At ELT Support, we’re often asked how long it takes to reach the level of English language proficiency needed for a particular purpose, such as further study. The answer depends of course on many factors, such as how much time the person has for study, how much natural aptitude they have for language learning, their age (very roughly, whether or not they are primary school age), their interest and motivation in learning and how much they can use their skills in their first language to help them with the new language. But, some patterns have emerged from the research.
One important consideration is whether or not the person has formal language learning opportunities. Contrary to popular belief, simply immersing an adult in an English-speaking environment rarely works – one needs to look no further than the struggles of many migrants, even highly educated ones, who came to English speaking countries as adults for evidence of that. Looking specifically at university students though, there is research on this. Pamela Humpheys, as part of her PhD studies, sent a large number of students for IELTS tests at the beginning and end of their three year university degrees and compared the results. She found that the average score gain was 0.3 of an IELTS band score, a barely noticeable difference – and that many students went backwards.
So, study in a higher education course by itself clearly doesn’t do much for a person’s English language proficiency; language learning in adults doesn’t occur simply by ‘exposure’ or ‘osmosis’ – time – and quite a considerable amount of time at that – must be devoted explicitly to language learning activities. While it’s common to hear stories about people who migrated to an English speaking country as young children rapidly developing a high level of proficiency, at least in spoken ‘playground’ language, this ability disappears after roughly late primary school (the ‘critical period’ – see for example, Lightbown and Spada, 2013).
So, given that simple exposure isn’t enough, and formal language learning is necessary, the next question is how much formal learning is needed? Research in this area is tricky because of the difficulty in finding a large uniform sample and limited research funding in the area generally, but Kathy Elder and Kieran O’Loughlin (1998) looked at 112 students very roughly concluded that:
- 200-240 hours of language-focused instruction (e.g. 20 hours per week for 10 to 12 weeks) is enough, on average, to increase proficiency by the equivalent of half an IELTS band score (note they didn’t investigate whether spreading this out over a longer period, e.g. an academic year, had an effect).
- This average conceals considerable variation – some went backwards.
- Progress is slower for higher proficiency levels – e.g. less than half the students who started at IELTS 6.0 went up by half a band score, compared with two thirds of those who started at IELTS 5.0 and 90% of those who started at IELT 4.5.
To gain a deeper insight into this variation, Pearson have published a summary of research around language proficiency gain (Benigno et al, 2017). The consensus show shown within the report demonstrates a clear pattern – that a significant factor is the ‘distance’ between the learner’s first language (or languages) and the language they’re learning. For example, people who grew up speaking Chinese or Arabic can take two to three times longer than those who grew up speaking French or German to make the same gains in English proficiency. Looking in more detail and taking moving from IELTS 6.0 to 6.5 as a example, their research shows that students can take anything from around 300 to over 700 hours*, suggesting that Elder and O’Loughlin’s research may have been optimistic.
It’s worth noting though that language learning is a very individual thing and is very non-linear. As Benigno et al (2017) also point out, there will be times in many learners’ journeys when language proficiency actually goes backwards, and peaks, troughs and plateaus are common.
So, looking at the research in this area, it’s quite clear that some easily-made assumptions can be very wrong. Most adults will need a significant amount of instruction specifically focused on language if they are to improve their proficiency, and if they are from a language background very much outside the Indo-European language group, the time they will need to spend will, in most cases, increase considerably. A particularly difficult scenario is a student from East Asia or an Arabian country wanting to go that extra mile from around IELTS 6.0 to 6.5.
Benigno, V., de Jong, J., & Van Moere, A. (2017). How long does it take to learn a language? Insights from research on language learning (Global Scale of English Research Series, p. 12). Pearson.
Elder, C., O’Loughlin, K., & IELTS Australia. (2003). Investigating the relationship between intensive English language study and band score gain on IELTS (Volume 4; IELTS Research Reports). IELTS Australia. http://search.informit.com.au/fullText;dn=011234125894291;res=IELHSS
Humphreys, P. (2018). What is this thing called academic English language proficiency? From theory to principled practice. UECA PD Fest, Sydney. http://www.ueca.edu.au/archive/pdfest2018/info/plenary.html
Lightbown, P. M., & Spada, N. (2013). How Languages are Learned 4th edition—Oxford Handbooks for Language Teachers (4th ed). Oxford University Press.