How Long Does it Take to Learn a Foreign Language and is it Worth it?

I recently decided to start learning Russian, and in trying to consider the size of the task ahead of me, I came across the following useful YouTube video. It’s interesting because it gives a guide as to the length of time required to learn Russian in relation to other languages – for an English speaker that is.

The time estimated to take Russian is 1100 hours, compared to just 600 hours for a more closely related language such as German. As would be expected, unrelated Asian languages such as Chinese and Japanese require twice as many hours as Russian and nearly four times more than German. As futurists are aware, promises of instantaneous language translation being around the corner have been made for sometime. Recently they have become more confident, and speech translation certainly has made impressive progress of late, though likely due to improvements in speech recognition rather than translation itself (I certainly haven’t noticed any great leap forward in Google text translation). Yet optimistic futurists might have faith in not only near term progress in A.I. language translation, but also such helping hands as advances in nootropics or other ways of boosting IQ (such as gene editing) or memory. Thus, the question does arise, at least for the optimists, as to the worth of making the effort of learning a language, when by the time you could realistically expect to master it, instantaneous translation may have been perfected, or more fancifully, the competence in the language downloaded directly into the mind.

After typing the above thoughts, I Googled ‘transhumanism is it worth learning a second language’ and was surprised to see a Huffington Post article written by none other Zoltan Istvan, the transhumanist candidate in the US presidential election which takes place tomorrow (Tuesday 8th November 2016) asking precisely the same question as mine. In the article, Zoltan quotes a remarkable claim by a professor at the Singularity University that in 20 years human speech itself might be redundant, as we could by then be communicating via ‘thoughts scanned and projected from our headsets and maybe even chip implants‘.

Zoltan mentions some positive side-effects of learning a language, such as benefits to the brain (something noted in children and Alzheimer’s patients). He also asks whether he would have been better off learning other skills such as Martial Arts rather than learning Spanish as he did in his youth. However, the same question surely arises, if perhaps less obviously, to most learned skills, particularly if we’re discounting the value of language learning on the basis of ‘brainwave communication’.

As I spend a lot of time now in Russia and the Ukraine, and it would come in useful to know even a limited amount of Russian, then I believe it’s worthwhile to make some regular effort to learn it, especially as I am rather sceptical of some of these predictions. However, a language such as Chinese would be another matter, even if I needed or desired to learn it.

Interestingly, the YouTube video above makes the point that in the internet age, x amount of hours to learn a language does not require all of them to be spent studying a dusty textbook or even attending classes. Many of these hours can be employed passively engaging in the language such as watching videos or actively but enjoyably taking part in social media. Technology has not yet shortened the time required to learn a language, but it has made it more fun.

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