The Language-Time Conundrum

Have you ever caught yourself watching sands fall through the narrow opening of an hourglass? It’s pretty impressive, really, that hundreds of years ago this simple method was devised for keeping time. The opening is set to a very specific width, and just the right amount of sand is loaded inside so that it takes a very specific amount of time for all of the grains to fall through to the bottom. It doesn’t go any faster, and it doesn’t go any slower.

Have you ever thought of your brain like an hourglass? If you haven’t, at least one similarity is worth noting. If you’ve ever studied for a test you’ll know what I mean when I say you can only learn so much in a short period of time. To relate to the hourglass, our ability to store information functions somewhat like the narrow opening through which the sands fall. Only a certain amount of information can pass through the opening with positive, enduring effects. Trying to learn too much in too short a period of time is similar to trying to push too much sand through the opening of the hourglass. Eventually it’s either going to break the glass or clog the system.

Homer Simpson's BrainAnd yet I’m amazed by two things that plague the realm of language study. The first is that many people expect to become fluent in another language in a very short period of time. Obviously, the number of calendar days it takes to learn a whole new language can vary wildly from one person to another – yet that variance can be directly associated with the number of minutes or hours invested per day which lead up to how long it takes on the calendar. Many people seem to be looking for a secret to bypass the psychological strain experienced when learning a new language. I believe this search to be vain for one simple fact: There is a LOT to learn. One website, for example, cites a research study by David Crystal estimating a spoken vocabulary of around 60,000 words for the average college graduate. Even if we cut that number in half for those without formal education, the sheer volume is staggering. It becomes very easy to visualize if you look at an hourglass. Words exist as sand in the upper-half of the glass. Your ability to learn is much like the narrow opening, which allows words to pass into your brain, represented by the lower half. And only so much can pass through at a time.

The dictionary defines “fluent” as the ability to speak or write smoothly. Fortunately, you don’t need to learn 60,000 words to speak smoothly (or even 30,000, for that matter). But you do need to learn a few thousand, at the very least, to converse fluently. And the sad reality is that this takes time. Just like the hourglass, you simply can’t shove thousands of words into your brain for any kind of meaningful recollection. You may remember them for a short while, but the long-term memory won’t kick into gear to actually retain those words (I’ll explain why shortly).

The second thing – although more disappointing than surprising – is that language programs prey on the ill-conceived notion of learning a language without spending the effort and time to do so. I recently found websites advertising their ability to teach a language in a matter of weeks (one in as little time as 10 days). Personally, I see these claims as falling somewhere between misleading and outright deceptive. Sure, you can learn something in 10 days – but you won’t be able to converse in a meaningful way with anyone speaking your new language. If we reflect back on the hourglass example, we can say that you will have learned whatever the narrow opening in your brain has let pass through. Unfortunately, this will be a very small quantity when compared with the rest of the words in the language. And that’s not even considering the understanding of grammar you need to have to speak fluently.

Now, the reason it takes time to learn a language is because your brain is especially adept at retaining information it needs and letting go of information it doesn’t need (so as to keep the system from bogging down). The theory of persuasion known as attitude accessibility helps to explain why short-term memory works, which is important when first learning a new language. But to really let a language sink in – to become fluent – you need to have contextual significance. Without it, the words themselves are meaningless.

When first learning a language it is common practice to associate a new word with one you Tired Dogalready know (or, in other words, to associate it with another word for which you already have contextual significance). When learning Spanish, for example, you learn that un perro is a dog. Then every time you want to say “perro” you find in your brain the word “dog” and look for the Spanish file associated with it. You discover “perro” attached, so that’s what you use. In essence, you need to literally translate every word in the early stages of language learning. This works just fine at first, but to speak smoothly – fluently – you need to think in the language. Instead of translating every word, the words need to come naturally. This means that when you speak, you find in your brain an animal with four legs and hair and discover the word “perro” next to it – NOT “dog.”

To reach this stage you need contextual significance. You need to actually use the words you learn in a real situation to provide context, or meaning, to that word. Even if you’re speaking only to yourself, you still need to use the words you learn with some kind of meaning. To learn how to say pencil, look at the pencil while writing and refer to it with your new vocabulary word for pencil. If the object isn’t nearby, speak about it in a meaningful way so the vocabulary word sticks. Just use the word in a real way and the meaning of the word will remain with you.

Just last week Science Daily published an article supporting the need for contextual significance for memory recall. The article stated that when we recall a word we also recall the context surrounding that word, including other words and events. This is why rote memorization is not very effective for long-term memory storage (aside from being really boring). It works when cramming for a test, but not so well when striving for fluent conversation. Learning to use vocabulary with real context creates a more meaningful association and makes natural recall of those words much, much easier.

I hope by this point I haven’t discouraged you. Learning a language really isn’t that difficult, but it does take time to associate vocabulary correctly in your mind. My aim here is to help you have real expectations when first studying a language to help you through the early stages of difficulty. The reality is that some words will sink in early and permanently, while others will cause you frustration for weeks or months. But overall, you need to invest quality time to learn a new language – otherwise the hourglass in your brain is going to fracture. Whether you spend 6 hours a day to learn a new language in three months, or 30 minutes a day to learn it in a year, you must invest the time. How many calendar days it takes is up to you.

What’s your perspective? Leave a comment and share your thoughts!

2 thoughts on “The Language-Time Conundrum

  1. Fasulye says:

    Which time do you need to learn a language?

    Generally speaking it needs a a lot of time and effort, there is no instant solution. If you put yourself under time pressure, you will get easily discouraged.

    For my personal language learning I don’t set myself narrow time goeals. For my Danish I have decided that I want to spend another 8 years studying it after having studied it for 2 years now. This just as an example.

    It’s different when you prepare language exams. Then you work with an exact deadline and you have be be ready on the day(s) of the exam.


    • Ken says:

      That’s very true. I often notice that an inverse relationship exists between time and effort: The more effort invested, the less time it takes to learn. Exams can often be a great motivator to invest more effort. Thanks for your thoughts!

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