Language and Time

Language and Time

Langauge and Time

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Welcome to the 5-week Linguist Show. We’re continuing our series of 50 lessons learned about languages, and this week I want to talk about time. When I was a student of languages in high school, as a teenager, I often heard people say, “Oh, it takes a long time to learn languages.”

When I first expressed an interest in languages, a real interest, it was after a trip to the UN in New York. When I returned, my mom told me the people who learn languages to that level grow up in places like Switzerland, where they speak three and four languages, not just some languages that you’ll get through studying at school. While I didn’t have reason to doubt her, I certainly didn’t know the research, I knew that at eight years old that that door wasn’t necessarily going to be closed to me, that there would be a way to learn more than one language.

As I spent my life in school, trying to figure this out, trying to learn languages at the same time, and of course when I say school I mean not just myself as a student, but as a teacher of languages, I really wanted to know about time. Do I have to grow up in Switzerland where I’m speaking perhaps two or three different languages comfortably and easily in school, at home, in my social life, or is there more to learn about time and languages?

Some of the most concrete information I got as a student of languages was about the Foreign Service Institute’s research. In case you’re not familiar with the Foreign Service Institute, they prepare Americans who work for the State Department for their assignments abroad. They have a language training institute and so they’re constantly publishing research on how long people need to go through these language courses to be prepared for their assignment abroad. They get really specific, they’ve broken up languages by categories.

Category I languages are easy for English speakers, or easier, rather, so think languages like Spanish or Dutch, to become slightly more difficult, perhaps a language like German in Category II. Then we get into languages from Eastern Europe that use perhaps a different alphabet, that’s Category III, and then into those really difficult languages that have nothing in common culturally or linguistically with English, or very little, different writing systems, so Arabic, Mandarin, Japanese, et cetera, being Category IV.

While I don’t feel stuck on this research, I do think they’re really good guidelines. I mean, these learner profiles are people will go and they will learn language X, whatever corresponds to their assignment, whatever category that is, and they’ll probably spend, depending on their starting point when they enter, if they’re a native speaker or not, if they studied before or not, they’re going to enter a certain level and they’re going to go through this program. The FSI is constantly taking this data to ensure that people are prepared in the amount of time they have to prepare them.

I think they’re really good guidelines, right? I think basically it’s going to take a lot longer to learn Japanese to the same level of fluency than it would to learn Italian or French. While that may seem obvious, I just think the numbers are good to see because they allow you to be very realistic with your goals.

When I started teaching languages, I started adding up the amount of time that I had with students. An American school year is generally 180 days. There are give and take a few days in there depending on where you are or what the school system is, but that’s the basic, that we go 180 days. We have something called Carnegie Units, so our students have to have completed a certain amount of seat time, essentially, in a course to get credit for it. There can only be a certain number of absences, et cetera.

When I started adding up the time, the time didn’t add up to me and I thought, “Okay, this is surely one reason why a lot of people don’t learn a language at school. It’s just not realistic for for time.” 180 days of classes, and that can be divided up. A lot of schools go in what we call a block, so they have longer classes, which are more like 90-minutes long and they meet every other day, or they might meet about 45 to 50 minutes every day. It really depends, but there is a certain number of minutes and hours that students have to meet to get their credits.

When I add them up, again, that time wasn’t even what they talked about in a Category I language, which is what we often see in a lot of American schools. I thought, “Well, here’s a real disconnect in expectations.” While I think you can be very mindful and very careful about how you use that time with students, so really communicating and practicing in the target language and they can use time outside of the target language to do reading and exercises and now technology enables us to be able to assign lots of great input activities, comprehension activities, to students that they can do on their own, they can listen a lot, they can read a lot and be very efficient with that use of our contact time, I just think it’s important to bear in mind, you can’t just expect to offer a couple of courses and for people to become proficient in a language. You really do have to consider how long it takes.

These Foreign Service Institute students tend to be, they’re highly motivated, they’re focused, they’re working on it full time. So if it takes them a certain amount of time, it’s going to take a lot of us even more time. Bearing that in mind, it’s really good to know the research on how many hours it takes to learn the language you want to learn, because knowing that is going to help set you up for success. If you know that to reach the level of proficiency that you want in Russian is going take you longer than it would to do in German, set yourself up for that and know roughly the amount of time. Is it going to take a thousand hours of focused communication and study, and how am I going to get that time, or is it going to take 3,000 hours? Am I going to have to learn how to read in this language? Really important.

While I talked about the really negative side of time, that there’s research out there and are you setting yourself up for success, are you doing an audio series or Duolingo? That is great, but realistically, is that going to give you the amount of time of input and communication to be able to reach those goals? It can definitely teach you something, but what is it really going to do? An audio course, if you add up the number of minutes and some of these course series in all of the levels they offer, is that going to come anywhere near what you need, or are you going to need to mix it up? Which is exactly what I do and I recommend, to keep variety, to get different types of input, or really different sources, not types, different sources of input, right? Different things to listen to, different things to watch, different things to read so that it’s not boring, right?

The takeaway for you is what time do you have every day? What time do you have every day that’s going to look, that’s going to add up to something in your goals? I talked about the 200-hour challenge in another episode. I always did those when I really needed to get to a certain point in a language. No matter what level I was at, it really offered me concrete, measurable, tangible results. It also gave me a concrete amount of time to play with. A lot of times I would do my 200-hour challenges in the summertime. I’m a teacher, so when I wasn’t teaching. It might look like listening to lots of audiobooks while I clean out closets and walk, or it might look like studying at a language school abroad, or reading a lot, it looked different ways.

But your takeaway here is make time every day. Is it your half-hour commute? During that commute are you able to spend some time on an app? Are you able to read in the target language? Maybe you’re on a train. Maybe that’s not realistic and you have to listen to an audio course or a podcast. Do you have a notebook? Do you get to sit down on this commute or wherever it that this fits into your life? I think it’s really important to realistically think about just a little bit of time you have every day and something that you could realistically do that’s not going to burden you.

The only way I’ve been able to really maintain my language study of different languages is to do exactly that, to be realistic with where it fits into my life. You should do the same if you want to really take advantage of that time every day. Sometimes you might have more time, like I do in the summer, sometimes you may have less time to dedicate to languages, but you all that time adds up.

Combining language learning with boring tasks, it makes it interesting. I love my Alexa. I moved last year and got an Alexa, something I never thought I even needed, but it’s turned out to be the one of the greatest language learning tools. As I’ve moved and organized everything in my house or walked or done the dishes, I’ve been able to listen to books and audio courses on my Alexa. I’ve been able to turn that task, that boring task frankly, for me, of organizing, which I don’t have a whole lot of time to do, and combine it with my language learning in a really easy way. Without carrying a device around with me, Alexa talks to me while I’m doing housework. That’s just one example.

My commute, I don’t enjoy it. It’s stressful, but I enjoy learning new languages and I listen in the half hour in the morning and a half hour in the afternoon. When I’m starting in the language, I dedicate that time to something like Pimsleur, and as I move on, I get into podcasts or audiobooks.

Further on to that, another lesson is that our devices, our phones, is the ultimate language learning lab. We talked about audio courses and apps like Duolingo or Drops, if you’re unfamiliar with that, but there’s so much more out there. I found a very clever and fun app called Hello Talk that I’m starting to use. There’s lessons and language exchange. If you’re really busy, like I am, which you probably are, so many of us are, it’s just today’s world, isn’t it? I love using iTalki. If you’re unfamiliar with iTalki, go online. Essentially, regardless of the language you’re learning, you can probably find a tutor or teacher who’s teaching on iTalki. They have different platforms, which you can connect, so you can use Skype on your phone or something like FaceTime, where you can have a lesson with a native speaker. It’s amazing. You get all that input from a native speaker, do it early on and produce a lot of output. It’s amazing.

There’s so many unlikely apps, surprising apps, that are great for language learning. Voice memos, recording yourself. I’ve really started to enjoy journaling with Google Docs. Sitting down and typing and they’ve got the built-in dictionary so if I need to look up a word it’s right there, Those apps to connect with native speakers, tutors, like iTalki that we just talked about, Language Exchange, Hello Talk, Audible, regardless of the level of language you have, you will find something to study languages.

Audiobooks, novels in the target language, or courses for beginners, pretty amazing. Kindle or iBooks, reading is one of the best ways to learn a language. Those are just a few. Spotify, podcasts, any app you have that going to allow you to get input in a new language is going to be access to content in another language, like Netflix, can be used for language learning.

With your time, as we talked about before, invest time every day. I definitely like organizing my language learning into five-week intervals. I talk in detail about that in another episode, but really the big important thing, regardless of what you choose, is that you’ve got consistency and variety. My life is always changing, I mean, I have some seasons that are just busier than others, so the five weeks really helps. When I want to be more intense and I’ve got more time to do so, I organize my language learning around that. For the summer, for example, where I get to invest a lot more time in it.

The five weeks also helps me work through the rough spots. For example, I like to do Practice Makes Perfect books after I’ve hit the intermediate level in a language. They’re great because they’ve got lots of vocabulary and translations. It’s kind of old school, but really good. But it’s not my favorite activity, but it’s highly effective. Working through things like that, that I know aren’t leisurely or fun but they really help get me results, are important. I know that once I’ve dedicated the time I’ve invested every day, after five weeks I can put it aside and maybe do something a little bit more pleasurable.

In your time that you invest every day, if you were to choose anything to invest in, I would invest in reading a lot, right? You have two ears and one brain. I’m sorry, reading a lot, you have two eyes and one brain, and listening a lot, you have two ears and one mouth. I really believe in getting twice as much input as output and organizing my time that way. It takes a lot of pressure, too, off of things like mistakes. So spending time reading, and that could be audio text too, like Yabla or example, they play all the captions underneath so technically you’re reading, it’s audio text or audio-visual text, and you’re getting comprehensible input. And having someplace to do output, so maybe a journal or talking to yourself. Some programs have that really built in well to that. But regardless of what you do, it should be enjoyable and you should have consistency and variety.

Your takeaways, know how long generally the research says the language you want to learn takes. Go back to the Foreign Service Institute, Google that, and look at their categories. Also, they’ve got lots of free materials. They’re all published in the public domain, so it’s a great resource. Invest time every day, right? Try to combine it with boring tasks so it doesn’t become something extra that you have to do, and try to combine it with enjoyable tasks so it’s something you look forward to. Switch it up to give yourself consistency and variety. The time you have needs to be spent doing things like you did when you were learning your own language, but you’re going to have to be in charge of the time in this case. That’s the big difference.

You didn’t learn your native language by doing one app or one activity. You did it through a variety. Some were fun or more fun and more enjoyable, so films, music, talking to people, and some were less enjoyable. Consider that. Fiction, nonfiction, drama, comedy, romance, nonfiction. Think about the variety of input, and really think about that with your tasks, the things that you have to do in your life, right? Your community, your errands, the things that maybe aren’t so much fun, exercise, walking, things that are fun, and consider that, how to realistically get that into your life, because the only way that you will go the long haul in most cases is if it’s realistic for you.

For me, I love Benny Lewis’s Fluent in Three Months, but that’s just not realistic for me right now. I just don’t have the time to invest. I’d love to do his Language Hacking in German, a language I really don’t know at all, someday, but for right now I have to stick with making sure I get at least half an hour to an hour of language study in every day in ways that fit into my life, that don’t feel like a chore, and that I can do for the long haul. Consider those things as you plan your time to learn languages.

Until next time.

Thank you for listening to the 5-Week Linguist Show with Janina Klimas. Join us each week here and visit us at for more resources for learning and teaching languages.

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