In recent years societal views about multilingualism in the US seem to be shifting. In the past, children growing up in a home where a language other than English was spoken were thought to be at a disadvantage as compared to their monolingual classmates. I remember heated discussions with my own son’s elementary school teachers when they would recommend that I stop speaking to him in French; they believed the exposure to another language would hinder his acquisition of English!
The pendulum now seems to be swinging the other way with proponents of multilingualism claiming a long list of cognitive, social and linguistic benefits. This change in attitude has been accompanied by a surge in the number of self-proclaimed language “experts” and “hyper-polyglots” peddling “language learning hacks” and “cutting-edge methods” promising “fluency in just a few months”. But just how valid are such claims?
For the sake of this discussion, let’s consider one example, a 2013 TEDx talk entitled “How to learn any language in six months”. In this presentation Mr. Chris Lonsdale offers the “five principles and seven actions” that together are supposed to empower anyone to “be fluent in a second language in six months”. Lonsdale draws upon anecdotal evidence from his own experience to illustrate the effectiveness of his approach: he claims to have achieved fluency in Mandarin in just six months – with native fluency taking him just a bit longer; he also tells the story of someone who had tried learning Dutch through simple immersion and failed, but who then achieved rapid fluency in Portuguese by applying Lonsdale’s method.
However, when one looks at Lonsdale’s method, one finds nothing in his principles, actions or any combination thereof that hadn’t, at the time of his presentation, already been extensively researched and found to be more or less beneficial to language acquisition by qualified language professionals (see, for example, “A Sociocultural View of Language Learning: The Importance of Meaning Based Instruction” by Eun and Lim in the TESL Canada Journal, Winter 2009). And so, questions regarding the validity of Lonsdale’s approach are less a rejection of the mechanics of his program and more an issue with assertions regarding its extreme efficacy: “fluency in six months”. And here we find that the strength, or weakness, of this claim hinges upon one’s definition of “fluency”.
“Fluency” may or may not, depending upon context, be used to denote a certain level of “mastery” of any given language. This ambiguity remains even when the term is qualified, as in “native fluency”; after all a kindergartener and a professional with an advanced degree in literary criticism may be “fluent” in the same “native” tongue, but their respective mastery of that language would be quite different. Therefore, when left undefined, “fluent” is too imprecise a notion to be of any real use in assessing the effectiveness of a language learning program. And so, when developing curricula and discussing outcomes, competent language educators today depend upon well articulated proficiency scales.
In the United States, two such scales have garnered reasonably broad acceptance for use among language professionals: the American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) Proficiency Guidelines and the Interagency Language Roundtable (IRL) Scale. Although there are significant differences in the two approaches, it is their similarities that are most relevant here. Both distinguish five main proficiency levels beyond “no proficiency”, and these main levels are further qualified by precisions within or between the levels. Furthermore, the proficiency levels are applied to several distinct proficiency domains (speaking, listening, reading, writing, etc.), each of which involves its own set of criteria for each proficiency level. As such, qualified language educators using these tools are able to assess any given student’s language proficiency with a level of precision and nuance that far surpasses simple affirmations of “fluency”. When we combine this type of precision in language proficiency assessment with an understanding about the various stages of second language acquisition, it starts to become possible to formulate target ranges for the time it may take to move from one language proficiency level to another.
The five commonly accepted stages of second language acquisition (SLA) are: Preproduction, Early Production, Speech Emergence, Intermediate Fluency and Advanced Fluency. Each of these stages is characterized by specific linguistic criteria, and each one is associated with an approximate time frame a student may be expected to need to work through it in a typical second language learning environment. For example, Early Production stage is characterized by limited comprehension, one- or two-word responses, use of familiar phrases, the present tense, etc.; this stage may last approximately six months to one year. Now the five stages of SLA and the five main levels of the ACTFL or ILR scales do not correspond to each other in a convenient one-to-one fashion. But the fact that each one has its own clearly articulated linguistics criteria for each level allows us to see where these different scales intersect and thereby permitting us to reap the benefits of cross-referencing.
When we do this we find, for example, that the SLA Preproduction and Early Production stages together correspond roughly to the ACTFL Novice level (low to high). If we then consider that SLA Prepoduction and Early Production are estimated to last 0-6 months and 6-12 months respectively, then we may also reasonably conclude that a committed language learner would spend between 6 and 18 months at the Novice level.
This brings us back to Mr. Lonsdale and his claim that any language can be learned to “fluency in six months”. Even if we allow for the possibility that Mr. Lonsdale’s proposed learning methodology might indeed accelerate the process in some way, it remains unlikely that any language learner would move from zero proficiency to much beyond ACTFL Novice-high in the time frame indicated. Of course, this is not necessarily a problem in and of itself, after all language acquisition is a process that allows for continued development regardless of one’s proficiency at any given moment. On the other hand, if your personal/professional goals involve a level of proficiency above Novice (many agencies and organizations seek a minimum of ACTFL Advanced, or ILR 3, when hiring for positions with a language component), then it is quite unlikely that any six month program is going to meet your needs all by itself; one way or another you will have to invest more time in your language study.