Do you need to simplify your learning?

When I first started learning a language my routine started off pretty simple. But then as I progressed I added one thing after another.

This happened to me with sentence mining on Anki, I spent hours going through material on paper, going through making flashcards and then studying them throughout the day.

Complicating things to an unnecessary level I found myself losing depth of focus, always making cards or studying, but never intensely.

The hours I spent researching resources, making and organizing flashcards, researching the best method was all time I wasn't using to actually learn.

As I kept it up, I found myself more worried about passing my daily quota on Anki than actually learning what was on the cards.

My flashcards started to get out of control, the reviews kept on getting more and more, eventually it got up to around 300 reps per day, spending over two hours just reviewing. This doesn’t even include the time taken to make and organize the cards!

I was trying to come up with clever strategies and ways to learn so that I keep recycling old content on a regular basis and keep adding onto the pile.


But here is the thing, we can’t remember everything.


This is why I decided to take a break from adding to my flashcards and simplify my learning.

Since that decision my reading, listening and speaking have all gone up drastically and I have managed to re inject fun back into my learning.


How to simplify your routine

The biggest decision I made was to stop worrying too much, stop trying to come up with complicated solutions and just to enjoy as much content as I can.

I switched from reading paper based books to reading on my computer and switched from intensive to extensive reading.

Utilizing an online dictionary I can look a word up in seconds and by reading a story over a long period of time a lot of recurring words get natural built in repetition based.


Think about it.


Any author has a given writing style, particular connecting words and phrases they like to use. Combined with a particular genre of the book, the main characters, the locations and so on. Some words are going to come up again and again.


This means throughout the length of the whole book, I saw some of these words so many times they didn’t just go into my passive vocabulary, they ended up in my active vocabulary. And all by just enjoying the story!


This type of learning is much more natural and interesting then heavily relying on SRS software such as anki.


And on top of that, you get exposed to so much more language you could never get with just intensive study alone. You learn lots of new words, new structures and new grammar.


And the fact that I was covering much more ground meant I got much more into the story than I ever did before, and before I knew it I was only a few chapters before the end wanting to desperately find out how the book would end.


As soon as you start doing activities where the focus shifts away from language learning, your progress will begin to soar.


This might sound odd at first, but think about it. When you were a kid did you worry about how well you were speaking, or if your grammar was right?


Of course not!

You just wanted to understand that cartoon, or be able to speak enough to get your point across or ask your parents for an ice cream.


And it should be no different for adults either.


The fact that you want to watch that TV program,read that book, order a drink at a bar, communicate with your friends suddenly everything seems to come naturally and this does wonders for your learning.


Stripping back all of the unnecessary work, and making things as easy and enjoyable as possible while still retaining my focus from before has been the perfect balance for me.


Why it’s hard to get this level of exposure and enjoyment from the language at the beginner stages, from intermediate and into advanced this type of learning is not only more efficient, but it’s just all round more fun and enjoyable too.


My current routine


Every morning I read a chapter from the novel or book I am reading at the time. The fact that I am reading online on my pc means I can use a pop up dictionary to understand the meaning, focus on the story as opposed to the learning process and in doing so, take the strain away and cover a lot more content.


It is important to keep engaged in the story as this helps boost focus, make learning more fun and boosts your retention.


Then when I get back from work, I read the same chapter again. Like magic even though I didn't make any effort to commit words to memory, I find myself looking up significantly less words the second time around.

Going through a chapter a day over the course of a book, some vocabulary is naturally repeated a lot depending on the witters style and the genre of the book.


After the first few chapters these quickly become part of my vocabulary, so the further I get through the book the less and less words I need to look up.

Of course, reading is just one aspect of language learning and to really improve we need to keep improving all of the four core skills.

If audio is available for what I am reading, I make sure to put all of the tracks on my phone in a playlist. This way whenever I have some spare time, walking to meet friends, going to the shops, or even just washing the dishes I can listen to this audio and recycle the vocabulary I read earlier.


I usually watch quite a bit of TV over the course of an entire day. Usually somewhere between 1 and 2 hours.

Switching to make sure I get my daily dose of TV in the language again is a great way to boost your skills.

Subtitles are ok in your target language, but avoid English subtitles.If you do this you will find yourself just reading the English and completely ignoring everything that is actually being said.

If you are still a beginner and can’t understand very much then using English subtitles is ok, the trick here is to not think of it as learning. Just enjoy the show and use it as an opportunity to learn more about the culture or country where it is from.

Then when you do get to the stage where you can start watching without English subtitles, rewatching the show with the context of already knowing the entire plot is a great way to boost your comprehension of the show and keep you engaged without having to understand every word that’s being said.


I still use flashcards as well, but I spend no time adding or creating new cards to add to my deck. Instead I just keep my old cards, solidify old content and study them throughout the day.


After about a month of not adding any cards I have found my daily reps drop from 300 to around 100 per day.


The fact that the number is so much lower, I can actually focus on learning what’s in front of me instead of trying to rush through panicking if I am going to hit the daily quota or not.


Also I have been lucky enough to meet a few friends in my local city happy to practice speaking Cantonese with me.


We go out for food, watch movies, go to the pub. In general just enjoy ourselves, hang out and speak.






Notice the big difference in attitude from the beginner stages to the later stages past the intermediate and into the advanced levels.


In the beginner level we are so focused on learning the language. What new words have I learn? Did I make a grammar mistake? Was my pronunciation correct?


Past the intermediate stages I have found this type of intensive focused study with short bits of material less and less effective.


Now I find it better to simply forget about the language all together! Don't focus on the learning aspect.


As you get better and better you can focus on more and more interesting content.

Read books for the story, watch movies and TV for the fun of it, hang out with friends to socialize.


This much broader approach not only simplifies everything and takes a lot of the pressure off you the learner, but allows you to enjoy and expose yourself to significantly more content.


This type of approach might not feel like you are learning, but believe me you are taking in a lot more than you think.


Don’t get me wrong, Intensive study does still have its place. But to truly get to the advanced stages, intensive study needs to only make up a small part of what we do. Take a step now and simplify your learning, engage with interesting content, improve more than you thought you could and have an all round kick ass time while you do so.