During the summer, I really wanted to work on my French so the idea to start a language challenge was with me for a long time. At the beginning of July, I finally launched my own little-weird-but-surprisingly-effective version of language experiment. It wasn’t about how much of the French I can learn in 50 days as I already had a fairly good proficiency level (B1-B2). Rather, it was about how far I can go with the persistent deliberate practice (3 hours a day).
And, of course, there was also a lot of testing and playing with new techniques. All for the sake of my sacred goal to find the most effective way to learn a language.
The idea of the French experiment
First of all, you might be curious how did I come up with these crazy 3 hours a day?
And the answer is simple. In my post about the 10,000 hours rule, I mentioned a very interesting study conducted by Dr Ericsson and his research team. They tried to discover what distinguishes elite performers in any field from those who never achieve better than average results. And, according to Ericsson, the game changer here was something they called “deliberate practice“. All elite performers had a habit to intensively practice their art for at least 3-3,5 hours every single day.
So you’ve got my point.
The period of 50 days was chosen simply as a training ground. Doing the full experiment would entail practicing for about ten years and see what happens. Obviously, I didn’t feel like that. Moreover, I believe that language learning is a bit different from violin playing – at least when it comes to the notion of elite performance. Many of us didn’t reach this level even with our native tongue and, yet, nothing hinders us from using it in everyday life.
So 10000 hours, or 10 years, of practice is not something to worry about in this language challenge.
Before and After: 50-days language challenge
The Challenge Goal: study for 3 hours for 50 days in a row (150 hours)
The Underlying Goal: my main motivation was to upgrade my French level to the point when I could take university courses in this language and experience no problem. So, it would usually correspond to something C1 but York has its own system.
Intro-level: I began this French language challenge shortly after successfully passing DELF B2 and not-quite-successfully handling the proficiency test at my university. York placed me in B1 course that made me really aggrivated.
50 days after: After immersing myself into French for one and a half month I took another placement test at my university and basically got where I was aiming: directly to French courses. So these 50 days helped me to skip 2 years of FSL in college.
What did I do during these three hours a day?
Since I wanted to quickly improve my skills in literally all areas of the language, I decided to divide these three hours into three one-hour blocks of practice. Here’s how it worked out:
- 1 hour – listening to authentic French speech: audiobooks, podcasts, YouTube;
- 1 hour – reading books in French;
- 1 hour – studying French grammar.
At the beginning, I used to study for three hours consecutively first thing in the morning, and it was… a little bit exhausting. To lower the pressure, I decided to complete the listening block during my commute to work. My bike route took exactly an hour, so I simply turned on my French podcasts or kept going with an audiobook. Nevertheless, I still preferred to finish both reading and grammar before starting anything else. If I didn’t hold on to this rule I would fail this language challenge during the second week.
Now, as it appears to me, intensive two hours study was a challenge on its own. I guess here you’d agree with me: grammar is not the most exciting part of language learning. So instead of diving into the deep waters of French tenses, I started with the easier activity: reading. At least, at this point, I had a choice of what to read, while with grammar… with grammar I had to deal with what was already there. So reading in French helped me to warm up and prepare for upcoming heavy-lifting.
And, of course, all study blocks were what is common called Deep Work. It means that I cut off all distractions like WhatsApp, Facebook and Google Search (because my own curiosity is usually the main distraction). By the way, my habit to keep my phone in “Do not disturb” mode at all times actually began with this language challenge. So if you launch your own, don’t forget this small but meaningful detail.
How did I choose resources for my French language challenge?
I believe that each language is a source. Your knowledge of a certain tongue allows you to access any single source of information that uses this language as a mean of transfering the message.
What kind of source of information? You tell me. It can be a book, a course, a movie, a person – literally anything you choose to lead you. So when you learn a second language you double your personal knowledge database. With a third one, you triple it. Not all languages are equal in this case but each can teach you something new.
So this was my main point when choosing resources. I wanted each of them to teach me something new – and I wanted French to help me in accesing this knowledge.
The Double Advantage Strategy
At the time, I was launching Linguapath, so my main area of interest was blogging, SEO, marketing, finance and entrepreneurship. So I made in-depth research on resources I could use for both learning these things and improving my French. I found a lot of podcasts, some audiobooks and a couple of YouTube channels on the topic. I searched what books from my reading list were translated into French and bought them.
And guess what? I immersed myself in all these amazing topics solely in French with no help of English resources – while still working on my language skills. It was intresting, exciting and I felt like I was doing something useful at every single moment of my practice. Which wouldn’t be the case if I had to read child stories for second language learners or listen to boring news just because they are in French.
I’ll cite all tools, resources and books I used during the French Experiment in the end of the post. Make sure to check it, there’s a lot of useful stuff! :)
The Nerd Strategy
Another part of my resources came from my college. I launched this language challenge mainly in order to prepare myself for the new year when I’d have to study linguistics in French. So I checked required textbooks for my La linguistique généralle en français and Français écrit pour les spécialistes and ordered them in advance.
One of these books was – lucky me – the grammar of modern French. After these 50 days, I have them read, and I felt more than prepared: both the next academic year and for French in general.
However, even while being picky as never, I still made a lot of mistakes when it came to choosing learning material.
What was 5 fatal mistakes I made?
1. Not having all stuff prepared in advance
This one was my major troublemaker over the course of all 50 days of my French language challenge.
Often, it’s very difficult to estimate how much time it will take to read a book, especially in a language you didn’t yet mastered. So what was happening every single week is that I finish a book – on something like a 34th minute of my reading hour – and… that’s it. I didn’t have anything else to read. And then, instead of studying, I had to desperately look for the next good book that would comply with all my requirements.
Same thing with audiobooks, podcast, and videos on YouTube. I wish I had a personal Jinn who would sort all this stuff while I’m sleeping and create me long and exciting lists of what to read, listen and watch next. After few weeks, I had to become my own Jinn and create a list “À regarder en français” in YouTube, put together a decent playlist in Podcast Addict and really embark on sorting out the content of my Wishlists in Kobo store and Thrift books.
2. Choosing boring resorces
Obviously, when decision is made under the pressure, it’s usually a wrong decision.
When I wanted to fill in these 20″ of time left, I jumped on reading all sorts of stuff like RFI news and Canadian legends in French. And in general, the sole purpose of their existence was to kill my motivation. Why? Because I dislike news to that extent that you can really torture me with articles from BBC and Le Monde.
Another motivation killer was monsieur Jacque LeClerc but I couldn’t avoid this one anyway. The reason: his Qu’est-ce que la langue has been a required textbook for my next year course of linguistics. So if ever you decide to use a university textbook as a source for language learning – do not. Or include some coffee in your preparation list.
3. Going with too complicated texts
After having read my first two books in French, I decided to reread some of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. And, nope, “The Little Prince” has never been on the list of my favorite books – “Citadelle” was. And though I read it Russian about five years ago, the original French version made me lose my mind. Apparently, St-Exupéry didn’t write his masterpiece for second language learners.
So if you don’t want to spend half of your practice time on translating every second word (because you completely miss the point, if you don’t), then avoid reading classics for some time. Another reason to restrain from this sort of practice is that the vast majority of new words you learn via this reading will be archaiс.
4. Being perfectionist
At the beginning of my French experiment I faced the real challenge. I had 3 grammar textbooks: for complete beginners, more advanced French grammar but with English explanations and complete French Grammar in French. Which one to use? And should I first complete the easiest one before moving to the next?
My biggest problem during this language challenge was my attachment to the feeling of completion. So just because of that, I kept going with my old advanced grammar textbook that clearly wasn’t challenging enough. That was quite discouraging. As a result, I lost a lot of time and a few extra points of motivation.
After I overcame my perfectionism and switched to the more difficult textbook, my progress began moving a way faster.
5. Neglicting morning routine
This is something that requires intro course in motivation.
I read a lot of books that deal with this topic. And, apparently, motivation is quite a limited reservoir that tends to empty with every single conscious choice we make. Really, it starts from the morning: get up or keep sleeping for 5 more minutes, drink some water or sweet juice, grab a donut or a banana, watch some cats in YouTube or answer an important email, check FB or read a book, disappear in Netflix or study French.
And when you come home at 6pm you usually don’t have a single drop of motivation to take the second decision that requires even more efforts. I made this mistake a couple of times during my French experiment. It’s an amazing way to burn out and fail.
That’s studying French first thing in the morning is a lot easier than putting this huge task off for the evening.
Bonus: A missing piece of puzzle
There are four language skills. I practiced just three. Guess, which one is missing?
That’s right: speaking.
But as an introvert, I always find a way to avoid speaking – in general. I have to admit that I only had occasional French conversations, and mostly with myself, c’est tout.
This avoidance is the most common but the most fatal of all errors in language learning. For me, the fact of going out there and, you know, saying something is more than formidable. You can be terrified of something else, like studying grammar or reading (text)books. But this is something that should be included in any language challenge and I promise to fix this one with Spanish.
How these 150 hours changed my thinking of language learning?
First of all, probably for the first time in my life, I realized that learning a language seriously is like having a second job.
It shouldn’t necessarily be like that: I was quite fine devoting just 20 minutes a day with Memrise and still learned some basic French. But this strategy can only lead you so far. If you’re serious and if you want to learn a language fast it will require some heavy lifting.
Note that even the famous FSI research on how many hours it takes to learn different languages was based on the assumption that learners would study for at least 25 hours a week. Guess how many hours a day it comes down to? 3,5 hours. So, yes, with this technique it is more than possible to learn any language in three to six months – but not without making trade-offs.
You have to design your own program
After just 50 days I felt really advanced. This feeling was totally unknown to me even after completing a year-round French course in university.
The problem of uniform language courses is that they never take into account who you are. You don’t interact with the program – you follow it. You only study for a certain amount of hours per week. You learn a restricted number of words. Plus, you practice only a certain number of grammatical constructions. And you have to stay in the program even if you advance quicker than your classmates.
When you are studying by yourself, you are on top of the game. You are both a teacher and a student. You have to estimate your level and choose appropriate resources: not too easy, but not too out-of-reach either. You have to see for how long you can study effectively. And most importantly, you are the only person responsible for keeping yourself going as fast as you can.
For example, when I felt that videos by Johan from Francais Authentique are too slow, I accelerated them by x1.25. When I felt that I can catch the meaning on this speed, I switched to French YouTubers who spoke in their normal everyday language. After, I started listening to podcasts that was even more challenging, since I couldn’t read the lips anymore. Then, it was audiobooks that helped me to pick up a more high-end vocabulary.
So be on guard and challenge yourself on every step.
You have to celebrate your achievements
There are not too many milestones on the path of language learning. After the first few days of fast progress, you hit a plateau and it’s very easy to get frustrated at this moment. You need to check every day of success, note every hour of practice, create your own milestones and celebrate them to feel that you’re moving in the right direction. I used HabitHub to track my progress even if there were none. I also had a list of mini-challenges such as:
- watch a French video in YouTube and understand it;
- watch a French TEDx without subtitles and get the point;
- read my first book in French;
- completely understand a first French podcast;
- chat for 5 minutes with a friend from France – all in French;
Sometimes a podcast was too challenging and I just didn’t understand it. Often, the meaning of French subtitles just escaped my mind. Or the book I chose was too difficult for my understanding. And it was fine. Because with every day I challenged myself with the same tasks, over and over again, until the moment when the victory has come naturally. And it came together with confidence.
All resources I used during my French experiment:
Podcasts: GTD France, Blogueur Pro, Des livres pour changer la vie, RFi en Francais Facile
Books: Haruki Murakami – Au sud de la frontière, à l’ouest du soleil, Olivier Roland – Vivez la vie de vos rêves grâce à votre blog, Olivier Seban – Tout le monde mérite d’être riche, Jacques LeClerc – Qu’est-ce que la langue
Audiobooks: Olivier Roland – Tout le monde n’a pas eu de la chance de rater ses études
A language challenge itself is a huge milestone on the way to language freedom. It’s never about 50 days or 150 hours or whatever your timeframe is. These are just random numbers behind what is the most important – the practice.
And what is your way to practice your language skills? I’d love to hear about your experience so don’t hesitate to share it in the comments below!