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  5. The Five Year Rule.


The Five Year Rule.

Well. I lied. There is no such rule. I made it up.

But I have talked to many folks that learn a new language as adults. As I do have my experience (on the third year now, in Austria). I simply find it true that it takes around five years to get a good grip on a language. One needs to grasp the basic things, but then comes the dialect and slang into everything. The basics can be grasped within a year or so, I think. But with "the real deal", to be a part of a conversation in a bar with loud music, folks talking dialect and making witty comments? Much more time is needed.

I do understand a lot now, but I still do not feel the freedom of expressing myself clearly, or elaborate on a feeling. And with some dialects, I do not grasp anything - still (three years of learning now).

What do you folks think? Is the Five Year Rule true? Or is it impossible to really go into the deep of another language ever? Or can it be done faster?

January 8, 2018



I'm not sure how valuable I find the concept of the five year rule. In my opinion there are too many variables that affect how quickly a second language can be learned. Here are just a few:

1) Age. We all have seen how quickly infants pick-up a language (my 2 1/2 year old speaks three) but I realize that you were talking adults. But even in adulthood there are differences with age. I went to Guatemala at age 20 and in two months I became quite good in Spanish. Now at age 62, things take a bit longer.

2) Difference between one's native language and the second language. I'm studying Russian right now. I'm married to a Russian (7th anniversary this month) and I've been studying the language all that time. I am still not as good in Russian as I was in Spanish after a year of study. Part of that is my age, but mostly it is due to how different Russian is from English. It would be much easier for a native Ukrainian speaker to learn Russian.

3) Type of study. Immersion in a country where one is forced to speak, think and dream in a second language leads to much faster acquisition. However, five years can come and go in the classroom without much improvement.

4) What level of fluency you are trying to attain. I think five years is certainly reasonable to have everyday conversations in most languages. But if you want to be able to philosophize with your friends about the meaning of life, tell a joke, give a lecture, or fight and make up with your spouse, I would think that five years wouldn't cut it.

Rather than thinking about a specific time goal (five years and out) I view this as a lifelong journey where my understanding and ability to communicate continue to deepen and the rewards just keep getting greater.

Best of luck in your DuoLingo journey.


A very wise reply. I agree with your thinking around the time goal, I did not mean it as a goal from the start - it is simply the time span where things really get going for me and many others I have talked to. I view learning German as my last big challenge in life. It is a never ending challenge (and yes, I could learn more about my native tongue too, Swedish).

I guess my goal is basically impossible to reach, I want to speak German truly fluently and as a native. My learning process will never stop. At the moment I go somewhat slow, but I do learn something new every day. I really like that I am good enough now, so I can speak about specific words with my colleagues. Language is fun for most folks, especially if they get asked about something around their native tongue.

I have returned to Duolingo to test what I have learned, and also kind of test Duolingo - I know some words and expressions that are correct for Vienna, but not for Hochdeutsch. Now I am not interested in lingots and speed, I am fooling around, just having fun with language. :)


Less is possible depending on how you immerse yourself: https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=G1RRbupCxi0

Honestly it really depends on how you go about it. I’ve been learning Spanish since high school (4 1/2 years) and I’m still very weak in some areas of the language. Part of it is that I’m learning other languages at the same time, which is a factor that will slow down your learning, but another part is really the fact that I haven’t been able to immerse myself in it. The issue isn’t time as much as it is that I’m surrounded by English speakers, English institutions, English reading material and English entertainment constantly, even when I am playing a Spanish interface game or watching Japanese anime that hasn’t been dubbed over. There are ways around this but it’s a lot harder to really get into the language when you have to use your native language more often than other languages. I don’t think I can actually even use my Spanish skills on a resume with confidence and grounding for another few years just because I don’t have the means to fully immerse myself yet.


True. Some things take some time to learn - for example there is the shared culture, that people who grew up in the same country share. It is about TV-shows, songs, food, holidays and customs, that folks simply take for granted if they grew up together. For me as a foreigner, I need to learn that too. Otherwise I will never get the connections in some jokes, or comments that people make.

Nicht slecht, Herr Specht! :D


Is the Five Year Rule true?

It's both true and not, I think.

Here is the thing:

I still do not feel the freedom of expressing myself clearly, or elaborate on a feeling. And with some dialects, I do not grasp anything - still

First, a Swabian friend of mine boasts that if he wants he can speak his dialect in such a manner that other native Germans from other regions will fail to grasp a thing while his fellow Swabians will still understand him.

So that kind of stuff is simply irrelevant to how long you've studied the language. I mean, come on, those guys are native for haven's sake, and even they can't get it!

Second, the freedom of expressing oneself clearly, or elaborating on a feeling, depends largely on how free the person does it at all. For some these things may be hard even in their mother tongue.

Third, there is simply no point in trying to achieve the impossible. I've seen an Oxford dictionary edition saying it has 300'000 entries. And then I've seen a Merriam-Webster dictionary saying it has 450'000 entries. Now, if we take the Oxford thing and learn 10 new words a day, every day from day one, no holidays, no vacations, no sick leaves, nothing like that, then we'll study it in 30'000 days = 82.2 years, and then there'll be half that much ahead to catch up with the Webster. People simply don't live that long, okay?

So one day the time comes to tell yourself that you've had enough.

And that time comes in about five years, perhaps... So yeah, it kinda works ;)


I know it is impossible, in the way that I will never finish learning. I also know about the dialects - I can do the same with some Swedish dialects. But I do not think there will come a day where I say I have had enough learning. I can even see myself talking about language when I am really old and spending my time mostly in bed... :D

But your answer clarified a few things in my head. I am trying to learn three variants - Hochdeutsch, Austrian and Wienerisch. I am already speaking some kind of dialect, many Germans tell me that I simply speak Austrian. Some even ask me if I come from Switzerland. I was not aware of that many Swedes that learn German sounds like they come from Switzerland, because of the Swedish "language melody". Even if it was not my goal to sound as I come from Switzerland, I take it as a great compliment when folks think I come from a German speaking area. That means I have learned something at least. :)

So, I will never have had enough of learning. I will simply go on to my last breath. :D


I'm not particularly sure I could "be a part of a conversation in a bar with loud music, folks talking dialect and making witty comments" in English (my native language). I suppose it depends partly on which dialect and how well I know the people in question.


I've been learning Latin for six years, and I can barely say a correct sentence in Latin.

It really depends on your diligence and perseverance.


That's the way I look at it, you can be communicating well in 2 years. However to really interact, understand the nuance of complex conversations to fit in where people do not dumb down conversations for you and you can really communicate complex thoughts emotions humor takes years of immersion.

Even 5 years wont cut it if you dont immerse yourself in the cultural media, TV, books, movies, local hobbies/sports you wont really be native level because it takes more then understanding all the words to be a native level you need to understand the cultural and local context to engage in deep conversations.


Seven years is usually thought to be the time line to learn a new language from scratch and then to speak it like a native. Usually kids under the age of 13 or 14 will not have an accent in the new language. Older folk usually keep an accent. This is a flexible timeline as everyone learns differently. Native speaker here and a former ESL instructor.


Hm, it is a Seven year rule? Sounds fair. I guess I am simply trying to evaluate the time for me to really feel comfortable around folks that are talking fast, perhaps in dialect. The last few days I have started to change my interactions with Austrian german, in the contact with my friends and colleagues. I ask more, I ask about specific words and so on. I recently learned that for Austrians, it is also a terrible social thing to do, to correct someone. I need to work on that social issue and tell my friends and colleagues to truly correct me when I use the language in a wrong way. Otherwise, I will miss many opportunities to learn.

I have also increased the times I use my notebook (the classical pen and paper). I have a somewhat boring work and we are unfortunately not allowed to use our cellphones (I have a dictionary app that is of great help to me in learning). But as I am being bored, I think about sentences and language, and write down words I want to know, and expressions I want to learn. Then I check them out later.


I think that when you learn a language, it takes a bit to really settle into your memory. For instance, just now I was doing a Swedish lesson, and I had read and practiced the word 'meny' many times before, but when it came to the time to actually say the meaning, I completely blanked. Just goes to show, dunnit?

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