Lately i’ve been browsing the forums at How To Learn Any Language.com, which is basically a collection of language enthusiasts and polyglots. Anyone has the ability to start a public log of their language-learning activities, and other people frequently comment on those to give encouragement and help.
One thing i’ve noticed is that a lot of people seem to underestimate the time required to learn a language. Everyone’s looking for the “quick fix” that will magically teach them japanese or spanish or swahili. If only they can find the “right method”, they’ll be saved and they’ll learn the language quickly. I’ve had a habit of thinking this way in the past, so i think i understand the appeal, however it doesn’t work. What really works is long-term commitment and consistency in your exposure to the language. I like this phrase that i heard somewhere: “many people overestimate what they can do in a day, and vastly underestimate what they can do in a year”.
On those forums, i see plenty of people who faithfully log their work for about 3 weeks and then give up. A lot of them seem to be logging 20 minutes of work here, 30 minutes there. I’m just not confident that this amount of work can lead to much. It might be more useful to just watch an hour-long episode of TV in that language. Almost everyone can find time for an hour of tv per day, so why can some of these people only manage 20 minutes of language study?
The people who seem to achieve success are not all using the same method. They have many different methods between them, but the common thread seems to be that they put in a decent amount of work every day, and they do it consistently for many months. Imagine that you wanted to become more athletic, but you only did a 20 minute warmup everyday, and then you stop after 3 weeks. You’re not going to go anywhere. On the other hand, if you did a warmup and then did an hour of exercise, and then you did that consistently for many months, i bet you’d be fantastically fit at the end.
Currently i’ve racked up 196 hours of listening and watching german tv. I’m definitely not fluent, but i really do notice a lot of improvements when i look at what was hard a few weeks ago. When i think back to university, i was disappointed when i took a spanish class and spent 3hrs per week in class, and maybe another 1 or 2 on homework each week. 5hrs per week times 13 weeks is 65 hours of work, but for most of that i was getting instruction in english, not spanish. Why was i so disappointed that i couldn’t speak any spanish afterwards? I’d understand more spanish if i’d just sat down and watched 65 hours of spanish tv, which i probably could have done in a lot less time than 13 weeks. My 196hrs has been spread over about 2 months so far, so that’s about 3hrs per day, and this is while i’m working full time. If only i were a student again with unlimited free time 😉
Find things you enjoy, find ways to keep motivated and on track, don’t worry about words you don’t know…you’ll know them soon enough. Just keep reading, watching, listening, and plan to do it for several months at least. Make it a habit not to judge yourself on anything until you’ve done it for 3 months, since you need at least that sort of time to really habituate your brain to the patterns of the new language. There’s no quick fix, but what’s a few months of time when you’ll be able to enjoy the language for the rest of your life?