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What I Learned From Grinding Language classes for 9 Months

Over this past year, I’d say my biggest accomplishment was building out my language learning habit and actually improving somewhat in my foreign language speaking skills. So what exactly did I do to learn new languages? I started taking tutoring classes online. Originally, I scheduled weekly classes to learn Chinese. Now, I’m learning Mandarin, Cantonese, Spanish and Japanese. Now, am I learning them all equally as well? Not even close.

March Schedule

Here was my schedule back in March – pretty doable – I think anyone could probably incorporate this amount of classes into their life, possibly with little alteration of their normal schedule, or possibly a lot, to free up certain time schedules.

April Schedule

Here’s April and May – I feel like my schedule remained pretty consistent – about two or three classes a week on average. June and July are pretty similar. It’s not until August that I really ramp up the intensity:

At this point, I’ve moved to daily classes with an additional class thrown in every other day or so. What’s with the shift?

Regardless of your methods for learning a language, there are a couple of core concepts that you must abide by:

  • You need to have an opportunity to learn new material. (This can be vocabulary, grammar, or new language concepts.)
  • You need an area to practice it – For example, speaking in conversations that incorporate the new concepts you’ve learned. Watching videos that use the target vocab/grammar. Reading books. Listening to conversations or podcasts. So forth.
  • Time spent practicing the concepts. This is in line with the above, actually – your output is a function of usage over time – meaning you can practice and use the concept many times over a short period, or the same amount of times over a longer period. However, it’s not necessarily 1:1; there’s a bunch of articles hyping the use of spaced repetition in learning a language – meaning it might actually be worse if you practice a concept 1000 times in a week and then pick it up a year later, compared to practicing that concept 1000 times spaced throughout the course of a year and then picking it up again the following year. You want to practice these concepts over a time interval instead of doing things in bursts.

So, keeping these general concepts in mind, what did I learn about learning languages?

  • It’s a hell of a lot easier to learn the more you study. This sounds kind of self evident, but when I take the same class every day, I don’t even need to do outside homework in order to recall concepts I learned the day before. Just brute forcing learning through sheer volume of classes serves to learn things over time. Would it be better if I study outside of class as well? of course. Do I do it? Nope.
  • Trying to learn multiple languages may not be inherently worse than only focusing on one. Having said that, I do think it gives you a lot more rope to hang yourself with, so I wouldn’t recommend starting from scratch with multiple languages – I think it’s cool to pick up several languages if you’re relatively proficient with one and a beginner in the other. One benefit I found from learning multiple languages simultaneously was not needing to sustain my interest in only one language. It’s really natural to have interest in learning a language wax and wane over time, but whenever interest dropped in one language, interest would rise in the other. It was quite nice.
  • It’s crucial to build in time to explore the concepts you’re learning. On Italki, I would schedule weekly classes with some of my tutors. These tutors would focus solely on going over new concepts, vocabulary, and grammar with me, with the expectation that I would study these things in my own time and practice speaking/writing/reading etc. However, with some languages, it was very frequently the case that the class was the only time I was exposed to that language in a conversational setting, meaning I could talk to someone and they would respond back. Compare that to watching a TV show or listening to music/ reading news in the target language – you are still exposed to the language, but you get little opportunity to practice speaking in a real world setting, which, for most people, is the most practical use for a language. In order to ameliorate this, I had to reach out to my tutors and reset expectations – I needed to move slower and spend much more time practicing these concepts by verbally reviewing them in conversation with my tutor. While the rate at which we covered material dropped to a snail’s pace, my retention shot up through the roof.
  • For those who have taken a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu class, the structure of a typical BJJ class actually is quite useful to incorporate in a language learning context. A typical BJJ class usually follows this pattern: First 10 minutes of class spent warming up. About 20-30 minutes devoted to learning new material. Then about 30 minutes sparring, which is as close to real world usage as possible. The practitioners grapple under a restricted ruleset – no punching, kicking, or strikes of any kind. No fouling (gouging, manipulating people’s fingers, messing with ears, eyes, throat (except for chokes), etc) Every class is essentially self-contained: There’s room to learn new concepts, but also space to test out new material as you see fit. If you don’t have any exposure to your target language outside of class, I feel like incorporating the BJJ class model is really useful for retaining language knowledge. If you have plenty of opportunity to practice your target language outside of class, I’d recommend taking out the “practice” aspect from your classes, since there’s so little time in a class and you could devote more of it to learning instead.

(It’s important to note that this is simply one method to learn a language – I’m not saying it’s the only path, nor is it the best. But it is my path and it is one that works for me. You may find it useful for you if you need structured classes for guidance in the same way I do. If you think it might work for you, try it! As they say, take what works and discard what doesn’t. I wont be offended!)

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