The “secret” to language learning is just this: there is no secret! As with most things in life that are difficult to achieve (running a marathon, getting your black belt, earning your PhD, you name it), you just have to put in the time and effort. The *super top secret* part for language learning is to put in the effort every single day. I’m not saying total 24/7 immersion is the only solution—not even close. A brief but productive 15-30 minutes of study every single day is all you need. Here’s why:
- We learn best in short, consistent bursts: Have you ever heard that exercising in short, intense bursts yields better results than hours of moderate exercise? The same concept applies to learning languages. We’ve all crammed for a test for several hours the night before a test, only to regurgitate the information on paper and promptly forget it all. That technique of massed learning is not designed to help you retain material in the long run. More effective is the spaced learning technique, which involves reviewing and refreshing previously learned material on a regular basis. Spend 30 minutes really memorizing 10 new words today, then review them tomorrow and add 10 new words to the mix. Repeat this process every day, and you’ll be in much better shape than if you learned 100 words in one painfully long sitting and didn’t look at them again for two weeks.
- Short bursts are more manageable: Part of the short-but-consistent bursts idea is to really engage your mind during that time. If you sit down to study for 3 hours, you’ll undoubtedly face numerous distractions during that period and give in to them. (Real talk: I’ll admit to having checked my Facebook, e-mail, and the news so far while writing this post up to this point.) Our attention spans are short, and we need to respect that. You can easily sit down for 30 minutes and study intensely without checking your phone. But any longer than that and you risk getting distracted, which disrupts the learning process.
- Learning in short intervals prevents burnout: Being able to bring a higher level of concentration to your studies isn’t the only benefit to learning in small chunks. This approach also prevents you from experiencing the dreaded “burn out.” Everything is good in moderation, right? One cookie is heavenly… a dozen cookies later, you feel miserable and never want to see a cookie again (for like a week, anyway). Don’t put yourself in that situation with your new language. Learning for six hours on a Sunday may seem like commitment, but chances are the last thing you’ll want to do at the end of a long Monday is revisit that language.
- Learning every day establishes a routine: When we first commit to doing something new, we’re excited, which motivates us to dive in head first. But once that initial excitement ebbs, it’s pretty easy to let your commitment fall off too. We all know how it goes—taking one day off leads to two days off, which leads to excuses like “I’ll start over next week.” or “I’ll have more time after I finish this project.” Don’t fall for it, language learners! Everyone can find 15 minutes in their day to engage with a language, whether you’re commuting to/from work, waiting for an oil change, cooking dinner, folding laundry, on your lunch break, on the treadmill, and on and on and on. Pick up a book, put in some headphones, or do whatever you like. But do it every day until it becomes second nature.