The Sawtooth of Time Management


If you have ever tried to use a knife to cut through a large log, you know how ineffective a straight blade is for such a task. Even a cheap and dull saw is better. Why? Because it has teeth. Make sure you give your language learning the teeth it needs to cut.

If you take a unidimensional approach to learning, you are essentially trying to saw through a log with a knife. You may spend hours learning grammar intensively, but in isolation, this does not give you what you need to succeed in a language. Likewise, you may spend all your free time surrounding yourself with the sounds and vocabulary of your new language. On its own, this does very little. The combination of activities is what gives our learning teeth.

The sawtooth of language learning is comprised of three elements. With only one element, your studies will stagnate and become frustrating.

1. The point of the tooth - This is the most important part, but in isolation will do very little. It's best to spend a small amount of time each day actively learning and storing (using memory systems) the high-priority structural material of a language. After you have mastered the grammar, you can move on to using this time slot for vocabulary and usage. This should represent 10-30 minutes a day of uninterrupted and focused study. It is the one element you must actually set time aside for.

2. The body of the tooth - This requires less focus, but you are still actively engaged with the language. You read the news, or make new constructions in the language in your head. You can use the gaps of time in your day to switch your mind actively into your new language and you make a concerted effort to understand. Reading on the train to work, or in the evening before bed; watching the news; keeping a journal… these are all things you can do in your new language. Any other activity you might normally do, you can begin to switch into your new language. Active exposure to the language will reinforce the intensive study.

3. The base of the tooth - This is passive exposure to the language. Listen to as much as possible in the language, read about the culture and customs, and keep elements of the language present in your life as a constant reminder to switch your mind into the new language. With the language playing in the background, you will pick up intonation patterns, recognize grammatical constructions, and pick out vocabulary.

Just doing any one of these types of training will not get you very far. Combining all three, however, is remarkably effective. If each day you do a bit of each of these activities, then you are building a sawtooth each day. Over time, that's a lot of teeth, and they cut deeply into the language.

Here's an example of how you can train in a half-hour block everyday. It's a kind of Power-Half-Hour:

  • 10 minutes - Memory Storage of structure
  • 15 minutes - Reading and translation/parsing of a speech or text. Or, composition of a speech or text.
  • 5 minutes - Pleasure reading or audio review

Personally, I prefer to spend more time on memory storage, then review while doing other activities, so here's another option:

  • 15-20 minutes - Memory Storage
  • 10-15 minutes - Close reading
  • Audio reviews while running errands, cooking, cleaning, laundry, etc.

This way, I'm setting aside the same amount of time, but getting more done in that time and bumping the review process out to when I can combine it with other activities. There's no additional strain on my schedule, but I'm getting much more done each day, which in turn motivates me to do more.

Give your learning teeth! Make sure to combine high-intensity learning and memory storage with low-intensity exposure and repetition.

Check out our free time management course:

Time Management for Language Learning

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