Improving Your English in Hours instead of Years
Last night, I had planned on studying for a couple of hours.
I took my laptop to the bedroom…
Thought about the activity I planned on doing…
Then I grabbed my phone and instead of doing the planned activity, I started reading a book that I am absolutely hooked on.
There are 2 ways of looking at this:
- I spent 4 hours reading a great book that happens to be written in my target language to learn. That’s studying, right?
- Reading a book casually is a very ineffective study activity and I could have advanced much more by doing different activities during that same 4-hour period.
In this article, I’d like to talk about how we measure the time it takes to learn a language in years, instead of hours.
And also, how you start improving your English skills in hours, instead of years.
Measuring Years Instead of Hours
“Amy, how long have you been learning your target language?”
My answer is a very unimpressive 16 years.
I spent 14 of those years stuck at a beginner level. But in just 1 year, I managed to get through intermediate and end at an advanced level.
Yep. The majority of my improvements happened in less than a year.
What Changed in that Year?
Looking back, I can see the exact reasons why I was stuck at a completely useless beginner level for so long.
The techniques and exercises I was doing were low quality, which meant I needed to do a high quantity of studying just to remember what I had learned. The study methods and ‘practice’ exercises I was doing only helped me to retain the basic words and grammar rules of the language.
In other words, I was spending my time doing activities that consumed a lot of my time but didn’t have a big impact on improving my skills.
For me, this concept of ‘efficient study activities’ was first put into words in an article written by a well followed polyglot, Benny Lewis. He clearly explains how ridiculous it is to measure the number of years you have been learning a language without mentioning the amount of quality hours you spent each year actively working to improve it.
Since then, I’ve been wanting to explain my beliefs about this topic, the reason why the courses and exercises I suggest to my students follow this philosophy and why I believe this advice is the key to actually reaching fluency.
The Quality vs. Quantity Scale
At the beginning of the article, I started with a classic example where I ended up doing an activity that could be considered ‘studying’… But really, it was more of an activity I was doing for fun or entertainment. Although it is helpful to spend the free time you have been entertained in English (ex. reading novels, watching movies etc.), those activities barely count as ‘studying English’. To help explain this ‘study quality’ idea, let’s assign a number to different types of activities depending on:
- How many different skills does it use?
- How difficult is the activity?
Each study activity can be done at different levels of depth and intensity. To help demonstrate the ‘study quality’ test, let’s start with the easiest activity that will provide the least amount of results. Then, we will give it a score from 1 to 10. An activity with a score of 1 will require 10 hours of studying to get a result. But activity with a score of 10 will require only 1 hour of studying to get a result.
Learning Activity Example #1: Listening to English Audio
Activity 1: Listen to different English Podcasts for an hour
- Difficulty: Easy
- Quality of Studying: 1
- Skills Used: Listening
Listening to English audio for the purpose of exposure is one of the least effective learning activities you can do (in my opinion). Yes, this activity is easy and enjoyable to do but you learn very little by listening to a piece of audio only one time. If you have problems with listening, you need to do further training anyway. Only listening will not fix your listening problems.
Activity 2: Studying a transcription and listening to the audio several times
- Difficulty: Medium
- Quality of Studying: 5
- Skills Used: Listening, Vocabulary
At least with a transcription, you are able to see the words that you couldn’t hear when you only listened to the audio one time. By listening to the audio several times with the goal of being able to understand as much of the audio as possible without needing a transcription… Now you are dealing with a ‘listening problem’. Finally, giving your ears a chance to learn how this word or phrase sounds to be able to recognize it.
I suggest adding new words and phrases from the audio to a list to study later. With that being said, you will find that you are able to learn the new words much faster because you’ve been exposed to them several times in context.
Activity 3: Studying English audio (with transcription) and speaking about it.
- Difficulty: Hard
- Quality of Studying: 10
- Skills Used: Listening, Vocabulary, Speaking, Grammar and Fluency Practice
Let’s assume that you do the same activities that I listed above, but additionally, you add some speaking practice into the mix.
After you listen to the audio and study the transcript, you will have a very good understanding of the topic and be familiar with all the words you need to talk about it in detail. The challenge is actually remembering those new words, saying them correctly, and putting the sentences together correctly. Use a dictionary and translation tools to help you practice explaining your ideas when you have any doubts.
Listening to audio is one skill. Trying to speak about the same topic is a completely different activity and challenges your brain in a different way. Even though you understand something when you hear it, very often you will not feel comfortable using that same phrase or word speaking. Practice talking about what you listen to as a way of ensuring you know and can use the related words.
This last activity combines many different skills in one exercise. The fastest way to improving your English is by doing activities like this.
The 14 Year Lesson…
I remember the day when I decided I wanted to live in another country. I hadn’t decided which one yet, but I knew it would be a Spanish-speaking country.
I said to myself, “Amy. Seriously. Being stuck at a beginner level for more than 14 years isn’t okay. What is wrong with you? You are smart, you are dedicated, but for whatever reason, you are not advancing in this damn language! Figure it out, you need to know it if you want to live in a culture that speaks it.”
Literally, that was it. The end of my ‘helplessness’ of being unable to advance…
I had to figure something out that was going to work.
The techniques I had learned in school using textbooks, grammar rules, and specific set of vocabulary that I ‘apparently’ needed to learn, had taken me as far as it was going to go… I could only speak in simple sentences and understood NOTHING when I was spoken to by a native speaker.
It was time to try something different, because these techniques, clearly, were not working for me!
When ‘Real Life’ Communication Changed Everything
The day I had a text chat with a native speaker was the day I realized that the words I learned were not very common in everyday communication. Every word, phrase or foreign sentence structure that I saw being used was an opportunity to learn the real language.
I also realized that I had to think really hard in order to put sentences together as a response. Forcing my brain to remember unclear grammar rules and discovering I had never learned many of the most common words used in everyday communication.
This type of activity was much more educational than any textbook I ever read.
When I started doing activities that were more challenging and closely related to the skills I wanted to improve (speaking and listening), my language level started to skyrocket. Based on my pre-intermediate level during that time, this type of activity was definitely a level 10.
Turning Years into Hours
Let’s fast forward to the latest year where I am again ‘stuck’ at an upper-advanced level.
My communication is functional in the real world at least, but it is not at the level that I want it to be at.
Like most language learners, I strive to speak without thinking in a natural way. Also, to understand what I hear on the street with ease and to feel confident that I comprehend everything perfectly.
Over the past year, my life has been busy. I sold my house, moved to another country and I’ve been working hard to find students for my courses.
Let’s say that I don’t have much time to study.
When I do study, I make my time count by focusing on the activities that are the most challenging and always focus on the skills I need to improve the most.
Despite my lack of time, I am still able to maintain my level and see small improvement because the activities I choose to do are the highest quality ‘study activities’ that I can do. Focusing exactly on the areas where I want to see improvement.
By making the same decisions when you have time to study, you can improve your English much faster.
Avoiding ‘Learning Losses’
Imagine that I only have time to study 3 hours a week. During this year, I’m only going to be investing 152 hours of my time into the language. (3 hours x 52 weeks = 152 hours/ year)
If I spent that 12 hours reading, listening to audio passively and watching videos… Surely, my level would start to decrease over the year.
Each week that goes by where you are not actively trying to move forward, you will go backward. Losing a little bit each day of what you have spent so much time and effort learning.
Actively moving forward in a language does not involve watching movies for entertainment.
The fact is, the more you learn, the more time you need to use the language to retain what you’ve already learned. To advance, you need to learn something new or do activities that are out of your comfort zone.
Make Big Improvements in Just Hours
If you are going to invest your time into studying and improving your English, you might as well make big leaps with your progress in each hour you spend working on it.
This doesn’t mean that you can’t do activities that you enjoy!
Example 2: Watching a Movie
Instead of just watching a movie with subtitles for entertainment, turn it into a study activity that challenges your listening, builds vocabulary and helps you practice speaking.
Start watching the movie and listen carefully to what the characters are saying. Try listening to the same 30-second clip over and over until you feel that you either understand it completely or you cannot understand anything else.
Use the subtitles to determine what you can’t hear. Learn the new words and listen again.
Do this for 60 minutes. Later, try talking about the scenes from the movies that you studied. Describe it in detail as if you are explaining it to a friend.
Now, you have permission to kick back, relax and enjoy the rest of the movie.
Activity Quality (for the 60 minutes of active studying): Level 10
…if You ONLY watched the movie: Level 1
You would have to waste 10 hours of your time watching 5 or 6 movies to get the same results you just achieved by studying a movie (in depth) for an hour.
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