How long does it take to learn a new language? Sales Training and the similarity to learning a foreign tongue.

By Jeremy Blake on September 14, 2021

As a thirteen-year-old, I was at a good intermediate level in Latin. I could speak and write it and was better at it than French and had the most charismatic teacher, who also directed the school plays. For the last two years of my first school, we only spoke Latin as soon as we entered the classroom.

He told me that as soon as I arrived at my next school, I should find the teacher who taught Latin, ask to do a couple of past O level papers and that I would have my first O level in the bag at thirteen. That didn’t happen and whether it was the lack of tenacity to deal with the response, “no one here teaches Latin,” I never did get that O level. What I’m trying to tell you is that it took me five years to learn that language.

Now some forty years later I help my clients learn a new language. Very often it is the language of sales and selling.  We develop conversation models, run sessions and support our clients in a whole host of ways, giving the trainees ‘extra lessons’ in a variety of formats to support their learning.

The core theory of the language can be taught to anyone in a matter of days. It is like a code and when people know it, they can substitute different verbs, adjectives and nouns and play with the language, see where it takes them in their interactions with customers.

One of the challenges I have is my team and I are not private language tutors selling our services to Mums and Dads who want to give their children extra support to pass their GCSEs or A Levels.

Parent buyers very often commit to a minimum of six months and in most cases to over a year of semi-regular support. All parties know it takes time to master a language. I appreciate it’s an investment not available to all, but it is an investment that goes beyond the financial, it’s for the longer term.

Many of our buyers are people who dropped their language learning and excelled in maths for example.  They feel that surely a few lessons will suffice, and the results will follow.

I enjoyed following the work Donald Kirkpatrick’s children are doing to help organisations to measure the impact of training.

Back in 1954 Dr Kirkpatrick developed in his dissertation the four levels model for training evaluation. In a very top line fashion these break down into:

  1. Reaction - The degree to which participants find the training favourable, engaging and relevant to their jobs
  2. Learning - The degree to which participants acquire the intended knowledge, skills, attitude, confidence, and commitment based on their participation in the training
  3. Behaviour - The degree to which participants apply what they learned during training when they are back on the job
  4. Results - The degree to which targeted outcomes occur as a result of training and the support and accountability package

Some people want to skip straight to level 4. It is the same as the parent who says to their daughter after a few private language lessons, “you’ll be getting full marks in your next vocab test then?”

We are all at different stages of learning. If you are really serious and want your people to learn a new language then it has to be part of the full curriculum and given investment, time and energy.

Learning the odd phrase or two may help you a little in a foreign land, but fluency changes everything.

Marcus Fabius Quintilian wrote: "One should not aim at being possible to understand, but at being impossible to misunderstand."

When customers can be connected to their thoughts and hopes through a skilled communicator then you can win their custom for years and years.