Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Fluency - An Impossible Goal?

It has been said that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything.  I recently did a Google search that said something like this: “how long does it take to learn a second language”.  I wanted to do a little research on the topic because it’s obviously very relevant to our number one goal right now, which could be boiled down to the following two sentences:

Learn Spanish.  Speak Spanish.

So the first page that came up from my search was a random blog with a post that fit my quest almost to the T: “How Long Does It Take To Learn A New Language?”.  The blog referenced the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell, which apparently discusses the study about the 10,000-hour rule to become an expert.   The blog post went on to say that if you define fluency in a new language to mean being an expert, then it must take 10,000 hours to achieve fluency. 

My favorite part of this particular post, however, was when it went on to calculate formulas of studying a second language in order to get to this 10,000 hour mark.  There were four different scenarios included which ranged from taking a 3 hour continuing-ed class once a week for 8 weeks, all the way to total immersion which was defined as being ‘immersed’ in the language for 16 hours a day for a year.  It then calculated the number of YEARS it would take to achieve ‘expertise’ or fluency in the given scenario. (Scenario #1 would take 208 years, Scenario #2, just two years).

So let’s jump right to our own scenario. 
·      We currently take 10 hours of Spanish a week.  If we do that for 52 weeks that is 52x10 = 520 hours.  If it truly takes 10,000 hours to become an ‘expert’, that means it will take us approximately 19.23 years to become fluent in Spanish!  Almost 20 years!!!

At first, I must admit this calculation was not only overwhelming, but depressing.  And impossible.

But then I started to think more optimistically and define what ‘fluency’ or even proficiency would look like for Joe and me, because God knows, we will probably never get to the 20 year mark!

This is what I came up with:

Westfall Fluency = Being Able To…
·      … confidently and easily ‘get around’ and ‘do life’ in a Spanish speaking culture/country.  This means shopping, eating out, making reservations, going to appointments, etc.
·      …understand most of what is said on a tv or radio program.
·      …have Spanish-speaking friends that we can converse with in Spanish, understand what they are saying and asking us, and have an intelligent conversation with them.

We’ve been studying Spanish for five months now, and although we’ve achieved a lot in that time, we are a far cry from being fluent.  But with my new definition of fluency, I must proudly announce that we are gaining ground!  Even with only 200 hours of study under our belt, (and 9,800 to go to become experts), we still hit a huge milestone last Friday. 

We invited some Tico (Costa Rican) friends over for dinner for the first time.  And they don’t speak English.  Which means we had to speak Spanish the entire time.  And it wasn’t just Spanish 101 (Hola, coma esta?  Me llamo Jennie, Vivo en San Jose).  It was real conversation.  We talked about our time so far here in Costa Rica, our hopes of having another child… they shared some real-life struggles of their own.

It wasn’t perfect.  Most sentences were slow-coming and there were many things I couldn’t express with ease.  But we did express ourselves.  And so with this growing friendship, and other Fluency Goals slowly but surely being accomplished, we realize that while fluency may take immense dedication and effort, it is not an impossible goal!


  1. I love this. It sounds like you are really "living" there. It makes me smile ear to ear imagining you and Joe working so hard at something. I am truly honored to call you friends and impressed at your journey. I do plan to follow this blog... so keep writing. I am thrilled to live vicariously through you. xo ~Reive

  2. Great post, Jen! Congrats on your milestone! That must've felt great to recognize that you really did communicate in Spanish the whole time!
    Love you.