Learning a Foreign Language: How Much Time Does it Take?

Ostensibly, one of the primary goals of this blog is to serve as an example after the fact of “What it takes to learn a language,” (if I’d done it perfectly, I would have started this back on day one, but hindsight being what it is and all, just gotta make do with the portion that is being tracked) and offer some insight, to myself and others, regarding the amount of time and effort required.  I’m sure I’ll have more to say when I’m zeroing in on “finishing” Spanish, whenever that ends up being, but eight weeks in I’m getting a pretty clear understanding of how much time I am devoting to this project.  I’m fairly confident putting a rough figure on the amount of time I can/am willing to devote to language learning per day, and while I don’t think I could then extrapolate forward to guess when I’m going to be “done,” I do think it is starting to reveal a road-map for getting there.

I’ve had some heavy swings in both directions on the amount-per-day, and the average has increased from the start—both the start of learning and the start of the blog—but I’m comfortable saying that I spend two to two and a half hours daily on this journey.  I’m also comfortable saying that this is the appropriate window for me to be in.  I am fortunate in my life to have a reasonable amount of free time outside of work, and the disposable income to indulge in this (not necessarily unreasonably priced) hobby, but I do have a full-time job and responsibilities in my life that keep me busy for a lot of my time.  If I was an idle rich guy or something and could treat this journey less as a hobby and more as a job, I have no doubt that I’d be learning faster, but that isn’t a reasonable expectation.  As is, I don’t think I could devote that much more time to it than I already am.  Now, I do have the time at my disposal to spend on it; if you factor out my job, sleep, and other must-do stuff from my schedule, I probably have around 6 hours of “free time,” to spare per day, but to even approach that would mean completely shutting off everything in my life outside of the basic necessities and learning Spanish.  And while I love learning Spanish, I’m not willing to do that.

On the other side of the coin, having ramped up to this 2-2.5 hours schedule, I would be hesitant to want to go lower.  Some days I have and will likely need to again go lower, but I’m definitely getting the feeling that a single hour is the base level minimum that is appropriate in the long-term.  Less than that, and I don’t think it would be enough time spent to really build on the days before and make progress.

That statement has some ambiguity to it, I realize, as I could be saying that it’s the base amount of time to devote toward learning a language universally, or just in my specific case.  And I’m no expert, but it at least subjectively feels like it’s universal.  An oxymoronic statement, yes, but I’m an artist, dammit, don’t ask me to logic.  Anyway, it seems to me that there is often friction to the daily learning process.  You sorta need to switch gears into the target language, which requires some pushing before you build up enough momentum to really start making progress.  And while the gear switch doesn’t take an hour, it isn’t a trivial amount of time, either, and if all I was devoting to Spanish was twenty minutes a day, I’m unsure that I’d ever be building momentum at all.  One hour feels like the bare minimum, not out of any sort of vanity/pretentiousness that someone else out there who’s working for half an hour isn’t being as serious about it as I am or something, but simply because I’m not sure that less time would be actually useful for anyone.  Without building up the momentum, the progress would be so slow as to be the same as no progress at all.

I could very well be wrong on that, and I wouldn’t stake money on 60 minutes being the exact threshold.  If someone out there is spending 30 minutes a day because that’s all the time they can afford to devote to it, I’m not going to tell them they’re wasting their time, maybe that is enough for them to be making progress.  On the other hand, if 30 minutes is all you can afford to devote to language learning, it might be worth re-assessing your priorities.  Unless you’re the busiest person on earth, carving out at least an hour a day to devote to something important to you is going to be feasible, and if you don’t want to carve out that hour, maybe you don’t really want to learn the language.

That might be sounding vain or pretentious again, but I do think that it’s important to be realistic about this hobby.  It’s going to take some sacrifices, in brain power, in humility, and in time.  Now, some of that time can be mitigated and doubled up in a lot of cases; I review my Anki flashcards during work breaks, I replaced my usual leisure reading with leisure reading in Spanish, and I do at least a portion of my reading/watching while eating meals.  There are plenty of other ways to double up time besides those, too, for example I know a number of language learners listen to podcasts while commuting to work or exercising at the gym.  There’s time that can be reclaimed without it being a sacrifice at all, even if you really are super busy.  That said, it’s still probably going to be a bigger ask of yourself than just squeezing language learning into the margins.

Maybe I’m wrong and there’s just a threshold to reach where that friction falls away and it’s close to effortless to switch from working on one language to another, maybe I’ll discover that further into this project.  Though if that is the case, I think it would make me want to spend more time working on Spanish, not less.

Anyway, onto this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 7/17

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1200 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of El Odio que Das, ~60 minutes

Wednesday 7/18

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1440 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of El Odio que Das, ~60 minutes

Thursday 7/19

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1440 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 2 chapters of El Odio que Das, ~75 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Valle de Cielo Gris, ~25 minutes

Friday 7/20

  • Anki: 140 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1440 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of El Odio que Das, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, ~20 minutes

Saturday 7/21

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1320 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 3 chapters of El Odio que Das, ~120 minutes

Sunday 7/22

  • Anki: 130 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1560 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of El Odio que Das, ~60 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of My Little Pony, ~20 minutes

Monday 7/23

  • Anki: 120 cards reviewed, ~10 minutes
  • Duolingo: 1630 XP earned, ~60 minutes
  • Reading: 1 chapter of El Odio que Das, ~60 minutes
  • Total Anki: 900 cards reviewed, 70 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 10,030 XP, 420 minutes
  • Total Watching/Listening: 2 tv episodes watched, 1 podcast episode listened to, 65 minutes
  • Total reading: 10 chapters read, 495 minutes
  • Total Time: 17 hours 30 minutes

Another pretty okay week.  I’m closing in on finishing El Odio que Das, especially after the big push on Saturday.  Overall, though, same problems as last week, I’m not watching enough stuff.  I know I’m not watching enough stuff, because I can feel the incremental improvement with speed and understanding when reading, but listening is just not on the same curve.  I am improving, but not as quickly, and unlike with reading the process of self-review and correction is too frustrating to make me want to do it.  I hate pausing something and going back to listen again (especially in Netflix), and looking up words when you’re guessing at what you actually heard is even worse.  The lack of time devoted to it and the lack of self-correction as it goes results in a snail’s pace for listening comprehension.

I’m thinking that what I really need to do is go for sheer quantity of listening and try to brute force it to a certain extent, get my ears and brain in a more consistent and unrelenting habit of confronting spoken Spanish.  That doesn’t fix the self-correction problem, but the goal would be to just smash through it purely through quantity.  Which means spending more time with listening, but really means going for a larger variety of things to listen to.

The problem is that I am usually not much of a binge watcher.   Every once in a while a show grabs me hard enough to pull me through in a bingey sort of way (last one was Aggretsuko, and Hunter X Hunter before that), but I’m really more of a “watch a show once a day” sort of guy when it comes to television style media.  I think the better course of action would be to aim for collecting a list of shows to watch back to back every day, rather than thinking I ought to just binge My Little Pony or whatever when I am honestly not that interested in doing that.  Which really means settling on a list of shows.

Somewhat on those lines, I tried out a podcast I’d heard about called Valle de Cielo Gris, which is Spanish language horror show.  It reminded me of Welcome to Nightvale, which I wasn’t a huge fan of to be honest, but I didn’t hate it or anything.  The episode of Valle de Cielo Gris I listened to seemed to be good quality, but was a bit above my ability, so I couldn’t follow it terribly well.  Even with closed captions I was left behind.  Maybe I’ll come back to it again after some improvement, but for the time being I don’t know how much value I can get out of something I can’t really follow.  Kind of a shame, because a podcast specifically would be a nice thing to fit into my daily schedule.  Ah well, maybe eventually.  In the meantime, I’m gonna start figuring out what shows I can settle into watching an episode of every day and try and come up with a little Spanish TV Block of sorts.

Well, that’ll wrap things up for this week.  TTFN.

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