How Many Hours A Day Should I Study A Foreign Language?
Your brain needs sufficient enough daily exposure to a foreign language in order to truly process what it has learned. Thus, you should aim to study for no less than 1.5 – 2 hours a day – every day, if you’re hoping to gain fluency in your new language.
Can you learn a language in 30 minutes a day?
I suppose it’s possible to learn anything in 30 minutes a day… if you have 100 years!
Okay, so depending on the material you’re using, you can learn some things. Pimsleur claims that 30 minutes per day is all you’ll need. But the question is, how effective would this really be in the long run?
When you first start a language, you can get away with studying for 30 minutes a day. Everything’s new and easy in the beginning. So your 30 minutes won’t be a complete waste of time; you can build an elementary foundation. This is something that Duolingo bases its courses on.
But as you start to learn the meat of the language, the stuff that makes it work, 30 minutes simply won’t cut it. Your time will be up before you’ve had time to process everything.
You’re going to have to devote a bit more of your day to your new language if you actually want to use and understand it.
Why you should study a language for more than 1.5 hours a day
Everyone is different. Some people learn best in short, regular bursts. But I’ve found, particularly when it comes to language learning, that the more time you can study for, the better. Long periods of exposure to and internalization of the language are where you’ll get the most gains.
Studying for under 1.5 hours is less effective for a couple of reasons:
- the material doesn’t have enough time to sink in
- the less time you spend in your new language = more time spent in your native one, thus undoing whatever you might have learned prior
The key here is to reduce the amount of time you’re exposed to your native language, as this is how you create a truly immersive environment – a necessity for speedy language acquisition.
The more hours, the better
Ideally, if you have plenty of spare time, you should dedicate as much of it as possible to active language study/immersion. This might require (temporarily) giving up other hobbies (but those ones probably won’t give you the lifelong benefits of multilingualism, so it’s a good trade off).
2 hours and above would produce good, speedy results, which will encourage you to keep on learning. Spending 2+ hours per day in lang gives you enough time to go over what you’ve learned, process it, and commit it to memory.
Life example: I once read Los Juegos del Hambre (The Hunger Games in Spanish) for 6 hours, in one day! Apart from the breaks I took to eat and use the toilet, I never came out of the language. This was quite early on in my Spanish studies, and it helped immensely.
The reason being: coming across the same vocabulary, phrases, verb conjugations etc. in a short space of time makes it much more likely that you’ll remember them, as most of what you learn has a better chance of making it into your long-term memory.
In shorter sessions, words usually only end up in your short-term memory, which means they’ll be easily forgotten.
Not just the hours, but the consistency
While the amount of time you spend per day is important, perhaps of more importance is regularity. Becoming fluent in a language involves repetition, repetition, repet– you get the point.
Think about how you learned your native language. Lots of exposure, all day, every day, leading you to gradually pick it up and finally reproduce what you heard. The regular, consistent exposure to the language is what ultimately makes the difference.
So the story I told before about my 6-hour reading burst, on its own wouldn’t have had long-lasting effects. You shouldn’t, for example, cram one day then do nothing the day after.
This does more harm than good: it wastes your time, because everything you learn in your cramming session will quickly be forgotten; and you’ll likely be discouraged when you don’t see long-lasting results.
Set a schedule and stick to it
With a foreign language, you usually don’t have the luxury of full immersion, particularly when learning as an adult. What you do have, however, is control over how much time you can devote to your new pursuit, and when to do it.
You need to set aside a certain amount of time every day, without fail, to fully immerse yourself in your new language, so that your brain grows accustomed to it.
If you usually have time in the evening, after work, then devote this to your new language. Stick to the same time, if you can, so that it becomes second nature. Your brain will know that this is “language time”, and it will be prepared.
You might be tempted to take weekends off, but don’t! You didn’t get weekends off when you were learning your native language, did you? No, so you shouldn’t get them now.
Studying doesn’t have to be boring
At this point you might be thinking: “I would lose my mind if I had to study for 2 hours every day!”
When I talk about “studying”, I don’t necessarily mean this in the literal sense – text books, grammar books, all of that boring stuff – I generally mean immersion, in whatever form it takes. As long as you’re actively learning new things daily, this counts as studying.
For instance, reading a novel or watching a movie in your target language could be more valuable than doing verb drills. You should try to mix things up so that learning doesn’t become stale. The last thing you want to do is bore yourself into quitting.
You could spend an hour reading, half an hour studying, and another half an hour watching a TV show or movie. Stay immersed, avoid your native tongue, and you should do great.
How long will it take to learn a language if studying 2 hours per day?
There’s no concrete answer to this, and everyone’s mileage will vary, but I would estimate that you could easily achieve B2 level (comfortable conversation) within 6 months. (Check out my post How Long Does It Take To Learn A New Language to see what’s possible with longer hours.)
Whichever way you slice it, studying 2 hours a day will get you to your goal faster than if you spent less time studying.
For instance, it’s quite possible to study half an hour every day for 2 years and never progress past A1 level (beginner); whereas putting in an extra hour on top of that could have you at B2 in under a year. That’s how stark the difference is.
Tips to utilize your time well
Try the Pomodoro Technique – Short 25-minute bursts with 5 minute breaks in between. This is perfect for people with short attention spans. If you want to know the science behind the method, check out this article from todoist.com.
Choose your material wisely – Not all language material is created equal. If you know you’re on the clock, you need to select material that will give you the biggest bang for your buck, so to speak. An hour using flash card software, for instance, might be worth far more than watching a movie.
Set everything up the day before – Know what you’re going to be working on the following day, so that you don’t waste time searching for things to do.
Switch off all native language distractions – Cast away everything that tries to tempt you out of immersion. You can reply to your loved ones’ texts later.