The One Thing Every Successful Language Learner Knows
If there was one comprehensive theory on how to learn any language that worked for everybody in the world, we’d probably all be speaking seven languages. The truth about language learning is that it’s often a highly personal journey.
But though everyone’s brain responds to new material differently, there is one bit of acquired wisdom we hear over and over again in our conversations with various language-learning and habit-formation experts, and it’s this:
This isn’t just wisdom speaking either. By making learning a consistent habit (versus something you do once in a three-hour cram session), you’re engaging the part of your brain that wants to hold on to information for the long term. The spaced repetition technique is proven by science, and it’s one of the core attributes of the Babbel Method. We reintroduce words through six memory stages that are optimally spaced out to help move information from your short-term to your long-term memory. And all in quick, manageable lessons you can easily breeze through while you’re waiting in line at the grocery store.
In short, 10 minutes a day can go a really long way. Here’s what 6 language and habit-formation experts have had to say about this.
John McWhorter, leading linguistics expert:
“The other thing is having realistic expectations of how much time you’re going to spend a day. For example, when I’m not doing my Mandarin lessons, which involve going and talking to a person for an hour and a half … 15 minutes, maybe 20 minutes a day. That’s about all the time I have. If I tried to make it more, I would get intimidated, and I probably couldn’t fit it in because, if you’re a busy person, life doesn’t offer you naked half hours, and certainly not whole hours.”
Matthew Youlden, polyglot and speaker of 9 languages:
“I tend to want to absorb as much as possible right from the start. So if I learn something, I really, really go for it and try to use it throughout the day. As the week progresses I try to think in it, try to write in it, try to speak to myself even in that language. For me, it’s about actually putting what you’re learning into practice — be that writing an email, speaking to yourself, listening to music, listening to the radio. Surrounding yourself, submerging yourself in the new language culture is extremely important.” Here are 10 of Matthew’s best language-learning tips.
Karoline Schnur, linguistics expert at Babbel:
“To get something into long-term memory, you must make connections and repeat it. Repetition is really important in language learning.”
“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, if you start with a new lesson with a few bits of information, that takes about 15 minutes. Then you can go into repetition: Repeat 10 previous items and you need less than 5 minutes for that.” Here’s what else Karoline had to say about learning a language in 15 minutes per day.
David J. Peterson, conlanger of Game Of Thrones fame:
“For regular study, just being sure that you’re at it, that you do something with it every single day is more important. There’s no real trick to it. Keep at it. It’s better to study one hour a day for five days a week than five hours a day for one day a week, so that you’re constantly hearing it, you’re constantly interacting with it. You’re constantly thinking about it, trying to get that language into your head. That helps me more than anything else.”
Laura Vanderkam, time management expert:
“The reality is that it takes a lot of time and practice to get there. And so, that’s the part you have to build into your life. And you don’t have to build much time. I think we’re better off setting very small goals for ourselves in the short-term, because that’s what leads to good things in the long run.
Telling yourself, ‘I am going to study for 10 minutes a day,’ and setting a certain time where that is most likely to happen, can really go a long way toward doing this. So maybe you say, ‘I always take a break around mid-morning and get my coffee. As soon as I get my coffee, I’m going to practice my German for 10 minutes. Alright? If for some reason I can’t do that, let’s make a backup plan. I’m going to do it at lunch, if I can’t do that. And if I can’t do it at either, because I’m traveling somewhere, I’m going to do it at night before bed.'”
Gretchen Rubin, habit formation expert:
“There are all these individual differences, but no matter who we are, we’re dramatically influenced by how convenient something is. So anything that makes it easy to do something and convenient to do something is more likely to help us follow through.”