Learning Fast and Slowly

Do you learn as fast as you could? As fast as you should? As fast as you want to?

There have been quite a few heated discussion online recently about optimal speed in language-learning. Here’s my contribution. And I find it necessary to divide this into three distinct questions, as above, because people have been mixing issues.

Learning as fast as you want to

I do not think that people who spend years on a language are “deliberately learning slowly”. That sounds disrespectful of the discipline they are showing in persevering despite everything life throws at them. Some may be savouring the process of learning, but learning slowly is an effect of their life choices, not a goal – I believe that nobody says to himself “let me pick up this incomprehensible grammar book so that I won’t understand this grammar feature for a while; I want to enjoy the feeling of confusion and helplessness for a bit longer”. If people are really “deliberately” learning slowly, it’s that they deliberately prioritize other things over their language-learning (e. g. their job, or nights out with good friends).

As for enjoying the process, if you’re a polyglot, I would hope you’re at least getting some satisfaction from the process of learning languages, because otherwise there are much cheaper / less time-intensive solutions. If you do the complete calculation, learning a language to fluency just for the economic advantage is hardly ever worth it (I’m speaking to everyone who is considering learning Chinese or Arabic these days without a better reason than that). And if you’re learning a language to be able to communicate with the people or to read their writings, spending the time finding people who speak your language or paying a translator is still faster/cheaper than the great amount of time and effort that it takes most people to truly learn a language. You have to enjoy the process at least a little bit, find it satisfies your curiosity, marvel at the things that open up to you, anything like that. If you dread language learning, you are unlikely to get anywhere in your studies anyway.

Learning as fast as you should

Who says how fast you “should”?

If it’s a boss or teacher, chances are that you can’t change the situation and you might as well look for some personal reasons to enjoy your mission.

If it’s yourself or someone who set you a friendly challenge, that’s great. I for one thrive on such challenges. For example, I studied Dutch in 6 weeks with a 45-minute lecture looming over me, and just now I got drawn into a Finnish challenge where I’ll measure myself against several other polyglots. That being said, if the adrenalin of a challenge makes you feel sick rather than excited, just say you’re not in.

If it’s your parents, acquaintances or somebody on the internet who is telling you how long it should take you to learn a language, tell them to screw themselves. They’re not the ones doing it and they don’t know your constraints.

To get a general idea of how long learning a language to fluency (C1) might take you, have a look at this page. These numbers come from the Foreign Service Institute, which is one of the best language schools in the world, managing to lead all students from zero up to genuine C1 level in German in a matter of months for example, which still blows my mind (I’ve helped several FSI German students prepare for their exams). However, the students are experienced language learners, they study full-time and they receive a lot of individual attention, so you should probably take these numbers as a minimum rather than a typical case.

Learning as fast as you could

There is no doubt that some materials will teach you faster than others – for example, a 30-minute Pimsleur lesson will only teach 5-7 new words, while the typical Pod101 podcast will teach you 10 words in 10 minutes (and similar amounts of grammar, if not more). That being said, if you can easily see yourself listening to a Pimsleur lesson a day and dread the idea of listening to a Pod101 podcast a day, even though it’s three times shorter and presumably easier to fit into your day, you should still go with Pimsleur. The hypothetical speed of a program doesn’t matter if you aren’t following it. Don’t be embarassed to opt for fun ways to practise either, for example by reading comics or watching kid’s shows in your target language.

The most difficult part of learning a language is the beginner stage, when there are few if any fun activities. Once you’re able to watch TV or read books or have interesting conversations in your target language, you will automatically pick up new vocabulary and expressions, without even being aware that you’re “studying”. So something I like to recommend is to set a first sub-goal. Learning a language to C1 fluency will take time, but if your initial goal is just to be able to read comics, or just to be able to have a comfortable 10-minute conversation, or just to be able to understand the gist of a newspaper, then that doesn’t require the same effort as full C1 fluency – as long as you’re focussing on only one of these abilities and consciously sacrificing the rest.

For example, you can find a language course or a method that enables you to understand any written text. The “… for Reading” series of books or the Listening-Reading method come to mind for example. I also created such a course myself, which enables students to translate original non-simplified texts by all Roman authors after only 25 hours of study. If you follow this kind of language course, your ability to have a conversation or write your own letters will be basically zero still. You will have sacrificed those for the amazingly fast progress in the reading department. However, if reading foreign-language texts is one of the main motivators for you to learn the language, then this means quick success, and you would then have a fun way to use the language (and incidentally pick up more vocabulary) all while working to get your previously-neglected abilities up to speed.

The same kind of approach exists for people who want to quickly be able to have a conversation, at the expense of not being able to read or write much. You could study Michel Thomas courses or try the FLR Technique for example. Of course the same caveat applies as before: if you don’t like the course, you may be better off using something that is slower but more fun and easier to get yourself to do on a daily basis.

The key is to know what motivates you, and then go there on as straight a path as possible. If your goal is to be able to read the Bible in Latin, the best course is likely to be the one that has you reading the Bible from Day 1. This link is actually to one of my courses. I developed a number of materials catering to people who want to get to a certain goal fast, for example also my alphabet courses, my German lessons for GermanPod101 (each series catering to a different goal / person), my 45-minute “Overview of Esperanto” lecture, the materials for the 14-hour intensive courses I teach on weekends…

It is good if you have a teacher or experienced speaker of the language to support you. If you’re a beginner in a language, it’s very hard to distinguish between necessary and unnecessary steps on the way to your desired ability, for example whether you need to focus more on pronunciation in order to be able to have conversations, whether it’s safe to ignore that for now, whether it will come back to bite you if you do… People who are supportive of your goals (beware of those who think that your goals must be the same as theirs!) can also help you identify whether certain materials are the fastest path to your individual goal. For example, the much-hyped Heisig book for Chinese characters requires you to learn more than 1000 characters before you’ll know how to read super-basic phrases like “How are you?”. Using one of the books I reviewed here, you would know this after learning less than 50 characters, because the authors of these books consulted character frequency lists, while still following the same awesome method as Heisig’s. So you could start reading Chinese months earlier!

I enjoy helping people reach their goals, and I’m non-judgemental when it comes to the type of goal. I help people find the best path no matter if their first sub-goal is to understand Chinese video games, read German engineering papers, chat up French girls or write Latin e-mails, never mind that I wouldn’t want to do any of these things myself. As a coach, it’s not up to me to pass judgement on what they find interesting about the language, I can only support them (or refer them to someone else, in the worst of cases), for as long as people are ready to listen to my advice. I wish this philosophy were more common, both among teachers and language course writers. We could use some more goal-oriented courses, for a variety of different goals, not just the flavour of the decade.