How Much Language Study Time Per Day is Enough?

The gears of time, attribution tXc:  https://www.facebook.com/expatgoneforeign?fref=ts
 

With so many language learners – or prospective language learners – struggling to “find the time” to learn languages it’s always a heavy burden trying to convince people that learning a language isn’t about having the time, it’s about finding the time; creating it.

But once you’ve figured out how to manage your time and focus on your language goals; how much of this precious commodity should you invest each day into your learning project? How much time is enough time?




Unfortunately…

…there’s no simple answer.

You could make the argument that the amount of time you invest in your language project is directly proportional to the benefits you’ll receive in kind when it comes to attaining fluency quickly. The more you study, the faster you’ll reach your goals, right?

Certainly makes sense, and is probably a good way to look at things, but let’s face it; most of us are far too lazy to spend all of our time learning languages. If we weren’t I probably wouldn’t be writing this blog, and you certainly wouldn’t be reading it. We’d all be hyperpolyglots and the world would be a far more intercultural, understanding and prosperous place.

  

No, instead we need to come to terms with a schedule that works for each of us individually but that still allows us to get somewhere.

Is an hour a day enough?

Sure it is; or at least it can be. I think that if you can put in a concerted effort for one hour a day you will be able to meet your language learning goals in a relatively timely fashion. If you can invest more time; great, if not; you may still be alright.

What about half an hour per day? An hour twice per week?

How far do you think you’d get if you studied for 3 hours per day? That’s a really rough schedule and not one I’d expect of anyone other than the most diehard polyglot ascendants to attempt to maintain. But would it get you there faster? Maybe, but there’s a lot more to learning a language than simply throwing yourself against a wall over and over again.

Quality over quantity

The amount of time you spend learning a language does correlate to the amount of success you’re likely to attain with that language. However, it isn’t the only thing you need to worry about.

Finding an effective learning solution and routine are actually more important than simply hurling time at your project and expecting results. Depending on the strategies you employ you can drastically increase or decrease your rate of success.

When I was working for The Literacy Volunteers of Eastern Connecticut our offices used Rosetta Stone: English in our two computer labs. Anyone who follows this blog knows that there is little love lost between myself and Rosetta Stone’s primary instruction methods. You can read a full story about my misadventures with Rosetta Stone here, but suffice to say that Rosetta’s word/picture matching theme is one of my least favorite systems and in my opinion one of the least effective.

I can’t say that Rosetta was completely useless or that it didn’t help any of our learners, but I witnessed a large number of individuals who would drop by the computer labs every single day to use Rosetta Stone – in some cases for over eight years – and yet were nearly completely unable to articulate even the most basic English phrases or questions. Typically these  learners would not be participating in other learning opportunities either such as group discussions or one on one tutoring. It wasn’t hard to see that time spent learning does not directly correlate to success – technique does.

Finding the techniques and learning strategies that work best for you can be a difficult task in and of itself. My best advice is to take inventory of the time you want to invest, any budget you may allow for yourself, which study methods have worked the best for you in the past (school or university, etc), and the technology you have at your disposal that may be of assistance. Unfortunately discovering your groove can take a while and no small amount of trial and error. Stick with it and don’t be afraid to diversify your strategy!

So, what’s the bare minimum?

Lets face it; the vast majority of those interested in learning languages aren’t doing it for love, they’re doing it because they’re looking to get ahead in life, to land a better job, or because they’re planning on taking a vacation to a foreign country. Learning a language isn’t really a “normal” pastime for most of us but is more often than not seen as something of a chore that we hope to “complete” as quickly as possible. While that isn’t how I prefer to think, I completely understand the need for speed.

So if that’s what you’re looking to do, how much time is enough?

I would say that if you can’t squeeze in at least half an hour per day for a course such as Pimsleur and some brief review of past content, you need to seriously re-evaluate your reasons for studying your language in the first place. Anything less than that is (probably) going to be somewhat ineffective.

If you’re trying to get the most bang for your buck, you need to choose a method that gets you talking! Find one (or preferably several) language partners that you can Skype with or meet up with in person with. They can be teachers, tutors or just others like you looking for a language exchange. If you can spend 30-60 minutes 3-5 times per week speaking with these people and really putting in a concerted effort, I think you could reach your proficiency goals in a fraction of the time it’d take you to get there spending 2 hours a day pushing yourself through other study methods.

If you want to learn quickly, you’ve got to put yourself out there and speak!

What do I do?

I try to put in at least an hour per day to my language learning projects, though not usually all at once.

I find that I personally see more benefit when my study time is spread out over a larger portion of my day. It allows me to incorporate elements into my life in such a way that I am reminded of the sound of the language, the pronunciation and the atmosphere they invoke throughout the day, rather than keeping my language studies segmented in a specific block of time.

I try to use resources that fit my location and the amount of time I have available. Apps for when time is crunched or I have a moment while I’m not at home. And more serious methods such as Pimsleur or language exchanges when I am at home and more able to get deeply involved in something.

Chances are that you will occasionally fall short of your goal, or miss a day or two entirely. I do from time to time, just try not to make it a habit. The moment you start taking time off it becomes easier to start justifying taking even more time.

Conclusion

The amount of time you need to invest in your language learning project is going to vary tremendously from person to person. While I don’t believe that people are naturally more or less talented at learning languages; it’s hard to deny that some will find it easier and some harder due to various constraints and motivations – or lack thereof.

I’d estimate that if you can put in at least an hour per day you’ll do quite well. Of course; thrusting yourself into a total immersion environment 24/7 could work the fastest if you’re going to be living abroad for a while, but this isn’t the most logical of methods for the vast majority of us, so we make do with what we have.

So how much time do you spend each day or week working on your languages? Leave a comment!

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original image by tXc.

  • Meredith Cicerchia

    Great post Brian. I always struggle to make the time and then feel guilty when I can’t put my usual in. I like to think I make up for it on the weekends with a 2-3 hour session but sometimes even this doesn’t happen. I think we all go through stages where we’re really focused for a month or two and dedicating an hour + a day to our language, or on the flip side, sidetracked for a few weeks and barely able to learn a new word. Just don’t let yourself slip completely out of contact and you’ll be okay. It’s important to keep coming back — even if it’s only for 10 minutes a day during a particularly busy period of your life, and to always take more time if you can (and you’re so motivated). Lately I’ve been reading about Danish culture and watching a Danish/Swedish tv series to reinforce what I’m studying as they count as language contact and it’s a lot easier to get your partner to deal with subtitles than you completing anti-social grammar exercises in the corner.

    • I go through stages too. I was disappointed at first, but I’ve learned to live with it and I think I get good results. I think it’s very important to set some daily activities where you use your foreign languages: TV, social media, reading… This way you are practicing even if you don’t have the time to “study”.

  • Saylem1000

    The daily contact is so important. I can always feel the difference in the time it takes to ramp my studies up when I’ve skipped a day. I do 4 1-hour study sessions a day, and while I can say that I feel a great amount of improvement, it’s also incredibly exhausting.

    • Indeed! That’s a lot of dedication. It’s more than I usually put in, that’s for sure. I need to step up my game!

      Thanks for commenting.

  • Mark

    For me, it’s hard to establish how many hours per day I devote to studying a foreign language. In fact, but this might just be the way I see it, you never stop: after a while the process of attempting to come up with a instantaneous translation of what you are saying in your native language becomes natural, and you can’t do really much to help it. Futhermore, every time I stumble across a word in my native language that catches my attention, I feel the need to look it up on an online dictionary and learn its translation into the other language I’m currently studying.

    • You’re right, eventually learning just sort of becomes part of everything you do. That’s where you want to be!

      Thanks!

  • pir

    IME actually putting in some time every day, and studying smart works better for me than maxing out with marathon sessions. I probably put in 3 hours a day active study (studying 3 different languages), in 20-30 min chunks, and some time I don’t count that’s just playing around, watching video without actively analyzing it, for example. 80% of active time goes to one language, 10% each to the other two. I switch the main language every 4 weeks, or when I feel like it. If life gets hectic with the sort of stuff life does while I was making other plans, I reduce everything down to about an hour, I can usually make time for that. If all else fails, I spend at least 15 min with Anki. I try very hard to never go a day without — most gamification leaves me entirely cold, but the streak is sacred. 😉

    I do a lot of passive immersion into primarily the main language of the time; for hours every day I play audio (music or talk) in the background — I know I don’t learn a whole lot from that, but it gets me into the right mindset, and it does improve my pronunciation, rhythm, tone, and flow. I also talk to myself a lot, which is the best training short of speaking with native speakers.

  • David Cooper

    Whenever I start on a new language, I go at it flat out for the first week or two, doing four hours a day if possible, but I’m putting all that time into learning to understand the language rather than trying to speak it because I know that this will get me into more interesting reading material sooner, and keeping it interesting is essential to maintain motivation. By the end of that time, I usually know enough of the langauge to move it into maintenance mode (unless there’s a problem with the language course which makes rapid progress impossible, such as a course that inflicts a complex writing system on you before you’re ready), and then I find just enough reading material to ensure that I continue to be exposed to everything I’ve already learned just often enough to ensure that I don’t just lose it all again over time (and I also pick up a bit more of the language in the process, though very slowly).

    To advance my ability with a language further, I then set out to read an entire book in it in combination with an English translation (so that I don’t have to waste most of my time looking up a dictionary), but I can do this work at low intensity, just reading a paragraph or two whenever I’ve got a bit of time to fill, so it feels effortless. It’s rewarding too – the speed at which I can read paragraphs always goes up surprisingly quickly (and it never fails to surprise) as I work through the chapters, but something that’s really making a difference now is having Facebook friends who use languages which I’m learning and who post random things of interest – the ability to get an instant translation just by clicking underneath makes this particularly efficient as I don’t have to hunt for interesting reading material or copy-and-paste anything into google translate. The key thing is always to be exposed to as much of the language as possible in as little time as possible, because lost time is life wasted.