One of the things that I’m often asked is, “How long do I need to study my target language?” Or, by parents, “How long should my child be studying the language that they are learning per day?”
The answer may seem like it should be straight-forward, but it often isn’t.
Consider the following:
How long and how often you study your target language depends on your goals. If you’re just starting out, you may not yet know exactly what your plans are for the language.
Is this something you want to do professionally? Is language translation or interpretation a career path you want to pursue? Or is it something that will help you move up in the career you already have? Maybe it’s just something that you’re doing for fun or for personal reasons. If that’s the case, not only will the material you study be different, but the amount of time you spend learning the language will be different too.
So how long do you study?
If you’re unsure about how language will play a role in your future, I suggest studying with the assumption that a career is a possibility. Don’t shortchange yourself early on because you’re uncertain about whether or not you’ll continue to pursue languages five years, ten years, or even twenty years from now.
Of course, it’s also important to keep a good balance in mind. Don’t burn yourself out early on by studying to much. If you go at it aggressively too early on, you may find that you no longer enjoy doing it.
But if you’re studying a language as a hobby, something that you’re doing to improve your life or experiences in some way, but don’t need to know at a professional level, then your approach may be entirely different.
So how much study is too much? How much is too little? Where do you draw the line?
Things to consider when deciding how long to study:
1) Studying the wrong things, no matter how much time you spend, won’t benefit you. To quote James Clear in an article he wrote for Business Insider, “Putting in a lot of time might make you tired, but simply working a lot (even if it’s 10,000 hours over the course of time) isn’t enough to make you a top performer. It’s not the same thing as practicing deliberately.”
2) Studying several times a day in short intervals can be more productive than studying for a long block of time. It also gives you the time you need to digest the material you were working on and the energy to study longer (five 15 minute sessions give you 15 minutes more time than one 1 hour session).
3) Keeping a learning journal with notes about aspects of your skills in the language that you want to work on can be a huge benefit to the time you spend studying. It gives you direction. It also gives you something to look back on six months or a year from now to see where you were. Sometimes it’s hard to see how much progress you’ve made. By tracking your progress in a learning journal, you can look at the things you couldn’t do a few months back (that you can do now) and it can be a huge motivation. It confirms that all the time you spend studying isn’t for nothing.
4) It’s okay to take a break. But don’t let a day or two away from language study turn into weeks. The longer you wait to resume your studies, the harder it will be to turn it into a habit again.
5) Studying other aspects of your skills as a learner can help improve your language learning ability. When learning a language, we’re often focused on just that – learning the language. We spend time with grammars, podcasts, and other materials that teach us the language. But spending time learning how to learn can do a lot to improve your effectiveness as a language learner. (That’s a lot of “learns” in one sentence!)
6) Mindless study is a waste of time. Repetition without focus on why you’re repeating a passage or exercise is a waste of time. Studying without making an effort to push yourself outside of your comfort zone is not a good use of time. Create goals for your study sessions. “Today I want to work on ______ because I need to _______.” Give yourself a reason, a deadline, and a specific time to work on it. Figure out what problems you’re having and arrange your learning so that it solves your language problems. If you’re not sure where you’re struggling, or if you need some direction, take a lesson or two. A good teacher will be able to point out the areas of your playing that need some work.
7) Study when you have the energy for it. Are you a morning person? Schedule the bulk of your study time for the morning. Are you a night owl? Study at night. Pay attention to the times of day when you are the most productive and slot your language study into that time.
8) Apply the two minute rule. If you really don’t feel like studying your target language, or you feel you’re short on time, just commit to studying for two minutes. Maybe you do a few flashcards on Memrise or run through a quick session on Duolingo. Or maybe you sit down with a reading passage you’ve been struggling with and read through it once (or twice depending on the length). You’ll find that two minutes quickly turns into ten minutes which quickly turns into thirty minutes without you even realizing it. The hardest thing about study is sometimes just starting. So just commit to a short time. Or if you need some more tips on how to study even you don’t want to, you can read this.
A Few Apps to Help You Keep Track of Your Language Study
1) Ask Me Every // This is the application I use to keep track of how long I study. It motivates me to avoid breaking my “streak” and it averages out the total time I study per day. I love looking at the month view and seeing all the lovely blue numbers that illustrate how many days I’ve spent time learning.
2) Coach.me // This app is a community-based tool for tracking your goals and getting encouragement.
3) The Eurolinguiste Study Journal // We’ve designed a free, printable PDF to help you keep track of your study goals. Get it here. http://eepurl.com/cjronz
4) A notebook // If you’re looking for something simple, a plain notebook will do. I keep a composition notebook with notes about what I’ve studied, things I’ve noticed in my playing that can use some attention, and songs I’d like to study (or that I need to learn).
So just how long should you study?
Shorter daily study sessions are better than longer study sessions where you skip days in between. It’s always better to get in a 15-minute review (and not get around to new material) than it is to skip a day. But if you’re really hoping to get to a high level, then you’ll also need to include a few longer study sessions each week.
But sometimes, aiming for a certain amount of time isn’t always the best strategy. Instead, I really like this approach that a music friend of mine asks his students to take.
I take a different approach. One that is not based on time but with a focus on goals. I give them material and tell them to set daily goals or I set daily goals for them to make progress within the material. As long as the goals are met, they are fine. If they reach the goals sooner than later, I have them reinforce the material on the remaining days, or I provide them with new goals. Its much more motivational for them when they see themselves reaching goals and progressing. Sometimes goals take 20 minutes to reach, somtimes and hour or more. Length of time for [study] is secondary and in the scheme of things means nothing and works negatively on the psyche IMHO. I find that students believing they need to [study] for a specific amount of time actually only “practice” for a small fraction of it because they confuse “playing” (noodling on material they already know) with “practicing” (working on new skill sets) . 10 minutes of practicing and 20 minutes of playing isn’t going to get it done. However, if they have goals, it’s different and they actually end up spending more time […] trying to reach a goal than they would when they have a pre determined amount of time given to them to [study]. As soon as time is up, they tend to put the [language] down with the feeling that they did their due diligence. The goal oriented approach seems to work very well for me and my students. I have been doing it for years now and the results are pretty great! – Fran Merante, http://www.cidrumming.com
So how long should you study?
My answer: as long as you can, as productively as you can. Study every chance you get, but only if you’re getting something out of that time. If you aren’t using your time productively, you’re wasting it. You’re better off doing something else.
But if you really want numbers, let’s put together an average based on the level you may want to attain:
– Beginning Level: 15-20 minutes a day
– Intermediate Level: 45-60 minutes a day
– Advanced Level: 1-4 hours a day
This, of course, isn’t to say that you can’t get to an advanced level or an intermediate level studying only 15 minutes a day. If you’re really using that time wisely, you may surprise yourself with how far you get. At the same time, however, it will take you several more years to reach that advanced level at only 15-20 minutes a day than it would if you’re studying 1+ hour a day.
For further reading, check out this post from Business Insider: The Most Successful People Practice Better, Not More
So what about you?
How long do you study? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!