10,000 hours

At the start of every school year, my students are introduced to Gladwell’s ‘10,000 hours’ theory. It’s not perfect, and it has its critics, but it is also widely influential and I like the underlying philosophy. In a nutshell, the theory posits that to excel at something, you need to dedicate about 10,000 hours to it.

That’s about 3 hours a day, every day, for 10 years.

I tell my students about the boy who gets a guitar for his 8th birthday. If he goes to a weekly, one-hour guitar lesson, and then practises again for another two hours each week, in a year he would have clocked up 150 hours of practice. Putting in that amount of effort, after a year he can probably strum a few chords, and maybe even play a few songs. But he won’t be good enough to be a professional in a band. Even if he kept up that level of commitment for 10 years, he’d still only be at 1,500 hours. This is when I try to be hip and cool and tell them to go and Google Tom Morello and see how much he practised guitar, and then they ask “Who’s Tom Morello, is that the guy who won American Idol last year?”, and I lose all hope for this generation.

But I digress. The philosophy is perfectly applied to language. I give students about 120 hours a year. I also give them guidance and resources on how to continue their learning journey outside of the classroom. If students take merely what I give them in the classroom, at the end of the year they’ll be able to have a bit of a conversation, and understand some basic sentences. Even after the end of 5 years of study they won’t be ready for a job as a simultaneous interpreter, or working in a bilingual role in a multinational corporation. That’s the pinacle of language learning and takes a hell of a lot of time and effort.

Two conversations that touched on the issue of commitment occurred recently in my classroom.

Conversation #1 Each Monday we start the week with a timed hiragana quiz. One student, who was already proficient in reading hiragana so was completing a katakana quiz instead, completed in a very fast time. Another student, looking clearly impressed, turned around and asked her ‘Did you study that?’ I wanted to get up on the table and scream (not so a’la Dead Poet’s Society) ‘Of course she studied! What do you think, that it just seeped into her brain somehow!? You aren’t born with knowledge, you actually have to work hard and exercise you mind!’. But her answer was much more calm and sophisticated. ‘Yeah, a bit, I just studied 5 one night and then 5 the next and kept going and now I know about half’. It shut him up for a while and I could almost hear the cogs turning.

Conversation #2 One of my students is very bright, interested in language learning, and dreadfully lazy. He made a decision the other day, which he announced to the class. “I’m going to finish high school and go to Japan and get a job teaching English and stay there for 5 years and then I’ll be perfect at Japanese”. Well, not necessarily. Just being in a country is no guarantee of success in language acquisition.  I have friends who have studied English in Australia or America but spent most of their time hanging out with other expats and didn’t learn much at all. The best learner I know of English as a second language learned almost exclusively through self study using a lot of textbooks, books, and movies.

There’s just no easy way out.

Do you have what it takes to be proficient? The answer for every student in my class is ‘yes’.
Are you going to do what it takes? Well, that’s another story …


*What are your thoughts on the 10,000 hour theory?
*How do you increase your students’ exposure to languages outside the classroom?
*How do you motivate your students to ‘do what it takes’?

Add to the discussion in the comments below,
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Image courtesy of photostock at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

2 thoughts on “10,000 hours

  1. Brilliant article one I will show both my students and their parents, as well as the school hierarchy. So many people seem to be under the impression that you will gain all the knowledge you need just in class and expect to be fluent at the end of only just three years


    • Thanks for your comment. Great to know ithe post has been of benefit. I do think it’s unusual the expectations that people have of Languages education in secondary school – but not of other subjects – music students aren’t releasing their own albums, science students aren’t being recruited by NASA….I wonder why the high expectations? And of course, when they fall short, the blame usually falls on the teachers.


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