Ever heard of an Ironman Triathlon? It’s an extreme long distance race that incorporates a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bicycle ride and then a full 26.2 mile marathon. All in one day. Competitors have a mere seventeen hours to complete every gruelling stage of this mammoth challenge and, not surprisingly, it’s considered one of the most intense one day sporting events in the world. The brave souls who finish report that it stretches, pulls and pounds every muscle, ligament and tendon in the body and leaves your lungs feeling like they’re about to burst out of your chest. Sounds like something you want to do?
If we’re honest, most of us would opt for a slightly more sedate way to keep in shape than to put ourselves through the sheer hell of an extreme triathlon. And, of course, this is reflected in how the majority of us approach language learning. We take a lesson or two a week. We sometimes try to watch a movie in our target language. We feel confident that a little-by-little approach will eventually pay off.
This approach is perfectly sensible and, provided that we make a long term commitment, is a sure fire way of gradually learning a language. We find it easy to learn new vocabulary a few words at a time or to slowly become confident using a new tense over several weeks of occasional practice.
But what if we punctuated our easy and relaxed learning habits with something a bit more intense every now and again? What if we threw ourselves into mentally demanding language challenges that pushed our brains the way Ironman triathletes pushed their bodies? Instead of slow and incremental changes in our language skills over several months, we would expect a giant leap forward; a tangible change in our language skills over the space of not years but weeks.
Well, this is what language challenges are all about. A language challenge is when you pick a short timeframe (maybe 30 or 45 days) and set yourself the target of improving your language skills as much as possible before it finishes. This “mental workout” requires determination, commitment and time, but the results can be startling. Language learners can practically feel their comprehension and fluency improve as they throw themselves into learning, picking up new vocabulary, grammar and skills like never before.
Anyone who’s ever travelled abroad and had the opportunity to practice their target language with native speakers will already have had a taste of this. Remember when you got chatting to that nice couple in the restaurant? Or when you had a long conversation with that woman in the bar? Afterwards, your brain kind of ached, as if you’d just put it through a high energy workout. Well, that feeling of fatigue and slight fogginess you felt was the result of using a foreign language for an extended period of time. You were essentially using your brain in a way that it was not accustomed to and it was being forced to make new connections and pathways to communicate. In other words, it hurt because it was getting stronger.
Benefits of intensive learning
By focusing your efforts on hitting ambitious targets over a short period you’re supercharging your language abilities. This has numerous benefits. Firstly, you gain an incredible amount of new language. It may be vocabulary that you need for a particular situation (a new job or an upcoming social situation, for instance) or it may be the acquisition of a new tense or group of tenses. You also get to focus on one or more of the core skills (reading, writing, speaking and listening) if that’s a particular area of difficulty for you. One of the main benefits is actually that it gives you a confidence boost. Because you’re learning so much in such a short period, you can literally feel yourself getting better. A lack of confidence in one’s own abilities is one of the main reasons people become disheartened when learning a language, so giving yourself a reason to be proud of your newly acquired skills is incredibly effective at keeping you moving forward on your language journey.
Setting your language targets
Just like Ironman triathletes measure themselves against their fellow competitors and against their own personal best times, a language challenge needs targets. This is the time to decide where you want to be language-wise in a month or six weeks’ time. If you’re learning in order to accomplish a particular task in your target language, such as being able to speak to locals on a foreign holiday or to give that important presentation on your upcoming business trip, this can be easy. Sometimes, however, we need to spend a little more time deciding what our language targets should be. One of the best ways to do this is to sit down with your language teacher and decide what targets would be achievable for you. It might be learning 200 new adjectives or it might be mastering all of the future forms. Whatever it is, your teacher will be able to advise you on what would be reachable targets to aim for during your language challenge.
Putting in the hours
An intensive language challenge is about putting in the hours, but how many hours should you do? This all depends of course on how ambitious your targets are, but one very important idea is forcing yourself to study every day. This level of discipline and commitment is crucial for any challenge. Remember, this is not forever but merely a short period of a few weeks. Setting aside an hour or two each day to study with an italki teacher and to practice forms will pay off very quickly as long as you can maintain the commitment. The most important thing is always to keep your target in mind. Focusing on where you want to be will help keep you motivated when your eyelids are drooping and your brain feels like it just can’t take any more.
How to structure your language challenge
An effective challenge should incorporate a number of elements, all designed to achieve your learning targets. The first is booking a certain number of hours with an italki teacher. You may decide on one hour of session time every day or you might prefer to book chunks of two hours a few times a week. Ask your teacher how many sessions you’ll need in order to achieve your desired goals. Secondly, it’s crucial to spend some time studying outside of the session. This may be going over a new form or trying to memorise some new vocabulary. Your teacher will undoubtedly be able to set homework if you need some direction for your areas of study. Another really important habit to adopt is “real-world” practice. This can be accomplished in many different ways. For example, by finding a language partner on italki to improve your conversational skills or by writing emails to a friend in your target language. Either way, finding a little time each day to learn and use the language you’re trying to acquire will benefit you massively in the long run.