How to find more time learning a language: Unlocking your true potential

Posted on 29. Apr, 2015 by in Language Learning

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:

  1. Study according to your current productivity level
  2. Preparing for rainy days and dealing with slumps
  3. 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 lingeOlle 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.

Language Learning in the Movies

Posted on 27. Apr, 2015 by in Language Learning

Itchy Feet: Fluency Confusion

This one is a pet peeve of mine.

Now, I admit it’s only a pet peeve because language learning is something I do, and I don’t like seeing things I do misrepresented in the movies. But really, who hasn’t felt that way? I’m sure lawyers are constantly rolling their eyes at the way trial proceedings are portrayed, police officers and soldiers must find it absurd how most people use weapons in the movies, and, of course, never watch Indiana Jones with an actual archaeologist. They even get movie making wrong in the movies! Wag the Dog is a 1997 film about the government hiring Hollywood producers to concoct a fake war on the news, and the parts where they actually film these fake war scenes are completely inaccurate, to a laughable degree. I mean, how hard is that to get right? You’re making a movie about making a movie!

But back to language learning. Generally, English-speaking foreigners in the movies are portrayed one of two ways. Either they have a superheroic ability to speak dictionary-perfect English—they just have a strong accent so we know they’re foreign—or they speak a bizarre pidgin, an English native speaker’s approximation of beginner’s English, which is basically normal English but with a bunch of nonsensical mistakes thrown in the mix.

I can think of three specific offenders off the top of my head. That’s how much it bothers me—I can’t forget them!

The first is Carol Reed’s otherwise magnificent 1949 noir The Third Man. In the film, detective Holly Martins is poking around postwar Vienna after hearing that a close friend, played by Orson Welles, has apparently been murdered in the street. Early on, the reluctant gumshoe questions various witnesses to the crime, including an old Viennese porter.

Martins: Was he still alive?
Porter (thick accent): He couldn’t have been alive. Not with his head…in the way it was.
Martins: I was told that he did not die at once.
Porter: Er war gleich tot. Er war gleich tot, gleich tot. Moment. Fraulein Schmidt? Bitte, wie sagt man auf Englisch: “er war gleich tot”? (Fraulein Schmidt, how do you say, “er war gleich tot”?)
Fraulein Schmidt: He was quite dead.
Porter: Ah ja, quite dead. He was quite dead.

This exchange inspired the comic above. You’re telling me this old Viennese porter knows without hesitation how to correctly use the past perfect unreal conditional (“couldn’t have been…”) but not how to say “quite dead”? Unmöglich!

Another Hollywood absurdity is the character with the perfect grasp of both English and an obscure local language, despite not being a native, and translates flawlessly for the benefit of the protagonist. In 2004’s Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the eponymous hero has an Iranian compatriot named Kaji, who conveniently speaks perfect Tibetan. When it comes time to employ it, he’s so good that he doesn’t even need to pause before translating—in fact, he starts speaking over the Tibetan, so that we, the audience, don’t have to wait around for the local to finish his sentence. How thoughtful, if implausible.

The final linguistic reprobate on my list is Modern Family, the ABC comedy sitcom about a…well, a modern LA family. One such modern family member is Gloria, played by Sofía Vergara, a sexy young Colombian wife of the family patriarch. Of course, her English is perfect until, for the purposes of a joke, it’s suddenly not. One particularly galling running gag is her apparent inability to remember the English word for “helicopter,” which she humorously calls the “ggda-ggda-ggda-ggda” (helicopter noise). Had any of the show’s writers bothered to look up the word “helicopter” in a Spanish-English dictionary, they would have discovered that it translates to…“helicóptero.” Not exactly the most difficult word to remember, Gloria.

There is, however, one movie I can think of that does a fabulous job realistically portraying a language learner: the 2003 British rom-com Love, Actually. In one of the film’s many subplots, Colin Firth plays Jamie, a fellow who’s trying to woo the Portuguese Aurélia, who doesn’t speak a word of English. Our man bones up on his Portuguese and pays a surprise visit to the restaurant where she works. Charmingly, the English subtitles approximate his broken Portuguese:

Jamie: Beautiful Aurélia, I’ve come here with a view to asking you…to marriage me.

Her response, of course (in English):

Aurélia: That will be nice. Yes is being my answer.

It just goes to show that portraying the imperfection of language learning is much more interesting and endearing than showing James Bond, for example, speak every language without error. But I also wouldn’t mind if a bit more thought and research went into how languages are spoken imperfectly, if for no other reason than it bothers me, and I’m trying to enjoy the movie over here!

What about you? What language errors have you noticed on the silver screen or boob tube? How is your native language represented?

Don Your Orange, Slip on Your Wooden Shoes, and Learn Dutch—It’s Koningsdag!

Posted on 26. Apr, 2015 by in Events, Language Learning

In the United States, we bounce from one major holiday to the next. The moment you’ve taken down your Christmas lights, Valentine’s chocolates have hit the shelves. But in the Netherlands, the holiday calendar revolves around one particular day: Koningsdag (King’s Day).

On April 27th each year, the date of the King’s birthday, the usually prim and proper Dutchies let loose and show their Dutch pride in style. Celebrate the nation’s biggest holiday and show your own Dutch pride by learning a few words in their language in this free, interactive Koningsdag lesson!dutch kings day vocabulary

Interested in using this technology in your own classroom? Want to bring language learning to your customers or employees? Learn more about Transparent Language Online for schools, libraries, corporate organizations, or simply contact us!