The first week of January is the perfect time to reassess your life goals, notice that little “learn Italian” task in your Someday/Maybe list and maybe make it happen within the next twelve months. Brave goal. Now, how do you put your good intentions into action and actually learn another language in 2019?
What are You Ready to Sacrifice?
Let me lead you down the slippery path of deadly logic.
Language learning is a skill. Skill is a result of pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is achieved by processing tons of skill related information. Tons of skill related information are obtained by staying on task for a long enough time. Hence, the more time you devote to language learning the more fluent you become.
So if you are anywhere serious about your language learning goal you should be fully aware of all the outcomes.
Outcome #1 you have to sacrifice your time
I suspect that your schedule is already filled to the top (mainly because any vacuum in life tends to fill itself, you want it or not). Which only means that you will have to make some tradeoffs and cut the unimportant stuff off.
The next question you want to ask yourself is how much time you need to devote to become proficient in a language you strive to learn in a year. Any ideas?
How much time do you need to learn a language?
In a study conducted by the US Foreign Service Institute, scientists linked similarities across languages to the time necessary to acquire them. And, fair enough, languages that a structurally (and historically) similar to English: Dutch, Spanish, French.. require less time to learn than languages branching on the other side of the globe, like Japanese or Mandarin.
Better still, these pragmatic guys from FSI came up with a perfectly calculated language learning timetable that gives you the exact answer on the above question.
|Category I||600-700 hours||Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, French…|
|Category II||900 hours||German, Swahili, Indonesian…|
|Category III||1100 hours||Hindi, Russian, Hebrew, Thai…|
|Category IV||2200 hours||Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese…|
Language learning comes to getting those hours.
This whole thing is true for native English speakers, of course. If it’s not your scenario, do not despair. To discover what languages will be the easiest for you to learn just look across your native language branch.
But let’s stick to the table and pull out the best case scenario: Spanish. It translates into 600 hours you have to devote to studying in order to learn this language in 2019. There is a number of ways you can distribute those hours along the year.
How many hours a day are you ready to put into learning?
I bet you’ve heard that you can learn any language in three months. There is a pool of people who did it and even more who challenged it and wrote a comprehensive self-report à la “how hard is this”. You can do it too.
But let’s do some math first.
Option #1 learn Spanish in a year
With uncanny calculations done, you get 50 hours a month. It will hit you with 1h40m of language exposure a day (with no breaks);
Option #2: learn Spanish in six months
You’ve got my point: you compress the timeframe – you get a heavier daily load. In this case, it’s gonna be no more no less 3h20m of Spanish a day;
Option #3: learn Spanish in three months
Here, you probably have to leave your job and devote yourself to language learning for 6h40m a day. Or don’t leave your job and wait for the upcoming burnout.
To give you some perspective, FSI also provided their estimates for how many weeks it will take to learn a language. And, in the case of Spanish, it all comes to 24 weeks (or six months) which means that 3 hours it is.
Outcome #2 you have to forsake 3,5 hours a day
Do you still wanna learn another language in 2019?
Ok, before you close this tab in horror of textbooks, exercises, and long vocabulary lists, let me tell you what these 3.5 hours actually are.
What do you do during your “Language Time”?
It’s exposure what counts.
As long as you’re paying attention, every minute spent reading, speaking, writing, thinking or listening to your target language gives you the exposure time. And with language, you don’t need anything else. As American linguist Nick Ellis puts it in one of his articles:
“Language learning is implicit learning”
The whole “learning” process is not the question of the explicit study of vocabulary words or grammar rules. It is a matter of collecting enough statistical data about language use.
Only possessing a sufficient amount of language samples, the brain is able to make generalizations about this linguistic system. When patterns of the language are recognized, the memory optimizes itself so it takes less time to retrieve it. Let’s look at the English plural formation rule, for example.
You know that cat is singular whereas cats is plural. House is singular – houses is plural. Team is singular – teams is plural. Let’s say that one word takes up 1kB of your memory. Then you have to options:
- you store these six as individual words: 6kB;
- you store only 3 words and a rule: 4kB;
Increase the sample to 100 words and the difference will become more prominent: 100kB instead of 51kB. It works for verb conjugations, adjective formation, tense structures and a whole pool of other rules and structures that comprise the grammar of the language.
Make sense, right? Unfortunately, for your brain, the default storing option is the first one. It considers every new word as a unique token unless it already fits a certain rule. Or until it helps to derive another rule.
So what’s the plan?
Flood your brain with enough language data to process with listening podcasts, watching YouTube, reading stories, blogs, and books – all in your target language. Just keep in mind that you still need to make sure that the input is comprehensible enough for your brain to process it.
That’s what you gonna do for 3,5 hours a day if you want to learn another language in 2019.
How to find time for language learning?
If the teacup is full nothing more can be added.
Zen Master from the Teacup story
We function within the 24 hours system. You can’t add another 3.5 hours and make a day last longer. But you can cut off something else to achieve your language learning goals.
Like not seeing friends for a couple of months. Or switch to the segmental sleep pattern, wake up in the midnight, watch French Netflix for three hours and return to bed à la mission complete.
I’m just kidding, don’t do it. But my point is still the same:
Outcome #3 You will have to change your routine
You need to reassess the ways you spend your time and redefine your default options. I bet you’ll find these 3.5 hours in your commute time, waiting in a bank, in Starbucks, in a grocery store, cooking at home and surfing the Web.
And what are your default options, by the way?
For the “headset plugged in” option – Music or language podcasts?
As for your default “time killer” option – Facebook or Memrise?
For the “language setting” option (on your laptop, dear) – English or your target language?
You don’t want to make a conscious decision every time you plug in your headphones and get out for your 40 minutes commute. Reasoning doesn’t work when you’re tired. At that point, you don’t even remember about this “learn another language in 2019” goal.
Instead, you have to build a habit.
How to create a language learning habit?
The term “language learning habit” is a bit deceiving. You don’t want to get used to learning a language, you want to get used to living your life in that language.
So when it comes to habits, you need a whole set of those:
- The habit of learning a language
- The one of speaking it
- The habit of perceiving it around you
What successful polyglots actually did was resetting their default options for each of these habits, leaving no other choice as to use the language they learn.
This is how you can replicate it yourself:
- Trace every single one of your automatic behaviors in situations where you could possibly be learning or using the language ;
- Reset your default options by adding opportunities for learning (download podcasts, start a memrise course, change language settings on Netflix);
- Avoid the temptation by removing any distractors (unsubscribe from Spotify, turn off notifications from Facebook and set a specific time when you check it)
Having a habit-tracker at your hand also helps. It provides a quick shot of tranquilizers to your craving for the fun stuff brain.
20% of actions that will bring 80% of the results
20/80 is the Pareto’s Law. You know about it. But do you know what is behind that 20 % that bring you 80% of the result?
There is you preparing the ground.
It can be tempting to jump right in after you’ve made a resolution to learn another language in 2019, while you’re full of motivation. That’s a mistake. Spend this extra energy on making sure that you’ll be able to keep up with your goals when you’re tired, unmotivated and discouraged with the first results.
Make sure to compensate for the lack of:
- time – by exploring your daily habits and the ways to rewire them;
- knowledge – by learning about the most effective language learning strategies;
- resources – by choosing in advance what you will listen, read and learn in your target language during your online immersion.
Take your time. You’ll save much more.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
― Abraham Lincoln