Today I'm delighted to feature a guest post by Chi Fang about the value of intensive language learning.
In this post, Chi argues that your language learning practise is much more effective when it's deep and intensive, rather than short and passive. You'll learn about:
- The benefits of your pushing yourself to your language learning limits
- Why intensive learning yields better results than passive learning
- The right duration for your intensive learning sessions
Over to Chi…
Have you ever thought about something so hard and for so long that your brain felt like pudding?
That’s what you should be aiming for when it comes to learning a foreign language.
If you haven’t experienced this feeling, then you’re probably not getting the most out of your time and effort.
Now you might be thinking, why is that really necessary? Can’t I learn a language without the brain sweat?
Let’s examine why you need to push your limits and be more intensive with your language learning.
The Benefits of Intensive Language Learning
Simply put, with a more intensive language learning schedule, you'll learn faster.
Your language ability is largely a function of how much time you’ve spent working away at it, and how efficiently you’re using that time.
Most people believe that it takes several years to learn a language. But that’s far from the truth.
The trick is to think of language learning in terms of hours rather than months or years.
You’ll get significantly better results by spending 100 hours learning a language over the course of 3 months (a little over 1 hour a day), versus 100 hours over a 1-year period (~15 minutes per day).
The total number of hours invested is the same, but just by compressing your learning schedule from 1 year to 3 months, you are mathematically learning 4 times faster.
But not only that, the high-intensity schedule results in longer, deeper learning sessions that allow you to remember more of what you learn.
Legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi dedicated his life to the study of flow, which is a state of heightened focus where you are totally immersed in what you’re doing.
His research at the University of Chicago concluded that flow is not only associated with more productivity and creativity, but also represents some of the happiest moments of people’s lives.
“The best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
If you have a strong motivation to learn a language, then you can achieve happiness by dedicating yourself to that goal and letting yourself sink into the process of learning.
You may become so immersed that you lose track of time or even forget to eat and drink.
To achieve flow, you have to choose a task and concentrate on it single-mindedly, eliminating all other distractions.
Only then will you be able to reach that perfect state where you’ll make massive progress in your language learning while getting a sense of euphoria from the process.
Think of an intense language learning session as a fat-burning workout.
In recent years, high intensity interval workouts (HIIT) have become extremely popular in the personal fitness industry.
The basic premise is that you exert maximum effort for a short period of time, followed by a very brief break (sometimes as little as 10 seconds). You then repeat this pattern until you are too exhausted to continue.
Most people burn themselves out in just 20-30 minutes, but the amount of physical work performed during that time is equivalent to a 1-2 hour workout at a normal pace.
However, the beauty of HIIT is not just in the time efficiency.
A high-intensity workout increases your metabolism so that you body continues to burn fat for several hours afterwards as you go about your day.
Now can you think of a time when you had a conversation in a foreign language where you had to concentrate really hard?
How did you feel afterwards?
You probably noticed that long after the conversation was over, your mind continued to replay certain parts of it, translating words you learned or recalling some interesting phrases of dialogue.
This happens because the intensity of that conversation left behind a residual imprint so that your mind continues to think back to the experience and learn from it.
This imprint can be so strong that you end up dreaming about the experience. Talk about learning while you sleep!
The formula for pushing your limits in language learning is to find a method of learning that is intense, and then do it for a long period of time.
The best way to improve both of these skills simultaneously is by talking to people.
Conversation practice is more intense than other methods of learning because everything happens in real time.
You have to decipher what the other person is saying and formulate a response all in a matter of seconds.
This forces your brain to work overtime which is precisely why speaking is such an effective way to learn.
Selecting an Intense Activity
For example, listening to a podcast, or listening to a lecture are both semi-passive learning methods. So regardless of how much time you spend doing them, it won’t have the same effect.
So, how long should your learning sessions be?
It has to be sustainable, so we’re not talking about 4-hour marathons here.
For most people, 1-hour would be a good target (with a 5-minute break halfway through).
Here’s why longer sessions are important…
Have you ever felt that it takes you a little while to get used to speaking or thinking in another language?
The first few sentences you say might be slow and stuttering, but things gradually get better.
That’s because every time you change activities, it takes time to for your brain to switch gears and redirect your focus.
Your learning sessions need to be long enough so that you’ve had a chance to re-adjust and concentrate on the task at hand.
Studies show that we lose up to 40% of our productive time by switching between tasks.
So if you’re only learning for 15-20 minutes at a time, then you’ll barely have a chance to get settled before you have to move on to something else.
Unfortunately, language learning is one of those endeavours where many people adopt a “let’s see how it goes” attitude.
You can “try it out” by downloading an app, but that immediately puts you into the type of shallow, low-intensity learning mentality that you should avoid at all costs – just ask the app villain!
To get good results you need to make a real commitment to learn, which means investing time and/or money. And that's exactly what the inconsistency villain won't want you to do!
A time commitment could mean blocking out an hour in your calendar every weekday for language learning so that no matter what, you can’t schedule another activity into that time slot.
Or, it could mean agreeing to do a language exchange with someone, so that if you decide to back out, it’ll leave them disappointed.
An example of a monetary commitment would be to sign up for language lessons with a teacher several times per week and pay in advance, so that if you miss a class then you’re just wasting your money.
In essence, this is about setting a sufficiently demanding learning routine for yourself and doing it in a way that makes it hard for you to cheat or get off track.
When you are just starting out in learning a language, all those new grammar rules and vocabulary swirling in your head can tire you out pretty easily.
After just 30 minutes of speaking, your brain might feel pretty fried and at that point, you know you’ve pushed yourself as far as you can go.
Over time, your brain will continue to adapt and form mental connections in your new language.
You’ll get more and more used to communicating in that language, and a 30 minute or 1-hour conversation may not feel as taxing as it used to.
As you continue to progress, the amount of time it takes for you to reach “brain pudding” status, becomes longer and longer.
So, instead of having 1-hour, one-on-one conversations, you should start going to 3-hour Meetups where you have to talk to multiple people simultaneously.
Similar to how a long distance runner would progress from 5K, 10K to marathon distances, you need to continue to challenge yourself as you get better.
There are many people who have a very relaxed attitude to learning a language.
“What’s the rush?”, they say. “Just take it easy, smell the roses and enjoy the process. You’ll get there eventually… right?”
However, the end goal is often what matters most.
- Maybe you want to learn French because there is a great job opportunity that you want to pursue.
- Maybe your reason for learning Spanish is to be able to visit South America and travel with confidence.
Most of us learn a foreign language because we want to use it. ASAP.
So it makes sense to attach a sense of urgency to language learning. It’s better to push yourself with some intensive language learning now so that you can reap the benefits sooner rather than later.
Sure, you also want to be able to enjoy the process of learning.
However, the greatest joy that you feel day-to-day in language learning is derived from actually making progress.
It feels great to say to yourself “Whoa, I think I’m finally getting this!”.
And if you keep pushing your limits, you’ll find yourself saying that pretty often.
Chi Fang is the Founder of Verbalicity.com, a language learning platform that offers online Spanish lessons with premium, handpicked teachers.