Faith and Language Learning


“Everything in it’s time” could easily be the motto for Thailand.  Here we find an amazing willingness to accept what is as a part of life.  Children, (unless they’re in school) are expected to be kids – to do childish things, and to act their age.  Death, rather than being seen as unfortunate or bad – is simply a part of life – and a necessary part as well.

I think that language students would benefit from a healthy dose of thinking this way.  Everything in it’s time.  As with all natural things including language acquisition, it’s important to understand the natural times required – like being young and growing old and dying.  There are times for listening, and times for speaking.  So with language acquisition, there’s a time for listening, and a time for speaking.  (And it’s not at all natural for it all to happen on the first day of class!)

Often when I tell someone to expect to listen for about 800 hours before speaking, they say that this is a long time – that it takes ‘faith‘ to believe that it will work.  Perhaps for them this is so.  But I’ll tell you what takes faith for me and that is to believe that study and hard work produce good language ability.  When I look around me, I see many people who have studied, and many who have not.  Among those whose second language ability is highly fluent, the one thing in they all have in common is exposure to listening – and a lot of it.  Many, like myself, have never ‘studied’ at all.  These people tend to be the most fluent of all.

Why is it so hard to believe?  In every place where language is used, it’s the same story.  It takes a person about 2 years to begin speaking their first language.  It takes about 800 hours absorbing understandable experiences for a person to start speaking a second language.  It’s not too long really, when you compare it with how much time most people spend ‘trying’ to learn a language.  For example, the average Thai studies English for about 1200 hours by the time he’s out of high school.  That seems like a lot longer than 800 hours to me – and yet they’re typically not even near to a level of a two year old child!

So this requires faith?  To believe that listening produces the ability to speak?  To believe that you will speak like those you’ve listened to?  Why is this difficult to believe?  It’s true the world over.

Honestly, have you ever considered how many sounds are used without thinking in just one single sentence?  Or how many words that we need to know the meaning of in order to use them without thinking?  And how much grammar we need to understand before we can form a single sentence?  It’s truly amazing but because our brains are able to put a language together enough to form a sentence in only 800 hours, we can rest easily in the nature of it all!

Because nature will always do it’s part, we can rely on the fact that we acquired our first language, so we have the ability to acquire another one.