How Long Does it Take English Language Learners to Acquire English?

How Long Does it Take English Language Learners to Acquire English?Back-to-School Family and Community Engagement with English Learners

When it comes to English language learners (ELL), a common question is how long do they need special services? According to a recent study conducted by Stanford University, in two California districts that are considered the most successful in teaching English to “limited English proficiency” (LEP) students, oral proficiency takes 3 to 5 years to develop, and academic English proficiency can take 4 to 7 years.

This information from Stanford is quite interesting because there are sources that believe otherwise. In 1998, California passed Proposition 227, which was instituted to replace the wide variety of bilingual education programs in effect at that time. Prop 227 required LEP children to be limited to only one year in a “sheltered English” classroom after which they would be placed in regular classrooms. Although this method did prove to show positive results initially, in the long run it ended up doing more harm than good.
Wayne Thomas & Virginia Collier conducted one of the most extensive research studies on language acquisition. They took a sample of 700,000 ELL’s from a time period of 1982 to 1996 to determine how long it took students with no background in English to reach native speaker performance (50th percentile) on norm-referenced tests. Within their study, they took a look at both English only and bilingual programs.

Let’s first take a look at the research results of quick English only immersion programs similar to those dictated by Prop 227.
• English language learners who were taught solely in English made large improvements from kindergarten through third grade.
• From fourth grade through middle and high school, when the schoolwork became more challenging, the performance of these students fell dramatically below the 50th percentile. This shift in progress was due to the fact that English language learners make an average gain of 6-8 months per school year. While on the other hand, native English speakers make an average gain of 10 months each school year. This gap between ELL’s and native English speakers continued to widen from 4th grade through high school.
Now let’s look at Thomas & Collier research done on Two-Way Bilingual Immersion and Developmental Bilingual programs.
• Students in Two-Way Bilingual Immersion and Developmental Bilingual programs were able to reach the 50th percentile in both their native language and English by 4th or 5th grade in all subject areas. Even better, these students were able to sustain the gains made in English, and in some cases, achieve even higher than typical Native-English-speaker performance as they moved through the secondary years of school.

Baker and Prys Jones also found similar results. They stated that students who continue to develop cognitively in their primary language and develop age-appropriate proficiency in both first and second language can outscore monolinguals on school tests. However, even though strong bilingual programs may be better for ELL students in the long run, the cons are that they require a lot more work and resources that many schools cannot offer. And with government policies such as Proposition 227 in place, it makes it even harder for schools to implement a bilingual program.

Although there are obstacles to implementing bilingual programs in schools, the Stanford study recommends some solutions, such as special summer and after school programs.

In addition, even though the results from research point toward bilingual programs, this does not mean that all bilingual programs are more effective than English only programs. Thomas & Collier found that the most significant variable in how long it takes to learn English is the amount of formal schooling students have received in their first language.


• Each ELL student is different and comes from a different educational background. It is important to determine each student’s educational level and aid them accordingly to let them learn at their own pace.
• Slow and steady wins the race. Even though it may take longer to teach students in both languages, it will pay off in the end, possibly resulting in bilingual students outperforming monolingual students.
• Enrichment programs for English learners are extremely effective when they are intellectually challenging and use students’ linguistic and cultural experiences as a resource for interdisciplinary, discovery learning.
• Two-Way Bilingual Immersion and Developmental Bilingual programs provide more sustainable improvements than quick English only programs.
• Special summer and after-school programs may need to be considered. Due to the immense amount of extra work required of ELL’s, there is simply not enough time in a regular school day for most ELL’s to keep up with the curriculum. By adding extra programs, it will help give ELL’s the extra time they need to learn.
• Maintenance of native language in the home should be encouraged.

Hakuta, K., Butler, Y.G., & Witt, D. (2000). How long does it take English learners to attain proficiency? University of California Linguistic Minority Research Institute Policy Report 2000-1. Santa Barbara, CA: University of California-Santa Barbara. – HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE ENGLISH LEARNERS TO ATTAIN PR.pdf

Proposition 225 English Language in Public Schools

Collier, V.P., & Thomas, W.P. (1989). How quickly can immigrants become proficient in school English? Journal of Educational Issues of Language Minority Students, 5, 26-38. Download full pdf

Baker, C., & Prys Jones, S. (1998). Encyclopedia of bilingualism and bilingual education. Clevedon, England: Multilingual Matters.