I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to this excellent article from Antimoon: “How much input do you need to speak English fluently?”
It first caught my attention because it mentions the little facts that you have to know about a language, but which are not classified as “grammar”. For example:
You can give an opinion, but not
an advice; buy a cake, but not a bread; move a table, but not a furniture; share a fact, but not an information.
Then I realized that I really liked his comparison of language learning to facial recognition. When you remember someone’s face, you don’t remember a bunch of specific and logical facts about various features. You don’t remember that the distance between the eyebrows is 0.754 times as big as the length of each eyebrow, or something like that. You just know, because your brain has a special part for recognizing faces without use of the conscious part of your mind. Much of language acquisition is similar. You don’t need a bunch of explicit rules, because as you acquire the language naturally through exposure you’ll just automatically start to develop some magical part of your brain that absorbs the needed rules and principles. This is all done below the level of conscious thought and calculation. Perhaps later you can try to develop your explicit ability to describe such rules, but that’s mostly a boring job for professional linguists with Phds, not for those of us who just want to speak and understand a language.
Finally, there’s the question of how much input you actually need in order to speak and understand a language fluently. The Antimoon article does a nice job of going through the various factors in this, but basically comes up with a nice ballpark number of 1000000 sentences of exposure. The author then considers how much work it would require to be exposed to this much of a language within 3 years, which is what he says it took him for English. Remember that this is for a very high level of proficiency, where he speaks and writes almost perfect English. I personally believe that you can gain a really good level in a language related to your own in less than a year, and that there’s always room for improvement.
His summary makes this enormous task seem quite doable. He breaks down the 1000000 sentences in 3 years into 6400 sentences per week. This then gets broken down to 1600 written sentences per week (~60 pages) + 4500 spoken sentences (~6 hours of audio) per week. This is a very doable amount for almost anyone. Just find whatever content interests you, and try to expose yourself for about an hour a day, and then you can expect to be highly fluent in 3 years according to this estimate. For those of us who are even keener, you may be able to up this amount to multiple hours of exposure per day and thereby rapidly increase your learning rate.
To get these hours of exposure in, just try to fill up your “spare” time (like riding on the bus, or sitting at your desk at work if possible) with audio content in your target language. When you get home, instead of watching TV in your native language, have a selection of target-language books sitting on your coffee table so that you can just pick one up and start reading. Or better yet, have those same books along with an MP3 player containing the audiobook versions so that you can listen and read at the same time. If you really want to watch TV, order some dubbed versions of your favourite shows if they are available. If not, order some original shows in your target language.
If you use whatever method you can to understand more vocabulary, you will soon be enjoying real adult materials in your target language. I couldn’t understand even 1 word of swedish in december 2009, but right now I’m listening to an audiobook in swedish and I’m able to follow along with the story most of the time, and I catch a lot of the vocab. I’ve been slack recently too, so I probably just barely averaged 1 hour per day, if that. I just very efficiently got myself up to speed on basic vocabulary, and put a lot of basic sentence material into Anki flashcards so that I could review them regularly, and did as much listening and reading as I could. Now that I have this basic level, it’ll be easier to ramp up my intake, and hopefully soon I’ll be racking up dozens of hours of content and thousands of sentences worth of exposure, on my way to fluency.
You can do it too, just start reading and listening in any way that you can 🙂