A hobby of mine is learning foreign languages. I speak Spanish and Portuguese fluently, I know some French, Chinese, and I am also currently learning Italian. Years ago I decided to focus on leveling up just a few languages to fluency instead of learning a little in a large number, so I will probably slowly keep going on those ones. These days I spend about 5-15 minutes per day about 5 days a week on languages, yet I make pretty continuous progress.
Why do this? It’s fun! I have found that I have learned how to teach myself things in general and there’s some evidence of cognitive benefits – but most of all I enjoy connecting with native speakers in their own language at home and during travel. It has unlocked new experiences that would not have been possible. It’s also gotten me out of trouble a time or too.
It’s true that this is typically a long-term thing and you should really only do it if you want a deep connection to a culture that speaks the language. I enjoy the process and look at it like a big puzzle to solve for myself but, for me, it’s only worth the effort for the experiences it can enable.
The Virtuous Cycle
Motivation is fleeting and can’t be relied upon alone for long term goals such as this one. You want to get in the virtuous cycle where your progression in the language is unlocking fun new experiences which then motivates you to keep practicing and progressing. Otherwise it’s easy to get bored or burned out due to not feeling like you are progressing, finding the daily practice tedious, etc. For example when I travel to a Spanish speaking country and connect with people (which took me a long time to be able to do) I always come home with the desire to level up even more.
The High Level View: Binge, Slow Burn, and Get Feedback
The Slow Burn – I don’t really have that much time to devote to this hobby yet I have found a way continuously make progress by doing maybe 5-15 minutes per day of targeted practice very consistently. To do this I have carved out some time in my daily routine to do some short practice. Over time, you accumulate hours and don’t even think about it. I mostly do this in the morning while getting ready for my day.
Specifically, I usually am focusing on a single skill at a time between listening, speaking, reading, and writing. I typically have time in the morning as I am showering, brushing my teeth, shaving, etc, over breakfast, or other moments when I am getting ready for my day. I will sometimes do the following exercises:
- listen to music or a podcast (singing along or repeating interesting phrases)
- practice flashcards in a program called Anki
- write a short journal entry
- do pronunciation drills to build muscle memory, such as repeatedly saying difficult words (by myself or shadowing a recording of someone saying it correctly)
- play Duolingo
Doing a little work when done consistently over a long period of time can be quite powerful especially in a long term skill like this.You are training your brain to recognize a series of patterns and you are training your mouth, tongue, nasal cavity, lungs, and lips to have muscle memory and move in a specific coordinated way. It’s going to take time and you have to think about it on biological timeframes, like seeing progress in exercising.
The Binge – Despite 90%+ of my days spent in the slow burn, there is simply a lot of material to get to fluency, a relationship between observable progress and motivation to continue, and there is a chicken and egg problem where practice unlocks more fun and valuable practice (e.g. listening to music is a great way to learn but you need a certain knowledge of grammar and vocabulary to utilize it as a resource).
Thus as a practical matter you have to take some time every now and again to immerse yourself for at least an hour or more in order to actually make observable progress. When I had more free time, and during stretches of high motivation, I used to do a 30+ minute language “workout” on days off from the gym. Other times I used online tutors such those found on Verbling or iTalki. As a student, I took a language class. These days, I will watch a movie or a series on Netflix or read books as part of my regular media rotation when I find something that looks interesting.
Feedback – You have to be getting feedback from native speakers otherwise you won’t progress optimally and you run the risk of learning the wrong things or sounding weird. You should be copying the native speakers around you for how they sound and what they say. If you sound like them, you know you’re doing it right. You should also take steps to get feedback from people you don’t know, such as a language tutor, or random people on the internet because 1) you might not always have access to native speakers and 2) your friends don’t want to be your grammar coach. There are internet communities where you can upload a recording of your speech and get feedback from native speakers, such as on Reddit (https://www.reddit.com/r/JudgeMyAccent/).
The Specifics: My Main Tricks
One of my primary tricks that give me an edge are listening to music I enjoy and sometimes singing along. Listening to music is fun for me and I have playlists of foreign songs I like that I have accumulated over time. Singing along helps you internalize the grammar and vocabulary in context but also greatly improves your pronunciation and prosody – giving you a natural sounding rhythm. People generally comment that I sound very fluent compared to other people, including those who have studied a language for much longer, and I attribute this to consuming music. I am also in the habit of looking up song lyrics and translate them to know what they are actually saying but I try my best to understand as much as I can without peeking, even if it takes multiple listens.
My other trick is building my grammar intuition by memorizing interesting phrases, and reviewing those phrases along with vocabulary words in Anki flashcards. Whenever I find a phrase that is funny, interesting, or that I have never seen before, I type it or copy/paste it and make an Anki flashcard. Then I periodically review the cards and memorize the phrase until I can repeat the phrase from beginning to end without looking. Over time, this builds your intuition about grammar such that certain phrases feel right or feel wrong, just like in your native language. Anki flashcards are key to committing grammar and vocabulary to long-term memory.
The Specifics: Anki
I have mentioned Anki a few times which is an app I use extensively. It’s a flashcard app that uses spaced repetition to serve you a set of flashcards at an optimal timing so that you store information in your long term memory. You’ll get one card on day 1, day 2, day 4, day 7, day 30, etc. It serves you harder cards more often and easier ones less often. It’s a very efficient way to learn things but the trick is coming up with the cards. I generally build my own “decks” of cards with words and phrases I find interesting but also will use public decks created by community members. This is probably the most work-like thing I do but I find it kind of fun because I see progress quickly. It’s important to keep it manageable as you can have too many cards or cards that are too complex and then it’s not very fun.
The Specifics: Different at Each Level
While I stick to the Binge, Slow Burn, and Get Feedback approach, the specifics and how I practice look quite different at each level. The “levels” I have denominated are Absolute Beginner, Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. The distinctions are sort of arbitrary and roughly aligned with CEFR language framework of A1, A2, B1, C1. This is how I would go about progressing from an absolute beginner to conversationally fluent or advanced.
This section got quite long so I broke it up into smaller components: