct, 2015 18:30 (UTC)
I'd say it would take me more than 2 weeks to manage that, even with total immersion in a relatively similar language to one I can already speak. Also language similarities can cause confusion as you struggle to remember what word goes with which language.

24th Oct, 2015 19:03 (UTC)
Yes, I was thinking there was a lot of potential for confusion. Interesting that you feel it would take longer, any idea how long you'd feel was reasonable for basic simple communication?
24th Oct, 2015 18:36 (UTC)
I don't have O-levels, I have GCSEs, because I'm young!
24th Oct, 2015 18:58 (UTC)
Yeah right, by one year!
24th Oct, 2015 18:38 (UTC)
I'm with Pp on this one. I, too, have As at O-level in languages I can't speak at all - and could never speak, even then (although, to be fair, one was Latin, which nobody expects you to speak.) I know intellectually that other people are a lot better at picking up spoken languages than I am. I also accept that in fiction, a language barrier is a real nuisance, so it's useful to get rid of it as soon as possible by having characters quickly learn how to communicate. But, still, when I encounter this in a novel, my instinctive, emotional reaction is, "No! There's no way they can be having that fluent discussion about philosophy when just days ago, they couldn't even say 'hello.'"
24th Oct, 2015 19:16 (UTC)
Well, I was thinking more sentences like 'I don't understand' or 'who is Harry Potter?' and answers to questions like 'what's your name' and 'are you joking?' than complex debates about philosophy or anything complex or technical...

Maybe two weeks is still too short.
(no subject) - ladyofastolat - 24th Oct, 2015 20:49 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 24th Oct, 2015 21:13 (UTC) - Expand
24th Oct, 2015 19:49 (UTC)
25th Oct, 2015 10:27 (UTC)
Mainly a question of attitude and expectations, perhaps? I've observed people successfully communicating basic things with far less vocabulary and grammar than others who had been actually taught the language, simply because they had the confidence to try.
25th Oct, 2015 20:06 (UTC)
That's my feeling too! I think there are many areas where having the confidence to give it a go is a huge advantage.
(no subject) - bunn - 25th Oct, 2015 20:08 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hhimring - 26th Oct, 2015 05:51 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 26th Oct, 2015 07:42 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - hhimring - 28th Oct, 2015 07:50 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 28th Oct, 2015 08:05 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - carmarthen - 31st Oct, 2015 18:14 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 31st Oct, 2015 21:30 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - carmarthen - 1st Nov, 2015 12:16 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - carmarthen - 31st Oct, 2015 18:08 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 31st Oct, 2015 21:28 (UTC) - Expand
25th Oct, 2015 16:57 (UTC)
I agree that people vary in their ability to pick up languages...I don't think I could do much in two weeks. I spent two weeks in China in 2003...and all I can say is Ni how, for hello and a sound like tsay-tsay for thank you. They annoyingly don't have a word for no, which was awkward. I have struggled to speak German in Munich and Vienna, even though I did it with the OU...mostly confounded by people speaking English as soon as they realised I was struggling. I just about managed to order beer and do simple shopping in Benidorm, although they too default to English at the slightest hesitation. I really tried to talk in Czech and Slovakian when I was there for the car rally... dobry den for good day is all I can remember, and I have been struggling to improve my French for 25 years, and I am still not as fluent as I would like to be! One important factor...if there is no-one who speaks your language and you need to eat you pick it up far quicker than you might in a less urgent situation. :) (voice of experience)
25th Oct, 2015 20:19 (UTC)
I think I'd expect Chinese to take much longer for a European language speaker than a closely related language. I've had that experience with German too! One reason I am so much worse at speaking than understanding...

On the other hand, I remember finding that I could puzzle my way through quite a lot of written Dutch just by extrapolating from English and German (and my German has never been good).
25th Oct, 2015 17:14 (UTC)
Assuming that (a) you don't have to learn a new alphabet at the same time, (b)any tones involved are at least vaguely similar to those in the language you're starting from, and (c) it is grammatically similar as well, a few weeks should be enough. It took me six weeks, starting with English and the basics of French, to learn Spanish to, officially, the intermediate standard. That was with four hours a day one-to-one tuition, five days a week, in Chile. I managed basic conversation-for-living after about a month (the terror of my first solo visit to the day-cleaners' is still with me).

New scripts take much longer.
25th Oct, 2015 20:37 (UTC)
Thanks, that's really helpful! I think French and Spanish are a little further apart than I was envisaging...

I'm now watching Welsh TV to try to see how much I can figure out based on a knowledge of Welsh unused since I was 12 (and never to conversational level :-D)
(no subject) - anna_wing - 26th Oct, 2015 19:33 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - bunn - 28th Oct, 2015 08:00 (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - carmarthen - 31st Oct, 2015 18:12 (UTC) - Expand
25th Oct, 2015 23:01 (UTC)

Leo Tolstoy spent about 2 hours learning Esperanto and could understand easy sentences in Esperanto.

26th Oct, 2015 07:46 (UTC)
Oh, did he? I believe Esperanto is specifically designed to be easy to learn, but even so that does suggest fast progress!
31st Oct, 2015 18:01 (UTC)
I think it depends on what you mean by "conversation," but I could have very, very limited conversations in German after two weeks sans immersion. Those conversations had better be about how I like my coffee (I don't, but still had to learn to say it) and where I come from/where I live.

Getting to the point of having what I would call more freeform/less utilitarian conversations in Hungarian, which is not at all like English - hmm, a few weeks of intensive study/immersion on top of several months of non-intensive study. Without that prep, I'd say two weeks of intensive study - BUT intensive study is very different from immersion with help, and again it depends on what you mean by "conversation." Ordering food in a restaurant/asking where the toilet is comes a lot faster. And getting to the point of almost comfortable conversation took a lot longer, although it wasn't my top priority.
( 38 comments — Leave a comment )

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