Tuesday, February 12, 2013

How long does it take to learn a language?

There is actually a web site to rate the difficulty of learning different languages for "English Speakers".  I am not sure how this changes for those who were raised on Valleyspeak rather than English.

My recent hobby is Hebrew which supposedly requires 1,100 hours of formal study to achieve "general proficiency", whatever that means.  My two semesters of Hebrew provided about 160 hours each of study, which is less than 1/3 of the goal, although I doubt that the US State Department is measuring their training hours with respect to Biblical Hebrew.  Theoretically the 1,100 hours could be achieved by averaging 3 hours a day for a year.  There is a third semester of Hebrew at my seminary that I hope to take in the summer, but this would still leave me less than half way to proficiency, especially given that learning languages is less efficient per hour when it isn't full time.

So where to go next?  I can't take off from work for a full time program, nor can I find a local tutor.  The Pimsleur recordings have been helpful, but 90 30-minute lessons works out to 45 hours of listening that expands to about 150 or so with review, but still leaves me far short of the goal.  A web site I just stumbled across is from the University of Texas which has a variety of additional learning materials for modern Hebrew.

There is the question of why bother doing this.  The little I know has been quite helpful on understanding why there are different English readings of the old testament.  Still, what I know isn't nearly enough, yet I did well in my classes.  Most pastors don't bother to study Hebrew.  Then there is a note in my Hebrew Bible's preface which gives a statistic that only 20% of pastors who studied Hebrew retained it.  The end result is that pastors who can really dig through the old testament in the original language are quite rare.  So the overall goal is to achieve a level of proficiency that will permit me to engage regularly with Hebrew, whether on the web or reading my Hebrew Bible.


Delirious said...

There are some really great chinese podcasts out there, so I'm wondering if there are Hebrew podcasts as well.

Overall, I do think that immersion is the best way to learn. Not sure how you could swing that though. :)

It's interesting that so many pastors feel a need to learn Hebrew. I personally don't know any LDS leaders who have learned Hebrew. There might be an occasional professor, but I don't know any. Still, I wish I could listen to/read the Bible in Hebrew. Oh, I just thought of something. Our church has some Bible videos that have the dialog in Hebrew with a voice over in English. But I can't remember how well you can hear the Hebrew. I'll investigate.

Looney said...

I just found some more Hebrew resources from Stanford. Looks like I will have plenty. It would really be nice to have some time for total immersion study, but that will need to wait until I retire!

It will be fun to see some Bible videos, although in New Testament times they mostly spoke Aramaic. The serious Bible professors are all obligated to study Aramaic also, since there are about 250 Aramaic verses in the old testament and much of the early Jewish rabbis left us explanations in Aramaic.

Dee Ice Hole said...

Your success with Hebrew makes me wanna try a little harder on Spanish.

Max Coutinho said...

Hi Looney,

I am always looking for new material, so thanks for the uni of Texas link.
How long does it take to learn a new language? It depends. I learned three in six months. Hebrew is taking me more time to learn though (i.e.to speak fluently the way I speak other languages) but I will get there eventually - at least Biblical Hebrew is going well.

I will tell you one thing though: I learned from experience that we only speak fluently any language after visiting the country in which that language is spoken. Learning the grammar is easy but we need to listen to the language being spoken in loco.

You are a success case already, in my opinion.


Looney said...

Dee Ice Hole, a lot of it is time. I am trying to put in at least 2 hours a day. My wife previously worked on Spanish and started putting tags on everything in the house with its Spanish name. She was teasing about putting a tag on my forehead with "mi esposo".

Looney said...

Max, Stanford has a good link also with lots of material for their Hebrew program. The link is here:


I think you are right about communicating with the natives. Much of my early Chinese work was due to my relatives. The learning reached a plateau long ago, however, since there really is no context for me to improve further living in the US.

Max Coutinho said...


Thank you so much for the Stanford link: it looks great.
I hear you on communicating with relatives (that's how I learned Italian). But at least when you go to China you are able to communicate, right? The knowledge stayed with you.

Have a great week ahead.

Looney said...


I can usually communicate regarding basic necessities quite well in Chinese. The problem is that I still can't follow a Chinese Soap Opera on television!

Now I am wondering if Delirious is proficient to the level of understanding Chinese drama or not.

Max Coutinho said...


LOL Chinese soap opera? LOL LOL *nodding*.
Indeed, that would be interesting to know...I would bet she is.