IWTYAL 195: I study too much!

Joe asks: “I study so much, I worry that I'm being inefficient.”

Episode Summary:

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Full Transcript:

Good morning, everybody. Welcome back to the, I Will Teach You a Language podcast. It is time to reveal, finally, where me and my friend Jan are going on our 2017 mission abroad. Last year, you may remember, we went to Thailand and I spent two weeks learning Thai, fairly intensively. Well not that intensively, I guess, actually a couple of hours a day plus homework and plus self study.

So we went to Bangkok and we had this cool mission, where we just basically learned Thai for two weeks and on my Youtube channel, I recorded the whole thing. I documented the daily progress and if you go to my Youtube channel now, you can actually see me having a 25 minute conversation, only in Thai, with my Thai teacher at the end of that process, which for me was super satisfying and I know many of you enjoyed that as well. So me and Jan have been thinking, “All right, where we going to go this year? What are we going to do?” And, here's the thing, I don't want to do a new language this year. I can't handle it. I don't have the space in my brain.

Last year I experimented a bit with German and then learned Thai quite intensively, and then that's cool, but the thing is; I'm still trying to focus on my Cantonese and improving my Cantonese, which is going really well, but I don't want to learn a new language this year. So, what we are doing is we are going to a place where we can really experiment with language immersion. It's a language that me and Jan both speak; I speak really well, Jan is more of a beginner in.

What we really going to be doing is travelling there and getting as much practice as possible with the locals. Experimenting in different ways to get immersion when you are abroad and this will be super useful for you, if you enjoy going abroad, to practice your languages. Maybe you are thinking about going abroad to practice your languages and you're not sure the best way to do it. You can see exactly what we do, in daily videos, where we will be speaking Spanish in Méjico [Spanish language]. That's it, we're going to Mexico and in fact, when this episode comes out, we will be going in the next few days, I believe.

So what you should do right now is, pause this episode and head over to YouTube and search for, Olly Richards and find my channel, it's youtube.com/iwtyal which stands for, “I Will Teach You a Language,” in case you want the url. Subscribe to the channel because otherwise you'll miss everything, basically. Go and do that right now. There's also a little icon there where you can click to get automatic notifications of new videos when they come up, as well, which will be cool because then you really won't miss a thing.

So yes, this will hopefully be really useful for you. We were trying, really trying, to think about something that would be useful and that you could draw lessons from. I know lots of you enjoy travelling, but as I often talk about on the podcast, it can be difficult to get that, to use your time productively and to have a good experience when you're travelling. It'll be different for me this time because my Spanish is pretty good, so I'm going to be really, I think, trying to help out Jan and maybe we're going to be having a lot of discussions about the best way to get different practice.

Anyway, to find out what happens, follow it on, with us, on the YouTube channel. Again we'd be going to Mexico. Flying into Cancun and also visiting one other country, but we're not going to tell you where it is. Unless you've read the book in which case you already know. We're going to be visiting a second country as well, which will be Jan's 100th country. This is the other part of this puzzle. So, see you on the YouTube channel.

We've got a good question today about having too much time to study, which is a problem not many of us have, but it is very interesting in the sense of how do you use your time. Before we get to that, I'd like to thank the sponsors of the show. It's the place that I go when I do have time to spare, for language practice. It is of course iTalki and you can get lessons there with professional or informal teachers or tutors. And to get $10 worth of free credit, to use on a teacher of your choice, you can go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freelesson.

Now without any further ado, here is Joe.

Hi Olly, I'm Joe, and I've been learning French for about 8 years in school and that's obviously a very long time. I've not really, actually, started consciously, try to learn the language, as oppose to passing exams. Until about six months ago and I just, kind of, noticed an improvement and realised that, maybe it's something that I enjoy and spend more and more time on.

Over the course of the past, say six months, I've just spent more and more time every day, practicing French and I've noticed a big improvement. I've been facing the problem recently, with being off school for the past two weeks, with Easter, that I maybe spent too much time every day, learning the language because I can often get to the point where I feel like I haven't made any progress in the past hour or hour and a half of studying that day. This just makes me feel worn out, makes me feel like I'm wasting my time and it makes it harder to be motivated the next day to carry on.

So I was wondering if this is a problem you've ever faced? Spending too much time, each day, and not actually using the time effectively? I was wondering whether you've ever faced this and how you've overcome it? Is there a way to make your studying quicker or more concise and not just ongoing and slow and just indicative of a really long period of unproductive time, which is sometimes why I feel like I've done, yes?

Hey Joe, thank you very much for leaving your question. It's a really interesting one and not one that comes up a lot. I do actually remember having a similar experience. Not quite to the extent that I would have weeks off at a time, but I remember, when I lived in Paris; I only worked like two days a week, and it was night shifts as well, at this youth hostel that I was working at, so I had a lot of free time. I remember actually studying quite a bit and then getting a bit bored and thinking, “Am I really going to benefit if I do anymore?”, you know. So, it's an interesting problem and for people listening, it is still relevant because what you're really asking, Joe, is not, “How much time is the right amount of time?” but it's, “How do I use my time effectively?”

We've talked about that on the podcast before, and I think in your case, you mentioned you're at school and you've been studying French for eight years. I don't know what your background is and I don't know what your current level is, but I think it's wonderful that you've got a sort of a stride in your step. What's the expression? I can't remember what it is. Spring in your step now with French and you feel like you're making progress because every language learning journey has these tipping points.

I imagine you're at school learning French, without really caring that much, but then suddenly you've realised, “Oh, wow, actually I can communicate with people and I actually know my stuff now,” and that's really an exciting moment. I'd say, first of all, ride that wave as long as it lasts, because it's much more difficult to get that back later on, when you have less time. The first thing I'm going to ask you Joe is, “Are you studying, or are you practicing or using/living the language?” That's my first question because I don't know that myself from your question. So, I'm going to have to make a certain number of assumptions here.

What do you spend your time doing? Are you working through textbooks, are you doing exercises? What are you doing? I think, I would guess that there is a risk that you are kind of planted firmly in study mode because that's the way that most people learn languages at school. By study mode I would include working through textbooks, other kind of material that's intended for study, maybe grammar exercises, whatever. Assuming that, that's what you're doing then I think this certainly is potential for wasting your time because when you're learning new information, there's only so much your brain can take in, in one day, right. So in that sense, you definitely do enter this territory of diminishing returns, after a certain amount of study. You’ve diminishing returns is, basically, for every hour of work you put in, you get less out because it's not as valuable anymore.

I think it's definitely the case; you can do too much study. I'm sure I've mentioned this before a number of times, but my friend Alex has always said that he feels that one hour a day is really the maximum amount of useful time that you can actually study a language. In the sense of actually really squeezing every last drop out of your useful attention of study time in a day. I don't know if he still thinks that, actually. I should text him and find out. Generally, if you're spending one really good hour a day studying the language, doing exercise; grammar exercises, reading your text books or whatever, that is enough, because you're going to be learning new information.

However, you can never spend too much time in the company of the language. So imagine you moved to France tomorrow, and everything you did was in French, you wouldn't say that you are wasting your time. You'd be perfecting your French. You'll be letting in full immersion and that is a good use of time, because at the stage that you're at now Joe, and obviously I don't know exactly what that is but I'm guessing, you feel like you're at least an intermediate level. You've got a huge amount of passive knowledge in your head, you know. There's a huge amount of stuff that is in your head but has not necessarily been activated yet or it's lying dormant.

Everybody's challenge, when you move passed this intermediate level, is to actually start to activate stuff and take ownership of the language and what that means is that you need to really be spending time in the company of the language. You need to be spending time with the whole language and that means, doing things that are not for study but are for actually using the language. So we're talking about speaking with people, whether that's talking with friends or having a language exchange online or something like that. Reading books in French, watching TV in French, maybe you're logging onto taking a MOOC or some kind of online course in French. Doing things that, native speakers would be doing in French.

If you're doing that, in other words, creating an immersion environment for yourself, living the language as you would do in daily life, your normal life at home, then there's no way you can do too much. You know, if you imagine that you read in a book for an hour a day, you watched one movie a day in French and you went online and you had a language exchange for an hour a day, that's four hours a day of actually using the language.

Now, what will happen is that you won't feel like you're making so much progress. I've really resonated with what you've said in your question, which was that feeling of not making tangible progress every time you sit down and study. The thing is, being on the intermediate level that stops being the case anyway. You don't get up from every study session feeling, “Oh, I've learned 20 new words today”, whatever. It's much more about this kind of gradual process of just living and breathing the language and watching it takes shape before you. A little bit like watching paint dry in a way, you know. You're using the language and the concepts concretise, solidify in your mind and you gradually develop this command over it and that comes from real exposure to real language.

My advice to you is to look at the balance of what you're doing and how you're spending your time. I would suggest that you experiment with going the opposite way from what you've been doing. Try to spend no more than one hour a day on actual focus study, instead, try to consume French with real activities like we've just mentioned. Create an immersion environment for yourself and do it based on the things that you enjoy. So if you enjoy reading comics in English then read comics in French, if you like football watch football in French, do all these things you would normally do, in French. Then just try to be satisfied with spending your time in the company of the language and pushing yourself in that respect, rather than actually looking for this kind of tangible progress every day.

Now as I was talking, one of the things that occur to me is that you might have exams coming up and so you might feel this pressure to study for your exams. You would be best placed to know whether you have that in hand or not. All I'd say is, as long as you're confident with your exams and you're confident you going to get good results, and then as soon as your exams are over, assuming you get the result you want, then you won't ever think about that exam ever again and life goes on. So in that sense use this time to really immerse yourself in the language because it could be the way that you get that big tipping point that allows you to move forward and become a real confident speaker of the language.

I hope that helps. I'll give you some food for thought at least. If you'd like to ask me a question, like Joe did, then please go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/ask.

At the end of every episode, I like to leave you with a resource of some kind on the topic of the show. Today I thought, I would refer you back to a couple of previous podcast episodes that are all about tracking progress because I suspect that, that's what is kind of at the root of your question, Joe. Those episodes are episode 110 and 113 and I'll put a link to those in the show notes as well, so that you can find those. Likewise if you have any suggestions for Joe, then you can leave him a comment at iwillteachyoualanguage.com/episode195.

Thank you so much for listening. I'll see you guys virtually in Mexico. Don't forget to subscribe to the YouTube channel. You can also find me on Instagram where I'll be posting some behind the scenes pictures at iwillteachyoualanguage. That's it. See you soon.

Thank you so much for listening to today's episode. I really hope you enjoyed it. You know, one of the questions I get asked most often about language learning is how to improve your memory. Things get so much easier when you learn new words and you don't forget them later in conversation when you really need them. What I decided to do is to put together a short email course. It's a three part email course, over three days that teaches you my favourite techniques for memorising vocabulary and actually putting that vocabulary into your long term memory. It's a short course, three days, it's completely free. If you’d like to sign up for it, please go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freememorycourse.

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