2.1. How much time do you have?
I have suggested elsewhere (Thomson 1993d) that if you intend to participate meaningfully in the society which uses your new language, and if you are starting out from absolute zero ability, then you should plan, if at all possible, to concentrate on language learning for at least the first fifth of your total stay in the location where the language is spoken. If you have done some language learning before arriving, you can shorten this period, though it still would do you no harm to spend this amount of time on additional language learning. The more concentrated time you can devote to it the better. Five hours per week for a hundred weeks is less effective than twenty-five hours per week for twenty weeks. For many people, twenty five hours per week of heavy-duty language learning is exhausting enough to be considered full-time, especially at the beginning. Others may thrive on forty or sixty hours per week. However you define “full-time”, the key is that you be largely free of other work responsibilities, so that the bulk of your mental and emotional resources can be devoted to language learning. How much progress you will make in a given amount of time depends partly on what language you are learning and how similar it is to languages you already know well. In the case of difficult languages, you could realistically spend a lot more than twenty percent of your total time in the country on initial language learning. However, in practice this is rarely possible. In any case, your language learning should continue on a part-time basis for as long as you live there.
If you are unable to do full-time language learning, then the challenge will be to keep your motivation high. Some people have done great language learning while holding down another job, but those people were motivated enough to work at it for a few hours every evening. If you are not able to devote the major part of your time to language learning, then you can still follow my suggestions, though where I speak in terms of actual time spent on activities, you will need to make appropriate mental adjustments. Even if you have only limited time for language learning, I would still encourage you to have explicit goals as to how much time you will devote to language learning activities of the types I will discuss, or other activities that you may prefer.
When I speak of X number of hours spent on language learning, I am referring to three types of activities. The central activities involve structured language sessions in which a speaker of the language works with you in communication activities which help you to increase your ability to understand and to speak the language. You should tape record some or all of what goes on in your session in order to listen to it later, and possibly to go over parts of it in a subsequent session.
The second set of activities are private ones. For example, you may spend a lot of time listening to the tapes that you made in your sessions. You may also write up your observations regarding how the language works, and add vocabulary items to your personal dictionary. If there is a body of literature in the language, you may do extensive reading in it as a private activity. You may also watch television or listen to the radio. So long as you can understand what you are hearing, this will contribute to your acquiring the language. You may also spend some time reading books or articles about the language. Reading about how the grammar works can benefit your language learning in various ways.
The third set of activities are those involved in developing and carrying on a social life. For some people this comes easily. For people like me, it doesn't happen unless I make it happen. Therefore it really helps if social visiting and other social activities can be made a part of my daily work goals. Thus if I spend thirty hours per week on language learning, these thirty hours might include ten hours spent in language sessions, ten hours of private activities (including the time spent planning and preparing for the language sessions), and ten hours of social visiting and other participation in social activities. Different people will have different blends of these three components, but you should devote reasonable attention to each.
To summarize, the three components of your language learning program are
Suppose your time is limited. Let's say that you can only work on improving your language skills in the evenings and on Saturdays. An important question will be how much interaction you have with speakers of the language in your daily life. If your work involves interacting with people in the language many times every day, then the third component, the social one, will be less crucial, and thus you will want to devote more of your designated language learning time to the first two components. As we will see, you can design your formal language sessions so that they feed into your daily life communication situations. To some extent, you may be able to carry out your private activities while doing other things. In particular, you can listen to tapes made during your sessions while you are washing the dishes, or driving your car, or jogging.
It would seem then, that if your designated time for language learning is limited, the best use of what time you do have will be for formal language sessions, that is, times in which you meet with someone for the purpose of tailoring the communication activities so that they clearly contribute to your progress in language learning.
Context for this page:
Page content last modified: 7 July 1998
© 1999 SIL International