The First 20 Hours

I recently ran across The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything . . . Fast!
. In the last few years, with books like Outliers: The Story of Success
, we’ve gotten fixated on things like 10,000 hours to perfection. But what if you just want to be good enough? If you have a job and have a life, the odds of scratching up 10,000 hours to become a virtuoso is problematic, especially if your area to perfect and your career aren’t in perfect alignment. Kauffman points to research that’s a little more hopeful: If you want to get started speaking a language, playing an instrument, programming computers or whatever, 20 hours is enough of an investment to start to know your way around and decide how much more deeply you want to go and whether you want to keep at the whole field of endeavor or just work on areas of particular import to you. If you’re learning guitar, you might want to learn (the inevitable) Stairway to Heaven, or maybe Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. But nobody would plan to play both after six months, at least not outside the basement rec room. That said, you might learn enough to make a fool of yourself at a party in fairly short order. Likewise, 20 hours of sketching won’t make you Picasso, but you may well learn enough to do a respectable portrait.

With respect to language learning, the 20 hour time line strikes me as interesting. It is said that they did about 20 hours of recording over two days to create the 8 hour Michel Thomas courses (closer to 15 if you actually use the pause button per the instructions). A level of Pimsleur is also 15 hours. Assuming half an hour a day, you’re up to lesson 40 (one week from the end of the passive phase in many courses) with Assimil. In other words, if you want to learn your language with Pimsleur or Michel Thomas, you’re going to need to invest another 5 hours in something else to put together and activate what you’ve learned. With Assimil, you need to stick with it to the end of the passive phase. After that, you can decide, but before then, if you’re not convinced this new learning project is going to work out for you, don’t worry about wasting your time because you’ll never find 10,000 hours to learn anyway. Find yourself another five to ten hours and that language might start to make sense after all.


About G Barto

I've been learning languages more than 20 years and teaching them for at least 15. Here I share the joys and frustrations of teaching yourself new languages.
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4 Responses to The First 20 Hours

  1. Rob says:

    Interesting post. I think most of us just need to strive for “good enough” as in most cases this will do.

  2. Chris says:

    Allotting a few hours each day studying language can become ideal for most parts. You mentioned some important pointers in this post. Just do it regularly and language will really make sense.

  3. Mike says:

    20 hours seems reasonable. I know there are more than a few ‘guitar players’ that I wish had given up after they reached that threshold, but I digress. Thanks for the link.

  4. Ha det så bra! says:

    It’s possible only if you have a SMART goal, use the right method, learn it in the right way. The other problems are learner-related include: making excuses, perfectionism, having self-doubt, doesn’t believe in yourself and what is possible.

    “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it” -Paulo Coelho

    *SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Time-based

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