Guest Post by Olle Linge of Hacking Chinese
How long does it take to become fluent in a language? That question has been asked and answered countless times; the answers range from a few months to many years. This is partly because the word “fluent” is hard to define, but an even more important reason is that the wrong unit is used. It’s the number of hours we spend learning and using the language that counts, not how many weeks, months and years have passed since we started. In this article, I will explore the art of finding more time to learn languages, both for when studying full-time and combining language learning with work.
Time matters more than you think; anything multiplied by zero is zero
Naturally, the number of hours we spend isn’t the only factor that determines how much we learn, other factors are important, too. Some of these are interesting when looking at the general population, such as talent (aptitude) and age. However, these factors are often irrelevant for individual learners, because our talent for learning languages is largely beyond our control and we only change our age one way: day by day as we grow older.
We can change the method, though, the way we learn languages. This also matters, but the equation is one of multiplication, we multiply the amount of time we spend with the efficiency of our method. The product is how much we learn. Since anything multiplied by zero is zero, it follows that if we don’t spend any time, it doesn’t matter how good the method is, we still learn nothing. The opposite is also true, even with the worst method, we will still learn if we spend enough time.
time spent x efficiency of method = amount we learn
I have written about how to learn language more efficiently for five years now and published most of the articles on my website, Hacking Chinese, which really is mostly about learning languages in general, I just use Chinese to illustrate my points. When I started out, I focused mostly on the second part of the equation above, the efficiency of the method. How should we practise pronunciation? What method is the best for expanding and remembering vocabulary? These questions still matter, but I think the first part of the equation is widely overlooked, both in the online world of language learning and in academic journals.
Just to give you an example, almost all research into second language acquisition tries to keep as much as possible constant, and only change one single thing (such as the method used) to see how that influences the results. After all, if we want to compare if method A is better than method B, we have to make sure that the students using the two methods spend the same amount of time, otherwise one group’s superior performance might just be because they spent more time! That says little about the efficiency of the method. Therefore, in a majority of cases, time is kept constant, each group spends the same amount of time learning.
The time we spend learning language is not fixed
When learning languages in the real world, this is problematic, because it removes time from the equation. Naturally, the time we have isn’t unlimited, but it’s fixed either. If we enjoy using one method more, that will probably make us spend more time using it. Even if research suggests that one method is much better than another, if we hate that better method and therefore never use it, it doesn’t matter how efficient it is! Anything multiplied by zero is zero.
I don’t mean to say that the method isn’t important, it’s just that I think time is equally important, but much less talked about. If we ask the question how to learn more quickly, most students about how to find a better method, not how to increase the time they use the methods they already have. To really improve the way we learn, we need to focus on both.
This leads naturally to the core question I want to discuss in this article: How can we increase the time we spend learning languages? Humans aren’t machines, we can’t just program ourselves to spend more time, it doesn’t work like that.
I think there are two parts to the answer, one is finding time and the other is increasing motivation. In this article, I’m going to focus on how to find the time. Naturally, enjoying your studies is also important, but I can’t write about everything in one article. If you want my basic approach when it comes to motivation, you can read this article: Have fun learning Chinese or else…
Finding the time to study more
Any attempt to find more time to do anything should start with a time log. Simply write down everything you do for a day or two. This takes some extra time, but it’s well worth it. Most people who do a time log the first time are surprised by the difference between how they think they spend their time and how they actually do it in reality. To put it briefly, we’re not as busy as we think we are. If you want to see an example of a time log I did a few years ago, you can check this post on my personal website.
A time log is good start because it helps us understand what kind of time we have available. However, examining the time you have available isn’t as easy as it might look. Time doesn’t come in chunks that are either “free” or “busy”, but rather in a rich spectrum. I call this idea “time quality” and I have written an article about it (Time quality: Studying the right thing at the right time). In short, the spectrum ranges from:
- High-quality time that can be used for anything. This is time when we have all the resources and tools we need available and no distractions. This kind of time is rare for people who combine studying with a full-time job and a rich social life. It’s much more common for full-time students.
- Low-quality time that can only be used for limited learning activities. There are actually several different types of low-quality time depending on what activities are possible. For instance, time spent driving to work is limited because our hands are occupied and we can’t take our eyes off the road. We can still listen to audio in the language we’re learning, though!
The general principle is that when we study, we should always try to use time of as low quality as possible, but which still allows us to complete the task at hand. For instance, don’t listen to podcasts at home when you could chat with a native speaker online, don’t ask your private tutor questions you could equally well have answered on your own. Save the high-quality time for things you can’t do any time else!
The time barrel
A more practical application of the above principle is what I call “the time barrel”. The metaphor is easy to understand, just picture each day as a barrel that can be filled with rocks of different sizes. If we think of each day as consisting of eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, two hours of eating, two hours of transportation and a few hours of social interaction with family and friends, we will quickly draw the conclusion that we don’t have time to learn a language.
This isn’t true. Even if there are a few large rocks in the barrel, we can still add smaller pebbles and sand! Even when the barrel looks full, water can still be added. This metaphor can’t be explored fully in this article, so again I refer to an article specifically about this topic: The time barrel: Or why you have more time than you think.
Diversify your learning
To be able to maximise the time we spend learning a language, we have to be able to use the concept of time quality to its full potential, and find learning activities of various sizes that fit into the time barrel. Perhaps it’s impossible to find more than a few hours of high-quality time each week, but it’s always possible to find more time of lower quality. We could fill that time with any number of activities, but here are a few examples:
- Listen to audio in the target language while working, driving, exercising, cooking, doing the laundry, walking, showering, falling asleep, waking up, eating, and so on. Depending on your routines, it’s possible to spend several hours per day improving listening ability and vocabulary this way.
- Make vocabulary learning mobile in the sense that you should be able to review wherever you are. The easiest way to do this is to use one of the many flashcard apps available. You can also use paper flashcards, write tricky vocabulary on your hands or always carry things you need to review on your phone or in your pocket.
- Convert activities to your target language as often as it’s practically possible. Change your interface on your phone and computer, write shopping lists, memos and messages in your target language. Cut down on the time you spend watching games, films and TV shows in your native language and watch the same shows (or similar) in the target language.
All these activities are examples of how we can vastly increase the amount of time we learn a language without actually changing our schedules too much. Naturally, listening to a radio program while driving is not as good as focusing 100% on the program, but it’s much better than nothing. Remember, every hour counts.
Don’t stop studying, study something else instead
Another application of the principles I’ve discussed above is that we should always have activities prepared for different situations. Some activities, such as talking with natives as a beginner, reading a book or mimicking an audio file, are very demanding and we can only do them when we feel rested and alert.
If we want to increase the time we spend learning, though, we can’t stop learning just because we feel a little bit tired. Instead, we should focus on tasks that require less energy and don’t feel as demanding. Watching a TV-program is probably less demanding than speaking with a native and playing a computer game in the target language is likely more fun than studying grammar.
Focus on tasks that are as demanding as possible, but still manageable. If it feels too hard, switch to something easier. The least demanding activity I can think of is listening to a song I like in the target language.
I have written a number of articles about energy management when learning languages:
- Study according to your current productivity level
- Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps
- Adjust your listening practice to your current state of mind
If you don’t already follow the principles I have outlined in this article, there is a huge amount of time available for learning languages that you aren’t using. By carefully examining the time you have available and what kind of learning activities you can fit into it, you can increase the time you spend by hours every week. Over months and years, this adds up and you will reach your language learning goal much faster. Don’t obsess about your age or if you have talent for learning languages, these things are beyond your control anyway. Instead, take control of the factors you can influence and unlock your true potential for learning a language!
Editor’s Note: If you enjoyed this article and are looking for more ways to fit language study in to your schedule, check out our free eBook 10 Ways to Make More Time for Language Learning.
Olle Linge is a language teacher, educator and writer from Sweden, best known as the man behind Hacking Chinese, a popular website that offers insights into learning Chinese successfully as an adult. He started learning as an adult himself, and his studies have led him to a master’s degree programme in teaching Chinese as a second language, taught in Chinese mainly for native speakers. Olle also likes gymnastics, unicycling, Rubik’s cubes and horses.