English Learning – How Long Does It Take?

English is my second language. I did not speak a word of English when I landed in the United States at age 9 in 1977.  Neighborhood boy named John used to call me “dummy.” I had no idea what that meant until my mother translated it for me. Yes, I was upset, but I made a promise to myself that I will study hard and surpass John. 

It took me 6 months, approximately 1,000 hours of English immersion before I began to hear the words.  I did not enjoy ESL lessons, but I persevered.  After a year, around 2,000 hours of English learning (ESL classes, regular school, tutor, reading with dad, watching TV and movies, playing with American friends), I was able to speak in short phrases and sentences.  I was still thinking in Korean but getting faster in producing English that others could understand.

It took me roughly 5,000 hours to become fluent;  I no longer needed to think in Korean.  My English was good enough that I could keep up and, often surpass (John), my peers in history, science, and English.  My reading speed, vocabulary, and writing skills (i.e. academic English) were slightly behind others, but I made up by studying for longer.  By the time I entered college at 18, I had no particular weakness in English.  In fact, I had nearly forgotten Korean!

I broke down my English in number of hours on purpose to illustrate the point for Korean parents. Your children may have attended English hagwon for 2 years (2 hours, three times a week for 45 weeks of the year), but that only equates to 540 hours of English total.  It is unrealistic to even expect your children to make out the words spoken by a fluent English speaker.  It will take them good 4 years at the same pace, or over 1,000 hours, for their ears to “open up.” 

At Camp Hokulea, our Korean campers are exposed to 300 to 400 hours of English during the 5-week program.  While the kids study only one hour of English every day, they are completely immersed in English from 8am to 5pm.  Moreover, every member of our staff speaks English, and they encourage the children to speak English as much as possible. Unlike many Korean hagwons that focus on academic English, we concentrate on social English.  There are many reasons for this:

- Kids learn English best while playing and through social interaction (adults too)

- Social English is an important foundation for academic English 

- Learning this way allows children to realize for themselves why English is important

- Social English incorporates Western gestures, manners, and etiquette so more practical

- It is a fun way to learn English

Parents should not assume that number of years will get the job done. Hours are infinitely more important.  Focusing on the number of hours will help them realize that English learning requires long-term planning.  Parents should have a goal and curate their children’s English learning schedule accordingly.  Take a 5-year view and be patient. 

Sam Paik                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Next week – English or Chinese?  

Yefei Jin