When people want to learn a new language, they usually sign up for a language course. This is one of the obvious solutions that many of us think about. We find a language school or a teacher, and we sign up for regular classes. We expect that by attending those classes we’ll learn Spanish or French, or whatever language you are trying to learn.
Maybe it has also happened to you. Maybe you signed up for a course like that, and you attended it for several months or even years. But in the end you were probably quite disappointed by the results. You’ve got some basics in the language, but you never really got to a fluent level. You didn’t feel like you could use the language in practice and talk to anyone.
What’s the reason? Many people think that this is because they don’t have the talent to learn a language, they’re not good enough, they don’t have the language gene, or whatever else they might think of. But I believe the problem is somewhere else altogether.
We expect the course to teach us that language, and usually we think that it is enough for us to just simply attend that course. But this is not the case. It’s extremely important to have contact with the language and learn the language in some way in between the lessons.
If you think of a language course, that usually takes place 2x a week, you have maybe 90 minutes with a teacher in a class with other people. Then you don’t do anything else between the lessons. Let’s say you attend the course on Monday in the evening and then on Wednesday in the evening, and from Wednesday till Monday, you don’t do anything else. You just naturally forget most of what you covered in the lesson.
And this is not because you don’t have a special talent for languages, this is because of how our head works. Everybody’s head, not just yours. And that’s why it is extremely important to be in touch with the language in one way or another in between those lessons, ideally every day in small steps.
And this solution is also much cheaper. If you decide to spend some time with the language by yourself, you don’t pay anyone to spend time with you while you’re learning the language.
I asked a friend of mine, Vlado Škultéty, a well-known Slovak polyglot, how long it takes him to learn a language. And he told me that his extreme time when he managed to learn a language was 3 months. It was Russian. But, when I asked him how he did it, he said he spent 6-8 hours a day with the language for 3 months. This is an incredibly intensive learning period which I believe not everyone can do, because it’s really a lot. But it just proves that in order to learn a language even in three months you really need to be intense in your learning.
I added it up, and it comes to about 500 hours of effective language contact, in order to achieve a level where you are fluent, you can use a language and you feel comfortable at B2 level, a level of reasonable fluency. Now if you want to achieve that by simply attending a class it will take you years: maybe 5 years, if you do it twice a week. Because that is very little time that you spend with a language per week.
‘It takes at least 500 hours of effective language contact to achieve fluency.’
So if you want to do it faster, you don’t want to spend years learning a language. You also want to do it cheaper; you don’t want to pay someone for every single hour they spend with you learning the language. Then the simple solution here is that you spend some time learning the language by yourself.
That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with Language mentoring. I help people learn languages by themselves. It doesn’t matter whether they attend a course. It’s extremely important to learn by yourself as well.
Now what does it mean to learn a language? You don’t need to take a textbook from the course and go through the grammar exercises or something. Let’s leave that for the course. What you can do is watch series, listen to podcasts, and read books. You can read bilingual books, where you have the text translated into your language on the other side of the paper. You can find a conversation partner online. All these things are fun, pleasant activities. They don’t require you to be too serious and keep sitting over a textbook for hours trying to cram it into your memory. In fact, these activities are something that you would probably do in your native language just for fun. But this contact is extremely important for you to make some improvement in your foreign language.
When you think about it, the way we learn words is that we encounter them often enough for us to remember them. This is how children learn languages as well. When you watch a small child, just think about how often they have heard the word ‘mama/eat/hungry’, etc. And once they have heard it often enough, that’s when they have learned it and they can use it.
Well, we learn languages exactly the same way. That’s why it is very important for you to encounter many words in a language as often as you can. Because if you just do it once or twice a week, it’s simply not enough. You can’t remember those words, and basically when you just go to the language classes and do nothing else in between, you’re starting all over every time you attend a lesson. You learn a few words and then you forget them in a few days. Then you try to learn them again, and you forget them again. And then you feel like a failure. It’s so demotivating to learn in this way.
That’s why I’m a big fan of learning more actively, more intensely, but in a shorter time overall because if you do it more frequently, it works much better. So whether you are attending a course or not, I really recommend that you have some contact with the language in between those lessons. It doesn’t matter what you do, just make sure you stay in touch with the language.