Learn a foreign language in 3 months: reality or myth? The look of neurolinguists
Learn a foreign language in 3 months: reality or myth? The look of neurolinguists
 Language science pic0

Learn a foreign language in 3 months: reality or myth? 

From the point of view of neurolinguistics, explains Yevgeny Efremova, Master of Harvard University, Academic Director of Global Ambassador and developer of an effective English program Smart English. 

Popular slogans declaring about another unique technique that will allow you to learn “English in 3 months” and finally speak competently are bribing. At the fast pace of modern life, with the ever-growing need for English proficiency in many industries and the considerable cost of training, we all want to learn effectively - to achieve maximum results with the least investment of time, money and energy.

But when such slogans become ubiquitous, they subconsciously form stereotypical social thinking and faith in the exclusive truthfulness of this promise. As a result, it is becoming increasingly difficult to critique marketing slogans and separate the truth from the advertising move. To understand the issue, let's turn to the knowledge about 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. A separate neural network is involved in the production of each of these skills, which is activated and strengthened in the learning process. The ambiguity of 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), brain development during early childhood, but also by the specifics of the learning experience and the influence of the external environment throughout life [1]. Of course, typical processes in the development of a language can be generalized to people as a whole. But when it comes to training, it is first necessary to take into account the individual characteristics of each person.

Of course, the teaching methodology, as well as the quality of teaching affect efficiency. It is important to understand that most of the existing methods are determined by the desired goal, the input data of the person and the frequency of classes. If the final goal and frequency of classes can be fixed, then the incoming data of the student 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 input data and, accordingly, an averaged path from point A to point B. Such averages miss important individual features around which the adaptive learning model should be built.

Studies in the field of neurolinguistics show that the speed of mastering a foreign language is largely determined by the purpose (desired level of knowledge), the frequency and duration of training, as well as the degree to which the grammar and vocabulary of the native language differs from the chosen foreign one, the student’s age, previous experience in studying other foreign languages, degree of student learning and hard work.

What goal do you plan to achieve in 3 months?

First of all, it is important to understand what level this course is aimed at and what your incoming level is. In English, for example, Basic Interpersonal Skills (BICS) [2], [3] can be distinguished. Simply put, this is the well-known "spoken English", which will be enough to solve basic issues of tourism, everyday issues and communication on the street. This language is also called “corridor English”. Indeed, in 3 months of intensive systematic training, especially hardworking and motivated 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 a sufficient amount of practice of listening and reproducing the language in typical situations. It is these components, in combination with consistency and repetition frequency, that make it possible to achieve this level in a relatively quick time.

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

TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), for example, which is standardly used by many foreign educational institutions to accept foreign students to study in English, does not evaluate the level of grammar knowledge and actual understanding of the language, but reveals more complex skills. Such skills include the ability to analyze the text, draw undeclared conclusions, synthesize and compare information, and many others. The ability to use these skills in English depends primarily on mental capabilities. In this case, possession of vocabulary and grammar will either make it easier or more difficult to prepare for this test. Therefore, it is not surprising that many students, having mastered conversational / everyday English (General English) at an average 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 to the native one. Romanian speakers, for example, quickly master Spanish and Italian, since all these languages ​​have a common ancestor - Latin, and in this regard, common grammatical characteristics and similar word formation.

In mastering the reading skill, it is important to take into account such a characteristic as “the transparency of the written language” [4], [5]. This is expressed in how much 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 the rules or learn to use the context. The word wind, for example, can be read as wind (wind, braid, etc.) or wind (wind). You can only figure out how to read a given word 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 complexity of mastering the skill of reading transparency of the written system [5]

Do you have successful experience learning another foreign language?

People who have successful experience in mastering a foreign language, as a rule, quickly and confidently master the next one. This can be explained by several factors.

Firstly, the experience of successful language teaching 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 respond more quickly, faced with the next difficulties in learning the next language and not experience toxic stress. It is also possible that a foreign language already mastered 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 in general and supports the psychological model “I can”, which eliminates the factor of fear, a typical factor limiting the effectiveness of learning. In addition, previous experience of mastering a foreign language will allow you to quickly switch from one language to another and more effectively concentrate on the features of the new language.

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

Since the study of a foreign language refers to the 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 the mastery of a foreign language becomes more and more difficult, especially with regard to the development of pronunciation, as well as the study of grammar [6]. Also, the plasticity of the brain, participating in the creation of neural connections necessary to maintain new functions, dulls with age. As a result, the process of mastering a language requires much more time and effort.

Given the unconditional differences in 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 the fact, 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 do not progress by leaps and bounds, you rejuvenate your brain: learning a foreign language is one of the best forms of gymnastics that will support flexibility of thinking and working memory [7].

What is your motivation and how hardworking are you?

Even the most progressive technique will not allow you to achieve the stated results without internal motivation and hard work of the participant. Many students, without a clear long-term goal, quickly burn out when faced with the difficulties of a process or time management. It is no secret that it is high motivation that is the incentive for serious self-study and allows students to achieve incredible results. But there are those who go to classes, immediately stating that there is neither strength nor time for home schooling, while setting a goal not for themselves, but for the teacher to raise it from scratch to an average level in 4 class hours per week for 3 months. Of course, such goals and motivation are very doubtful and confound the teacher.

If it was so easy to learn a foreign language in 3 months, then why then 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 “learn a foreign language in 3 months” is only 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, adequately set goals and choose a course of study. As a result, your expectations, goals and requirements for yourself and for the teacher will better meet the specifics of your individual development. Setting goals well will reduce stress levels and allow you to enjoy learning victories, thereby fueling your motivation to continue learning 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. 19. 
[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, PHK (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, FI (2014). Effects of bilingualism and aging on executive function and working memory. Psychology and aging, 29 (3), 696.


Author: Evgenia EfremovaGraduate of Harvard University, 
Global Ambassador Academic Director and Program Developer Smart English courses 


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