Posted on in ERA News 12 view

Edoardo Nardini, of Esperanto Radikala Asocio, wrote an e-mail to Claude Piron.
Here is his answer:

Dear Mr Nardini,
Thank you for your E-mail.

In one of your book you write that one needs 12000 hours to learn English
as well as a mother tongue person know it. Is it right?

Yes, I confirm it. Of course, I really mean “as well as the mother tongue at
an adult level”. Why would the UN, for instance, demand that only native
English speakers may produce translations into English or prepare English
texts for publication, if not because they know that non native speakers
always use a somewhat strange language, which impresses the reader as “not really English”? In fact, 12,000 hours is a minimum. Personnally, I've had
in my life more than 40,000 hours of (study and) practice of English,
including living five years in New York. Yet, when I had to improvize a
speech in English, I made a number of mistakes which no native speaker would ever make. For instance, I said “costed” instead of “cost”, I pronounced
“indict” as rhyming with “convict”, “derelict”, “depict”, etc. whereas it
rhymes with “right”, I didn't stress “monitoring” and “alternative” on the
right syllable. Maybe I am lest gifted for languages than other persons,
but, still, making such mistakes after so much practice is evidence that
mastering English as an Englishman is impossible for a foreigner in normal

Another confirmation comes from the observation of children's speech. A
seven year old has had more than 10,000 hours of “full immersion” in the
language. Yet, it often makes mistakes, saying “foots” instead of “feet”, “I
comed” instead of “I came”, “it's mines” instead of “it's mine”, “when I'll
go” instead of “when I go”. If you analyze these mistakes, you realize that
they do not stem from intellectual immaturity: the forms the child uses are
more consistent, more logical, more rational than the forms demanded by the
official language. It's simply that its brain has not registered in a
sufficiently stable way, at a sufficiently deep level, forms that contradict
the natural tendency of linguistic expression, which tends to generalize a
linguistic sign once it has been perceived as having a definite meaning or
function. This generalizing tendency is a natural reflex. Once, speaking
Italian, I said”facciate” instead of “fate”. Why? Because I generalized the
formation “andiamo” -> “andate”, “diamo” -> “date” , “cantiamo” ->
“cantate”, “mangiamo” -> “mangiate” to “facciamo” -> “facciate” . I was
using the verb at the indicativo mode, not the congiuntivo. It is a natural
reflex of the brain to spontaneously generalize forms it has encountered a
number of times.

In order to speak in the same way as an adult speaking his mother tongue,
you need to replace those natural reflexes by conditioned reflexes, which
require many, many more repetitions and are much less stable than natural
reflexes. That is the reason why it is so difficult to speak correctly if
you have not been using the language for a few years. If I remain one year
without speaking Italian, I start saying “il studente”, “il strumento”, “il
spirito”, etc. with “il” instead of “lo”, although my intellect knows that I
should not do so, but my reflex is stronger than my memory, because “il” is
so much more frequent than “lo”, and in other languages there is only one
article for masculine nouns.

I cannot explain to you in detail how I arrived at this figure of 10,000
hours, but I discussed my method with Professor Ulrich Amman, the world
authority in sociolinguistics (he's the author of the work “Handbook of
Sociolinguistics” which is used in most universities all over the world) and
he agrees that I was correct. The problem is that the difficulty of national
languages, and especially of English, is practically taboo. I think I am one
of the few authors who called attention to it. Teachers, the public, the
media, the politicians tend to minimize this difficulty and to overlook the
inequalities it produces, as though making oneself understood were
sufficient. It is not. Even if people understand you, if you make a mistake
which sounds very strange, or ridiculous, you are not taken as seriously as
a native speaker.

Yours sincerely,

I will soon publish the italian translation of this text in the forum called “Ni parolas esperante”.



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