How long does it take to learn a language?

I had a Swedish neighbour once, and the first time I met her I had no idea she was not English. There was not a trace of an accent, not a word misplaced or unidiomatic. I spoke to her for about twenty minutes before she said she was having a problem with her visa (Sweden was not then in the EU), and I realised she was not mother-tongue.

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…no idea

At that point she had been in the country for about six months, and had previously only learnt English, she said, at school.

Needless to say, her case was exceptional. Swedish is a closely related language to English, and there is a strong culture of speaking the language well. Her boyfriend was English, and she seemed content to spend her days watching daytime TV. Still, the rapidity with which she absorbed the language was remarkable.

I wrote a little bit yesterday about home; Pico Iyer in his talk discussed the hybrid nature of the concept, and the advantages in perspective that mixed backgrounds can bring. He somewhat skirted, however, the central issue of mass immigration and the tension and resentment it seems to generate. Governments have known for years that a high net immigration is necessary for most developed countries if they are to offset low birth-rates and ageing populations. Immigrants to the UK, for instance, are for the most part already at an age and of an educational attainment where they can immediately begin making tax contributions, not to mention contributions to the cultural wealth of the nation.

But for many, language remains a barrier. The government now requires new immigrants to attain a certain level of competence, as defined by the Council of Europe (B1). An article on the BBC website discusses the contentious question of how long, on average, it will take a new learner to attain that level – anything between 360 and 1765 hours, evidently. Either way, it is no surprise that language learning is a time-consuming business. You are, after all, colonising part of your brain with new pathways, and, in the case of more distant language families especially, mapping a new and subtly different understanding of the world on to an existing one.

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