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Proficiency?? There’s More to the Story!

Proficiency?? There’s More to the Story. Article 9


      The burning question is: How Long Does It Take to Become Proficient for English Speech? 

     Here’s more of the story.  Becoming highly proficient in  AE (American English) speech communication includes  more than skills for accurate pronunciation and enunciation of  AE consonant and vowels. But the fact is, if you don’t have that, then the other proficiency skills are not worth a hill of beans.

      Critical is that proficiency means mastering AE word syllable accent stress for multiple syllable words.

     Critical is mastering AE voice inflection so your connected speech (sentences) are NOT monotone, flat and boring.  Critical are the multiple voice inflection techniques to help listeners understand and remember your information.  This is career changing.  Experts consider voice inflection to be the critical  communication skill  to boosting your career.

      Proficiency means being able to determine the pronunciation of unfamiliar multiple syllable words.  Fact is, each profession has its own core vocabulary and employs other  current vocabularies, such as from business, psychology, sociology, and tech, etc. So you need accurate pronunciation of many multiple syllable words for proficiency in English speaking communication.

The keystone here is mastery of  dividing into syllables written words to be proficient in pronouncing unfamiliar multiple syllable words.  Just so you know,  there are eight basic rules for written words and the essential skill of recognizing roots.

     Proficiency means being able to determine the meaning of words, especially multiple syllable words, with solid learning of roots, root words, stems  and prefixes and suffixes which primarily come from proto-German, Norman French, French, and Latin origins. Sorry guys, English is a polyglot!

      There are many levels of learning – skill sets—for proficient English communication.   Proficiency includes mastering the most important presentation skills, including persuasive techniques. Notably, presentation skills are typically not taught in the U.S. until latter high school at the earliest, and college.  Persuasive speech communication is university level learning.

      Recall that numerous motor skills are best learned through extensive repetition of proper form—that’s deliberate practice.    Proficiency in accurate, intelligible, and pleasing to the ear, easy to understand and remember information  AE speech is also best learned through extensive repetition of “proper form” ( “It’s not practice makes perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect.”)  

      What does “best learned” mean?  It’s what most people want — efficiency in time and  long lasting learning.

       So here is the deal.  Based on our experience (more than 20 years) and expertise,(almost 1000 different human beings from more than 60 countries and first languages), our scientific assessments (pre course, mid course, and post course) ,  and our past and present deep academic research into multiple topics including motor skill development for the human body, motor skill development for speech (and English), English clear speech, deliberate practice, procedural learning (that’s what acquiring English speech is), linguistics, “deeper” learning, learning methodologies including mastery learning — Antonia Johnson simply loves to learn– we propose the following.  Humans need to get perhaps 10 years of practice and likely 4,000 to 8,000 hours of practice under their belts to become highly proficient in American English speech communication. 


Does this seem impossible? 10 years and likely between 4,000 and 8,000 hours of practice?


Here’s why this is NOT impossible. What is important is how to calculate that “10 years of practice” and the likely between 4,000 and 8,000 hours of practice to become proficient in English speech communication.

DO THIS: include in your calculation your prior instruction in your home country and other English speech instruction perhaps in North America, or France, or Germany, etc. That might add up as much as 5 to 7 years. Then include the amount of time in hours of your taking every opportunity to deliver clear English speech communication in daily life, Then add in any other deliberate practice of clear English speech– maybe  for getting ready for a presentation.  All those hours count.  Every deliberate practice in hours counts!

Fact is, you are closer to proficiency than you think.

Then take a concentrated look at your English speech communication skill. What is missing? Sometimes that self-analysis is painful. But do it.

THEN focus on what is missing or needs to be better..

        Then remember this — Concentrated deliberate practice  using the distributed practice schedule is the most efficient route to acquiring proficiency in English skill sets.   The sequencing of those skill sets can make the mastery easy. 

Moderate and high proficiency is the goal for high satisfaction for career and daily life.  

Just so you know– minimum proficiency for most professions  which use English is 50% whole word intelligibility.  Is that proficiency? Not. And that is also why organizations are generally happy to finance or pay the tuition for efficient and long lasting instruction for English speech communication.

50% whole word intelligibility is minimum.  Notably, 50% means that listeners are working hard to understand.   Frustration and miscommunication are collateral damage at 50% intelligibility. That is recognized by the English talker and supervisors. (More later.)

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!

How Long Does It Take to Become an Elite… in Anything

How Long Does It Take to Become an Elite… in Anything?


     Popular knowledge says 10,000 hours of  practicing the correct way.  That was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller Outliers: The Story of Success in 2008.

     Popular knowledge talks about years too – 10 years to become an expert. The first to say that was Herbert A. Simon (Nobel Prize, 1976) and his colleagues who  estimated that expertise took learning approximately 50,000 chunks of experience (Rose, Greg, 2013).

     Decades of scientific investigation indicate that the 10,000 hours of practice is the average for world-class musicians but not every skilled profession.  Vladimir Issurin, 2017, in Sports Medicine reported the following:  Exceptionally talented athletes in endurance, power and combat sports achieved world-class status after 7 years of specialized preparation, doing 3,000-7,000 hours of purposeful training.  On the other hand, Olympic artistic gymnastics champions achieved world-class status following an average of 9.7 years of specialized preparation, doing an average of 8919 hours of specialized training.

       A 2019 study published in Royal Society: Open Science of 13 violinists found that the less accomplished violinists had logged an estimated 6,000 hours by age 20 while the good and best had both logged around 11,000 hours, reported authors Brook Macnamara and Megha Maitra.  So the number of hours did not account for all the differences.

     There is evidence that a combination of genetic factors, environmental factors, their interactions, and motivation, practice, and opportunity goes into mastering a skill (Macnamara, Maitra, 2019; Issurin, 2017).

     Here’s more. In Tim Gibbons and Tammie Forster’s landmark study for the United State Olympic Center’s Athletic  Development Program, “The Path to Excellence,” they researched the development of U.S. Olympians who competed between 1984 and 1998.

     A few of their conclusions:

     U.S Olympians began their sport-specific participation at the average age of 12.0 for males and 11.5 for females.

     Most Olympians reported a 12- to 13- year period of talent development from their sport introduction to being placed on an Olympic team.

      Olympic medalists were younger –1.3 to 3.6 years —  during the first  5 stages of development than non-medalists.  This suggests that medalists were receiving motor skill development and training at an earlier age.

         US Olympians played an average of 3 sports  between ages of 10 and 14  (Dr. Brad DeWeese, USOC, 2014).

        According to  Greg Rose 2013, the 10-year-rule has been shown to also apply to the development of expertise in other domains, including  music (Ericsson, Krampe, & Tesch-Romer, 1993; Hayes, 1982; Sosniak, 1985), mathematics (Gustin, 1985), swimming (Kalinowski, 1984), distance running (Wallingford, 1975), tennis (Monsaas, 1985), soccer and field hockey (Helsen, Starkes & Hodges, 1998).  Data suggests golf is a 20-year developmental sport, not 10 years.  Research by PGA of GB and Greg Rose came up with an average of 21.5 years to become a winner on the PGA or European Tour.

      The 10,000 hour rule is still highly debatable in the research (some show 4,000  hours, some 6,000 hours) but all studies indicate a significant investment in time is required.

      Much of the debate about how many hours is required to master an area is due to lack of agreement between experts on what they consider practice.   Is any type of repetition practice?   What is correct practicing?.  I’ll get to that later.

      Soooooo,  this is an article directed to nonnative-born speakers of English.  What does all this have to do with successful acquisition of clear American English Speech and development of  mastery or expertise?  Typically nonnative-born persons get an average of 5 to 7 years of English instruction in their home country.   All of that counts toward development of expertise and mastery.  Also recall that the U.S. requires formal schooling  from age 6 to 16—all of which is conducted in English.  Those 10 years are viewed to be  minimum for acquiring English communication skills for work and social life through the person’s lifetime.

      Furthermore, Clear Talk Mastery measured average English speech intelligibility for the initial diagnostic assessment for almost a thousand people since 2000 to be 34%. Compare that to the native-born  U.S. A. person’s average score of  90% when speaking casually and 95% when instructed to speak clearly.   Written and oral interview for each adult nonnative-born person doing the initial diagnostic assessment clearly showed that the type of English instruction and the kind of practice is vastly different among individuals and between countries and within countries (63 different countries).

      Recall that  debate  for how many hours it takes to master a domain (such as sports, music, mathematics) is due to the lack of agreement between experts on what they define as practice.  The range from 2% to 83% for the initial diagnostic assessment (average 34%)  for English speech intelligibility is likely an indication of the kind and quality of previous instruction and practice for English language, especially speaking clear English.  And it is likely due also to other factors, a combination of genetic factors, motivation, and opportunity  for speaking English.

       There is general agreement about the kind of practice needed by kids (and others) if they want to get better.  I’ll get to what a comprehensive review of this topic uncovered.