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How Long to Get Proficient English Speech?

How Long to get Proficient English Speech? Deliberate Practice –Article 8


One of the first questions most instructors for American English (AE) get from nonnative-born new students is : “How long is it going to take until I am proficient at speaking English.” 

That simple question  about how long does it take to become proficient (mastery) has been the subject of many years of research from foremost minds in the industry of motor skill development.   Motor skill development is skill which involves brain and muscles/movement and a lot of research has been done for sports—a major pastime all over the world in which proficiency is highly valued for amateurs and professionals alike.   Relatedly, mastering accurate and easy to understand American English speech is a motor skill—it takes brain and muscles.

The first to say to become an expert required about 10 years of experience was Herbert A. Simon (Nobel Prize 1976).  He and his colleagues estimated that expertise was the result of learning about 50,000 chunks of information.

For motor skill high proficiency, a range of research shows 4,000 hours, some show  6,000 hours including Gibbons and Forster’s landmark study in “The Path to Excellence” for US Olympic athletes.  All studies agree that a significant investment of time is required.   Much of the debate about how many hours is required is due to lack of agreement between experts on what they consider practice (Rose, 2013).

One of our first student-learners had been practicing speaking American English two hours a day, five to seven days a week for months before he came to us.  Initial whole word English speech intelligibility was about 34%.  Gist of the problem was that this Arabic first language person did not know what to change.   Like most of our student-learners, he had 5 to 7 years of English language learning  in his home country.

Is all practice the same?  Easy to see that if you practice inaccurate American English pronunciation for hours, there is no improvement in intelligibility.

Rose, 2013 described motor learning experts Ericcsson, Krampe and Tesch-Romer, 1993’s comprehensive review of what type of practice is best if human beings want to get better.  Conclusion: the most effective learning occurs through doing highly structured activity defined as ‘deliberate practice.’  It’s totally opposite to ‘mindless practice.’

It’s easy to do mindless practice or to slip into mindless practice.  A while back we had a student who made great progress for his first course, and subsequently was making very little progress on the next level of skills.  Turned out he was spending less than 30 minutes on deliberate practice/homework in talking between coaching sessions and was spending most of his time ‘reviewing’ with his eyes only the previous coaching session’s work.  Our recommendation is at least 30 minutes of deliberate practice/homework five days a week.  That’s called distributed or spaced practice, which is widely agreed to be the best schedule of practice for procedural learning (learning to speak clear English is a kind of procedural learning).  Later I will get back to that.

Ericsson defined deliberate practice as, “activities that have been specifically designed to improve the current level of performance.   Deliberate practice requires effort and is not inherently enjoyable.”   Rose adds,  deliberate practice’s motivation is to get better.

Blanda, 2012 in Lifehacker further reported that “top performers select the difficult aspects of their work and repeat them endlessly until they are engrained as habit.”  His example was the anecdote of Shaquille O’Neal practicing his free throws – his weak point rather than practicing slam dunks.

Deliberate practice is not inherently fun, like playing a game for a sport is fun.  The renown mathematician  Herbert Simon recognized both the importance of deliberate practice and the likelihood of boredom.  The answer for him was the requirement that the teacher creatively design the deliberate practice activities to prevent boredom.

Rose also describes the Cote and May 2002 emphasis on the importance of deliberate play (as contrasted to deliberate practice) in the early years of elite athletes. (Also Bloom, 1985, Carlson, 1988).  Deliberate play activities are those designed for enjoyment and have simple rules.  Enjoyment is part and parcel for the long term involvement and deliberate practice for high proficiency of a skill.

Is deliberate play also a form of practice?  Rose gives a definite, “Yes.”

How does all of this relate to becoming proficient at speaking clear English (intelligible and easy to understand English for everybody—native-born and nonnative-born speakers of  English)?

To speed up learning, we recommend minimum deliberate practice of clear English speaking skills for at least 30 minutes a day and 5 days a week.  To get better, aim for accuracy.  “It’s not practice makes perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect, “ asserted Jack Nicklaus, one of the all-time great golf champions.

Since on average it takes 70 days to establish a habit, we do a course for  three months, which is  10 weeks of learning and assessment and feedback.  For more information on amount of years and hours to  become highly proficient or fully master a skill (elite!)  Link here to elite blog.

How to keep that deliberate practice from getting to be deadly boring?   Our answer has many dimensions:  Importantly, use variety of audio and video lessons and textbook for deliberate practice. Include phrases and sentences frequently needed and used in daily and work life. Include practice on sentences inherently interesting (wisdom and famous quotations).  Also, vary the difficulty of the practice words and sentences,  Notably, include the equivalent of deliberate play via conversation during each coaching session.  Likewise for deliberate practice at home, include the task of clearly speaking answers to conversation questions of the ice breaking variety.

Take home message—to acquire proficiency in any motor skill takes a considerable amount of time.  Best  for efficient success is deliberate practice.  Best for combatting boredom is variety and doses of “interesting.”   That’s true also for acquiring proficiency in English speaking!

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