January 16, 2017. From that day on, people keep telling me that “I’m talented in languages”. Huh!
I spent 11 years learning English in school, paying to private tutors and killing my evenings on fancy language classes with native teachers. All in vain. I wish I spent these hours playing Far Cry or something.
On January 16, 2017, I decided to take language learning in my hands, starting with what challenged me for over 11 years: English. Two months later, I passed IELTS with the band score 7.5. In September 2017, I attended my first university lecture in English. Year after, in French. This September, it’s going to be Spanish.
Apparently, with the right strategy, nobody is hopeless.
The failure of language education is not unique to my case. That’s why I want to share with you the system I used to manage my time most effectively and learn one language after another.
A word of warning: I’m going to focus on the time management side of language learning. If you’re interested in techniques and all the “how-to”-s, please follow the links I provided.
Time management 101: How to waste years and don’t get results
Here’s the rule of thumb. Anyone who offers “once a week” language classes is a fraud. It goes for private teachers, online tutors, schools, colleges, universities, and proficiency test prep courses.
Let’s get serious. You can’t learn anything by showing up in your three-hour language class once a week. Dragging is counter-productive. Only intensive short-term learning effort, or ultralearning (to borrow Scott Young’s wording1), pays off.
Ultralearning is a total immersion. For me, it translates into three-to-six months of intensive self-training (the time frame depends on the language, read more here). And what I mean by intensive training is a 20-hours a week language learning marathon.
True. But after this linguistic O-course, you become an independent speaker of another language. It’s more than worth it.
Start with building a habit
Immersion is based on two things: time and focused effort. As a full-time student with a part-time job and a side-project (which you’re reading right now) who spends half of her life commuting to university and back, I’m familiar with the desire to have at least 30 hours in a day.
Adding 3 hours of language learning to my daily agenda in such circumstances is realistically impossible. So how do I manage to introduce a new language every year?
The answer is simple. I plan for learning another language, just as I would plan for going on vacation. For starters, I wait for the end of an academic year. I calibrate my availability at work. Finally, I reschedule all other tempting projects so that I can fully focus on one thing: learning a language.
However, I don’t sit idle while my language learning project is on hold. Quite the opposite. All this time I gain momentum by building learning habits.
Here is how it works.
Learning Mode #1: Autopilot
Once I’ve read The Power of Habit, I discovered a great pleasure in exploiting my brain’s innate drive to repetitive behavior. In this book, Charles Duhigg explains how we can rewrite our cognitive patterns so that the tough stuff like working out, reading or learning a language becomes automatic.
Habit is what sets language learning on autopilot. It ensures that we do at least the bare minimum no matter what day of the week it is, how tired we are, and what was the magnitude of an earthquake near our house. That’s why exploring the potential of this “autopilot mode” is the first step in language learning time management.
I build habits around all sorts of tasks that can be done on the go. Learning vocabulary comes to mind first, but there are many other ways language learning can be automatized.
You can teach yourself a language while commuting, doing chores or simply waiting. Neither of these tasks is cognitively demanding. Thus, you can safely combine them with various language learning activities without the fear of passing for a multitasker. (Check out my article How To Build A Bulletproof Language Learning Habit In 3 Steps to see how it can work for you).
Habits can also lighten your daily load. These three hours of language learning don’t look that insuperable when you know that the half of it would be done automatically during the day.
The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Ultralearning by Scott Young
Tools I use: Beeminder – the only habit tracker app that keeps me accountable
Introduce Deep Work
Habits help you to get drawn into the routine. But these 5-minute attacks on French vocabulary with Memrise while in line in Walmart won’t take you far. To teach yourself a language you have to devote some quality time to study – and study only.
Unfortunately, the modern world cannot bear the thought of individuals doing one thing at the time. Distractions are everywhere. Messages, e-mails, calls, walk-in – all this screams “pay attention to me! pay attention to me!” and does everything to destroy your laser-sharp focus.
Giving in and checking your WhatsApp while you’re studying a language is a bad idea. Somewhat a hundred brain scans have shown that multitasking is not what we, humans, are good at.
Productivity requires focus. And the high level of focus can be achieved only when you cut off all the distractions and switch to a Deep Work mode.
Learning Mode #2: Deep Work
Deep Work refers to any focused high-intensity and distraction-free activity. We owe the idea to Cal Newport, who wrote a remarkable book about the concept (a must-read for aspiring high-achievers of the XXI century).
In language learning time management, you switch to deep work mode whenever the task requires high concentration and deep thinking. I use Pomodoro to time my study sessions and to stay productive for as long as possible. During 25-minute Pomodoro sessions I either read in my target language or do some pattern recognition to hack the grammar2. With zero distractions, I manage to get in a flow state, do quality work and advance my language proficiency faster.
Typically, I complete four Pomodoro sessions a day, which melts down to 2 hours of Deep Work. I spent another hour listening to podcasts while doing random stuff around the house. It makes this daily 3-hour ordeal less brutal.
Resources: Deep Work by Cal Newport
Tools I use:
Freedom – my personal productivity police. It’s a distraction blocker app that makes it impossible to focus on anything other than study.
Pomodoro Tracker– an online Pomodoro timer in its essence.
Set up stakes
Having a well-established vocabulary learning habit is great, but memorizing 30 words a day forever is not. You must know where to stop or switch gears. You must know what you “done” in language learning should look like.
That’s why I always set up stakes, following the advice from Tim Ferriss’s The 4-Hour Chef (a mind-blowing book that has very little to do with cooking, despite such a misleading title).
Setting up stakes means that every stage of my language learning journey ends with a trial.
Learning Mode #3: Trial
A trial is an either-or, win-or-lose situation. It is the key of effective language learning time management.
It revives the fear of losing – something that, by far, has been the greatest motivator of humankind. A trial is always time-bound, meaning that you must achieve your goal by the deadline you set for yourself. It is often social. And, what’s crucial, a trial must be “just the right fit”: not too easy but not insurmountable either.
My favorite type of trial is taking a proficiency test three months from the start. These tests are costly, so failing one equals to flushing $300 down the drain. Who wants to do that?
Passing the trial gives you a comforting feeling of completion. But don’t rest on your laurels. There are always more to achieve. There is always more to learn. So keep learning.
The 4-hour Chef by Tim Ferriss
How To Set S.M.A.R.T Goals For Language Learning
Tools I use: Beeminder – the only habit tracker app that keeps me accountable.
Language Learning Time Management: The Wrap-Up
Once you completed your linguistic O-course, you can loosen the reins. Spending half-an-hour a day on reading books or listening to podcasts in that language usually suffice to keep your skills sharp.
To improve them, set new challenging goals. Depending on your initial motivation, it can be anything from applying for a study abroad to setting up a job interview with an international company to immigration.
As I like to repeat, in language learning, there is no ending point.
Image Credits: Photo by NeONBRAND on Unsplash
- Scott Young is the guy who learned Spanish, Korean, Mandarin and Portuguese in one year; I highly recommend checking out his TED talk and his book.
- I don’t start with Deep Work before have at least 1000 words vocabulary. Some (at least superficial) understanding of the language is a prerequisite for reading and working with grammar.