I wonder what you would consider the most time efficient way to learn a new language outside the country it is spoken in. I feel as if many things I do when it comes to language learning are dictated by my current level of motivation. However, this could mean that I skip revising vocabulary because “it is too boring” or “I am too tired”. Or sometimes, I rather watch TV dramas in my target language even though reading (or something else) would be more efficient. I am also not convinced the “read as much as you can” is necessarily the most time efficient way to acquire a language. What is your take on this? (I am talking about maximising progress relative to the time invested (and about realistic ways, not super human goals like memorizing 500 words a day or SRSing for 15 hours a day…).
I think it depends on your level, your goals and what exactly you want to learn. I’ve done italki lessons, language apps, audio immersion with native content, and reading. I’ve only felt noticeable progress with reading. As a beginner in Spanish, taking almost daily iTalki lessons did not improve my speaking ability or language comprehension. Language apps did nothing. Audio immersion did nothing. Reading has been the only thing that works for me. Within a few months of focusing all of my time (~1 hour / day) on reading, I can now understand most written Spanish content I come across. I’m halfway through my first adult novel with the help of LingQ and next month I plan on starting my first middle grade novel without LingQ.
I prioritized reading because reading is what I’d like to do most in my target language. But if I wanted to listen to podcasts and watch shows, I’d be doing intensive listening. If I wanted to get by with some spoken fluency for a trip, I’d be drilling phrases and sign back up for iTalki. Whatever you want to get good at, do that thing.
- I will keep watching Television series every day even if it means just one episode but will keep watching them daily. As I noticed that, the language I come across in this medium is pretty close to what I hear at shopsand on the streets. They are not a total waste of time.
- I will start reading books but will make sure I will also get an audiobook as well so that I can listen to them as well in order to develop my listening skills. Therefore, using LingQ here comes handy as looking up words here is time efficient. It will build up my passive vocabulary and facilitate my overall understanding.
- You need massive input so working through books/audiobooks will be ideal.
- I do not feel like "studying"if my language day consists of various activities.
- Do no dot either listening or reading or SRSing all day long.
Today., I watched German anime for 1 hour. Then, I worked through Kafka’s short novel for 2.5 hours on LingQ. Before going to bed, I will watch a German movie that’s another 1.5 hour. I am getting enough exposure without having any monotony at my disposal.
I think you’re looking for a fantasy. The reality is that, at the intermediate/low-advanced level, there is a loong plateau to get through. Everything you do during that period will add up but every single piece will count for very little and no single one will take you to your goals significantly faster or easier than the others, to the point that most are essentially interchangeable. Besides, the relative role of any activity is bound to vary from month to month, even week to week.
Even leaving behind the single most important factor that I’m sure you are already aware of: motivation! there are still two important considerations that go against the search for the magical optimal strategy:
- Second-guessing or doubting yourself will do a lot to hold your progress back. E.g. if you spend a day leisurely watching dramas, that would probably be beneficial. If you do the same while nagging yourself because “you should be reading or doing flashcards”, the benefit will probably be much less because you’re not concentrating on the language. Just as in swimming, progress in the intermediate language learning stage, is much more about avoiding “drag” than striving to force you forward. By the same token, the time you spend trying to optimize your strategy is time you don’t spend getting exposed to the language.
- In the intermediate stage, variety itself is hugely important. Even if there were a maximally efficient activity, you should still spend a lot of time doing the less efficient ones to avoid unbalances in your knowledge.
This is a great question which goes to the main issue with language learning. Ftornay explains is perfectly which he usually does. Bottom line no matter what you do it will take time. Each day you do it you will be making minimal progress that you probably won’t see. It is a marathon and not a sprint. Personally I like to pace myself. No more than 2 hours a day if I have a whole day. I don’t wanna burn out. Usually around 30 minutes to 60 minutes reading and listening at the same time. Over time you will improve and will notice the improvement and when you do notice it that in and of itself is motivating.
The reason people learn quickly by being in the country of the language they are learning is the amount of exposure they are getting. It’s the constant hearing, reading, seeing of the language, combined with simultaneous speaking, which gives the rapid growth.
The easiest way to mimic the exposure I think is reading things, watching movies, listening to radio (podcasts etc).
In that respect I definitely think reading is more efficient than learning flashcards. Are there more efficient ways? maybe. The key thing I think is to do what works for you so that you keep going - as someone else mentioned already, that intermediate/advanced is long and will take a while to get through whatever you do.
If I had time and money to burn, I would probably read about three hours a day, watch a movie/tv series or two, and spend about two hours talking to someone on Italki every day. Doing that is probably the closest you would get to total immersion/maximizing efficiency? That’s just my take.
I agree with much of your answer. I know it is a marathon. Nevertheless, surely there must be more efficient and less efficient ways to study a language. Just like, if you are training to finish an Ironman in a certain amount of time, there surely are better and worse ways to train.
I am not really doubting myself, but rather I am looking back at my 2 years of studying Chinese and if I had a chance to turn back the time and start again, I probably would not be doing certain things. I just wondered what those things were for you guys.
I think there is a key distinction between being efficient with your time and being efficient with your energy and/or other resources. Strategies that are efficient in the short term are not necessarily efficient in the long run because usually you have to sacrifice one resource for another (time, energy, money, the patience of people around you, etc.) to achieve efficiency.
I think the most time-efficient strategy would be to have someone acting full-time as a “language parent,” talking to you constantly and reading out loud to you all day. For most people, this is not an accessible strategy, even if you live in a country where the language is spoken.
Some other time-efficient strategies, like close reading, require a lot of energy and can be difficult to do consistently, especially after a full day of work/school. Reading and listening at the same time is another time-efficient strategy, but like close reading, requires your full attention.
Then there passive strategies, like listening to radio/podcasts/audiobooks while commuting or doing some other menial task, which won’t be as beneficial as reading, but make use of time that you can’t use for reading and allow for a break from a more intense activity.
In terms of energy efficiency, I think TV dramas are a great strategy. For me, at least, I am able to watch a TV drama for way longer in one go than I am able to read an academic paper. Books and other written text have a greater density of language, because everything the author wants you to imagine has to be described in words, which makes reading an “efficient” delivery of language. But with TV or movies, there is a plethora of context clues—tone of voice, facial expressions, mise-en-scène—that will help you understand the fewer words present with less cognitive effort or fewer interruptions to look something up in the dictionary. Therefore, TV shows (especially if the episode ends in a cliffhanger) lend themselves to consistency in a way that reading nonfiction does not. I think this can contribute to an overall “efficient” strategy because it can prevent burnout, as others have mentioned, and listening to dialogue is a different kind of exposure to the language than reading is anyway.
As far as “read as much as you can” goes, I do think and have seen compelling evidence for the idea that reading is the most efficient way to acquire new vocabulary. But you also need to keep in mind what your reason for learning the language is when you are choosing reading material. If you want to be able to use the language for academia (or favor depth over breadth in any area) as quickly as possible, then starting with a children’s textbook for your field and working your way up to the relevant journals would be a better approach than reading a variety of material and gradually increasing your reading level across the board. If you are learning the language because you want to chat with a friend, then reading dialogue-heavy fiction or basic articles across a variety of topics and current events would be more appropriate.
Unless you are going to be tested on specific vocabulary, SRSing is a waste of time and energy. It is a brute force approach that compels you to rely on formulaic translation rather than understanding and producing the language organically.
I think that overall, the most efficient approach to language learning for most people is a balanced approach that combines time- and energy- efficient methods, is salient, and is enjoyable. (If you have to fight yourself to study in the way you had planned, you’re not going to be productive anyway.) One last point is that if you are trying to learn a given language in as little time as possible, you need to be keeping track of what you are doing and how much progress you are making so that you can make adjustments going forward. Write down how much time you planned to spend with each study method vs how much time you actually spent doing it as well as if you felt energized/productive afterward or exhausted. If one method is consistently a time or energy sink, figure out how to make it easier or replace it with something else. Language progress is fuzzy and hard to measure, but something like checking in with a tutor or friend who is a native speaker every few months and having a conversation in which they push you as far as you can go or choosing a few random news articles every month and see how well you can understand them are probably more meaningful metrics than known words or words read on LingQ, even though they are not quantifiable. If you make exceptionally good or bad progress in a given period, then you will have data available to help you tweak your plan going forward.
There is a lot of information missing. On average I study about 4-6 hours a day and that does included 1-2 hours of passive audio. A few times a week I have a live language exchange. Every other day and sometimes every day I talk with my language exchange friends.
There is no easy way to learn a language, there is no quick hack, and few people will ever learn a language in 3 months. You might be able to have a brief conversation but that’s all.
Take some time and define why are you learning your L2 language? What do you plan on doing with your language? How much time a day will you dedicate? When do you want to reach a real B1-B2 level? Keep in mind time doubles as you go up. Basic example if it takes you 2 month to reach an A1 with all things being the same it will take about 4 month for A2 and 8 months for a B1. Stick with material and content at the level you are learning.
The only hack I can give you is focus on what you are learning. If my language talk for the week is about cleaning the house and painting I will read about those areas. I normally focus on the same content area for a few weeks and then move on and bring back old content that I have learned. also I pick up on areas that my partners are interested in as well.
Your days sound like my days! I wish we were learning the same language.
My best ways to learn the language are:
- apps - lingQ and duolingo are my faves for learning a new languages
- watch movies/episodes/cartoons in that language
- read books - at the beginning it is super difficult and you need to use vocabulary all the time but to the middle of the book it goes faster and easier
- date a native speaker. I usually find dates online. I prefer quick flirt app, but there are few more good ones here https://www.nerdydatingsites.com/.
- travel to the country where they speak the language you learn and talk to everyone only this language. Yes, you will do mistakes, you will say wrong some words or don’t know at all some words. It doesn’t matter! Native speakers will probably understand you and it always puts a smile on a stranger’s face if you are trying to speak his language)
I believe the human brain is designed to learn languages by listening and speaking. Humans have been around about 200,000 years but reading and writing have been around a maximum of 5,000 years.
My armchair philosophy is therefore that you get as much spoken input as possible. If you can get some kind of SRS boost using spoken material so much the better. Once you have done that, THEN do the reading. I just did this with French, going from maybe an A1 at best up to high B1 low B2 over six months from a standing start after having not looked at french since high school more than twenty years ago. I only discovered lingq in month 5 out of the 6 months so I might have done better if I had found it earlier, I don’t know. Now I’m doing a six month russian challenge. I’m not gonna lie, I’m struggling a bit. That said it’s only been 3 weeks so I’m maybe expecting too much plus russian is essentially gibberish whereas french has a lot of words just pronounced wierdly I already know. That said, I can already hear the separate words in russian soap operas and pick out words here and there, maybe about 1 in 20 words. I’m using linq to grab “phrases” as models to import into anki right now. I’m hoping that by the end of august I should be able to understand about 1/3 of the words in the soap operas. At that point I think I will be ready to do some heavy duty lingq every day in russian.
Sorry nope it isn’t a waste of time. I have two languages under my belt now with my primary method anki.
EDIT: I think the rest of your post is very thoughtful and I agree with you.
Honestly? I think you’re right in broad sweep. It’s all about massive input. I think that if you just did SRS learning words only for two years vs watching TV, listening to radio for two years at the end of the two years the TV/radio would win out. The anki person would know a lot of words but only barely be able to understand easy stuff (if he/she had used mp3s in anki).
Where anki/srs shines is in speeding up the initial process. We don’t learn big chunks of grammar at the beginning. 100% it is isolated words.
Therefore my armchair philosophy on this is brute forcing a bunch of very useful words at the beginning THEN once you have at least 1,000-2,000 brute forcing a ton of listening/watching TV is optimal.
Lingq is very interesting because it’s not really purely reading. I bet most people would fail if they just tried to learn by reading. Lingq is exposure to the sound when you click on each word. That in my mind is critical.
Anyhow, different strokes for different folks. Watching youtube videos of discussions from various of the polyglots is very interesting. They all have different methods.
Yes I believe there are more efficient and worse ways. Going to a “classic” class once a week you will fail. From there on upwards there are different methods that are more optimal than others. I don’t know what they are.
Here is what I have done, however, to teach myself Spanish then French. My guess is I’m C1 in Spanish across the board and B1/low B2 in french in understanding spoken French/written French. I can’t speak or write for shit in French.
English is my native language. For spanish I did 8,000 isolated words in the first SRS (supermemo). Took about 3 months. Then I did a bunch of CDs with audio over a couple months. Then I used supermemo to memorize the top 100 verbs took about a month. Then I started watching telenovelas which I could understand almost nothing of for about two months and gradually started to understand. At about 10 months I got a language partner an hour a day every day. About 18 months in I was pretty fluent.
French this time: I spent six months creating a deck of 8,000 words. I recorded each word in mp3 using google translate and audacity. I think started memorizing the words using anki. I got about 2,000 words in after a month and started watching youtube. I could pick up about 20% of the isolated words out of a stream of language from “easy” podcasts. I got nothing from “advanced” podcasts like squeezie. I watched “easy” podcasts solidly for about a month and kept on bashing away at anki. At about 3,000 words of anki and after a month of watching “easy” podcasts I was able to catch about 1/3 of words from “advanced” podcasts. I couldn’t understand anything from “dix pour cent” which is a netflix show with slang. End of month four I could just about understand 90% of intermediate podcasts from “innerfrench” and similar and I had 4,000 words in with anki.
Month 5 I discoverd lingq and started hammering it plus putting phrases into anki using google translate mp3s from audacity. By the end of month 5 I was able to understand about 2/3 of fast spoken advanced podcasts (squeezie) and about 1/3 of “dix pour cent” sometimes whole sentences. At the end of month six I had 5,000 words in and I could more or less understand squeezie slowed down. I had 45 of the 60 stories in.
Where I am today: I can understand everything intermediate podcasts say with no problems. I can understand france24 TV with no problems. I can understand squeezie more or less. I still can’t understand dix pour cent. I think they use too much slang.
My speaking sucks, however. I suspect I could have more or less a stilted conversation with a native speaker if they were patient. But I don’t care. Speaking isn’t my goal. It’s understanding TV shows.
The whole time I was doing French I was also creating a spreadsheet from google translate of 6,000 russian words again with mp3s.
So now I started Russian and basically slowed down on French to almost nothing except watching squeezie a couple times a week. My observations 3 weeks in on Russian:
Unlike French and Spanish, Russian is basically gibberish sounding. I’m finding it very difficult to match the sounds to my English translation. I say “very difficult”, however, not “impossible”.
I’d estimate based on my previous experience with French and Spanish that it is about 4 times as hard to memorize a word of russian than it is French or Spanish.
At the same time, however, I am also watching at least two episodes of easy beginner’s immersive TPRS type russian every day. I understand those about 80-90%. I also try to watch at least 30 minutes of a Russian telenovela. I understand almost nothing but I can make out individual words no problem. I do catch maybe 1 word in 20 and sometimes some phrases.
I’m also using duolingo and mondly purely for entertainment because they are fun.
I’m also doing one easy story in Russian on Lingq where I’m clicking on each word and then clicking on the whole phrase. If the phrase is interesting, I’m recording it with audacity and dropping it into my anki deck.
My expectation is that in about a month to six weeks from now I should be able to understand easy russian podcasts (stream of speech not TPRS) and that I should be able to get about 1/2 of the words in any given russian telenovela.
I don’t know how successful I will be but this is an experiment to see how much of a non western european language I can learn in six months.
I think you are 4/5 right. I’ll say “do not do SRS” all day long ONLY is true. I do think SRS has its place.
But in general I think you are 100% right about massive AUDIO input. TV is awesome once you can understand the basics. If you have about a toddler’s comprehension of a language (i.e. basic words and 2 word sentence) I believe you can pick the rest up from context just from watching TV.
It’s getting to a toddler level that is the challenge.
I found something different than you in your first paragraph.
But your second paragraph you are right. 100% right.
What you described is exactly what I’m doing. My goal is to be able to understand spoken content. I more or less succeeded with French. I’m doing it with Russian right now.
And yes, I would also do exactly what you are doing if reading was my goal.
What is interesting, though, is it is close to impossible to do listening only without doing some kind of reading. At least if you want to learn vocabulary. Just watching TV or listening to radio alone I think would be super painful for me without speeding things up by brute forcing some vocab through anki. And I have to use the written word to make mp3s, no other way around it.
Now my daughter and I are starting to learn to read and write. Children’s interesting books help a lot in this, I recently ordered a personalized book “It’s bedtime, Alice” here Personalized Children's Books | letStel. The child is delighted and the learning process is many times easier))
High B1 / low B2 in 6 months is pretty impressive. What else did you actually do during this time?
Honestly, no one knows the most efficient way but there are some really good ideas here. I’ve learned a few languages to various levels of proficiency so I’ll chime in.
To me it seems the big challenges for intermediate to advanced are–
Acquiring vocabulary, probably the biggest issue (I’m sure Steve acknowledged this as the biggest challenge once, I agree)
Improving listening comprehension
Activating vocabulary and conversational skills
Fluency in reading a different script (if applicable)
All are interconnected ofc
Some Challenges to efficiency are,
Suboptimal methods (often hard to identify due to lack of extensive research)
Forgetting (if we see words and phrases but then forget and have to relearn them, this is an issue, and it’s common)
Lack of concentration (seems very plausible that this would impact efficiency)
Ways to overcome these inefficiencies:
Manage energy, activities, and materials to reduce inattention, boredom etc. - inefficiency 3
Primarily focus on 1 or 2 useful and interesting topics, narrowing the focus for times increases the likelihood of seeing/hearing the same words (sometimes called focusing on a domain of language) - inefficiency 2
Use SRS judiciously to learn new vocabulary. I acknowledge the controversy, but it seems probably the best way to help with the biggest challenge while avoiding the forgetting inefficiency.
I think probably a mixture of reading and listening input on the same topics may be efficient because you build listening skills, while also getting the written text to support more solid vocabulary knowledge.
Speaking is important too because the active recall involved solidifies memory very well, this has a lot of evidence supporting itit. Input with very little speaking will be inefficient due to this effect.
There are probably more hacks to boost efficiency, anything that boosts memory and learning really.