Karoline Schnur, linguistics expert at Babbel
As you might expect in a language learning company, almost everyone who works at Babbel is multilingual. I say almost because I’m not one of them (yet). Like many native English speakers, my attempts to learn a second language in school were in vain. I have now reached an intermediate conversational level in German, but it’s nothing compared to my international colleagues. Every day I hear people walking around the office speaking dozens of different languages, code switching in conversations with different colleagues, and translating their funny idioms into English. But even among the serial language learners at Babbel, you’ll never find someone poring over French 101 textbooks, cramming themselves to fluency.
That’s because the central principle of the Babbel language learning approach is that people should spend about 20 minutes per day studying a new language. This is surprisingly short compared to the length of time university students are expected to study a language nightly (~90 minutes). So how are people at Babbel picking up new languages even though they’re putting in less time than I spent cramming Spanish verb conjugation in high school? I sat down with one of Babbel’s linguistic experts, Karoline Schnur, to find out how 20 minutes of learning per day is all you need to become proficient in a new language.
The Babbel Approach
Karoline started off by explaining the central principle behind the Babbel learning approach: “If you read a lot of information, you won’t be able to absorb everything. We call this information overload or cognitive overload.” She explained that the brain is a master at deciding what information in our daily lives is important and what is background noise. This background information is tossed out, and never makes it into our long-term memory. Great for guiding our day-to-day lives, but not so great for language learning.
Karoline was also keen to dispel the myths about cramming, or binge learning: “This is when you have a big test coming up so you sit down and try to learn everything that you need to know. But how much do you remember after a week? Probably not that much.” Instead of worrying about trying to do a lot all at once, it’s actually more important to repeat a smaller portion of information more frequently. She continued, “To get something into long term memory, you must make connections and repeat it. Repetition is really important in language learning.”
Fortunately, the Babbel App was specifically designed with the limitations of human memory in mind. Twenty minutes corresponds well with the principle of “chunking” in psychology — our brains work best at absorbing around seven new things at a time. As Karoline explained, “If you think about the capacity of your brain to digest around seven chunks of new information, the time is a clear limit. From our Babbel perspective, you could start with repetition: you repeat 10 items and you need less than 5 minutes for that. Then you can do a new lesson, which takes about 15 minutes. Now you have your 20 minutes.”
Sounds easy enough, right?
A Scientific Approach That Works
With some of the science behind the Babbel approach under our belt, it was time to see how the app reinforced this approach. According to Karoline, “We have repetition built into the lessons with different exercises and different contexts, so that you make these connections.” While you may first encounter a certain set of vocabulary in the beginner courses, these words will also pop up in later dialogue practices — and not just in the obvious contexts. For example, a course on talking about young children will not only feature the standard vocabulary of child-rearing, but will also have words related to seniors, construction and noise. This is because our world is dynamic, and it’s important to recall these words at any time — not just at the kindergarten!
Because repetition is so important, the Babbel App has a Review Manager that’s designed solely for repeating information and getting it into your long-term memory. When talking about the rationale behind this approach, Karoline explained, “This also comes from psychology, and it’s based on time intervals. Each time you repeat something and get it correct, it will move up a step.” When using the app, you’ll notice that items come up for review not only right after a lesson is completed, but in the days and weeks that follow. She continued, “If you keep getting it correct, the time until you see it again expands. After all those steps are done, we say, ‘OK, this is in your long-term memory.'” In this way, Babbel isn’t just helping you memorize vocabulary, but truly learn a language.
Our Tips And Tricks For Language Learning
1. Learning on the go
With only 20 minutes to study each day, I was eager to ask Karoline for any tips she could give me to best use my time. “If you take a moment to determine where you have more time and where you have less time, you can choose your lesson accordingly. At Babbel, we’ve designed our lessons so that they fit perfectly into those times when you’re waiting or commuting.” Many users (including lots of employees here at Babbel) use the app while on public transportation, especially on their way to work. It’s the perfect use of an otherwise boring stretch of time.
2. Find the right learning pattern for you
Karoline noted that learners can adapt their studying to their personality type. “There are two types of language learners: those who like routines and those who don’t. The ones who like routines can make up their own schedule, like two sets of repetition and one new lesson, and they stick to it. Then there are ones that don’t like routines. It’s no problem, they just don’t do the same thing every day.” She suggested that these types of people can choose to dedicate some days to only repetition (which isn’t a lost day, because you didn’t forget anything!), and other days to just new lessons, or whatever ratio they prefer.
3. Build confidence through practice
She also recommended that one day per week should focus on applying the language to real life:
If you plan on using the language in real life (which is the goal, isn’t it?), then you should actually put it to use.
4. Make a habit of daily learning
As for Karoline’s final tip: “The most important thing is to do something every day. Even if it’s just 10 minutes, instead of 20, it’s better than nothing because you made connections.” While spending a full 20 minutes a day should be the goal for language learning, the key to proficiency in another language is daily practice. With this consistency, you’ll be speaking a new language in no time.