Learn a foreign language in 3 months: reality or myth? The view of neurolinguists
Learn a foreign language in 3 months: reality or myth? The view of neurolinguists
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Learn a foreign language in 3 months: reality or myth? 

From the point of view of neurolinguistics, explains Evgenia Efremova, master of Harvard University, academic director Global Ambassador and developer of the effective English program Smart English. 

Popular slogans announcing another unique technique that will allow you to learn “English in 3 months” and finally speak competently are captivating. In the fast pace of modern life, with the ever-increasing need for English proficiency in many industries and the hefty cost of education, we all want to learn effectively - to achieve the maximum result with the least investment of time, money and energy.

But when such slogans become ubiquitous, they subconsciously form stereotyped public thinking and belief in the exceptional veracity of this promise. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to critically evaluate marketing slogans and separate the truth from the publicity stunt. To understand the issue, let's turn to the knowledge of how the human brain learns a foreign language and what nuances determine the potential and speed of learning.

Language skills such as listening, speaking and writing are complex functions of the human brain and have their own specifics and development process. In the production of each of these skills, a separate neural network is involved, which is activated and strengthened in the learning process. Ambiguity to these processes is added by the uniqueness of the brain of each person. Our brain, its structure and functional processes, are formed not only by the totality of genetics (nature), the development of the brain during early childhood, but also by the specifics of the learning experience gained and the influence of the external environment throughout life [1]. Of course, the typical processes in language development can be generalized to people in general. But when it comes to learning, first of all, it is necessary to take into account the individual characteristics of each person.

Of course, the teaching methodology, as well as the quality of teaching, affect the effectiveness. It is important to understand that most of the existing methods are determined by the desired goal, the incoming data of the person and the frequency of classes. If the final goal and frequency of classes can be fixed, then the incoming student data can only be averaged. Since no test is yet able to analyze the complex structure of the functional processes of the brain involved in the study of a particular language, any technique is often based on averaged incoming data and, accordingly, an average path from point A to point B. Such averages miss important individual features , around which an adaptive learning model should be built.

Research in the field of neurolinguistics shows that the speed of mastering a foreign language is largely determined by the goal (desired level of proficiency), the frequency and duration of training, as well as the degree of difference between the grammar and vocabulary of the native language from the chosen foreign language, the student's age, previous experience in learning other foreign languages, degree of learning ability and diligence of the student.

What goal do you plan to achieve in 3 months?

First of all, it is important to understand what level this course aims to achieve and what your incoming level is. In English, for example, you can highlight the Skills for Basic Interpersonal Communication (BICS)[2],[3]. Simply put, this is the well-known "colloquial English", which will be enough to solve the basic issues of tourism, domestic issues and communication on the street. This language is also called “corridor English”. Indeed, after 3 months of intensive systematic training, especially hardworking and purposeful students successfully reach this level. For comfortable language proficiency at such a basic level, it is important to master the frequently used vocabulary (about 1500 words), basic grammatical structures and get enough practice in listening and reproducing the language in typical situations. It is these components, combined with consistency and frequency of repetition, that make it possible to achieve this level in a relatively short time.

However, a basic level of language proficiency will not allow you to study abroad, speak at scientific conferences or negotiate effectively. In order to effectively and fully use the language in such situations, it will be necessary not only to expand the vocabulary with less common vocabulary, but also to master academic skills, including the possession of more complex sentence structures and the logic of organizing texts (Cognitive Academic Proficiency, (CALP) [3|,[ 4] The effectiveness of a student in mastering such skills is determined by individual cognitive abilities, such as the ability to control and rebuild thinking, the development of an outlook in the field of knowledge in the native language, as well as the level of logical thinking [5].

TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), for example, which is used by many foreign educational institutions as a standard for admitting foreign students to study in English, no longer assesses the level of grammar and actual understanding of the language, but reveals more complex skills. Such skills include the ability to analyze text, draw unstated conclusions, synthesize and compare information, and many others. The ability to use these skills in English depends primarily on mental capabilities. In this case, knowledge of vocabulary and grammar will either make it easier or even more difficult to prepare for this test. Therefore, it is not surprising that many students, having mastered conversational / everyday English (General English) at an intermediate level, experience great difficulties when faced with this test.

What foreign language do you plan to learn in 3 months?

An important factor for the speed of mastering a language is its similarity with the native. Romanian speakers, for example, quickly learn Spanish and Italian, since all these languages ​​have a common ancestor - Latin, and therefore have common grammatical characteristics and similar word formation.

In mastering the skill of reading, it is important to take into account such a characteristic as “transparency of the written language”[4],[5]. This is expressed in how each sound relates to its writing. From this point of view, English, one of the most widely spoken foreign languages, is one of the most opaque (see Table 1). It immediately becomes clear why, when learning English, we often have to remember exceptions to rules or learn to use context. The word wind, for example, can be read as wind (wind, braid, etc.) or wind (wind). Understanding exactly how to read a given word is possible only in context. Spanish, on the other hand, is transparent. Having mastered the alphabet, you can always read the written word correctly with a high probability, even without knowing its meaning.

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Table 1: Correspondence of the difficulty of mastering the skill of reading with the transparency of the written system[5]

Do you have a successful experience of learning another foreign language?

People who have a successful experience of learning a foreign language, as a rule, master the next one faster and more confidently. This can be explained by a number of factors.

Firstly, the experience of successful language learning allows you to understand how it is easier to learn the language, that is, it helps to develop an effective model of self-learning. Language learning skills allow you to react more quickly when faced with the next difficulty in learning the next language and not experience toxic stress. It is also possible that an already mastered foreign language has common characteristics with a new one, which allows you to use knowledge from an already accumulated database for more comfortable navigation.

Secondly, previous successful experience forms a positive attitude towards the learning process as a whole and supports the psychological model “I can”, which allows you to eliminate the fear factor, a typical factor that limits the effectiveness of learning. In addition, previous experience in learning a foreign language will allow you to switch quickly from one language to another and more effectively concentrate on the features of a new language.

Do you take into account the features of the functionality of the brain, starting to learn a language at a particular age?

Since the study of a foreign language is a complex function of the human brain, we cannot but take into account the age-related features of the functioning of the brain. Many scientific studies find that with age, mastering a foreign language becomes more and more difficult, especially when it comes to mastering pronunciation, as well as learning grammar [6]. Also, the plasticity of the brain, which is involved in making the neural connections necessary to maintain new functions, blunts with age. As a result, the process of mastering a language requires much more time and effort.

Given the absolute differences in the speed and biological mechanisms involved in language learning, it is important to choose a form and learning environment that takes these features into account. Thus, you will protect yourself from unnecessary stress, from, for example, “that you do not keep up with the group”, and you will receive pleasant emotions and a sense of satisfaction in the learning process.

The good news is that even if you don't progress by leaps and bounds, you are rejuvenating your brain: learning a foreign language is one of the best forms of gymnastics that will support mental flexibility and working memory[7].

What is your motivation and how hardworking are you?

Even the most progressive technique will not allow achieving the declared results without the internal motivation and diligence of the participant himself. Many students, without a clear long-term goal, quickly burn out when faced with process or time management difficulties. It is no secret that it is high motivation that stimulates serious self-study and allows students to achieve incredible results. But there are those who go to classes, immediately declaring that they have neither the strength nor the time for homeschooling, while setting the goal not for themselves, but for the teacher to raise it from zero to the average level in 4 classroom hours a week in 3 month. Of course, such goals and motivation raise great doubts and confuse the teacher.

If learning a foreign language in 3 months was so easy, then why do many of us continue to experience discomfort or a language barrier when traveling abroad? Is it because we chose the wrong courses?

As you already understood, the offer to “learn a foreign language in 3 months” is just an attractive marketing ploy, which, unfortunately, misleads many people. The questions raised in this article will allow you to make a meaningful assessment of your personal situation, set goals adequately and choose a course of study. As a result, your expectations, goals and requirements for yourself and for the teacher will better meet the characteristics of your individual development. Properly set goals will reduce stress levels and allow you to enjoy learning victories, thereby fueling the motivation to further learn the language.


[1] Fox, SE, Levitt, P., & Nelson III, CA (2010). How the timing and quality of early experiences influence the development of brain architecture. Child development, 81(1), 28-40. 
[2] Cummins, J. (1979). Cognitive/Academic Language Proficiency, Linguistic Interdependence, the Optimum Age Question and Some Other Matters. Working Papers on Bilingualism, no. nineteen. 
[3] Cummins, J. (2000). BICS and CALP. In M. Byram (Ed.), Encyclopedia of language teaching and learning. (pp. 76-79). London: Routledge. 
[4] Dehaene, S. (2009). Reading in the brain: The new science of how to read. New York: Penguin Group. 
[5] Seymour, P.H.K. (2005). Early reading development in European orthographies. In The Science of Reading: A Handbook. Blackwell, 296-315. 
[6] Birdsong, D. (2006). Age and second language acquisition and processing: A selective overview. Language learning, 56(s1), 9-49. 
[7] Bialystok, E., Poarch, G., Luo, L., & Craik, F.I. (2014). Effects of bilingualism and aging on executive function and working memory. Psychology and aging, 29(3), 696.


Author: Evgenia Efremova, Master's graduate of Harvard University, 
academic director Global Ambassador and software developer Smart English courses 


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