Can You Multitask While You Learn A Language?

Are your distractions a cop-out, or are they distractions with a purpose?
Woman holding child on her lap while she works at a computer

As long as humans have a vested interest in working smarter and not harder, the constant search for efficiency hacks will march on. But it’s worth considering that multitasking is not always something we do strategically — or even on purpose. Truthfully, the vast majority of multitasking is done absentmindedly — texting or checking social media while you’re “working,” or quickly putting something on the stove while you talk to your mom.

Studying a language is a pretty mentally demanding task that is generally best handled with one’s undivided attention, but it’s not entirely as simple as that. While many studies have shown that multitasking is usually detrimental when you’re studying, there are certain exceptions to that rule that are specific to language learners. The key is whether you’re multitasking to distract yourself, or whether you’re multitasking in an informed or intentional way.

Mindless Multitasking

For better or for worse, this first category of multitasking is the one most of us default to unconsciously.

One psychology professor at California State University–Dominguez Hills once tracked the study habits of his students to see how often they checked their email, looked at Facebook, texted or looked at off-topic material online while they were supposed to be studying something “important.” Within just 15 minutes, only about 65 percent of that time was spent performing “on-task behavior.”

And unfortunately, these distractions aren’t merely sucking up valuable time; they’re also interfering with the learning process. Attempting to combine two mentally demanding tasks often means they’ll be competing for mental bandwidth from the same part of your brain. Plus, switching back and forth between two different types of tasks can be exhausting for the brain.

Let’s not forget that when you get distracted, it takes on average almost 25 minutes to get refocused on your previous task. So that’s a lot more wasted time than most of us even bargain for.

One 2006 study found that the brain actually stores information differently when it’s distracted. The study participants who were asked to multitask while engaging in a learning activity may have appeared to know the material, but when asked to actually apply their new knowledge, they proved less successful. The participants actually had brain scans taken during the experiment, and the investigators found that a different part of the brain is activated when its attention is divided.

Another study found that students who performed a second cognitive task while studying were able to recall 33 percent fewer words than the control group.

All of that is to say that if you study a language while you’re mentally distracted, you might think you’re retaining all that good vocabulary, but when it comes time to speak on the fly, you might falter — and not just on account of your foreign-language anxiety.

Mindful Multitasking

If you came here looking for ways to effectively kill two birds with one stone while you’re drilling your Turkish, there are certainly ways to multitask in a productive way. Here are just a few.

  • You can try to learn more than one language at once. Of course, this probably isn’t the best route to take if you’re striving for a comprehensive, near-perfect grasp of your new language, but if you’d rather spread yourself a little thin so you can cover more ground, this could be a great way to keep yourself interested in what you’re learning — especially if you tend to get bored easily.

  • You can attempt to study while you exercise (science supports it!). A group of study participants who studied vocabulary in a foreign language while riding a stationary bike was able to perform better than those who remained still, and they even recalled more information a month later. Of course, it might be too distracting to try to read while you’re working up a sweat, but it might not be a bad idea to listen to audio lessons — or turn on a foreign-language podcast or music playlist.

  • Speaking of podcasts, they’re a great tool to keep in your language-learning arsenal. And the nice thing about foreign-language media — especially the audio kind — is that you can legitimately benefit from having a podcast or playlist on in the background while you do other chores that don’t require tons of mental concentration. Call it exposure therapy, or learning through osmosis, but you’ll probably pick things up without having to try very hard — even if it’s just a better grasp of cadence or pronunciation.

  • If you’re easily bored, you might benefit from multitasking in the sense of switching up your learning tasks sequentially, rather than attempting to do two things at the same time. In this sense, you might be working on a certain set of grammar rules for 15 minutes, then attempting to memorize a set of vocab for another 10, and then trying to nail the pronunciation of a certain set of phonemes. In this sense, you’re multitasking in your language studies to prevent burnout in any given area, but you’re still giving your undivided attention to a particular task for short periods of time.
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