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Beyond the Hour: Time in Language Learning

Six years of my teaching and training career were paid “by the hour.” The same thing applied to all the language courses I took: and hour cost this much, and I got that much in return. Today, I will try to think about language study differently. Do all foreign language classes have to revolve around the question of time?

0. It’s all Tim’s fault again

The inspiration for today’s post is Tim Ferriss – twice!
First, there’s the post he wrote explicitly about language learning (and saving time on study).
Then, his recent tweet led me to “Breaking the Time Barrier” – a great book about different ways of thinking, working and pricing in services.
Read both, pay what you can for the book, and see how this applies to your situation. Read on for what I found.

1. The 60-minute standard

Language learning happens in time. Nobody will argue with that. But you can (and should) argue against time constraints which cripple or disrupt your learning. Here are two examples:

  1. – A coursebook which prepares you for a language exam takes 100 hours of classroom time to get through. You’re desperate, however, and know a thing or two about taking tests. So you go through the reading and listening sections at home. You supplement with your own materials, and get it right in the end. You come back to your language class and tell the teacher that you’re done with the listenings and readings. She’s annoyed because now she has to find extra work to give you!
  2. – A course is guaranteed to teach you a language in a quarter of the regular time. You walk in, take trial lessons and receive a guarantee. Halfway through the first semester, it turns out that the group has some fast learners and some who need more time. You need more time. The teacher and the fast-learning part of the class put lots of pressure on you to keep up – their guarantee is at stake here.

As you can see, there are times when 60 minutes means different things to different people. And since language learning is one of the most people-oriented activities I know – there will be many more examples like that.

2. Not all hours are created equal

But let’s suppose you prefer to learn alone. Or at least, with a 1:1 tutor. Surely that simplifies things, and one hour is just that – one hour – when it comes to your language learning?
Well, no. Let me give you three examples from my German learning schedule:

  • Most days of the week, I spend about 20 minutes daily on two online courses. This is mainly revision and grammar / vocabulary stuff. I’m usually focused and alert when doing that – headphones on, distractions off, trying again if I get something wrong.
  • Every now and then, I take German podcasts in the car with me. I drive a lot, and it’s nice to have some learning material to listen to. This happens in the background, as I’m trying to find my way through traffic. It’s also often mixed with music – I like to have 5-6 minutes to relax, think back on what I heard and prepare for the next podcast. Clearly, I’m doing other things when listening, and I’m not that focused – most often I let a more difficult passage slide without playing it again.
  • Next week, it’s movie night. For almost two hours, my local institute shows a free black-and-white German film with English subtitles. I will go and sit through it. I’m not expecting a lot of other work to get done during that time, and it won’t be my decision as to when to play or pause the movie, of course! Still, probably a lot of tense and enjoyable watching and learning.

You see, there are lots of ways to spend one hour learning a language. Notice that my plan doesn’t even involve speaking German with anyone (I have my reasons for that)! So maybe thinking about time in language learning is missing something?

3. From time to value – meaningful language learning

I could promise to teach you Spanish in 100 hours. I’d then take your money and give you 100 hours’ worth of material. If I felt generous, I’d even throw in an occasional conversation class or a lecture. After the 100 hours, I would not really care about how much you gained from the course – about what you learned. The promise was to teach you for a hundred hours. So you got taught for a hundred hours.
It’s easy to sell a course like that. It’s easy to make that kind of promise, and to compete on price based on a “per hour” mentality.
Here’s what’s hard:
A language course that promises to give you the language you need for your goals. A programme that makes sure you get the right kind of value. And a kind of learning that makes you think “I know why I’m doing this, and it’s time well spent.”
Nobody makes these kinds of promises, and they’re right: here’s why.

4. The promise you keep yourself

When I started my Guerrilla Language Learning Challenge, one thing was clear: no promises related to time. It will take however long it needs to.
Then things got super busy, and when I got asked about the challenge, I could honestly answer “it’s going slow, but that’s not a bad thing.” The time promise was not there, and couldn’t be broken.
So as time went by, I started finding more ways to learn: more flexible methods, some good habits, and putting all my devices to good use. I’m taking back the hours, and making them more valuable.
It’s not easy with any busy lifestyle. And the thing that most language learners (and teachers, and schools, and material authors…) realize sooner or later is this: you can’t add more hours to anyone’s day, and you can’t make the work of foreign language study “shrink” magically. All you can do is make sure everyone’s time has value – and build from there.

5. Take the value back with these language hacking tools

Your mileage will vary. Try out what works for you, give up whatever doesn’t. You know the drill 🙂
Pomodoro technique is short, focused bursts of work. Need a timer for that? Here’s one.
– Things are easier when kept in one place (wherever you go). Google and Evernote work well for me.
– To track where your time goes, try Toggl.
Italki may cost a bit to make the most of it, but it’s 1:1 learning and you get to decide when you interact. There’s also Verbling for less hassle, more speaking.
Benny’s list grows all the time. If you can’t find it there, it probably doesn’t exist and you have to go make it 🙂
– Things I read work well with Feedly; things I watch/listen to – with Doggcatcher.

Photo credit: eltpics)

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One Responseso far.

  1. Jack Askew says:

    My English lessons are based upon a lot of what you have talked about here. I talk with my students about the different studying techniques that let them take control of their learning. Some of my students now come into the class with a set of things that they want to achieve. I really enjoy lessons like this and feel that the student can get more out of the lesson by doing this.

    I have a Pomodoro APP; I use it for so many tasks and love it.