10 000 Hour Rule and Language Learning: The Perfect Match

I’m sure you’ve heard of the 10 000 hour rule. It jumps on you from books, podcasts, blog articles and Google results whenever you dare to ask how much time do you need to learn a skill. Or a language. And the number is so intimidating that it leaves you to options: forget about anything you wanna learn or forget about your free time.

So, 10 000 hour rule. Powerful and misunderstood. Popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his “Outliers. The story of success“, 10 000 hour rule was a bomshell. You bet… What can be more convincing:

“Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness.”

I guess it’s just our truly human weakness for beautiful numbers and sensational names. The magic number. The number of greatness.

Gladwell claims that these 10 000 hours of practice separate great achievers from mediocrity. And the idea to become one is too tempting. Just 10 years stuffed with at least 3 hours of of practice a day – and you are among the best. Just ten years with no weekends and national holidays.

But is it that simple?

Four missed details of the 10 000 hour rule

As you know, everything that can be misunderstood will be misunderstood. This one is not by Gladwell; it’s more like by Murphy.

So few things went wrong for Gladwell’s rule of success as well.

It’s about mastering a skill, not learning one

First of all, the author of Outliers didn’t invent this rule himself. The magic number came from the original study of deliberate practice by professor Ericsson who explored the acquisition of expert performance and nothing else.

Once again: acquisition of expert performance.

I cannot emphasize it even more. 10 000 hours, or about 10 years of experience, is one piece of a puzzle of how to come the best of the best in a highly competitive domain.

So guess who had been under the microscope of Ericsson and his research team? R-r-right, elite performes and professionals in a specific fields: international-level violinist and expert pianists.

And what separated them from the rest of the classical music crowd (that included music teachers and good-enough-but-not-the best-musicians) was the number of hours they already had practiced and the number of hours they kept practicing daily.


10 000 hours are primordial but not sufficient

That’s another little bomb carefully wrapped by Gladwell in his famous rule: this hell amount of time is not sufficient for achieving top results.

10 000 hour rule is not a magic formula, it’s just a prerequisite to the high game itself. You indeed can spend 10 years playing chess with your little Macbook but it won’t put you in the row with Garry Kasparov and Magnus Carlsen. Sorry to disappoint.

Not sorry actually.

The most vague part of the rule is how this time should be spent to be an indicator of real success.

It’s not just about practice. It’s about deliberate practice.

It is applicable to stable domains only

You can train for being the king of a game if the rules of the game do not change. If you do, you have to learn being flexible and adjust to innovations rather than practice the old game.

Now, understand why there are violinists, pianists, grandmasters in Ericsson’s study? Nothing can really radically change in the fragile world of classical music. Chess rules will remain the same. Nobody will introduce a new piece and claim to have innovated the world of chess.

It’s about making the difference

The 10-year base of experience is a preparation. During this time you are likely probably to make all the mistakes that could be made. You are likely to find working solutions to common problems. You are likely to learn everything good that have been invented before you.

During these 10 years you follow step after step those who walked this way before you.


Until you, same like the whole world, stumble over Something that is not yet achieved. A world record. An unsolved mathematical problem. A new theory that turns the world. An unwritten bestseller. A new masterpiece.

This is where 10 000 hour rule really makes a difference. With this experience in your pocket, you have capabilities to add something important to your domain.

Does 10000 hour rule applies to language learning?

I guess you have already concluded from all the above that no, it doesn’t. But wait a second.

What if you have already successfully applied Gladwell’s rule of mastery?

You’re already a master when it comes language learning. You have mastered your first language. And when did it happen?

Think back to the time when you started expressing yourself freely and confidently in your mother’s tongue. How old were you? Around 10?

Two researchers, Simon and Chase, in their classical study compared two incompatible fields: chess (yes, again; the study was called Perception in Chess) and language. They found that the amound of data a chess master collects over the course of 10 years practice is impressively close to the average size of the vocabulary of a native speaker of English.

And that’s exactly what you did with your first language without even noticing that you practice it every day.

So, yes, 10 000 hour rule applies to mastering a language very well.

Though, you may be more interested in how you can use all this to master a second language.

Three lessons from 10 000 hour rule for language learning

I’m not going to say that you have to spend this much time on learning or mastering a language.

You don’t need it. As an adult second language learner, it’s unlikely that you acquire a new tongue on the native-speaker level. It doesn’t mean that you can’t be good or fluent, or both. It just means that even being fluent you still will miss certain nuances that may be evident for a native speaker.

However, there are 3 things you can change about your approach to language learning to make the most of the 10 000 hours rule:

  1. Natural ability requires a huge investment of time.

    Your ability to speak your first language is not as much innate as you may think. If your parents never spoke to you and there was no one to practice language with, you would be another example of a modern Mowgli.

    Just the simple fact of having done this ton of practice for mastering our first language usually escapes us.

    So don’t be afraid to devote some time to learning a second language. This is how things are actually getting learned.

  2. Deliberate practice ≠ usual practice

    Deliberate practice is the corrnerstone of the 10 000 hour rule.

    What separates grandmasters from amateur chess players if that they do not simply play, they look for new ways to improve their game. Do the same, do not just mindlessly learn new words – learn to use them in the field. Don’t simply cram grammar – make sense of it. Switch your focus from spending time on learning a language to using time for improving in one thing at once.

    Often, the simple fact of changing methodes results in huge gains of productivity.

  3. Find opportunities for deliberate practice

    Same environment offers same things. Opportunities are usually not included in the old package. Create your own environment that would challenge to push your border over and over again.

    You don’t have to leave everything and move to another country to practice a language. But what you can do is to change your habits and embrace each opportunity to practice that tongue.

    Always be in search for better strategies and try them yourself.

You may not become a grandmaster just playing chess for 10000 hours. But you have no chance to become one if you never touched a chess board either. Same with language learning. Stop estimating how long it’s gonna take, how much time you really have for this, how many hours a week you have to study. Just take the first step today.

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to the creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthusiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.
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