How many hours does it take to be fluent in English?
Last updated 8 hours ago
By Tom de Castella
BBC News Magazine
Immigrants are always being told by politicians to learn the language. But how long does it take to speak good English?
There are plenty of people in the UK for whom even basic English is a problem. According to the Census, 726,000 people in England and Wales said they could not speak English well, and another 138,000 said they did not speak it at all.
Ling, 40, who arrived five years ago from China, found it difficult to learn English. “When I came here I was pregnant and so I was at home for the next three years. It took me longer to learn as I was very busy with the children.”
Eventually she was able to begin taking classes and now speaks good conversational English.
But even with classes, it can be a long process to pick up the language.
There are a number of systems for grading English. The government expects immigrants to reach “ESOL Entry 3” or “B1 level”, also called “Intermediate 1” in Scotland, before they can be granted citizenship. It’s equivalent to being able to hold a confident conversation and – although the government does not have a target figure – it might take 360 hours of study to achieve.
George Osborne said in June following the spending review that welfare claimants who don’t speak English will have their benefits cut if they fail to attend language courses.
On Tuesday, a Channel 4 documentary – Why Don’t You Speak English? – looks at four immigrants who have struggled with English since arriving a year ago spend a week living with a family in the UK.
Pub manager Freddy Sipson who hosted Fabian, a Colombian immigrant for the Channel 4 programme, says his charge made progress but it would take much longer than a week. “When he came he spoke pidgin English. He improved over the week. In two or three months, if he was in the right environment I’d say he’d be capable of having a good conversation and getting himself around.”
Huan Japes, deputy chief executive of English UK, a trade body for language colleges, says a rule of thumb is 360 hours – 120 hours for each of three stages – to get to the standard the government expects benefit claimants to reach.
But many of the people who attend courses are visiting students rather than people settling in the UK. Immigrants tend to have very varied levels of education.
“Using 120 hours [for each stage of English fluency] is a rather traditional approach to course book learning,” says Dr Elaine Boyd, head of English language at Trinity College London. “If someone is really highly motivated, they can learn really quickly. It’s common for children under the age of 11 to be very immersed and be fluent in about six months.”
Even simple tasks such as going shopping can be a challenge
Adults may be better at reading and writing to begin with. But children are faster to pick up speaking and listening, says Dot Powell, director of the British Council’s ESOL Nexus. School plunges them into the new language, their brains are attuned to sounds and slang – such as putting “innit” on the ends of phrases – and teenagers need language skills to belong to the group, she says.
Philida Schellekens, a language consultant, says that when she researched English language learning in Australia a decade ago the figure of 1,765 hours was used. That could mean four years of classes. It signifies the standard needed to do a clerical job in an office.
In the UK the estimate of about 360 hours to move up a level is about right, she argues. But there is political pressure to decrease this, she argues. “Every (UK) government has been trying to bring it down. We’ve got to hold the line, learning a language is a time consuming business.”
Every immigrant’s experience of learning English is different.
Thura, 35, a doctor, fled Burma for political reasons and arrived in the UK in 2009. “At the beginning it was really difficult to understand. My reading was okay but not my speaking or listening.” After three months he got a job in a care home, which is where he picked up most of his English.
Fanatics fear education, Malala says
Last updated 12/07/2013 18:21 GMT+01:00
Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani girl shot by the Taliban, has told the UN that books and pens scare extremists, as she urged education for all.
Speaking on her 16th birthday, Malala said efforts to silence her had failed.
She was shot in the head on a school bus by Taliban gunmen because of her campaign for girls’ rights.
The speech at the UN headquarters in New York was her first public address since last October’s incident in Pakistan’s north-western Swat valley.
Malala has been credited with bringing the issue of women’s education to global attention. A quarter of young women around the world have not completed primary school.
‘Afraid of women’
After the shooting, Malala was flown from Pakistan to the UK for treatment, and now lives in Birmingham, England.
Amid several standing ovations, Malala told the UN on Friday that the Taliban’s attack had only made her more resolute.
“The terrorists thought that they would change my aims and stop my ambitions,” she said, “but nothing changed in my life, except this: weakness, fear and hopelessness died. Strength, power and courage was born.”
She continued: “I want education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban and all the terrorists and extremists.”
Malala – who is considered a contender for the Nobel Peace Prize – said she was fighting for the rights of women because “they are the ones who suffer the most”.
“The extremists were, and they are, afraid of books and pens,” added Malala, who was wearing a pink shawl that belonged to assassinated Pakistan leader Benazir Bhutto. “They are afraid of women.”
She called on politicians to take urgent action to ensure every child has the right to go to school.
“Let us pick up our books and pens,” Malala summed up. “They are our most powerful weapons.
“One child, one teacher, one pen and one book can change the world. Education is the only solution. Education first.”
A passionate campaigner for female education, Malala addressed more than 500 students at a specially convened youth assembly.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also addressed Friday’s session, calling Malala “our hero”.
The schoolgirl, who set up the Malala Fund following the attack, presented a petition of more than three million signatures to the UN secretary general demanding education for all.
Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown opened the session, telling the youths gathered they were a “new superpower” in the world, and appealing to them to help overcome obstacles to accessing education.
The event, described by the UN as Malala Day, was organised by Mr Brown, now the UN Special Envoy for Global Education.
He said: “Getting every girl and boy into school by 2015 is achievable.
“Malala says it is possible – and young people all over the world think it is possible,” he said.
Aid agencies say that female access to education in Pakistan is a particular problem.
They say that the country ranks among the lowest in terms of girls’ education enrolment, literacy and government spending.
Unesco and Save the Children released a special reported ahead of Malala’s speech.
It found that 95% of the 28.5 million children who are not getting a primary school education live in low and lower-middle income countries: 44% in sub-Saharan Africa, 19% in south and west Asia and 14% in the Arab states.
Girls make up 55% of the total and are often the victims of rape and other sexual violence that accompanies armed conflicts.
Active brain ‘keeps dementia at bay’
Last updated 05/07/2013 11:46 GMT+01:00
By Helen Briggs
Can the brain build up a memory reserve?
Keeping mentally active by reading books or writing letters helps protect the brain in old age, a study suggests.
A lifetime of mental challenges leads to slower cognitive decline after factoring out dementia’s impact on the brain, US researchers say.
The study, published in Neurology, adds weight to the idea that dementia onset can be delayed by lifestyle factors.
An Alzheimer’s charity said the best way to lower dementia risk was to eat a balanced diet, exercise and stay slim.
In a US study, 294 people over the age of 55 were given tests that measured memory and thinking, every year for about six years until their deaths.
They also answered a questionnaire about whether they read books, wrote letters and took part in other activities linked to mental stimulation during childhood, adolescence, middle age, and in later life.
After death, their brains were examined for evidence of the physical signs of dementia, such as brain lesions and plaques.
The study found that after factoring out the impact of those signs, those who had a record of keeping the brain busy had a rate of cognitive decline estimated at 15% slower than those who did not.
Dr Robert Wilson, of Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, who led the study, said the research suggested exercising the brain across a lifetime was important for brain health in old age.
He told BBC News: “The brain that we have in old age depends in part on what we habitually ask it to do in life.
“What you do during your lifetime has a great impact on the likelihood these age-related diseases are going to be expressed.”
Dementia exacts a heavy toll on society, with more than 820,000 people in the UK alone currently living with the condition.
Commenting on the study, Dr Simon Ridley, head of research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said there was increasing evidence mental activity may help protect against cognitive decline. But the underlying reasons for this remained unclear.
“By examining donated brain tissue, this study has shed more light on this complex question, and the results lend weight to the theory that mental activity may provide a level of ‘cognitive reserve’, helping the brain resist some of the damage from diseases such as Alzheimer’s,” he said.
Dr James Pickett, head of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, added: “More research and bigger studies are needed, but in the meantime reading more and doing crosswords can be enjoyable and certainly won’t do you any harm.
“The best way to reduce your risk of developing dementia is to eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly and maintain a healthy weight.”
BBC © 2013