Learn or Teach English – Fight discouragement with language islands and the 10,000 hour rule

Maybe you can identify.  This week I have been feeling discouraged at how messy my Spanish feels, how much I stumble over my words.  But I should know better, since I have speak fluent French.

Two concepts have given me perspective and relief, the 10,000 hour rule described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and the concept of language islands. I explain both in this video.


Hey there. Do you feel discouraged with your progress in English? If so, I understand. I have been feeling discouraged with my Spanish after three years and two months. But I think I figured out a way to feel encouraged.

(Intro: English without Fear where you can learn to speak English naturally, through listening to stories)

Have you heard about language islands? You know what an island is, an island is a safe place, if you’re swimming in the ocean. And a language island is a safe place, a safe topic for you and for me and the language we’re learning. 

I have about 2,600 hours of Spanish in the last three years and two months. So right now I feel very comfortable, very functional talking about myself, my family, my interests, my past jobs, things like that. Those are language islands, but to be able to feel comfortable about other topics, we have to create new islands. And I think I can picture in my mind the day when we feel fluent in a language, you in English, me in Spanish will be when there are so many language islands, there won’t be much water left. We will be able to talk about most anything we want.

This has become apparent to me. I have realized this recently because I now have several very good Hispanic friends. And after a year and a half, with some of these friends, I want to be able to talk about the things that are important to me:  problems, troubles, sufferings, things having to do with my family or with work or with health. There’s so many issues, so many topics I care about, like God and the economy, or if I want to talk about the pandemic and vaccinations, if I want to talk about my grandchildren, if I want to talk about what I would do differently, things like that. I stumble. I make lots of mistakes and I feel frustrated. Those topics, those themes are not yet safe places for me.

The only solution is to keep working at your language. It takes time. It takes far more time than I think language teachers tell us. You’ve seen courses advertised “English in three months’. Well, yeah, if you want to talk a little bit about yourself and your hobbies, your interests, if you want to have one or two language islands. 

But don’t you want to be fluent one day? I do! 

Last week, I sat down and thought about my French. I have been working on French ever since I was 14 years old. That is 50 years ago; I’m 64. It has been on and off. But a lot of those years, I actually taught French and I’ve traveled and I’ve read a lot. I’ve listened to movies in French. And so, what I did was, with a pencil and paper, I wrote down my best guess of hours with French:  teaching, reading, traveling. Because when you travel to another country where they speak the language you’re learning, you’re not speaking 24 hours in a day. So, I guessed the number of hours and I have at least 12,000 hours of French, of input and practice.

There’s a man named Malcolm Gladwell. And he wrote a book that I really liked called Outliers. And what I remember from that book is what he called the ‘10,000 hour rule’. He looked at the musical group, The Beatles, and he explained that they had about 10,000 hours playing their instruments and playing together. And that’s why they were so good. It takes about 10,000 hours, according to Malcolm Gladwell, to become an expert at ballet, at painting, at playing soccer, at being a scientist, whatever!, at teaching. And it takes about 10,000 hours of comprehensible input and practice to become an expert at another language.

So, if you feel frustrated because you want to use your English to talk about things that are important to you, that’s normal. Those topics are not yet safe spaces, safe islands. You’re still struggling and swimming. And the land is beginning to get solid under your feet. Be patient! 

Right now, I spend about three and a half hours a day with Spanish. And at that rate, I have 2,600 hours right now. And if I figure three and a half hours a day, how much time it will take me to reach 10,000 hours?  I figured another five years and nine months, that’s April 2027. 

In the meantime I will be patient, I will keep working at Spanish. I will keep doing everything I know that works. It’s just a matter of hours. I hope that helps explain to you why you might feel like you speak broken English with some topics and that you feel like you might speak really well at others. This is normal. This is how little kids learn. They accumulate. They gather hour upon hour of listening, watching, understanding, and practicing speaking. So, friend, let’s keep this up. A language, another language is like a long marriage. I’ve been married 41 years and I keep learning new things about my husband. Same thing with Spanish. Talk to you next time.

(Outro: Thanks for watching. For questions or comments, here’s my email.)


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