Why Short/Brief Language Study Sessions Help You Retain More

  • Donovan Nagel
    Written byDonovan Nagel
    Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot
    🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW
    🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW

    Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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Why Short/Brief Language Study Sessions Help You Retain More

In keeping with the title of this post, I’m going to make this very short and straight to the point.

I believe what I’m about to tell you is crucially important advice.

Less time studying languages = more retention and faster learning

When you sit down to do some language study, don’t spend an hour or several hours going over new material and vocabulary.

Don’t spend huge amounts of time going over dozens or hundreds of new flashcards, trying to devour several chapters of a course book or flying through the lessons of an audio series.

Make a 10-15 minute time limit at the start of your day, focus on a maximum of 5-8 new words, 1 new aspect of grammar and some short examples.

Spend the rest of the day using these few new words and let the rest of your language learning time be spent on actually using the language, and through other fun activities like reading books and watching films.

It’s a struggle to remember 10% of 50 words, but remembering 100% of 5 words is easy!

Every time you encounter those few new words watching a movie, chatting with friends, reading a book, etc. throughout the day they will become more and more familiar to you and easier to recall.

The less time you spend trying to cram lots of information into your brain, the more you will remember (backed up by research too, btw).

You’re not the Rain Man so take your time! 🙂

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Donovan Nagel
Donovan Nagel - B. Th, MA AppLing
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator with a passion for language learning (especially Arabic).
Currently learning: Greek


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This is an interesting theory - quite applicable in music when you’re starting out - but once you get started, you need to lengthen your study sessions to get in more advanced materials. Would you say the same for language?

Also, what is your take on multiple short study sessions a day as opposed to one long session or does one short session suffice? What time of day do you think one is most receptive to learning a new language?



Thanks for the advice. Will try this next time, sounds sound :)

Judith Meyer

Judith Meyer

Sorry, I have to disagree - not with the idea of the post, but with the vocabulary example. According to the Pareto principle, it is faster to memorize >10% of 50 words than 100% of 5 words, unless you happen to hit a set of words that doesn’t contain any difficult ones. It’s a waste of time to try to force one pesky word into your head when you could be learning many others in that time. If you try again later, that one pesky word will come easier.

My ideal study session is 10-15 minutes when using Anki (it’s very brain-intense), but 30 minutes when studying a textbook. Spending just 10 minutes on a textbook seems like an utter waste to me; that barely gives you enough time to find your place and review.



Sorry I just noticed this comment! :)

I see what you’re getting at. To use an analogy it’s a bit like instead of firing a few precision shots with a gun, you fire lots of shots and you’re more likely to hit something.

I don’t entirely disagree with you. But if, like me, you’re interested in targeted learning (I don’t just memorize lists of vocab but rather target very specific vocab that’s relevant to me) it’s different. I focus on very relevant vocab and therefore everything that I study is more likely to stick because of it’s higher significance.

So my 5-8 words would be words that I’m far less likely to forget because I need them to talk about my profession, hobbies, etc.

This post is referring to conversational language learning. I agree with you that if I’m doing textbook study of an academic language (like with Ancient Greek or Hebrew), I do spend longer time on it.

"The limits of my language mean the limits of my world."
- Ludwig Wittgenstein
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