Learning a language is like having a pet. You need to feed and water it everyday. You can’t miss days. Many people who try to learn a language do really well at first. They are really motivated. They daydream about being a master of their target language and it gives them all this purpose and energy. Oh I’m going to learn Spanish! Here I go! But after a while that motivation begins to fade, they get bored and then they stop. People are like this. We get bored and we want to do something else instead.
Imagine you go to a pet store and see a puppy. It’s little, it’s cute. It sticks it’s tongue out and wags its little tail at you. It nips at the ears of its puppy friends. It runs around clumsily, stomping on the puppies sleeping in the basket over there. Oh, this puppy is for me! So you take it home. You are very excited about your new puppy. Everyday you feed him, give him water, clean up after him, take him on walks, play with him. He’s your best friend!
But after a couple weeks you get tired. This dog poops too much! He brings fleas into the house. He barks at night and wakes me up. He jumps too much! He licks my pizza before I can put it in my mouth. How annoying! So you take a break. You take a 3-day vacation away from the house. I just need a little time to recharge, you say.
What happens when you get home? What a mess! Your dog has torn your house up! You weren’t there to feed him so he ate the stuffing in your couch! You weren’t there to play with him, so he played with all of your stuff instead. Everything is on the floor, covered in dog slobber and teethmarks. You weren’t there to take your dog outside so he peed all over your carpet. It stinks!
This is what happens when you take breaks away from your language. When you come back, you’ll have a big mess to clean up. You’ll forget all the words you just learned. You’ll have lost the plot in the drama you were watching. You’ll forget what happened in the comic book you were reading. You’ll have 1000 cards due in Anki! Oh no!
Now you have to spend time relearning everything. You can’t just pick up where you left off. You have to go back to before you left and do everything over again! Cleaning up big messes is no fun. If it’s not fun, you might even decide to put it off even longer!
There’s dog hair all over my toothbrush. Stupid dog! Don’t blame the dog. You were the one who left! And why didn’t you pack your toothbrush with you anyway?
If you take frequent breaks from your language it’s even worse. Then you don’t even have a chance to catch up. You’re gone from the house so much that your pet won’t even recognize you. If you have a pet monkey and you only come home to feed him once a week, is he going to be happy to see you? No! He’s going to throw poop at you! Get out of my house, human! Frequent, extended periods away from your target language will cause your language foundation to crumble. The bits and pieces will slip through the cracks and fall into the gutter where they will dissolve in the rushing water. Good luck finding them then! I can’t think of a slower way to fluency.
And if you are gone for too long, you’ll come home and your pet will be dead! Ever take off a year or two from a language? Bad idea! Just start over!
Some of you may be thinking: oh this analogy doesn’t hold up. When people go on vacation, they get a friend or a neighbor to watch their pets for them.
It’s still the same. If you give your friend your Spanish books. Here, you read these. Give him all your Spanish DVDs. Watch these for me, will you? Who’s going to get better at Spanish? Not you! You might as well give him your plane tickets to Spain too. You won’t know what the hell is going on over there. If you give your pet monkey to your friend, they’ll bond while you’re away. They’ll climb trees and eat bananas together, scratch their armpits. But then if you show up expecting to join in, the monkey will just scratch its head and steal your sandwich.
I’ve been talking about dogs and monkeys, but really a language is a much more high-maintenance pet. It’s more like having a pet hippo. With a dog, it only takes a minute to pour dog food and water into his bowl. If you take him on a 15 minute walk once a day, play with him a little, pet him while you watch TV and take him outside every now and then to do his business, you can get by. An hour a day.
A hippo is a different story. A hippo requires much more food than a dog. You’ll need a shovel to scoop it all into her mouth. That might take an hour in itself. And you’ll actually need two shovels, because a paper towel won’t cut it when it comes time to clean up hippo poop. And after you’re done hauling those big black trash bags to your front lawn, get out your brush because it’s bath time and a hippo can’t reach her backside with those stubby little legs of hers. You can train a dog to follow your commands, but a hippo does what it wants. When you take your hippo on a walk you’d better bring a big stick to go along with your shovel or you’ll have angry neighbors breathing down your neck wondering where their tree went or why their car is upside-down in the pool. “Sit” and “Here girl” won’t work with a hippo.
Basically, what I’m trying to say is that a pet hippo is an all day commitment. You can’t take your eyes off her for a moment or you’ll find yourself with a ticket for obstructing traffic and a weekend lost while you rebuild the fence.
Learning a language, really learning a language, is like having a pet hippo. You need to give it all of your attention. As much as possible, every waking moment you have should be spent in your target language. And you can’t skip days. All day everyday. A few hours a week with a pet turtle isn’t going to cut it. Trust me, I turtled Japanese for a long time and it got me nowhere very slow. It wasn’t until I hippoed up that things started happening. Everyday. All day. Think of a hippo in a river. Immersion. Stop writing blog posts about monkey shit and go watch a Japanese movie.
It’s possible to learn two languages at the same time. Just because you have a hippo doesn’t mean you can’t have a turtle too. But one of them has to be a hippo language. Two turtles aren’t going to win you any races. And you need to feed both of them everyday. Don’t go back and forth, loving your hippo for a week, and then loving your turtle for a week. Spend time with them both, whenever you get the chance. Here’s some terminology:
1. Hippo language: 4+ hours a day (Hungry Hippo 4-8, Happy Hippo 8+)
2. Monkey language: 2-4 hours a day
3. Dog language: 1-2 hours a day
4. Turtle language: Few hours a week
5. Rock language: Look at it a few times a year.
I hippo Japanese full time and dog Thai on the side. I feed them both everyday. By feed I mean watching movies, watching TV, reading books, reading comics, reading news, doing SRS reps, playing video games, translating video games, translating magazine articles, reading children’s books, watching mouths and mimicking voices. And it’s working.
But don’t get carried away. 3 languages? 4? 5? at the same time? Unless you’re turtling them, where are you going to get the money for all that food? You’ll just end up with a house full of dead animals.
- What A Forest Monk Can Teach You About Language Learning
- Language Learning Tip #2: Read Children’s Books
- Two Months of Non-Stop Pali
- Find music you acutally like in the language you are learning
- Learning Language With Comics