3 tips for maximum gains & long-term language learning

This post suggests three techniques to maximize your input hours and how to keep your language learning on track over the long-term.

Skype Classes

I struggle in a classroom environment. My mind wanders constantly, and like a lot of people, I don’t have the mental stamina to push through 2-3 hours of class time. While most of my gains in learning Chinese have come from a large classroom, this is not to say it’s the best use of my time for learning Japanese now and especially as I’m out of high school and university.

What works best for me and most people is one-on-one classes. First, there’s nowhere to hide and I can tailor the class to my needs, and second, I find what I typically learn and accumulate from two hours in a standard classroom setting I can obtain in 30 minutes in a private class. So, rather than enroll in a private language school in Japan, I’ve recently been taking regular one-on-one Skype classes, which also turns out to be cheaper per hour than an offline course.

I generally opt for the 30-minute classes which costs about $4-7 USD (or $8-$11 if I do the 60-minute version) for learning Japanese on the platform Italki. The 60-minute classes are also good but I prefer short daily classes over scheduling 3×60 mins classes per week. This way I’m optimising for regular practice.

Skype is not for everyone and I wouldn’t recommend it for learning a language from scratch. I think it’s great, though, for language learners who have a semester of formal language study under their belt and need more practice speaking and listening.

While you can find professional teachers online to teach you new content and grammar, I prefer to use Skype as a tool to receive feedback from a native-speaker on sentence construction using grammar and vocab I’ve learned in my own time.

I rotate between four Japanese teachers on Italki.com. This means I can practice a lot of the same small talk, which as a beginner, helps me to consolidate basic conversation. On Monday, for example, I might share my experience twisting my ankle with the first teacher–bumble my way through it– but by Thursday, the same story will sound almost fluent to the third or fourth teacher to hear it.

For me, Skype isn’t just for practicing small talk. I can do that anytime; I have a Japanese housemate, I’m active in a couple of martial art teams, and I’m currently living in Japan. Rather, my primary aim with Skype classes is to focus on the material that wouldn’t otherwise be practical to cover with say my Kendo teammates or my salary-man housemate who gets home at funny hours. Class time, therefore, mainly consists of practicing sentence construction and assembling my own word/sentence bank using Google Sheets.

Before class

As part of my preparation for the class, I send the Google Sheets link to my teacher and during the class, I ask the teacher to write down content we cover during the 30 minutes we have together. This is more convenient than me scurrying to take notes in Hiragana and it helps to consolidate what is covered during the class in one doc rather than relying on my memory to retain everything.

The words highlighted in purple in this screenshot are adjectives and verbs I’ve learned in my own time using the Genki 1 & 2 textbooks that I need help conjugating or practicing in conversation. I also aim to receive feedback from the teacher to gauge how formal/useful/polite words and phrases are or whether there’s a substitute I should be aware of. This saves me from learning vocab that’s not useful in daily life.

By the end of the class

My 30-minute class will thus generally look like this:
5-10 minutes small talk. 
20-25 minutes practicing sentence construction and sample sentences

Using this method, I’m able to practice my speaking in-class while also creating revision material — all within 30 minutes from the comfort of my living room floor. 

After class, I tidy up the document, add English translations, and begin revising the content we covered in class.

For me, this approach is a sound long-term language learning strategy as the input time is kept to a minimum, there’s no commute time, it’s affordable, and by scheduling almost daily classes I’m building commitment into my language learning – as opposed to good intentions and promising myself to study each night but never quite following through…

50 first dates methodology 

One of the common problems of learning a language is the stop-start trap, where you go hard for a semester (i.e. in-country language learning) before diverting attention to another pursuit.

Taking time off language learning is hard to avoid, but one way to make the comeback easier is to save and bookmark your previous progress with flashcards or notes of what you’ve already learned. This helps to record your progress for later revision. For me, this could be the material I’ve created from Skype lessons in the case of Japanese or my old Chinese notes that I have saved in a Word doc.

My old notes from IUP in Beijing 2013

Rather than opening up a large textbook or tackling new material, I know I can go back to these documents where I’ve recorded my earlier progress and make fast gains. Our memory doesn’t take long to remember phrases and vocab learned in the past and confidence levels can shoot up in no-time using past material.

A good analogy is the 50 First Dates Movie with Adam Sandler (Henry) and Drew Barrymore (Lucy).

In this film, a couple maintains a relationship where the woman’s memory has been damaged by a car accident. Each morning Lucy wakes up forgetting everything that’s happened since the time of the accident. Her partner, who she met after the accident, has to go through the same process each day of explaining to her who he is and why she is in love with him. To help handle this situation, Henry creates a tape marked “Good Morning Lucy” which Lucy listens to each day to recalibrate her memory (starting with the car accident and ending with their wedding).

You might not want to wake up to an iPhone recording of yourself speaking fluent Chinese three years ago, but by finding a medium to compile vocab and grammar learned in the past, you can access those earlier gains in a central resource and activate a fast reset.

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Optimizing for momentum

The last tip is a technique I’ve broadly ignored but it’s a game-changer if you can execute it.

As with any pursuit, momentum holds true for language learning. This includes avoiding extended study breaks that can lead to language de-acquisition. While language breaks are inevitable, it’s far easier to reach new heights when you stack periods of intense language learning together.

To draw an example, let’s say you enroll in two semesters studying Chinese in Beijing but take two months off over the summer to travel to another part of the world. Your language skills will likely feel rusty by the time you get back to Beijing for the start of the second semester. After a two-month break, it might take a couple of weeks to get back in the zone speaking Chinese and recover the level of fluency you had before you left.

However, when you take six months off, to say finish your degree or internship outside of China, it might take a good month of being back in China studying every day before you feel like you’re back to where you were.

This stop-start problem has slowed me down a number of times. I enrolled in three semesters of intense language-learning in China but they were dispersed over three years. Between each semester I spent time in Australia or Korea where my Chinese language skills dropped off as I focused on other things. This meant I lost about two months re-learning and regaining language fluency when I could have been riding the linear line of progress.

Student 1 vs Student 2: Hypothetical language journey over three years

In this diagram, I have plotted the progress of two hypothetical students over a three-year period. Student 1 studies for three consecutive semesters in China and then leaves China. Student 2, on the other hand, breaks up their study with time spent back in their home country between each semester in China. While by Year 3 both students have a similar level of proficiency, Student 1 has reached greater heights and with a month of full-time study, they can quickly regain HSK 6-level fluency. Student 2, conversely, is still another full semester away from hitting HSK 6 as they have a lot of new content to learn which takes more time and effort than revising previously learned content.

Both students had the same duration of in-country experience learning their target language (18 months), but Student 2 wasted some of that precious time regaining their previous level of proficiency.

For a lot of students, stacking their time in-country might not be practical given their degree structure. But among those I personally know who have made the commitment to study full-time for 12-18 months straight, the results are clear and they’ve advanced faster than I have in the same period of time in China.

While this example was geared towards full-time in-country language learning, the same principle applies to part-time language learning too. Just as you need to avoid taking long periods from the gym, the running track, yoga or practicing your golf swing to reach your personal best, making a small daily or weekly commitment through Skype classes, 6am challenge, language meet-ups, night classes, etc., helps to keep your language learning moving forward rather than hitting a familiar ceiling and falling back down without pushing to new heights.

As individuals, we all respond differently to various learning methods but whether you prefer a traditional classroom setting or you like watching films in your target language, consistency and momentum are the key for fluency and reaching your personal best in any language.

Do you have your own language learning technique you want to share? Tell us in the comments section below or even better, pen an article for Asia Options!

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Olly Theobald

Director at Asia Options.
Olly works in Hangzhou China and is enthusiastic about entrepreneurship, e-commerce, Asia education, data science, and foreign languages. Olly is a graduate from RMIT University and the Hopkins Nanjing Center for Chinese and American Studies. Olly speaks Mandarin and Korean.

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