Dedication's what you need
November 26, 2007 7:31 AM   Subscribe

What tasks are equivalent to learning a language?

So I'm coming to realise just how much work is required to learn a new language. I've heard the figure of 500+ hours for an English speaker to learn another European language, which works out at about an hour a day for nearly two years. I'm struggling to put this into context though, what others tasks require an approximately similar level of dedication to achieve a certain level?
posted by greytape to Writing & Language (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Learning a musical instrument.
posted by Wolfdog at 7:38 AM on November 26, 2007

Learning calculus.
posted by KokuRyu at 7:49 AM on November 26, 2007

A happy marriage
posted by peachy at 7:52 AM on November 26, 2007 [1 favorite]

You can major in language at a university right? So wouldn't anything available at a university/college be equivalent to learning a new language? At the same time I believe it is hard to judge because many people are good at learning languages. Everyone is good at something, but those who are quick language learnings seem to stand out against those who struggle.

In my opinion many things are harder and more time consuming. Mechanical Engineering vs French anyone?
posted by Black_Umbrella at 7:54 AM on November 26, 2007

Memorizing a string of digits, like pi.
Counting cards in blackjack while appearing as if you're not counting cards.
Starting a business.
Learning a trade, like carpentry.
Playing a MMO.
posted by knowles at 8:18 AM on November 26, 2007

I think there are other variants that make it easier/harder to learn a language or other skills as well, though. Aptitude is huge. Like... I'm learning Arabic and it's a lot harder than learning German was. But because I completely suck at math, learning Calculus would probably be harder than either for me. And for other people it would be easy.

For me, learning music/an instrument is definitely the most equal challenge I've found though.
posted by miss lynnster at 9:05 AM on November 26, 2007

Perhaps mastering a martial art or ice skating
posted by amtho at 9:09 AM on November 26, 2007

You can major in language at a university right? So wouldn't anything available at a university/college be equivalent to learning a new language?

Learning the language is only one part of what you have to do if you major in language. Depending on the university, you may also have to do literary study, linguistics, film studies, history, cultural studies, etc etc.

It depends what you mean by 'learning' (how far are your 500 hours supposed to get you?) but I have a fairly thorough mastery of French and a high level (semi-professional) on a musical instrument, and I guess that's the nearest you're going to get to an equivalent task - I'm finding it hard to draw analogies as I learnt these skills under different circumstances. Moving to France meant that my high-level survival depended on acquiring a mastery of the language - I've never experienced that with my instrument.

I'd be interested to hear more about the martial art comparison, as I've never tried martial arts.
posted by altolinguistic at 9:31 AM on November 26, 2007

Yeah, I took four years of college Spanish back in the day, but when I went to Spain I had a real rough time of it. Most other people I know who have studied languages in college say the same thing — they thought they were learning the language in class, but they didn't really start catching on until they needed it to get by day-to-day.

(Of course, the analogy might still hold. I'm sure people in other fields have that same experience of learning more from practice than they ever did in class. That's why doctors have to be residents first, right? And why first-year architecture grads don't get to build their own skyscrapers?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 9:32 AM on November 26, 2007

also - my language classes at university were great in terms of logical thinking, awareness of linguistic issues, the finer points of translation etc., but for sheer raw fluency the year spent in France was crucial. In other words, what nebulawindphone said.

Still trying to work out how many hours I have spent on learning languages vs learning my instrument and the respective levels I have achieved... this is a really interesting question!
posted by altolinguistic at 9:42 AM on November 26, 2007

Martial arts takes many, many hours. A lot of it is building up muscle memory, because you move like a doofus without that muscle memory.

I'm currently doing judo and aikido. I had done Japanese jujitsu before moving to a different town. You can intellectually describe how a given technique works, but your body can't actually do that technique without hours and hours of repetitive motion.

Interestingly, I have a language analogy to all the techniques you find in martial arts. A lot of the exercises we do shouldn't be considered "effective" if you happen to wind up in an actual fight, but the exercises are there to help you build a vocabulary of movements. It takes a while to acquire this vocabulary, and you don't really get the full benefits of this vocabulary without some sort of "grammar" that strings together these movements into something useful. I think the "grammar" gets acquired outside of formalized practice, say, in judo randori or the free fighting we did in jujitsu.
posted by chengjih at 10:55 AM on November 26, 2007

It's hard to quote specific figures for language learning because there are so many variables involved - your own learning ability, your motivation, your environment, the target language, etc. There are many people who have spent far more than 500 hours of study and still can't speak a lick of French. I have often met Westerners in China who have been living there for years and still can't speak any Chinese.

If you moved to, say, Sweden and lived there for a couple months, I bet you'd pick up the language pretty quickly with minimal actual "study."

I also think that, contrary to other activities, a large part of the language learning process is doing nothing. I have noticed huge progress in my language learning when I simply leave a language for a while and come back to it. I guess you could liken it to weightlifting - you need to rest for a couple days to let your muscles repair themselves. Similarly, I think with language learning your brain just needs some time to let stuff sink in. Or maybe I'm just weird, dunno.
posted by pravit at 12:05 PM on November 26, 2007

Maybe too obvious, but learning a programming language is quite similar to learning a new spoken language -- similar amount of effort involved, classroom learning is only vaguely similar to real-world experience, and there's a big step from speaking a given language to speaking it idiomatically.

But the analogy probably holds more for families of programming languages than for individual ones: switching from function-based programming to object-oriented programming is like switching from English to French; but switching from, say, C++ to Java is more similar to switching from french to, I dunno, quebecois.
posted by ook at 12:29 PM on November 26, 2007

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