Scarcity and Language Learning

October 3, 2016

I'm a big believer in scarcity: scarcity of resources, of time, of reproductive opportunities, and yes, of access to native speakers and conversation practice. Scarcity drives competition and therefore evolution. It's woven into our lives at so many levels.

Let's look at how scarcity of speaking practice affects language learning.

Suppose you live in city X with a population of 1 million. Let's say it's some city in Eastern Europe (just because I know the region well). In city X at any given moment there are 1000 native and near-native speakers of English who have a need for an average of 8 hours of interaction a day in English. Since they're in a foreign country, their needs are slightly undermet. 4 hours a day they're interacting with other native or near-native English speakers. 2 hours a day they're interacting with local residents of city X in English.

So, they're only getting about 6 hours a day of interaction and are open to another 2 hours (on average; of course everyone's situation is different), including friendship, relationships, professional contacts, etc.

That means there is a potential additional supply of 2000 hours of interaction with native English speakers per day in city X, or 14,000 hours per week.

Since everyone studies English these days, about 20% of the population of city X is currently learning English with some degree of regularity. Of these, half would appreciate contact with native speakers to improve their language skills. In city X, 100,000 people want English language practice. Unrealistic? I don't think so.

That means there are 100 people wanting conversation practice for every native English speaker. Each native has, on average, 14 hours of interaction with locals in English and is open to adding another 14 hours. 28 hours total. We're talking friendly and business interactions, not language classes!

Let's be optimistic and say that the average group size for conversations with native speakers is 3. So, not counting the native speaker, that's a potential 56 man-hours of conversation per week per native speaker.

So, 100 people in city X are essentially competing for a maximum of 56 hours per week of language practice with natives. That's 0.56 hours (33.4 minutes) per week per person, but currently the amount is half that (16.8 minutes) per person, considering the unmet demand mentioned above.

In city X, each eager English language learner is therefore getting an average of 16.8 minutes of real-life conversation practice with native speakers, with a hypothetical cap of 33.6 minutes if all the natives had their communication needs met in full.

Here are some rough estimates for the amount of weekly conversation practice you need to maintain a language at a particular proficiency level:

Ø1 — 0 minutes
Ø2 — 3 min.
A1 — 7 min.
A2 — 13 min.
B1 — 26 min.
B2 — 53 min.
C1 — 105 min.
C2 — 210 min. (3.5 hrs)
D1 — 420 min. (7 hrs)
D2 — 840 min. (14 hrs)

This suggests that the current supply of English conversation practice in city X is enough to maintain a high A2 level. Of course, that's not how it works. With rare exceptions, the only people with access to native speakers are B1 and above. Personal and professional relationships are mostly with people in the C1-D1 range.

Effectively, a small group of people — perhaps 10,000 — is getting enough real-life speaking practice to maintain a B1-D1 level, while the other 90,000 is getting nothing.

That's scarcity for you!

When learning a foreign language, you are competing with thousands of people you've never met for access to a limited number of native speakers who have limited needs for communication with others in their native language. The competition is extreme for popular languages such as English. For other languages competition may be practically nonexistent.

Problem and solutions


Despite the scarcity of practice, people in city X continue to study English, inflating their Circle of Familiarity yet further while their Circle of Command barely budges. For many people that's not the end of the world, as they still learn to read and can understand a lot of English. They just have no one to speak to. If someone's goal is to actually communicate with people in English, however, this situation creates frustration and unmet needs. Only the most determined and fluent get to apply their language skills in full.

Considering the arithmetic of the situation, there are just a few ways to remedy things:

1. English learners practice English more amongst themselves (i.e. language clubs, speaking to a friend in English). This can 10x the supply of language practice available.

2. More native English speakers move to city X.

3. Less people study English.

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(c) 2016-2017 Richard DeLong.