How Much Time It Takes To Maintain (And Improve) Many Languages
Being a polyglot sounds like such an amazing thing, doesn’t it? Admiration, fame, money, women throwing themselves at your feet.
All these things are not only great but also completely imaginary.
Ok, just a bad joke. It is pretty great.
But plenty of people notoriously underestimates how much time it takes to maintain and learn languages. I am sure you know the type.
They love to assume that the only prerequisite to master many languages is some unspecified talent.
I get it. If you say, “I envy you, I wish I could speak so many languages but I just don’t have a knack for it”, you don’t have to feel guilty.
That’s why they keep sucking the rationalization’s tit until they get all warm and blissful.
And who knows? Maybe they are right to some degree. We are all born different. Wiring in our little brains differs from one another.
Some people might actually have some head-start. But one thing is sure – no magical combinations of neural networks will ever make you a polyglot if you don’t put in the long hours.
It’s time to unveil the mystery.
For the past four weeks, I have been trying to track down how much time I devote to learning and maintaining my languages each week.
But before we get to that, let’s start with the baseline,
My Current Language Levels
Here are my current levels:
- English: C2+ (C2 level + a couple of specializations)
- Swedish: C1/C2
- German: C1/C2
- Russian: C1
- Esperanto: C1
- Czech: B2/C1
- Spanish: B2
- French: A2/B1
As a side note, I can’t understand why some people say that they know a language when they can barely string a sentence together. Your language is not dormant – it is mostly forgotten. Deal with it,
Somehow, this practice seems to be quite widespread in the language learning world.
You might notice that I learn my languages to at least C1 level. There is a very good reason for that – language attrition happens muuuch slower on this level than on the lower ones.
Once you get there, you can start taking breaks from that language to entertain yourself with other projects.
Let’s start with my unfair advantage – I teach / train people for a living. It allows me to spend considerable amounts of time while being surrounded by many languages.
Currently, I teach/coach 30+ people per week.
Main languages I teach are:
- Swedish – 8-10 hours
- German – 8-10 hours
- English – 8-10 hours
These are not your usual conversations. I work almost exclusively with professionals. Each hour I spent with them is designed to jog their memory and bring them to the point of exhaustion.
That requires from me quite a considerable vocabulary which is awesome.
If we add to this mix a couple hours of consultations each week, we get a pretty decent number.
Total time: 24-35 hours
SPARE TIME – LEARNING PART
I am not sure whether it’s sad or not but I spend most of my waking hours learning and/or experimenting with memory systems. None of these activities are carried out in my mother tongue.
I figured out that since I know it pretty well it would be a waste of time.
Basically, it means, as absurd as it sounds, that Polish (my native tongue) and French are the least frequently used languages by me.
It leads to some bizarre and funny situations. Sometimes my brain plays with me and prompts me to conjugate Polish verbs in a really weird way – I have created monsters like “wypróbowywałem” instead of “wypróbowałem” more times than I would like to admit.
Quite a side-effect, huh?
Another interesting side-effect is dreaming in foreign languages. I have actually had dreams where people were speaking one foreign language and my brain was displaying subtitles in another.
Yep. Who needs drugs when you have languages.
Anyway, reading, talking, noting, writing are all done in various languages.
The rough breakdown looks more less like this. Mind you that these numbers reflect only a couple of last weeks and they are bound to change. They have to adjust to my needs, after all.
English – 15-hours. As much as I would like to suppress the use of this language throughout the week, it is impossible.
About 80% of e-mails I get are in English. 98% of all scientific papers I read are in English, no other language comes even close when it comes to their quality. I would say that I read at least 300+ pages per week in that language.
And let’s not forget about writing articles. Once again English prevails.
Czech – 5 hours per week. Mostly reading (10-15 articles per week) and learning/revising vocabulary.
Russian – 3-7 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. I read maybe 1-2 articles per week. Oh, and let’s throw about 2-4 episodes of TV series to this mix!
Esperanto – 1-2 hours per week Mostly revising and learning vocabulary. Unfortunately, there are not many websites in Esperanto which overlap with my interests. It means that I read maybe 0-2 pages in Esperanto per week.
Swedish – 4-6 hours. I need to maintain my Swedish skills at a high level because of my job. I tend to read 10-20 articles per week and tend to watch a fair share of YT in Swedish (I highly recommend I Just Want To Be Cool channel, if you are learning Swedish).
French – 0-1 hours per week. Currently, I am busy with many projects and the sole victim of this state of affairs is French. As a not so surprising result, my French is deteriorating rather fast.
German – 3-5 hours per week. Besides learning new words and revising old ones, I read about 5-10 articles per week and watch a bit of YT.
Spanish – 3-4 hours per week. Mostly revising and learning vocabulary with some articles here and there.
And just for the clarity’s sake – I learn and revise my vocabulary by talking in order to keep it active.
Total time: 34-40 hours per week.
SPARE TIME – ENTERTAINMENT
Now it really gets weird!
I tend to watch a lot of TV series with my girlfriend – about 15 hours per week. It’s great fun. However, it has bothered me for a long time that everything we watch is in English.
That’s a wrinkle I couldn’t iron out.
And then it dawned on me – why not turn this ordinary activity into another language learning exercise?
Why not translate everything actors say into one of the languages I am trying to improve?
As I thought so I did. I have been doing it for about 4 months now and it has really helped me improve my fluency in a couple of languages.
“What about words or phrases you don’t know?”, you might ask.
I have an easy but effective system which takes care of that problem. I memorize them with mnemonics on the fly and quickly note them down after each episode.
Next day I look them up and encode them. Quite an elegant solution, isn’t it?
Of course, it doesn’t work each time. Sometimes I am just too tired and I let myself get sucked into a TV whirlwind.
Total time: 5-15 hours
The Final Result
The results were beyond interesting. It was no secret to me that I learn a lot but I didn’t think that it’s that much!
Not even once did I sink below the level of 70 hours per week, although I am sure that it might happen in the future.
Thank God I am not a crack addict. Otherwise, I would be this guy who crawls through broken glass to lick other junkies’ nostrils to get his daily high.
Total time: 63-90 hours per week
Want to increase your weekly learning time? Read on. There is some food for thought for you there.
ACTIVE vs. PASSIVE LEARNING
Active use: 35-50 hours per week (talking to others or myself)
Semi-active use: about 15 hours per week (translating TV series in my mind)
Passive: 15-35 hours per week (reading + listening/watching)
Over 70 hours per week is certainly a lot of time. That’s why there is one important question which begs to be asked.
Does it all come easy? Or does it require some tremendous amount of will power? At the risk of rubbing some people the wrong way the answer is – It does come easy.
At this point of time in my life, I do most of those things without giving them much thought. But I had to work my way up to get there.
And believe me – it was a long walk and the slope was slippery.
There is definitely a number of challenges you need to face if you want to pump up your total learning time. Here are some of them.
Definitely one of the most important things to master, if not the most important one. If you want to make sure that you will learn day in, day out, you need to build within yourself the urge to do it.
The urge that can only be built and fueled by habits.
Forget about the motivation. Motivation is for suckers. You have to show up every day until the habit of learning becomes the extension of yourself.
Only then will you be able to not only learn a lot without much effort but also crave it.
Read more about creating durable habits here.
You can’t just choose one or two and toss the rest into some musty pit. They would rust away in the blink of an eye.
You need to introduce and invite every language you’re learning to your life. You have to make conscious effort to use them all constantly.
Beginnings are ugly and weird. It seems your guest is hammered and shits on your carpet and you don’t know what to do with him.
But once the dust settles, using a given language should become your second nature.
Here are more tips about juggling many languages.
SURROUNDING YOURSELF WITH LANGUAGES
Use every possible moment you get to learn a word or two. The chances to do it are everywhere around you:
- change your language settings wherever you can
- use your social media to learn (get to know how to learn languages on Facebook)
- listen to the music in your target language(s)
And so on. Every little bit counts
The general of productivity is that the fewer decisions you have to make, the better your general efficiency is. It’s hard to argue with that.
Let’s say that you want to read something, How much time do you usually spend before you pick up an article? 5 minutes? 10 minutes?
It might not seem like a lot. However, it adds up very quickly.
Soon it may turn out that at least a dozen of hours per week is trickling between your fingers.
The same goes for choosing movies or YT videos.
I am hell-bent on not letting that happen.
I would rather spend this time weaving wicker baskets than losing it due to my indecision.
That’s why my input-gathering process is almost fully automated.
In the morning, when I arrive at my desk with a steamy mug of coffee, everything I need is already in my e-mail box. Scientific papers, videos, articles. Everything.
I don’t need to spend even one minute more than I should trying to find the necessary information.
And yet, as you can clearly seem I still spend a lot of time learning and maitaning my languages which leads me to the last point.
WHY I WON’T LEARN NEW LANGUAGES ANYTIME SOON
People learn languages for different reasons.
Mine has always struck people as eccentric.
I haven’t learned languages because of my deep love for them.
No doubt I have fallen in love with them during the process of learning (except for French – f*** you French!) but my affection hasn’t been the main factor.
The main reason was always the pursuit of better memory.
And even though I know that I still have a lot to learn memory-wise, I know that learning languages won’t get me much further.
I don’t find languages challenging anymore. Sure, I haven’t learned Basque or even one of Asian languages. But I don’t need to.
The general principles of learning and memory improvement won’t change just because I switched to a new language.
And to be honest, what’s the difference between knowing 8 and 9 languages?
Or 10-12? Not that big, in my opinion.
However, the time you need to maintain them grows significantly with every new addition. Of course, some learners trade quality for quantity but I personally prefer to truly master the languages I know.
Languages vs other branches of knowledge
I have read in some scientific paper that learning a language to C1 level is tantamount to graduating from studies.
Both activities require thorough knowledge and understanding of about 10000 words/concepts.
But I don’t believe it to be true. I don’t know many college graduates who can use their knowledge as fluently and practically as C1 language learners can use their vocabulary.
And that is what bugs me. Why would I learn another language when there are so many other mysteries just waiting to be solved (I guess it’s the FOMO syndrome?
So many branches of knowledge which seem to lure me. Every day, I seem to find yet another thing which I don’t know much about.
The choice is simple – I can either excel at many other things or simply learn another language or 5.
The latter is infinitely less exciting and practical.
So what’s next?
Years ago I promised myself that I would master 10 languages till I turn 40.
Right now I am 31 and I still have plenty of time to achieve my goal.
But I think that this time I will take my time.and stick to learning some other things and hopefully running this blog full-time.
Not everyone needs to be a polyglot but if this is a path you decide to tread, you should be fully aware that it requires much time and effort.
The path is fraught with various obstacles. Get rid of one of them and soon you will realize that another one took its place.
But if there was just one thing, I would like you to take away from this article, it would be this one:
You have to make the languages you learn a central part of your life, only then will you be able to truly master them.
Question for you:
What stops you from learning your target language(s) more often?”
I would love to hear your opinion.