I’m in my last week of my June language learning experiment, in which I’m trying to get exposure to 10,000 words of German a day. In July, I’ll let you guys know how the experiment went. (You might be surprised.)
But today I’ll talk about language learning volume, which is kind of the underlying concept of the experiment. And at the end of the article, I’ll give you some examples of people who have achieved good results with high-volume routines.
Language Learning Factors
In fitness circles, there’s a concept called F.I.T.T. Basically, the idea is that your workout routine can be manipulated by four factors:
- Frequency – How often you work out
- Intensity – How hard you work out
- Time – How long you work out
- Type – The type of training you do
Well, you can use the exact same concept to manipulate your language learning routine:
- Frequency – How often you study or use the language
- Intensity – How hard you study or use the language
- Time – How long you study or use the language
- Type – The type of language activities you do
Each component serves a purpose. In very general terms, frequency helps memories sink in and supports acquisition; intensity helps you develop new skills; time helps you build intuition and solidifies the skills you already have; and type ensures you develop well-rounded skills.
So when I say “volume,” I’m referring to the total amount of language exposure you get. A high volume means that you’ve ramped up both your “frequency” and your “time.”
Something has to give. If you have all the time and energy in the world, you might be able to max out frequency, intensity, time, and type simultaneously.
But realistically, you probably can’t do that. (I know I can’t.) People have to choose what to prioritize, and as a result volume is the first to be dropped.
First, volume requires a time commitment. If you don’t have time–or think you don’t have time–then it’s not going to happen. You’re likely going to prioritize intensity-heavy activities like studying grammar or vocab.
Second, people sometimes don’t even realize volume is important. It takes fifteen to twenty minutes a day to complete a lesson in Duolingo, Babbel, or a self-study textbook. Once you finish, you can clap your hands together and say, “Job well done”–which is true, in a sense. But you’re leaving so much on the table.
When I was going through language school to study Arabic, we were in class six to seven hours a day. Yet most of the time, we were only exposed to 5,000 to 7,500 words of Arabic a day. Sometimes fewer, sometimes more. Not bad, but considering that studying was our full time job, our overall volume was a little low.
Our program really pushed the “intensity” component. We would dissect a 250-word text until we knew it inside and out, every word, every grammatical point.
Did this method work? Absolutely. But it developed certain language qualities at the expense of others. We didn’t spend nearly enough time watching documentaries or listening to entire news programs. I left my initial training with a very incomplete skill set, and not until later and after I had added in much more listening and reading did I really feel like the language had sunk in.
A lot of what I’m saying here is theory, so I’ll try to bring it back to the real world. I’ve personally seen instances of people’s language skills going through the roof with a volume-heavy approach.
Examples (not their real names):
1. Farid – I worked with a guy named Farid, who was a very skilled translator. He was actually European born, but converted to Islam in language school. He learned Arabic in the same program I was in, but taught himself Persian-Farsi from scratch to an ILR 3/3 (C1) level in three months.
Every day, after eight hours of Arabic translation work, he would come home and study Farsi in his room for five hours. His approach combined using spaced repetition (back before it was cool), listening to news broadcasts, and reading newspapers. I didn’t think there was any way he’d be able to reach a C1 level in such a short amount of time, but he proved me wrong. And the sheer volume of Farsi he got was a big reason why.
2. Jim – Jim was a translator I worked with who had gone through an intensive seven-month course in Pashto that brought him to a B1 level. After working with the language for a while, he took a C1-level Pashto test and passed.
I asked him how he did it. His answer? Every night, he transcribed Pashto news broadcasts for three hours. He looked up words he didn’t know, but for the most part he wasn’t translating, just dictating. Also, he didn’t have an answer key, so he just used common sense to gauge how he was doing.
His typical day consisted of eight hours of translation work and listening to news broadcasts during down times, plus three hours of transcription work. I estimate that he was exposed to 15,000 to 20,000 words of Pashto a day. So with no additional grammar or vocab work, he was able to get to a C1 level.
3. Study-abroad students – When students study abroad, one of two things happen. Either they operate entirely in English, and they come back not speaking the new language at all. Or they live their lives in the host country’s language, and they come back speaking like professionals. Let’s concentrate on the latter group–you know, people like Bradley Cooper.
In terms of F.I.T.T., what changed for those students when they went abroad? I don’t think it’s intensity or type, because the classes they took in high school and college had plenty of intensity and consisted of varied studying types.
Instead, I think what really changed was volume: frequency and time. In their host country, they received nonstop exposure, all day. And then they got practice speaking with their classmates, their host families, and people around town.
Is volume a magic bullet? I think it’s important, but I don’t know yet if it’s a panacea. (Check my results post for more on that.)
But I do know it’s an important part of a language routine, and an often overlooked component. Experiment with your own volume and see if it makes a difference.
(P.S. I still owe you guys a list of my favorite language learning podcasts. I haven’t forgotten about that.)