Study At Your Desk With The Door Closed | TROLL 003

In years gone by, when I first started learning languages…

In the “olden days” you might call it…

I used to have an impressively studious way of learning languages.

I would buy a textbook, sit in my room, and just work my way through the book!

Seems very old-fashioned when I think about it. And for many years, whenever I learnt a new language, I would do pretty much the same thing.

Worked really well for me!

But then, at some point, things started getting pretty wild…

Something called the Internet became a “thing”.

The iPod came out.

Then something called Netflix… with TV and movies in different languages on demand…

It’s enough to blow your mind, ladies and gentlemen.

But of course, there was more!

The iPhone was released!

Or to be more accurate, I finally caved in on a 5-year battle to NOT buy the same phone everyone else was buying… (so I was a bit late to the party)

Anyway, before I knew it, the textbooks were in the bin, old habits out the window, and my shiny new language learning routine seemed to consist of sitting on a train, playing with apps on my phone.

Now, at the time, this was hugely exciting – a real revolution!

The idea of sitting at my desk with a booka book, ladies and gentlemen – started to seem like an inefficient, out-dated —- prehistoric way to learn languages…

After all, we had the Internet now!

So why get out of bed an hour early, when I can study languages throughout the day, with the help of the computer in my pocket?

More Options Doesn't Always Mean Better Results

As you might imagine from my mildly sarcastic tone, all this increase in “possibilities and options” wasn’t necessarily being matched by results in my language learning.

Because it’s easy to forget in all the hype over new technology, that we do actually want all this stuff to help us speak our languages better.

(Small point I know… but… I’m a bit fussy that way!)

The truth was that, for me, the more convenience I had in my pocket, less progress I seemed to make in my languages…

And in my opinion, this has something – or a lot – to do with the unavoidable distraction that comes with your smartphone.

language learning apps smartphone

See, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with learning languages with apps or any other kind of modern technology — there’s some great stuff out there.

Trouble is, the way that we tend to use modern technology is to fit our learning into ever decreasing chunks of free time during our day.

But of course just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.

So I started to observe my own behaviour during the day.

While it’s true that I had suddenly found all this extra time for learning in my day – 5 minutes here, 20 minutes there – I quickly realised that what happened in that time looked very different to the olden days, studying quietly in my room with the door closed.

Yes – I had 15 minutes for reading on the train, but I spent half the time distracted by the football results that I was pretending not to read on the back of the newspaper of the guy sitting opposite.

Yes – I had 10 minutes to do flashcards while walking to work, but the danger of tripping over a dog or falling into the canal meant that very little of that time was spent actually “studying”.

There came a point where I said to myself… I may be studying for hours a day, but it’s not adding up to anything!

I Went “Full Nuclear” On Technology

According to Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds, to return to the original task after an interruption.

23 minutes and 15 seconds.

Hear that, and then think about the number of distractions on your average train journey… and how much time that must cost you.

So, I decided to go full nuclear on the technology and went back to sitting down at my desk, with the door closed.

Things immediately started improving.

You see, learning a language is not a question of accumulating more and more knowledge.

There are dots to join up. There are connections to be made. There are epiphanies and aha moments to be had.

You can’t predict when, or how, these are going to happen.

But one thing’s for sure… they don’t come when you’re distracted.

They don’t come when you have half an eye on the clock, or when your mind is racing with all the tasks of the day.

TROLL 003 Olly Richards Language Learning Advice

There’s a strong relationship between depth-of-focus and learning.

The less distracted you’ll be, and the more opportunities you create to actually form connections in your brain and learn something.

Now, I’m not saying not to use your dead time…

And, yes, something is always better than nothing…

But the beauty of having some dedicated, focused time as part of your daily language routine is that, when it comes to using your dead time throughout the day for language learning, that dead time will suddenly start to become much more effective…

Because rather than relying on your dead time for your learning, you can instead start to use that time to revisit, practise and reinforce what you’ve already learned in other, more focused time.

So, if you’re not seeing the progress you want in your languages, do yourself a favour…

Sit down at your desk, close the door… and enjoy what happens.

Oh… and turn off the damn phone 🙂

Now, what do you think?

Am I on the mark with my anti-smartphone hate-speech, or am I just getting old and a little bit behind the times?

You know what to do… Let me know in a comment below. Just… go easy on me 🙂


Lolly says:
18 Apr 2019 17:08

Couldn’t agree more. I find the same thing, the more I try to use tech the less I retain. Which is a pain in the rear end as it’s so tempting!

Abigail says:
18 Apr 2019 17:51

I have to say I agree with your thoughts on focused study vs studying in dead time! Particularly the part when you said “Being busy is not the same thing as being effective.” For some time, I would be fitting my various study methods into my dead time, and not sitting down to actually work. I was applauding myself on the fact that I was able to study for so long each day, without having to sit down for that time and have a dedicated study session! But when I decided that it wasn’t enough, and I traded my spaced dead time study sessions on my phone for a dedicated study session without excessive technology or distractions, I saw an immediate difference! It was actually more enjoyable to spend an extended amount of time studying, rather than short sessions, because I was able to learn more in-depth. I very much enjoyed your post, as it so concisely explained what I had been experiencing. I’m looking forward to the next one!

Gala says:
19 Apr 2019 00:05

Thank you, Olly. Even though it seems pretty hard a technique to apply on a daily basis given the hectic lifestyles nowadays– I thought it was really interesting to reflect on how we study languages and how our dedication is so scarce in terms of time. All in all, an interesting point you’ve made here and worthy of taking it into account.

Carol Nichol says:
19 Apr 2019 02:41

Ciao Olly,

I agree with everything you just said. “Haven’t you people ever heard of, closing the god damn door!” Oops, sorry I got a bit carried away with a song.
But it’s true. I study and enjoy what I am doing when it is quiet. Those ah-ha moments are gold. I love them. They encourage me to continue with my studies.
Buona giornata,

Joy says:
19 Apr 2019 05:13

I am Thai. I come across your Blog while searching for a better way of teaching Thai to my American friends. Also, I want to teach my Thai 3 years old nephew to be bi-lingual naturally. It is very thought provoking and useful sharing. Thanks and keep sharing. I think we need to keep it in balance and find ways that work! However, I am shocked at the distraction! I need to be more careful with my distracted time on the internet and phone.

Jane says:
19 Apr 2019 08:40

I completely agree, but it’s good to be reminded!

Fatemeh says:
19 Apr 2019 10:13

Hey Olly
I agree with these tips 100%
for learning we need focus
Learning is not depend on the hours that we spent; it’s depend on the focus that we had

Mel says:
19 Apr 2019 16:06

Yep, on the mark! Here’s some stuff I do:

Study early am and late pm when few distractions.
Print out online content and use an old fashion highlighter.
Keep a fairly sparse (appwise) ereader next to bed that I use 99% for ebooks.
Have a little library of real books.
Take notes when I’m doing online activities…and read them later.
Do a 24 hour immersion marathon. stay home alone speak/read/listen only in target language (haven’t done this one yet.)

Here’s another way we language learners distract ourselves: adding a 2nd, 5th, 10th etc language before really mastering one! I see so many Duo profiles with dozens of flags … it’s addicting i know, but I saw in my own case how dabbling around was diluting my efforts in my target language. The internet has introduced us to the exciting world of polyglots, a dream most of us should at least postpone and instead stick to a rule like “no additional languages until you are truly a B1 or B2 (or whatever goal you set.)

Your post reminded me to get a tomato timer…and I think I’ll get an old fashioned non-virtual one.

Love your books!

Fintan says:
19 Apr 2019 22:15

Anti-smart phone hate speech…this made me laugh 🙂 Good video!

Elsa says:
20 Apr 2019 12:33

I think your comments are spot on Olly. I tend to use my iPad if I want to use the internet while studying, because if I switch on our lap top the home page is the news page and I’ll spend 10/15 minutes reading the news items before I actually search for the web site I want.

Rachel Vauls says:
20 Apr 2019 13:58

I 100% agree! I’ve used all the apps & flitted from one thing to another but I’ve finally settled on 3 specific learning techniques (book, course & intercambio) & I’ve progressed more in the last couple of months than in the previous few years!

Sr. Debra Ann says:
20 Apr 2019 17:06

Amen!!!! I am learning French and the best time is with reading a book and looking up the words I don’t know as I read a book. It is slow going but it is very good. I also listen to the sisters I live with and am finding out that I am understanding a little more all the time. (I am a Sister of the Lamb of God in France) It does take a lot of work but it is worth it. And no you are not getting too old, you are getting smarter!

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