For almost three years now we have been reporting on a disturbing phenomenon that has been sweeping Jakarta: the world of the so-called ‘polyglot’ or ‘multi-bahasa/language’ schools. Since 2012 at least, these schools have been attracting students (or more to the point, victims) with the promise that they can study at Rumah Bahasa, Global Language Centre, ILC (International Language Centre) and learn several languages at the same time. They have boldly and confidently asserted that all you have to do is sign up for a course at their schools and you will be fluent in Mandrain, French, German, Korean, English and Spanish in no time at all.
While these grand claims would seem to invite skepticism, many thousands of victims have been taken in. When Global Language Centre collapsed in April 2015, for example, there were almost 5000 current students who were out of pocket. The total amount of money absconded by multi-language school owners has frequently run into hundreds of thousands of dollars. We have heard of single victims who have lost as much as Rp40 million, which is around $3000 due to these scams. There have now been more than a dozen branches of multi-language schools which have collapsed in the past couple of years, which should be enough to scare any sane customer off. But what we haven’t taken the time to point out is that the promises that can quickly become a polyglot are fundamentally flawed to begin with. There is simply no way that these schools could have delivered on their sweet promises even in theory.
How Many Hours Does It Take to Learn a Language?
This is a very good question which any student could ask their language service provider. If the school is not able to provide a clear answer to this question, there’s a very good chance that they haven’t thought through their business model and are not serious.
The most internationally recognized framework for language acquisition is the CEFR (Common European Framework), which was developed by the EU. This system divides the language learning process into 6 stages and offers approximate guidelines about how long it will take to progress through the 6 stages. Here are what they recommend for Europeans trying to learn the French language.
A1 – 60 hours
A2 – 160 hours
B1 – 310 hours
B2 – 490 hours
C1 – 690 hours
C2 – 890 hours
So, as you can see, it will take someone about 490 hours of study before they will get to the end of the B2 level. That’s Intermediate Level. Now note that still isn’t good enough to study abroad in a foreign language but it should be enough to be reasonably proficient conversationally.
Now let’s just focus on this for a moment. We are talking about 500 hours of classes just to be an Intermediate speaker. That’s a very sizable investment of time, money and energy. And let me just clarify a couple of points. These hours are what is suggested for a European to learn another European language. There is ample anecdotal evidence to suggest that Asian learners will take longer because the grammar system of European languages is more dissimilar to their own.
And these time-frames are based on the presumption that you have a language teacher with at least a basic level of training and expertise. Yet we have heard time and again that the multi-bahasa schools were hiring any old foreigner, irrespective of their credentials. That strongly suggests that the 500 hours of study for Intermediate proficiency would be a very optimistic projection within the context of badly-run multi-language school in Jakarta.
Now let’s just let this sink in. The typical language student in Indonesia will turn up at their language school for between 2 and 3 hours of instruction a week. Based on the 500 hours projection, it will take them between three to five years to reach Intermediate level at that rate. Now that doesn’t sound unrealistic for some of the more reputable language schools in Jakarta. But for the multi-bahasa schools, where there is no curriculum and the businesses are being run by former salespeople from gyms, five years would seem to be a best case scenario.
Yet the students at these schools are spreading themselves thin. They are trying to learn several different languages at the same time from inexperienced instructors. Let’s just point out that the time required to reach Intermediate proficiency in 4 languages would be 2000 hours of study. If you are only taking few classes per week, it would take between 10 and 20 years to clock up that many hours. The dream of becoming a polyglot is just that… a dream. It’s a mirage. A delusion. Wishful thinking. The students have been promised something that would require hundreds upon hundreds of hours of professional instruction, and instead the classes are being delivered by the likes of Max Wagner, better known for stealing candy from children when he is hungry.
Becoming a polyglot is a lifetime commitment for a serious scholar. The idea that you could achieve it with the help of a few over-sexed con-artists at ILC is laughable. Even if these schools manage to stay open for longer than 12 months, which hasn’t generally been the case, they are peddling snake oil to students. It is time to give up the polyglot delusion and set more achievable learning goals.