Monday, 16 May 2011


We may teach language, but numbers play an important role in our profession.

'How long will it take to learn this skill/lexical set/language?' is a key question, but the figures used to answer this will vary enormously.

And they will vary not just because of objective reasons, but because of subjective ones too.

Such subjectivity arises due to a concept which in behavioural economics is called anchoring.

Anchoring refers to the cognitive bias which underpins our decision-making.

For example, when people buy computers, they often compare them in terms of memory capacity because it is a figure with which they are familiar - 250GB is better than 200GB.

However, this may skew our understanding of computers and lead us to ignore more pertinent factors, such as RAM size and processing power, when making our purchasing choice.

Such skewing is also at work in the classroom.

Using an anchor loosely based on figures from The Foreign Service Institute, I asked a group of my learners about their expectations.

If Italian takes 500 hours of study to become fluent, and Spanish takes 600 hours, how long does English take?

Given the anchors of 500 and 600, most learners pitched their guesses between 450 and 650 hours.

However, when I gave another set of students different anchors (Arabic 2000 hours and Chinese 2200), their guesses for English were all well above the other class's guesses, between 1200 and 1500 hours.

This massive disparity comes in spite of their shared objective experience of learning English for many years.

The point of all this is that we, as educators, need to be very clear about the kind of anchors we establish with our learners.

It makes the first couple of lessons we have with them absolutely crucial.

How much homework we expect our learners to do, how much work we expect to cover in the lesson,  how long the course will be, and with what results are significant numbers we need to establish with them from the off.

If we fail to manage their unacknowledged expectations then they are bound to resurface as disappointment later.


  1. Thanks for this Tony - very interesting. I agree fully with the idea that the first few lessons are absolutely crucial, although I hadn't thought about it in terms of ancors before. Would you go so far as to suggest that we should be using these anchors to influence (dare I say manipulate) our learners so that they don't go away disappointed?

  2. Hi Evan - according to Thaler and Sunstein (Nudge authors), there will always be some kind of anchor, so we might as well influence/manipulate our students for good rather than leave it to chance and risk a negative outcome. Of course, that can also have a positive effect of encouraging learners to put in the necessary man-hours.