General principles in learning a foreign language

I’m returning to Austin from Los Angeles where I just attended the Spring Symposium of the UCLA Center for World Languages. In fact, this picture was taken at D’amore’s Pizza, my favorite place in the world to buy a calzone. I was asked to be the keynote speaker and I gave a talk entitled “Language Learning in Today’s World: How Do Universities Fit In?” There was a full slate of presentations from graduate students, lecturers, and faculty of UCLA, all showing the various projects and materials that they are using to teach foreign language.

I have found myself thinking about the factors that really make a difference in learning a foreign language. That is to say, I’ve been learning, speaking and teaching foreign languages for nearly thirty years. It has been long enough to see various academic theories come and go. So here’s my list of the things that I believe enhance the learning of a foreign language.

To begin, experts say that it takes around 500 hours for native speakers of English to obtain an intermediate level of proficiency in category two languages (e.g., Spanish, French, etc.). The estimation is that category four languages (e.g., Japanese) take twice that amount of time. I believe this is an important reality check that people sometimes ignore. Basically it takes more effort and time to learn a foreign language than what most people expect. Put 500 hours in perspective. Most university courses meet for 75 contact hours per semester (and most of those are not actually spent in real study). Even if you are involved in dedicated, concentrated study outside of class, it will still take a long time to get to a true 500 hours of study.

Next, I believe in the importance of providing context if you want to remember words and phrases in a foreign language. The more we can associate language to specific situations and experiences the better we will retain them and the better we will be a manipulating them for other situations. We can all remember the exact moment when we learned or heard some phrase in another language for the first time. Context provides a powerful association between the experience and the language used.

Third, I believe in what the proponents of schema theory suggest. That is to say that our learning of a foreign language isn’t just related to learning the right vocabulary and grammar, but there is a behavioral “script” that society follows for almost all activities. I often give the example of how different the experience of going to a bakery or deli in another country can be. A lot of what goes into foreign language learning is related more to learning the social scripts than it is to just learn the words and the grammar. This is also part of the reason why I accept the importance of learning language in “chunks” or phrases, as opposed to isolated words. Chunking, as it is called, helps us to follow the scripts.

Fourth, I accept the notions of input and intake. Researchers use different words to describe the details, but basically all suggest that it isn’t enough for learners to have input fly by them. It is important that this input sink in, be noticed, recognized, etc. In fact, I believe that one of the most important roles that a foreign language teacher has is that of helping the learners to recognize input. Thus I accept the importance of consciousness raising, noticing, input enhancement, to use some of the terms that are associated to this basic idea.

Fifth, I relate to Krashen’s suggestion for narrow listening and narrow reading. Basically, I believe that repeated analysis, study, and review of small chunks of language are more beneficial than a superficial analysis of large blocks of language. For those that are not advanced speakers, this generally means that the deep study of a two-minute chunk of language is better than a one-time viewing of a 60-minute movie

Finally, I have always been a fan of Schumann’s acculturation model of language learning, meaning that I believe that there are lots of cultural and social factors that affect our language learning. These include such things as the various types of motivation, extroversion, anxiety, etc. In fact, in many ways I am convinced that that the social factors outweigh most others when it comes to real language learning.

The UCLA conference was a great example of projects and teaching ideas that students, lecturers and faculty have created for the teaching of foreign language. Those interested may want to take a peek at their web site at their Center for World Languages:



13 Responses to “General principles in learning a foreign language”

  1. Susie Bauckus Says:

    It was great to see you, Orlando, and thanks for coming. I loved your talk. I’m wondering how you compare your current language learning experiences with earlier ones. Do you have a sense of how classroom, technology, independent study fit together in your own life, whether you like one better, and what works for you ideally? do you think what you’re doing works better for you now than it might have when you were in college?

    Take care, Susie

  2. Orlando Says:

    Thanks Susie, I had a great time at UCLA.
    Interesting that you have made this comment, I’m thinking about writing another entry about my own experience in learning foreign languages. There is some irony in the fact that as a language professor, none of my languages has been learned in a classroom setting.–Well, that not totally true, I believe that my foundation in Spanish was a result of classroom learning. Stay tuned… (I’m currently in Brazil and running around like crazy.)

  3. Tamara Says:

    500 hours? Wow, no wonder I am not past low intermediate level in Spanish or Portuguese. Those are all very interesting points of how to advance the learning of Foreign Language speaking. I have watched you put all of these principles in to action and excel. I most definetly agree that social and cultural aspects are very important. Language is so much more than the grammar we learn of how extensive our vocabulary is. Is sarcasam an example of a cultural aspect of American English?

    I was also thinking of times I have remembered something because of context. I babysat Raza when he was 2. He thought I could speak Urdu. We were watching a cartoon and he kept pointing to the TV saying- Deco! Deco means look. I have never forgotten that word. Just last week I was in an Indian boutique buying henna dye. The owner told the girl up front to go in the back, then spoke in Urdu/Hindi. I hear the word “deco” and wanted to shout- you told her to look! Then there is the time you learned the German word for elbow. Oh my goodness- and elbow is like an “L” shaped bow.

    Keep changing the world dad…one language at a time!

  4. Dave Ferguson Says:

    Orlando, can you say something about what the categories are (e.g., French as category two)?

    I’m interested in the 500-hour rule of thumb for languages that are like English. (I’ve recently posted about This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel Levitin, who points to research suggesting that expertise in many fields requires about 10,000 hours.

    That’s not to dispute what you’re saying; I see the two numbers as pointing in the same direction.

    I’m pondering my own training in French — four years in high school, plus a year of “culture and civilization” in college. Maybe 500, 600 in-class hours; at best 400 outside. I didn’t use French much for decades, but in the past six months have found myself chatting (in text and in voice) with native speakers in Second Life.

    My vocabulary isn’t great, and neither is my grammar, but I think I benefit from having started at 13 and having built some neural pathways — even if they haven’t been cleared in a long, long time.

  5. Dave’s Whiteboard » Blog Archive » Language: time to learn Says:

    […] followed a comment by Orlando Kelm, a language professor, to his own post about learning a foreign language. There he quotes an estimate of “around 500 hours for native speakers of English to obtain an […]

  6. Orlando Says:

    The 500 hours gets someone to what the ACTFL folks call an high “intermediate” and low “advanced” range, but not into a superior range. Advanced speakers can narrate and describe in the past, present, and future, and they can deal with unanticipated situations. In really basic terms, ACTFL says that intermediate speakers are the usual undergraduate majors who have never lived abroad, advanced speakers are the usual undergraduate majors who have lived abroad (extended stay).
    Interested readers may want to see the ACTFL guidelines. SIL has a nice summary:

    As to categories, for native speakers of English, some languages take less time than others. For example, Russian, Hebrew and Turkish are category three and progress is slower. Japanese, Chinese, and Arabic are category four and progress is slower still. Of course there are a million other factors, but basically it says that if you put X amount of energy into learning two different languages, the progress will be different. For example, my progress in learning Japanese has gone much slower than my progress in learning Italian. I just had to realize that Japanese was going to take me a little longer.

  7. Atamido Says:

    Oh calzones, how could I have forgotten such a great love? Soon we will reunite and our love for lunches will grow even stronger.

    As someone that often forgets their own birthday, I think it’s important to remember the rather sizeable effect that personal ability can have in shaping the number of hours required to reach a given stage of language development. While I do well at many things, my inability to remember basic specifics such as names, dates, etc, has been a rather serious stumbling block in my efforts to garner even a rudimentary collection of foreign vocabulary. At times I even forget what word in the English language a series of sounds represents. I would say that these limitations exist entirely outside specific cultural or societal influences (though I concede they may ultimately simply be the byproduct of said influences).

    That said, anyone but the most gifted will need to apply those principles if they ever want to reach a commendable level of language ability. No amount of reading, or blankly staring into a foreign language conversation, is going to imbue one with proficiency. Still, I’d keep that 500 hours number to yourself, at least initially for the casual students, it’s a little disheartening if you’re forced to think about it.

  8. Ben Kelm Says:

    I was just looking around to see what other Kelms are up to these days and your blog really struck a resonant note with me. My wife and I are in Cochabamba, Bolivia and ended our Spanish study after reaching approximately ACTFL Advanced level. I haven’t studied language at the level you are speaking about, but it really corresponds with my experience – ie. the idea of ‘script’ and the absolute value of a short – 30 second to 2 minute recording. We are in the very beginning stages of learning the Cochabamba dialect of Quechua, so we’re about to probe a level 4 or 5 language.
    Anyhow thanks for the ideas and have a good day!

  9. Orlando Says:

    Ben, I’ve never been to Bolivia, but in Peru I soon learned that the most important phrase in Quechua was “Manan munanichu.” It’s been a long time and I probably have it wrong, but it means “I don’t want to buy that!” Good luck with the Quechua.

  10. Bethany Womack Says:

    Hey Orlando,

    Your posts have been crazy helpful for me. I did want to ask what your fourth point was. I didn’t understand the input & intake. Can you explain it in a different way? i would much appreciate it :). thanks.


  11. Orlando Says:


    Hi, yes input vs. intake. Years ago linguists starting saying that in order to learn a foreign language, learners needed to be exposed to tons of the foreign language. That is input. Later they realized that it is not enough to be exposed to the foreign language because many times learners aren’t really listening, or the input just doesn’t sink in. (Think of the millions of people that you know that have lived in the US for years, are surrounded by English everyday, have the English language TV and radio on in the background all of the time, and still don’t know one word of English.). So, intake is that input that “sinks in” because we are concentrating on it. Nowadays linguists say that in order to learn a foreign language, you need lots of “intake.” I agree, we all need to hear language that we understand, have the context for, and that we can be aware of.

    Hope that helps,


  12. Bethany Womack Says:

    Oh ok yes that makes more sense. So it sounds like it’s being exposed and aware of things that you can understand at whatever level you’re at in your language learning. You can’t just be exposed to it; it has to make sense to you to sink in. That’s my understanding of it now.

  13. Interview with Dr. Orlando Kelm | Foreign Language Mastery Says:

    […] don’t miss his article General principles in learning a foreign language (the basis of the above […]

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