Can I learn English in 18 months?

No.

Can I learn English in 24 months?

No.

32?

Stop asking. This is the wrong question.
And it’s wrong on so many levels:

1. First, what do you mean by “Learn English?” (a) Speak Fluently? If so, how do you define fluency, anyway? (b) Have a good, near-CAE operational command of the language? (c) Reach a B1ish sort of “I can get by” level?

2. 18 months. Fine. How many hours are we talking about? 100? 150? 300? If you enroll in a super intensive course, in 18 months you might average 300 – 350 contact hours, which means early B1 (low intermediate) in CEF terms. So, if your answered (c) above, yes, you can theoretically learn some English in 18 months.

3. “Theoretically”, of course, is the key word here. You’ll need time. Time to let the new stuff sink in, to digest it, to play with it, to get it wrong before you get it right. You’ll need time to stumble upon the new stuff on billboards, on TV and on internet memes before it’s finally “yours.” There are certain processes that you just can’t seem to rush and learning a language is one of them. After all, how long did it take you to master your mother tongue?

4. So, to reach C1, which to all intents and purposes is as close to “looks like I’ve made it” as you can get, you’ll need about 800 contact hours. About 8 years if you study English twice a week, 90 minutes per class. If you double that amount, about 4 years. But remember: you’ll need enough time to read for pleasure, do your homework, watch movies and interact with other speakers.

5. Still, I can’t guarantee you’ll “learn English.” There are so many variables at play: your attitude, your aptitude and the amount of out-of-class exposure you’ll have. So it all depends, really. You can’t quantify learning or set time frames like that. Sorry.

I bet these are some of the thoughts that cross our minds whenever a student or potential student says (s)he needs to learn English fast and unearths the dreaded “How long will it take me to learn English?” question, which, as educators who know a thing or two about how languages are learned, we refuse to take seriously. Plus, if you’re a non-native speaker, you probably went through some of the same learning processes yourself and you’re acutely aware of the fact that learning a language is a lifelong enterprise, which simply can’t be macdonaldized like that. And don’t even google this term – I’ve just coined it. :-)

So, from our perspective, “Can I learn English in 18 months?” is not a question that can be legitimately asked, let alone answered.

But from students’ perspective, it is.

And this is where things begin to get complicated. Let me try to address the flipside of this issue.

First, I’d like to narrow things down a bit. By “students” I mean adult students – not young learners or teens. And I am specifically referring to Brazilian students. “Does that matter?,” you may be wondering. Yes, I think it does. Let me explain why.

Last year, The Guardian ran an article which helps to explain, I think, the recent mushrooming of interest in Brazil’s new middle class. Here’s an extract:

“…the rise of a formerly poor social group that is now in the most powerful consumer stratum in the country. Brazil’s “C-class” – as they are categorised – have grown rapidly in size and influence over the past decade thanks to the growth of the Brazilian economy, widening credit lines and the government’s efforts to address income inequality. Since 2004, the government says, 32 million Brazilians have been lifted out of poverty. Last year, this helped the C-class – defined as those earning between 1,000 and 4,500 reals (£300-£1,400) a month – to constitute for the first time a majority of Brazil’s population of 196 million.”

The fact that in a global economy more and more people need to speak English is nothing new, of course. What is new, I believe, is the kind of student that has emerged because of the economic boom The Guardian described. At the risk of oversimplifying matters, I would describe these new middle class adult students as people who:

1. Are in their early-20s to mid-30s.

2. Need English to become or remain employable. Travel, culture and fun are secondary interests.

3. Need to learn English more than they might want to learn it. And they need to learn it fast.

4. May have never been to an English-speaking country.

5. May be relatively impervious to American / British culture.

6. Are mostly A1 / A2 when they start a new course, since they didn’t learn enough English as kids / teens and grew up with limited exposure to English – partly because of item 5 above.

7. May have limited literacy in L1 and a very feeble grasp of learning strategies and study skills.

8. Tend to be very career-oriented. They have no time to – in their words – “waste” on topics, situations, words, functions and grammar that they don’t perceive as directly relevant to their career goals.

9.  Tend to gauge their progress by the degree to which they are able to “get stuff done” at work.
 Fast.

10. Are not willing, for the most part, to spend more than 2 years in a language school. (By the way, I have actually had access to a fair amount of data to back this up.)

Not to mention the amount of pressure these students live under:

Us: Listen, you’ve missed four classes this month. I’m a bit worried about your progress.
Them: Sorry, I had to work overtime. I just couldn’t leave the office.

Us: Please try to be more punctual. You were 45 minutes late last class.
Them: I’m sorry. I was stuck in traffic. It took me nearly two hours to get here.

Us: You haven’t been doing your homework.
Them: When I get home from work, all I want to do is spend some quality time with my daughter. I’m sorry. She’s growing up so fast. I don’t want to miss that.

Us: You haven’t been doing your homework.
Them: I’m sorry. It’s this post-graduate course that I’m doing that’s driving me crazy.

Us: You haven’t been doing your homework.
Them: I’m sorry. The doctor told me I should avoid skipping lunch and that’s when I usually find the time to squeeze in my homework.

Us: Why are you quitting the course? You were doing so well!
Them: I took this proficiency test at work and the minimum score was 60. I got 57, so they stopped paying for this course.

Us: Why are you quitting the course?
Them: I made a fool of myself at a meeting and my manager gave me six months to improve. I love your classes, but I don’t think the work we’re doing here will help me get there fast enough.

These are all real-life snapshots that we can’t simply ignore. We’re not teaching English in a vacuum. As teachers, teacher educators and policy makers, part of our job is to look beyond the confines of mainstream ELT and understand how the country’s socioeconomic idiosyncrasies bear on what we do.

So, back to the question I posed at the beginning of the post:

Student: Can I learn English in 18 months?
Teacher: No, I’m afraid not.
Student: How about 2 years? That’s as long as I’m willing to invest in an English course.
Teacher: Listen, you’ll need at least 5 years, maybe more, plus the time for extra study.
Student: I can’t. I need to start learning Spanish in 2016.
Teacher: Well, _____.

So how do we fill in the gaps?

The easy way out, of course, is to say:

“I’m sorry. Learning takes time. We can’t work miracles.”

Sure it does. Sure we can’t.

But is there a middle ground?

Is there anything we can do in terms of content selection, course delivery and classroom processes that might accelerate students’ learning in any significant and academically responsible way? Or to use the late Dave Willis’ words, is there anything schools can do to offer programs with more surrender value?

Could the 18-month conversation perhaps end like this:

“Listen, you can’t become fluent in 18 months or 24 months. Period. But if two years is all you have, then my job is to help you make the most out of those two years.”

Which begs the question:

How?

This, I think, is a question worth asking, even if the answer proves to lie outside our comfort zones. Fortunately, there are a still a number of responsible educators and language institutes out there asking themselves this very question as I write.

Thanks for reading.

Comments

  1. dede toffoli says:

    excellent text, lu! can I learn the piano in 18 months, you think? beijo

  2. dede toffoli says:

    by the way, you should post this on your facebook wall as well, since only those who are friends with marilena can comment there…

  3. Thank you for writing and sharing this great article, Luiz!

    I found myself laughing at each students’ answer – this is exactly what I hear from my in-company students.

    Malu

  4. It’s taken me under 6 months to learn every language I speak…and this is due to focusing on what’s relevant and fast!

    Not everyone needs a broad vocab and grammer understanding, they just want to get up and running fast.

    Time to revolutionize English teaching in Brazil!

    • Well, it depends on what you call “learn”. I am sure that those guys who write confusing texts for Chinese manuals and packages did not take too much time studying English… and they probably think their texts make sense.

      Besides, the time you’ll take to learn a language also depends on how many and which languages you’ve learned previously.

      • Luiz Otávio says:

        Thank you, Miriam. Good point – successful learning experiences under your belt do make a difference.
        This, however (and unfortunately!) doesn’t apply to the sort of target audience I’m talking about, though (Brazilian A1, new middle class). Um abraço!

  5. Ps: FANTASTIC article!

  6. Luiz Otávio says:

    Kevin, thank you. Content selection is a major issue, yes. But perhaps you’re a more gifted learner than most?

  7. Ricardo Barros says:

    Great article, Luiz, even though I hate the fact that you always come up with more questions than answers. :P

    It’s very easy, as a teacher, to laugh at the 18-month question. I’ve certainly done that. It’s much harder, though, to try to understand how things work from the adult student’s perspective. I definitely need to think a lot more about it.

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      Thanks, Ricardo.
      Next time you work on course design, these are probably things to keep in mind: Who’s your target audience? What makes them tick? What do they need? How much time can you realistically expect them to set aside for English? ONLY THEN should you start looking at course principles and coursebooks, I think!

      • cris asperti says:

        Tavinho, just love how you put in words what is always on my mind. Trying to increase the surrender value of our classes and helping Ss get a realistic grasp of what they can achieve considering their time constraints is our mission. Mission impossible? I only have 8 students at the moment. Still, 8 anxious minds, 8 different learning styles and expectations, 8 people who struggle to get to class on time and almost never have the out of the classroom exposure they need to ‘join the dots’. I’ve been teaching for more than 30 years now and still feel the same helplessness when I try to juggle all the variables involved. The classroom – hectic, sometimes frustrating, very often magical, always intriguing and challenging. I totally agree with you when you raise the issue of syllabus design. I often wonder what we should be teaching in the short time that is available. Right now I have two student who will beat the odds. It’s amazing to see it happen right under your eyes and notice how it all depends on their commitment, aptitude and ‘garra’.
        Teresa’s reply – prepare our students to be lifelong learners – was very well put. I’ll settle for that.
        Your posts always make me realize how tuned to the same issues we both are. Thanks!

        • Luiz Otávio says:

          Yes, Cris, it’s pretty uncanny, isn’t it? We seem to think as one.
          To me, syllabus design is key. Changing methodology (I’m liking the term “classroom processes” more and more – oh, my God, can’t believe I’ve just used “I’m liking!”) is tricky and heavily dependent on teacher education. But adjusting the syllabus might be the first step. How?
          Good question. I for one would LOVE to take a year off just to investigate that. But I can’t.
          So, off the top of my head, I’d say: An increased focus on “chunky” language with most of the grammar work arising FROM the work on lexical chunks and not the other way around. I’d also mess with the sequence that grammar is traditionally taught in (e.g.: present THEN past).
          Which begs the question, doesn’t it – would such a book be marketable at all?

  8. Ah, talk about returning to blogging in style, Luiz. I think you’ve really hit the nail on the head here, and it’s something many of us professionals inwardly groan at when we see. I think a lot of this boils down to the need for something easily marketable. When you’re pushing English lessons from the perspective of a huge franchise, you need a ‘one-size-fits-all’ message that’s easy to get across. And 18 months seems to me to be just right – just long enough for people to take seriously, but not so short so as for people to think ‘oh it’s just a gimmick’.

    And in reality, we know that the latter is just what it is. It`s the same as when we hear about a school that uses a `radical new method`, when in fact it`s usually based on some ill thought-out premise that assumes it will work for everyone.

    Anyway, great post and thanks for sharing. It`s great to know there are like-minded professionals out there!

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      Thank you, Damian!
      You’re absolutely right –
      “When you’re pushing English lessons from the perspective of a huge franchise, you need a ‘one-size-fits-all’ message that’s easy to get across.”
      Different schools seem to be using different sales pitches. While some institutions do promise “Inglês em 18, 20, whatever meses” implying that students will become fluent, others are offering courses that can “help you get by in 18 months.”
      And this, I think, is not only marketable (since students are generally not willing to spend more than two years in a school) but also intellectually honest and, depending on the syllabus and the weekly load, feasible. I think 18 months of sharply-focused, highly practical (I guess I’m talking about a more lexical / functional orientation here) teaching can potentially help you reach a good A2 / early B1 level, which, to all intents and purposes, is what some students will need anyway.

    • Great post as Always!!!!
      Sharing in 3,2,1…..

  9. Teresa Gomes de Carvalho says:

    Hi Luiz,

    I just love the word you coined since it says it all about the EFL industry’s efforts to seduce these students and make them believe that they can do it effortlessly, comfortably, and fast as if they were enjoying a hamburger at a McDonald’s. Rather than the usual “Learn English in 18 months” slogans, we should have “Improve your English in 18 months,” which would make more sense given all the data you provide in your post.

    I’ve been teaching for 25 years now and every bit of what you say is absolutely true. I can almost hear my students saying those things. There’s a lot of confusion when it comes to learning a foreign language, which is the false assumption that English is just a school subject that many adults failed to learn in school. There are other myths Brazilian learners should get rid of if they really want to set realistic goals:

    1) English is easier than Portuguese because the verb system is simpler. (fact: It sounds and looks easier because it’s ‘embedded’ in our culture through movies, music, and ads. Some words and sounds are familiar because they’re present in everyday life). Students get frustrated when they need to handle the workload and realize that English verbs are not that simple;

    2) “Why do homework if I practice in class?” (fact: It takes practice, practice, and more practice to learn a language and get used to its system; we’re not in an English-speaking country where we can practice with people outside the classroom);

    3) I can learn English in 18 months. (fact: What language institutes sell is fast-paced learning, satisfaction, comfort, and success — all wrapped in a gift box whereas what students actually pay for is homework, effort, commitment, and loads of frustration before they can finally take their beautifully packaged product home and ‘show it off’ to their peers, bosses, and friends.

    4) Finally, blame it on our economy: Despite all the benefits Brazilian employees get (minimum wages, paid vacations, food vouchers, etc.), we work long hours, put up with bad transportation, and live in crowded cities, where housing and tax are exorbitantly high. Low-income and middle-class Brazilians are forced to constantly struggle to keep our jobs and that means making choices to make ends meet.

    And yes, limited L1 literacy does affect one’s progress. I’ve seen this more often than not. However, despite all that, I’ve seen many learners beat the odds and become fluent speakers of English in a short space of time thanks to their perseverance and commitment. English is a lifelong commitment and as a teacher I feel that I still need to practice and study hard to be able to help my students. I try to set a good example every time I tell them that I still study hard and strive to improve my English. One thing teachers can do is help students challenge these beliefs and prepare them to become lifelong learners.

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      Teresa, thank you for your thoughtful comments. What you said right at the beginning of the post (learn English vs. improve your English in 18 months) summarizes part of what I was trying to get across, I think.
      We’re living in a fast-paced era and time frames matter. So if you’re a busy professional whose survival depends on your command of English, it’s only natural that you should ask the “how long will it take…” question and it’s only natural, of course, that language schools should try to meet your needs.
      It’s the sales pitch that we’ve got to be careful with, I think. It’s not the number of months, it’s what you’ll be able to do at the end.
      Thank God there are still dozens of language institutes out there selling 18-month / 20, 24-month courses that will help students GET BY in English or, as you said, improve the English they already know.
      So, if you’re a real beginner, “join us and we’ll take you to a good A2 level”. Fine! Or if you’re at the beginning of the so-called intermediate plateau, “join us and we’ll help you reach a comfortable intermediate level.” Fine!
      But if we want these courses to help students get more mileage out of the same amount of time, they need some tweaks, especially in terms of syllabus design, I think. But that’s another story.
      Oh, and just like you, I have seen some learners beat the odds too! :-)

  10. Teresa Gomes de Carvalho says:

    Sorry, Luiz. I didn’t mean to write that much.

  11. Juliana Sanchez says:

    Dear teacher Luiz Otávio,
    What an excellent post! Congratulations!
    I´m one of your biggest fans – have always been!
    Cheers
    Ju

  12. Great, Luiz! I work for a Biantional Center that is serious about that. We can’t promise what we can’t offer. In language learning and learning in general, there are no shortcuts. Our role? To make the whole learning experience worth it, a memorable one.

  13. Antonio Carlos da Silva says:

    Brilliant as usual.

  14. I am just t h a n k f u l for this post.

    :)

  15. Great post, Luiz. I reckon I’ll need 18 months to digest this! ;)

  16. You, Teresa, Carla and Damian have already said it all. I’ll keep sharing so other teachers can read it. I think I read someone saying that in FB that this post should be part of Teachers training. I totally agree. Just noticed it has not been shared in #BRELTChat community.

  17. Great post.
    I find this macdonalisation very worrying, although I understand where the students are coming from when they say: I need to learn English fast! And if we explain to them what’s the realistic pace, they might unfortunately choose the competition which promises to take them to proficiency in 18 months.
    Another frustrating thing is that in many language schools students are “pushed” through the levels. We can’t fail them. If we do, they’ll quit. I’ve often wanted to say: if you don’t fail them, I’ll quit.
    I do agree with you, though, that we might want to rethink our approach to teaching English a bit. Making it specific and suited to the student’s particular needs could be the solution After all, in 18 months you can definitely learn enough English to, for example work as a waiter. And perhaps this is what your student needs in order to improve their job perspectives. In this case there’s no point in going through the standard grammar oriented syllabuses. Instead we can delve into functional language and teach the student the chunks they’ll need in their working environment, e.g. Would you like anything to drink?
    As an after thought, I think we’ve got to be honest with our students and tell them what is possible to achieve in their time frame. As a freelancer, this is what I’ve tried to do. Actually, I used the same phrase a week ago when doing a needs analysis with a new student you used in the article: We can’t work miracles.
    I can use the best and most innovative teaching methods and promise to deliver top-notch classes. I can’t work miracles, though.

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      Marek,
      Thank you for your thoughtful post.
      You say:
      “In this case there’s no point in going through the standard grammar oriented syllabuses. Instead we can delve into functional language and teach the student the chunks they’ll need in their working environment, e.g. Would you like anything to drink?”
      I wouldn’t go so far as to dismiss a grammar syllabus out of hand. I would, however, prioritize “chunky” language and move from lexis to grammar (e.g.: “What can I get you?” first, and THEN “can” as a modal) rather than the other way around.
      Thanks for stopping by!

  18. Hi Luiz,

    Just to let you know that we’ve shortlisted this blog post for this month’s TeachingEnglish blog award and I’ll be making a post about it on Saturday’s TeachingEnglish Facebook page http://www.facebook.com/TeachingEnglish.BritishCouncil, if you’d like to check there for likes and comments.

    Best,
    Ann

  19. Sandra Stevens says:

    Yes, that really is the answer , do what you can with 18 months. This is what they have and what we must work with. My mother was English and taught English from the time she was 20 to 70 and she was Always impressed with the gift the Brazilians had at learning a language so I guess as teachers in Brazil we have a headstart.
    As Always love Reading your ideas

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      Sandra, thanks for stopping by!
      Agreed. We’ve got to settle on “Do what you can”. But it’s got to be a new sort of do what you can, I think. Surely there’s something we (we=ELT) can do to speed things up and make students’ learning more relevant, more memorable, more tangible in an academically responsible way.
      Um beijo grande.

  20. Joacyr Oliveira says:

    Very well put! You do have a way with words. I’ll ask my Letras students to read this. Would you consider writing a version addressed to students in Portuguese?

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      Jô, thank you! :-)
      I’m a bit swamped over the next few months, but I’d be glad to look at / approve someone else’s translation. Thanks for stopping by!

  21. By reading your post I was able to relive some situations I have/had experienced over the years as an EFL teacher, Luiz Otávio.

    A few days ago I was talking to a friend of mine who has just started teaching and showed me an ad of a school which “guarantees” that people can speak English fluently in only 24 days. We tried to figure out if there is an approach – or method, or set of techniques – that help learners learn faster. Obviously we couldn’t think of any.

    I thoroughly agree with you that learning takes time and that it takes time until a student digests the amount of classroom input s/he might have had. I also believe that the quickness of learning depends on how willing the student is and on how s/he sets his/her goals. In other words, learning fast does not depend only on the coursebooks, the teachers’ abilities as we cannot work miracles. It also depends on the learners and their needs.

    Thanks a lot for writing these words.

    • Luiz Otávio says:

      You’re welcome, Aurélio. :-)
      May I just emphasize, though, that we can’t rest on our laurels! Brazil’s new middle class (whether they genuinely deserve the label is another story) needs to learn English – FAST. As I said, these new A1 students just won’t spend more than two years (maybe 3?) in a language school – they can’t afford to – they have families, jobs, other courses to take. So, again, what can we possibly and responsibly do to speed up the process and enable them to go further than we have done so far? This, I think, is the question that ELT ought to examine more carefully. Um abraço!

  22. Hi, and thank you so much for your nice article, it was great. As an English learner, I would like to ask some questions about learning English its process.

    I am from Iran and I passed an IELTS exam more then 5 years ago and I moved to Australia and I have been living here more then 4 years , recently I have finished an Upper- intermediate course in an ESL(IV) and I wanna take an IELTS exam again because I would like to go back to university to get a Master’s degree.

    Could you please tell me how much to live in country ,such as Australia ,can be effective to learn English? I mean, I have found out a HUGE gap between formal English and informal English in Australia! What do you think about to
    live in an English language country and to improve the level of our English language at the same time ? Is that the best way? If yes , how you describe the gap between real English and formal English which we have been taught in formal classes.
    Thanks a lot

  23. Edmilson Chagas says:

    Hi Luiz,

    This is another great article! Thanks for sharing your thoughts and insights.
    All the best,

    Edmilson :-)

  24. so nice thanks

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  26. Not that long time ago I found myself very frustrated about my English level.I went to vacation to Sedney and it was quite difficult for me to communicate with receptionist in one of hotels I stayed in.Back than I started searching web for some great course which will give me opportunity to improve my language skills.After long hours or days on wab I run into this cool webapge http://www.bellsenglishonline.com/. and from there I started learning proper English.I recommend it to anyone beginners or Intermidate levels.

  27. Gabriela Froes says:

    I always find myself coming back to this article. I love it! I am doing my pre-CELTA tasks and thinking about adult learners this week, and your article helps me remember the adult student’s perspective on learning. We should never forget that. We do it for them, after all.

  28. thank you very much sir, I enjoyed reading English but my English is very poor. So I tried in future .

  29. Luiz Otávio says:

    Myint,
    I’m sure you’ll improve! Thanks for stopping by.

  30. abdul niyazee says:

    Thanks a lot for writing these words.(rules) definately everyone who wants to learn to speak english he or she can…….

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