Learn Languages Better with Short Study Sessions

Stopwatch by Wwarby

When it comes to language learning, sometimes shorter can be better.

If there’s one thing I hate, it’s feeling like I’ve wasted time.

Now that doesn’t mean I have to be productive 24/7, I consider having fun or relaxing valuable uses of my time in most cases – I just hate working hard toward a goal and feeling like I have nothing to show for it.

When it comes to language learning that trait used to make me a huge perfectionist. If I was going to spend a few hours on Anki trying to learn 30 new words for the day I needed to really know them at the end of it or I would feel like all that time doing SRS reps was a waste. To be fair I understand it wasn’t, but it was still kind of discouraging nonetheless setting out to learn 30 words and only remembering 20 or so the next day.

Then I figured out the trick to learning more effectively and keeping myself motivated – short, targeted study sessions.

The Benefits of Brief Language Learning Sessions

Motivation – I noticed that if, instead of trying to do a massive amount of studying in one go, if I just sat down to learn 10 words instead of 30 I could get all of them without any problem. Even if it’s something as minor as learning a small handful of words the fact that I could consistently achieve the goals that I set had a surprisingly strong motivational effect. It also boosted my confidence and made me eager to go study each day.

Retention – Of course you might say 20 words out of 30 per day is still better than 10 out of 10. That would be true if I stopped there, but once my motivation was back I started adding more brief study sprints. If I broke up the words into ten in the morning, ten in the afternoon and ten at night I could learn all 30 with no problem and spend less time overall to do it. I’m assuming something about the study sessions being in smaller, more digestible chunks helps me handle the volume of new information better.

Avoiding Burnout – Maybe this should be lumped under motivation, but I think it’s important enough to get its own category. In the same way that timeboxing helps you to go complete tasks you really don’t want to do, breaking study sessions up helps you work on language learning even when you don’t feel like it. When you know you’ve only got ten words to learn and then you’re done, it’s hard to justify blowing it off no matter how out of it or demotivated you feel.

Maintaining Focus – When you dive in to study a huge volume of stuff all at once, there’s a tendency for most people to wander. I see it all the time at commercial gyms when people contract ‘screwarounditis’ – they drift aimlessly from machine to machine, do a few reps of each and leave. Whether it’s exercise or language learning when people come into something without a concrete plan and are presented with a million options for what to do they often just screw around. By having tightly restricted study sessions with a clear goal you avoid this bad habit and maximize the efficiency of your learning periods.

The Caveat

It would be irresponsible of me to suggest you study less and not mention the one caveat – non-study learning time.

I say this because I’m worried some people will look at this and take it as an excuse to study less. That’s not the point. In terms of effort and reward you still get out whatever you put in. Having shorter, more efficient study sessions is a great way to maximize your return on that effort, but it won’t get you all the way to fluency unless you combine it with countless hours of non-study learning time.

What do I mean by that? I mean all the time you can pack in where you are experiencing or using the language but not actively studying it. Watching TV or movies, reading, listening to music or chatting with friends in your target language are all good examples. That time, where you actually use what you learned in the study sessions, is key if you want to be conversant.

Do you prefer shorter study sessions or longer ones? Do you have any other tips or benefits to it that I missed? Share them with us in the comments!

Photo Credit: Wwarby

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com