How much English can I learn in a short time?

“It depends who is doing what”, I should say.

Timothy Doner is a young man now: 18-years-old, he lives in New York and mastered himself 23 languages, each one in just a few weeks. 

Cardinal Mezzofanti -who lived two hundred years ago in Italy- learnt and spoke fluently 38 languages without travelling out of Italy.

In both cases there was an individual innate aptitude joined with a deep love for learning and a strong commitment to it.

Individual factors – such as personal talentsenthusiasm for learning and determination to an achievement – have a significant influence on your rate of learning. It might be of some help to examine briefly the most relevant factors that have an impact on language learning.

AGE– It is well known that young children can learn a second language easily when exposed to the language either within the family or in a social context. Older learners can also be successful in language learning but they might need more time, might struggle more and generally don’t achieve the pronunciation and fluency of younger learners.

PERSONALITY – An outgoing personality is more likely to take the risks of speaking and communicating with no fears of mistakes. He or she can smile on errors and can work on  THEM to learn more. This extroversive personality wants to communicate with others and doesn’t stop because a word is not in his knowledge or a grammar rule is missing… People of this kind are more inclined to interact with native speakers and get more practice of the language while gaining more confidence.

An anxious, shy learner is more likely to stay alone, to avoid any “embarrassing” situation fearing that he or she can neither understand nor communicate. The improvement is much slower…

MOTIVATION – When a student wants to improve his language skills for his own development and convenience (for a future job opportunity, for a school achievement, for communicating with friends and relatives, etc), he will enjoy  learning -even if struggling- and the improvement is much more evident.

EXPERIENCE Students who are used to travel, to interact with other people of different nationality and culture, to relate and communicate with friends of other countries, are more likely to improve quicker.

NATIVE LANGUAGE – It is easier to learn a language of the same language family: a German or Dutch or Swedish student will find more similarities with their mother tongue when learning English than a student from Spain or France or Italy. The improvement will be broader and faster.

GENERAL APTITUDE – Students with greater aptitude and cognitive abilities will finds easier to grasp contents and language patterns and structures. They memorise vocabulary quicker and become more fluent in speaking and writing.

CURRICULUM & TEACHING – A curriculum presenting variety of contents and activities stimulates the interest of the students and their engagement, allowing them to achieve successfully their language goals.

Teachers who can differentiate contents and strategies of teaching, who can motivate and offer their experience to their pupils according to their abilities and age, certainly help students improve more in a short length of time.

SOCIAL INCLUSION – A language is a means of communication, it needs a human context in order to be acquired and developed.

Learners who have the opportunity to relate to people of a local community may improve their confidence and fluency very fast.

The language experience would be a solid foundation for further improvements in future courses and at school.

ENTRY LEVEL – Learning a language is not as simple as to get one information, store it in our memory and use it when needed. It is a much deeper engagement of a learner that involves the intellect as well as psychological energy. 

Language learning is clearly a complex process that develops through different levels and stages and involves the acquisition of complex language structures: communication, comprehension, language production, grammar.

The level of English at the beginning of a period in the UK has an effect on the evidence of your improvement. May I clarify this by observing the graph of “Knowledge versus Time” in learning (see picture beside): the “Learning Curve” has the shape of an S that rises slowly at the beginning, then increases sharply in the middle and finally tends to grow slowly on the top end (“learning plateau”).

This trend can be experienced in several learning processes, for instance while learning to play a musical instrument, speak a new language or learn some other complex disciplines.

On the lower end of the curve the improvement is very small. This is the first stage when the learner needs almost to listen the new, unfamiliar language. If a student starts a language programme during this first period, the improvement in a few weeks time is not much evident: but there is! and it is very effective!

This stage is called the “silent period” when learners are almost “listening”.

Listening is the first, most important “passive” activity in language acquisition. The younger you are when you go through the initial stages of language learning, the most effective is the unconscious acquisition of various aspects of the language: phonetics, meanings, language structures, all “stuff” that the learner absorbs without thinking but will use later on when ready for it.

The “silent period” can’t be dropped out. If you start learning English in England at the age of 25, you still need to go through this stage and might be surprised of how much time and efforts it requires. It might be not as easy as it is for a 7-years-old child!

Slowly, the student begins a basic production of language using key-words or short one or two-word sentences. At this stage the vocabulary might reach about a 1000 words.

A sudden sharp turn-up occurs when the speech emerges in simple sentences, basic communication routines and a vocabulary rising to 3000 words.

After the bend the improvement speeds up to a certain fluency with more complex sentences, capability to communicate and share thoughts and opinions, understanding of contents in various areas and media, a  vocabulary increasing to 6000 words about.

Finally the learner reaches the level of advanced fluency which is a stage close to a native speaker, when higher levels of language proficiency are achieved and open the access to study cognitive academic contents.

From a different prospect I described the language acquisition in a previous article while observing new-born babies: if you are interested, read more here.


Now we can focus better the initial question and perhaps complete it by adding for example another question: where is my entry point in the curve of learning when I participate into an English programme in the UK?

You can honestly find your personal answer considering your position in relation to all the factors mentioned, thence you can see what to expect. You should also be aware that your school level of English might be slightly different from your real ability to use the language, especially the spoken language.

A short course should be seen as one step in the whole process of language learning, let’s say an homeopathic dosage not less effective than a longer programme when a students can evidently go from nil to a good level of learning in a period of 12 to 24 weeks or more.

I dare say that repeated short language experiences might even be more organic, eventually more effective for children and teenagers than long courses, not only because of the age and other circumstances, but also because between repeated experiences there are months, when they can discover new enthusiasm, new motivations and be more committed to learn English during their next experience.

By experience I can refer of students who have come for a few summers  and learnt to speak English, becoming fluent just being in short stay courses. In this respect may I recall what Linda wrote on our website in her “Testimonial” report: she came for five summers in a row for 2 or 3 weeks each summer, starting from the very shallow end of the curve up to a good capability to speak and hold a conversation with a native speaker.

Most of the students have been studied English at school before coming to the UK, but to many of them only the experience in the UK made their knowledge -which seemed to be locked into their brain like a pair of glasses into a large ‘suitcase’-  alive and ready to use.

It is almost hopeless to have only one experience abroad: parents who want to invest on the future of their children should plan a path for the acquisition of the English language -eventually of other languages beside it-, if they want their investment being productive. They might choose various providers and places, but it is wise to draw a path for language learning ahead of your children.

The youngest, the best; but it is never too late!

vr, april 2014

[images from “How to be British” collection One and Two – sold by Amazon and btwostore]