Optimize Your Language Learning: When Time Matters More Than Money

When I was a student and I had a lot of time but not so much money, free language learning resources where what I relied on. Only occasionally, I’d spoil myself with a book (that I often wouldn’t use…).
The Internet is full of amazing free resources when you have time to look for them. Many free resources are as good as paid ones and I’m all for not wasting money! Having said that, sometimes paying for resources makes sense. It’s true when you don’t have that much time but money is less of an issue.

1. Pay Only For What’s Worth It

When I say that money is less of an issue, I don’t mind that you need to be a millionaire to pay for your language learning resources. It’s simply that throwing some cash that way may help you progress without spending much time looking for resources.
You should only pay for what’s worth paying for, though. Let me tell you what’s NOT worth it – organised group courses in language schools. You can get a private tutor in places such as Italki or Verbling for a fraction of the price and they’ll focus on your needs only. You can’t win with it, if your focus is truly on language learning (and not, for instance, finding new friends). I write more about this in my post “Do I need a language teacher?“.
Remember that the fact that an app needs to be paid for doesn’t make it good either. Read about a product you want to invest in, before buying it. Many apps have a nice freemium or free trials. This is my favourite way of paying for things – once I know what it’s all about. I’m in general catious with products that don’t give you a sample. If the product is good, what are they scared of?

2. Be Wary of Reviews

Just because someone on the Internet said that something is good it doesn’t mean that it’s good. We have this expression in Polish that in a non-literal translation means that someone gets excited over every sh*t (byle gównem się podnieca). I don’t think these people mean harm but they may just not know what they’re talking about.
Just look at the hype around Duolingo. It’s really not a bad product and it has its uses. What it won’t do, though, is teach you the language on its own. You can use it to complement your study but you can’t fully rely in it.
A design and user-friendliness are often things that people pay attention to. This is why you should read reviews from people who know something about language learning and/or teaching. You can find many reviews by teachers, language learners and polyglots. They’re the ones to be trusted.

3. Minimalism Rules – Don’t Buy Too Much

A new passion can result in you spending a lot of money on it. The more you spend, the more probable is that your money will go to waste. Seeing that you have disposable income (unless you were born with a silver spoon in your mouth) you’re probably at a stage in your life when you work quite a bit. In fact, the reason why you spend money on resources is because you want to save time.
This means you probably don’t have time to use every app/book under the Sun. You should be picky with what you buy and spend your time on.
What usually works for me is one book called something along the lines of Teach Yourself [Language or Learn [Language] which claims to be a complete guide for a given level or two. Sure, these books can differ in quality but between a book like this, a teacher, an a good app for vocabulary learning, you’re pretty much sorted. The only thing you may want to invest some time in looking for are additional resources for listening comprehension. If you still have time left, find a great language partner for additional practice.

4. Schedule Your Learning Commitments

Even with three tools you should plan your learning. It’s easy to get distracted and your motivation will vary. Insert your language learning commitments into your calendar and stick to it, whether you feel like it or not.
If that doesn’t work for you because your schedule varies a lot, at a minimum write down language goals such as: 1 lesson, 2 x 30 minutes with the book, 3 x 15 minutes with the app. Squeeze it in as convenient, just not all on a Sunday evening, asseblief.
I’d lie if I told you I’m good with sticking to a schedule but I can tell you then when I’m good at it I always see quick results.

5. Value Your Time

If a resource or a teacher isn’t working for you, change it. There are certain thing in language learning that work for everyone. For instance, being systematic. In general, though, we are all different and something that works for others may not work for you.
Whatever happens just don’t get discouraged from learning altogether. It may happen that you try many teachers before you find someone who you like. It’s much better to waste a bit of time early on in the search of what works then lose your mojo completely later on.
Tutors can be really bad. Even before my Russian language experiment, I encountered some pretty bad Russian teachers. This means I’ve had lessons with +/- 20 people before I settled on who’ll help me. The is true for for apps and books.
When frustrated breathe in and out. Remember that language learning is a long term game!

I hope this has been helpful for you guys. I will soon right something for those of you who have more time than money! Language learning can be customised to all needs 🙂 Uvidíme se! Knús!

Language Experiment: 12 Days of Russian Lessons

I heard about the Polyglot Gathering 2020 from a student of mine before the pandemic was a thing. Sigh. The silver-lining is that the gathering moved online and therefore I was able to attend it. I’m still going to comment on some speeches but I’m waiting for the organizers to upload them on their channel so that you guys can also access them.
Okay, so to get to the point, which is something I always have a problem doing (you see!) in preparation to this gathering I decided to give my Russian a quick boost. As you can learn from the post Lessons on My language Failures I’m up and down with my language learning. This means that in a year and a half of “learning” Russian I perhaps did two months of study with months on end of not doing ANYTHING with it.
Nonetheless, the gathering was there on the horizon with its language practice opportunities and I knew that “Извините пожалуйста, где находится банкомат?” (Excuse me, do you know where the nearest ATM is?) was not the best conversation starter. I decided to try an experiment and do a lesson of Russian every day for the remaining 12 days. I used professional and community tutors on italki and only stayed with a teacher, if I liked them. Below are some of my findings.

1. Some Teachers Are Great, Some Are Hopeless

Instant enlightenment. I guess it’s something that I learnt a long time ago but somehow forgot about it because I was lucky with teachers for a long time. Community tutors or professional teachers alike can be great or totally not.
During my experiment I had lessons where teachers expected ME to lead the lesson. This means there were uncomfortable silences and prolonged pauses. Sure, anyone can be in a situation when they need to gather their thoughts but if your teacher makes you feel it’s your job to lead the lesson, they suck.
I enjoyed the following mixture of teacher’s characteristic:

  • Nice

    I’m not kidding, just a nice person who smiles from time to time makes it much easier for you to learn. When they don’t make you feel judged and encourage you it’s really important for your progress. We all know we sound silly in the beginning when learning a new language so someone who can put us at ease is gold.
    And yes, unfortunately not all teachers think it’s important. I literally had a teacher roll her eyes at me when I was struggling with telling the time in Russian. NOT cool!
  • Prepared

    If a teacher comes for the lesson unprepared it’s a bad sign. Even if you’re just doing informal conversation practice and they have no questions/activities prepared for when the conversation dies out this means they’re not prepared.
  • Good at explaining the language

    This is one thing at which non-native speaking teachers are often much better than native ones. It’s simply because they’ve been through the process. Teaching courses are theory and somehow they don’t really really understand certain problems of learners.
    Having said that, I find native teachers fluent in at least one foreign language with a lot of experience really good at it too.

2. Progress Sometimes Comes Later

This is something I heard Lydia Machova saying during her speech at the gathering and I can totally relate to. For the most part of my twelve day experiment I couldn’t see much progress. Sure, I could introduce myself much better after doing it 9 times (I’ve tried 9 different teachers) but other than that I didn’t feel like my Russian was getting any better. This was obviously very frustrating. I started doubting myself.
Weirdly, the progress came only a week or two after the conference, when my Russian was downgraded to two lessons a week, homework and some vocabulary learning. One day out of the blue I was able to use vocabulary and structures learnt during the experiment. I guess the take home message here is that you just have to be persistent and the results will come.

3. You Need That Homework and You Need It to Be Good

You’ll spend so much more money on your lessons, if you don’t work on your own. Still, not all homework is equal. It was drilling what I’d covered during lessons that really helped me not some random exercises.
Don’t move on to anything else before you feel more or less at ease with a new topic, otherwise you’ll be repeating your mistakes and they will fossilize. Ask your teacher to slow down. That’s what 1-on-1 teaching is made for and that’s why it’s much more efficient than group work.
You can also create you own homework by expanding to weaknesses that came up during lessons. I’m, for one, a bit cavalier with Russian cases because my native language has given me quite a good intuition about them. The intuition can only get me so far, though. I can’t get away without drills for the cases that I find counterintuitive and these are really difficult to work on.

4. Personality Differences Can Hinder Your Progress

I mentioned a number of things when it comes to teachers in point 1 but this one needs a separate paragraph. As much as someone can be a good teacher there are certain issues that may hinder your progress, namely, major personality differences. If you’re supposed to be getting frustrated with your teacher or your conversations won’t flow because you’re very different, rather change them.
During the experiment I would decide whether to stay with a teacher or nor after one lesson. This doesn’t mean 7 teachers I rejected were bad teachers but it means that their teaching style and/or personality and/or beliefs would not make us a good match longterm.
For instance, for many people it’s surprising that I’m Polish and I live in South Africa. Add to that that I moved here for work (as a woman!!!) and you may get into certain conversations you don’t want to be having.
I understand genuine interest. “How come did you end up in South Africa?” and similar are just good conversation starters. However, I can’t deal with what I’d call interrogation driven by someone’s lack of appreciation for all kinds of diversity. I’m not interested in explaining my life choices to people who are there to teach me a language.
This experiment did cause me a bit of fuming but actually, more sadness about how some people see the world. Still, I ended it walking away with two great Russian teachers whom I gladly share with you: Anastasia and Marina.

5. Your Attitude Is Crucial

Did I manage to have a lesson every day for 12 days? Sure! This doesn’t mean that these lessons were equally effective, though and I was to blame too. Particularly on the weekend I really had to push myself to even attend a lesson and my attitude was just wanting to be done with it. A great teacher can help you with motivation but when you’re very tired or low the learning process is much less effective.
When not participating in an experiment book a lesson for when you know you can concentrate on what’s being discussed. Don’t add a lesson to a day that you know will be long and frustrating.

7. There’s Something About Kickstarting

When you struggle with language learning motivation it’s a good idea to kickstart your progress by making an intense effort like I did in my experiment. The thing is, life’s busy and language learning can be slow when you just put two hours a week into it. A crash course is a great idea to start with and whenever you feel like you’re getting nowhere you can just do a challange similar to the one I just did.
My 12-day Russian marathon has certainly improved my vocabulary and knowledge of important phrases A LOT. I advanced from using Polish words and hoping for the best to actually knowing basic Russian words, phrases and structures beyond my survival travel vocabulary. More importantly, my motivation to learn Russian has been high ever since I completed the experiment.

PEP Talk

Learning a language is a commitment and sometimes it may feel like a chore but whatever your goal is you’ll feel amazing, if you achieve it. You’re reading this blog so you’re probably a person who values their time and money and wants quick and sustainable results.
To do better in a language you must learn better. To learn better (= smarter rather than more) you need motivation. You can spend years and years in language courses and schools putting your progress in someone else’s hands or really commit and become intermediate or higher in a year. These are completely achievable goals with the right tools.
I know it, because I did it before and I’m trying to crack the code of how one can do it over and over again. This is because I also know that trying to optimize your language learning process means going against years if not centuries of old school and ineffective language teaching. If you don’t fight for yourself you’ll loose your motivation, money and perhaps even the interest in learning a given language. We can do it!
Bonne chance à vous et a moi ! À bientôt !