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High Proficiency in Weeks? It Can be Done, but not the Way you Think

Around mid-2014, while I was working at an accredited binational center in my city, I vividly remember watching a TEDx talk by a charismatic Irishman who called himself Benny, the Irish Polyglot. In fact, I was already familiar with Benny from my time at Cultura Inglesa, another excellent center I worked at. I had previously watched a video of him confidently and fluently speaking eight languages, including Portuguese. I loved sharing his videos with my adult students in an attempt to boost their motivation, and often, this strategy worked—at least for a while.


In his TEDx talk, Benny discussed five myths about language learning, and one of them caught my attention at the time. He claimed that adults are never too old to learn. He even mentioned a study from the University of Haifa in Israel that had shown that, under similar conditions, adults learned more quickly than children. What’s even more exciting is that I had the opportunity to visit Israel in 2016 with my wife, who was attending a conference in Tel Aviv. I decided to email Professor Avi Karni a few weeks before our trip to ask if I could interview him. To my surprise, he not only replied but also accepted my invitation. You must be asking: who is Professor Avi Karni? He is one of the authors of that study mentioned by Benny.


But this story isn’t so much about my interview with Professor Avi Karni. It’s more about my trip to Jerusalem and Benny’s YouTube channel. When my wife and I took the bus from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, we sat at the back, and within minutes, the bus was filled with soldiers. A young woman in uniform sat beside me, holding an automatic rifle. In the old city of Jerusalem, we noticed the constant presence of the Israeli army. I couldn’t help but observe their behavior—hierarchical, disciplined, and alert, as one would expect from the military, right?


Okay, André, but what does this have to do with the idea of learning a language in a few weeks? Are you suggesting that these influencers who claim to have invented an effective method to rapidly improve or” unlock” your English skills are not lying? Well, to answer these questions, let’s go from Jerusalem to Monterey, California.


The Renowned DLIFLC


If you’ve ever watched TV series or movies about the American armed forces, especially the Marines, you’ve probably noticed that some agents are extremely fluent in various languages. After all, the success of their missions often depends heavily on the quality of their communication in highly stressful situations. Many of them need to prepare for a mission in a very short time. This demand was directly related to the creation of the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC).


According to the official magazine of the U.S. Navy, All Hands Navy:

Hidden among seal-covered beaches, bustling boardwalks and a world-class golf course is the Defense Language Institute (DLI) in Monterey, California. On this campus, where the sun rises over a transplanted section of the Berlin Wall each morning, service members train to become experts in languages and cultures of countries across the globe.

The magazine also states that the Institute was born inside an empty hangar in Presidio of San Francisco in 1941, just 5 weeks before the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The same website and other sources claim that the success of missions with interpreters, ranging from contacts with important sources to intercepting secret messages, led to the institute’s development in the following years.


Today, DLIFLC offers courses in 17 languages and their numerous dialects, with thousands of students. Not just anyone can study there; students are either members of or have some connection to the American armed forces. What’s particularly interesting is that the institute’s website showcases and categorizes languages based on their level of difficulty and the number of weeks required to complete the course.


CATEGORY I & II - French, Spanish, Indonesian

CATEGORY III - Farsi, Russian

CATEGORY IV - Chinese Mandarin, Arabic, Japanese


The lowest category includes languages that are most similar to English and use the Latin alphabet. The highest category includes languages with significantly different alphabets and grammar compared to English. In the middle, you have category III. But what’s the verdict? How long does it take to learn these languages at DLIFLC?


  • Category I & II = up to 36 weeks (the most similar ones typically take around 24 weeks)

  • Category III = 48 weeks

  • Category IV = 64 weeks


All right, André, so this institute proves that it’s possible to learn many languages in 6 or 9 months! That means you can learn English extremely fast like social media ads claim, right?


Well, it’s not quite that simple…


Remember what I said about the military personnel I saw in Jerusalem? What were the adjectives I used to describe them? HIERARCHICAL and DISCIPLINED. These individuals dedicate a significant portion of their lives to military service. They have an extremely rigid routine, and hierarchy keeps them in line when they don’t meet expectations. The expectations are immense. Keep in mind that the success of missions and people’s lives depend on the skills and success of these military agents.


Looking at the current landscape and the type of student seeking quick solutions, and considering this person’s routine, can we simulate the conditions experienced by these military students when learning an additional language? But okay, let’s assume that a student’s, let’s call him José, profile is the following: extremely dedicated and self-motivated. Will he be able to learn English in a few weeks? In around 6 months? I wouldn’t bet money on it. In fact, let’s clarify something here. Of course, he will learn something in 6 months, I would even say a lot depending on his classes. But he won’t reach the high level of proficiency often promised by these Instagram gurus. And that has to do with the way students learn at DLIFLC.

The website of the U.S. Department of Defense states that:

It’s no cake walk.

In fact, the website describes the routine of those who study at DLIFLC:

The courses are intense. They’re six to seven hours a day (NOT including homework), five days a week, and they last for 64 weeks over three semesters.

The website also mentions that the teachers are native speakers (95% of them) and that multiple teachers may instruct the same class. However, remember that these native teachers are qualified teachers. Being a native speaker alone is not sufficient; they must have training to teach effectively.

Furthermore, before being eligible to enroll in DLIFLC language courses, candidates must pass a test known as the DLAB (Defense Language Aptitude Battery). They go through a pre-selection process. According to the official website of Robins Air Force Base:

The Defense Language Aptitude Battery (DLAB) is a standardized government test, approximately two hours in length, used to determine the natural ability of armed services members to learn a foreign language. It is difficult to study for the DLAB in the traditional way, as the DLAB is designed to measure language-learning potential, not current knowledge. Because the testing involves a gibberish language, there is no way to create a traditional study guide

In other words, to study at the institute, candidates not only need to be members of the armed forces, disciplined, and self-motivated, but they also need to pass a language learning aptitude test and commit to over 7 hours of daily study, excluding weekends. It’s worth emphasizing that many former students, when interviewed, mentioned that they avoided going out with friends for drinks and immersed themselves in the language with music and movies even on weekends.


Back to the Irish Polyglot


Our friend Benny became famous for learning languages extremely quickly and took advantage of the moment, before Instagram became popular, to sell his own course that, believe it or not, promised “fluency in 3 months.” I remember watching some of his YouTube videos about his study routine. In one of these videos, he decided to come to Brazil to learn Arabic. He wanted to prove that it’s possible to learn any language anywhere with the right method, dictionaries, someone to talk to, and many hours of study. Indeed, he seemed to learn languages well and was able to communicate with people from Egypt and other Arabic-speaking countries. But you know what bothered me?


Doesn’t Benny work?


How can a typical person, with a 6 to 9-hour daily job, a family, other studies, and so on, find several hours per week to fully dedicate themselves to an additional language? Do you see how these promises of “enhanced” and “accelerated” language learning are almost always misleading? Benny had a job. He sold his courses and big promises. After a while, he disappeared, and a few years later, he recorded a video saying that his life had become very complicated, that he had become depressed, that he got divorced, and lost a lot of money. I have no idea if this is related to his language-learning process or his business failure – or something else. But one thing is certain: wanting to learn everything as quickly as possible will require a tremendous sacrifice from anyone – and the results might not be lasting and one usually thinks.


My Final Message


Take it from me. I understand the frustration of wanting to change something in life and do it in record time. I failed my 12-week challenge to change my routine and be healthier, and I’ve seen many students fail throughout my career. We need to understand that learning requires dedication and time. But we can only do this within our own reality. DLIFLC military personnel spend almost a year of their lives in complete language and culture immersion. They are constantly reminded that their failure could cost lives. They are pressured by their superiors to achieve success. They already have a strict and disciplined routine, and they are paid for these courses.

José, our fictional student, is in a hurry but has a job, two children, and a typical social life. José might not even pass the DLAB. However, José wholeheartedly believes that there is a revolutionary method that can teach without effort, without commitment, in a fun way, and in a few weeks. He believes this because it’s precisely what he sees on social media every day, from various sources.

José, my friend, what I can tell you is that you need someone who is qualified to teach, like all the teachers at DLIFLC, and that you need patience and commitment. You’ll get there eventually. It will take a few years, but the secret is not to give up. Don’t believe those ads that seem too good to be true. They are usually pure fantasy.


TIP: If you want to watch an excellent video on the subject, here’s one:





References

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