The Hardest Question for a TOEFL Teacher to Answer

The Hardest Question for a TOEFL teacher to answer:
I can’t speak for every TOEFL tutor, but for me, the hardest question is, “How long will it take me to reach my desired score on TOEFL?

Unfortunately, this question is beyond the ability of one person to answer for another person. I usually give the answer, “I do not know, because it mostly depends on you.” This is still factually correct, but I decided to delve into the details of why language acquisition varies so much from one individual to the next. Here are the factors that will determine how fast you learn English (or any language.)

  1. What age you started to study English.

Absolutely every article I read agreed on one thing: the younger you are, the faster you learn a language. My students who say, “My children learned English quickly once we moved to the US,” know this to be true. It’s also common sense. Children are hard-wired, genetically, to absorb information.  Here is some scientific information about it, if you are interested:
“Environmental advantages may be important, but it’s hard to deny the cognitive advantage very young children have when learning new languages. Babies and very young children form neural connections at a rapid pace. As the brain develops into adulthood it becomes more specialized, reinforcing the neural pathways that are regularly used. This is a good thing because it makes the brain more efficient, but getting older also makes learning new things more challenging. That’s why those who learn a language at a very young age have the accent of a native speaker. Later in life, those neural shortcuts our brains have created to increase efficiency force us to fall back on the sounds, or phonemes, of languages we already know.”
Here is another quote, this time from Alissa Ferry, a communications expert:
“We also see age differences in learning things like grammatical rules, about how words in a language are organized and used. The earlier a language is learned, the less likely a speaker is to make grammatical errors. For example some languages, like Italian, use articles (the “the”) in more cases than we would in English. The later a speaker learns their language, the more likely they are to make grammatical errors and to have difficulty learning new grammatical rules.”
Obviously, this is bad news for people who did not start studying English until they were adults. But there is good news, too: if you learned a second language as a child, it will be easier to learn a third. For instance, if you grew up in France but also studied Italian, it will be easier for you to learn English. The science proves this, but I also have anecdotal evidence. My husband grew up speaking only English, and has tried and failed to learn Spanish as an adult. Since I am from Canada and learned both English and French at a young age, I learned conversational Spanish VERY quickly. Even though he grew up close to Mexico, my Spanish is far better than his—despite the fact I never heard a single Spanish word until I was twenty-two.
  2. The environment you are in.
If you speak in your mother tongue at home or at work (or worse, both) it will be much harder to get better at English fast. To quote Joshua Hartstone, Psychology Professor at Boston College:

“There are two crucial factors that affect how many languages you can learn: environment and age. People who are immersed in a language learn it much better. There are good classes and bad classes, but nothing beats having to use the language every day. The effect of that daily, real-life practice is enormous. So if you want my advice on learning a lot of languages: be young and hang out with people who speak those languages. Beyond that, there is some person-to-person variation, but for the most part this pales compared to the two big effects of environment and age.”
I hear a lot from my students, “But I speak English at work.” Sorry, but if you go home and go right back to your mother tongue, it’s like taking a few steps forward and then moving backward again. Immersion is key to learning a language. You can’t become perfectly fluent “part-time.”
  3. Your genes.
Some of how quickly you can learn English is not under your control. Ask any woman who complains that no matter how much she diets she can’t lose weight – whether we like it or not, a lot of what happens to us is already genetically wired, and there isn’t a thing we can do about it.
One study I read said that people who have more oxygen flow to certain parts of the brain learn language more quickly. Obviously, you can’t do anything about this (do not hyperventilate during the TOEFL, please!)
Here is more science- y stuff:
“A new study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, part of the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences (I-LABS), yielded results that suggest the ability a person has in learning a foreign language correlates with changes in the white matter of the brain, the part responsible for communications. Testing for genetic differences between their subjects, researchers also found that those with two forms of the gene COMT had greater changes in the brain’s network of communications, and thus a heightened ability to learn languages. The study also suggests that those who struggle with learning new languages may be held back by their genes and brain structure, that up to 46 percent of the variance in the final scores of the language students in their study had to do with the COMT genotype and activity in the white matter portion of the students’ brains. The remaining 54 percent of what accounted for the variance is, however, still unknown.”
   4. Your motivation and interest.
Now for the good news:  What you can control.
Everyone who is taking the TOEFL is already very motivated to do well, and to get their dream score. However, have you ever asked yourself, “What’s my attitude? Am I engaged and interested?”
It’s my view, after studying four languages myself, that motivation and interest are key. Of course, a lot of the science I read proves this but I won’t bore you with more science. This is obvious— in fact, it’s a no-brainer.
Those who are motivated study more.
Those who are interested in the language study more.
So, motivate yourself by thinking of the rewards you will get if you reach your dream score. Perhaps you will become a pharmacist or a dentist. Perhaps you want to go to Harvard or Yale. Whatever your reason for studying is, keep it in mind.
To keep it interesting, have fun with it. You don’t have to read dry, boring items to raise your TOEFL score. I even recommend reading about pop culture (such as celebrity news) and international news. These are enormously helpful not only because you will learn more words and grammar, but also because you will have more to say and write about on the independent tasks.
The actor Jimmy O. Yang learned English at 13 when he moved from Hong Kong to California by watching television. In his words,
“Just step by step, I tried to make myself as American as possible and a lot of it I learned from watching television,” he said. Yang consumed hours of the BET channel. He flowered while discovering the culture of the hip-hop and stand-up comedy the network specialized in. BET programming also became a main source of Yang learning English.
“It was just like these new art forms and everybody seemed so, like, having so much fun and so animated and cool,” Yang said. “And that was like the version of America that I looked up to, that I wanted.”

Doesn’t that sound like someone who is highly MOTIVATED and INTERESTED in the language? It does to me. Yang is now fluent in English and performs stand-up comedy in English to huge crowds of fans.
These are not the only factors, but they are the most important ones I found in the literature online. That’s why, when someone asks me, “How long will it take to get my dream score?”
I say, “I don’t know.”  This is the simple truth – no tutor can honestly answer that question.
We are just here to help you when you are ready to try.