New Project: Level Up Korean with Five Hours Per Week

One of the most important variables in any learning project is simply how much time you devote. Devoting fifty hours per week is going to have much faster progress than fifty minutes each week. This should be obvious.

However, when evaluating the success of others, this factor of hourly time investment is often ignored. People asking how long you’ve been learning a language always ask it in terms of months or years, never hours.

Most baffling to me was some of the responses I got from the MIT Challenge. I put in 50+ hours a week for nearly a year straight to get through it. Yet, I occasionally get emails from people asking whether it would be possible to do the challenge on time while also juggling a full-time job.

Due to this bias of months over hours, I often pick projects with intense full-time schedules. They are more compelling because most people focus on the total duration of the project, and not the number of hours.

I want to try to undo some of that bias by trying a different kind of project, one that is decidedly part-time. I want to improve my Korean language abilities with only committing five hours per week (one hour per weekday).

Why Korean?

Korea was the last of the four stops on Vat and my language learning trip. Korean is a difficult language, we had very minimal preparation, and the weight of having to repeat an immersive language learning process four times in a row burned us out. This combination of factors meant my Korean wasn’t at the level I had gotten to with Chinese, Spanish or Portuguese.

I would say, when I left Korea, that my ability was somewhere in a low-intermediate. I could have basic conversations. I could also have more difficult conversations, provided the vocabulary gaps could be filled with a dictionary or someone who otherwise knew English.

Coming off of the trip, I felt like my Korean was the most frustrating to maintain. While the other languages tended to get maintained in real-use situations—encountering people who spoke those languages—I rarely use my Korean, even when the opportunity comes up.

As such, my only current practice comes from a twice monthly maintenance lesson I have with a tutor on Skype. Given the initial investment in learning, and the ongoing investment in maintenance, I felt that it was time I either decided to get up to a comfortable usage level of Korean or drop it in favor of focusing on other things.

In the end, I decided I’d rather improve my Korean a bit to a level where I can comfortably use it, than to just let it decline. However, my schedule at the moment doesn’t permit a big full-time ultralearning project. So, I decided to use this opportunity to look at the kind of progress I can make with far fewer hours invested.

Ultralearning in Five Hours Per Week?

Ultralearning is a term I use to describe intense self-education projects. This puts it in contrast with the majority of self-education projects which tend to carefully pick activities to maximize enjoyment and avoid frustrating difficulty.

Learning a project full-time or nearly full-time is one type of intensity. However, there are good reasons to believe it might not be the best kind. Doing lots of learning in one large chunk has diminishing returns. Therefore, this kind of intensity may allow you to pick up skills quickly, but you actually lose efficiency over more minimal projects.

A different type of intensity, however, is the intensity you apply within each hour of your learning. Consider two different language learning tasks:

  1. Grinding through an exercise at the edge of your ability. You need 100% of your concentration and you still don’t get it all the time.
  2. Passively flipping through flashcards while you commute.

The former is certainly more intense than the latter.

I hesitate to say that the former is necessarily more effective than the latter. Good learning projects often use a mix of learning activities that themselves vary in their demands on concentration.

However, because the dominant mode of self-education is a heavy bias towards less-intense methods, the former activities are often completely omitted, even when they are necessary to make a key improvement. The research on deliberate practice shows that this amateur bias towards fun, is prevalent in almost domains of learning.

The ultralearning philosophy is to flip that on its head. Define a schedule for learning. Set clear directions and motivations. Push yourself to engage in intense activities that will drive improvement.

No, this approach isn’t for everyone. But, I believe the results are usually worth it. There is also something distinctly satisfying about doing something in a hard way, that doesn’t try to dodge the core activity of learning.

My Plan for Learning Korean

My plan for Korean is to commit five hours, but not restrict myself to five hours. That may seem like an odd distinction, but I think it’s a very useful one (particularly for language learning projects).

My five-hour commitment means I’m setting aside five hours per week to do the kind of intense, deliberate practice and active learning that will best create improvement. Those hours are going in my schedule, my daily to-do list and I’ll be doing my best not to miss any of them.

This commitment, however, doesn’t mean I will prevent myself from engaging in the language at all outside of these bounds. If I want to watch a television show in Korean, go to a Korean restaurant and speak to the waiter or casually do some flashcards on my phone, I won’t hold myself back.

The key is that, outside my committed hours, I’ll neither push myself nor avoid using Korean. If I’m sick of learning Korean for the day, there’s no pressure to do more. But if I have an opportunity to engage and I’m genuinely interested, I won’t stop myself.

This way of thinking about ultralearning a language, in my experience, works well because the core hours are often helpful for making genuine improvements, but once you start engaging in the language, opportunities start coming up to learn it in a more spontaneous way.

As of this moment, my current learning plan is as follows:

1. Two, one-hour tutoring sessions, via iTalki.com.

Because I’m already at a low-intermediate level, my goal here is to avoid complacency. Only speak in Korean. Use a variety of different tutors so that I don’t get into a communicative rhythm with one that won’t extend to new situations.

2. One hour of grammar practice.

I believe I made the mistake, in Korea, of learning the grammar through flashcards instead of an actual grammar textbook. My starting resource is to use HowToStudyKorean.com.

3. One hour of listening practice.

Intensive listening practice was very useful in Chinese, but while in Korea, I didn’t have particularly good resources for it. Since that time, new resources have come up that I’m eager to try out and see if I can fix that mistake. My starting resource is going to be FluentU, but there’s a lot of different resources here so I will probably experiment in the first few weeks.

4. One hour reading/writing practice.

My goal is still conversational with Korean, so adding reading/writing might seem odd. However, I found that learning to read/write in Chinese opened a lot of doors in my conversational ability. While it might be wise to ignore in the early stages, I think avoiding reading will probably hold back moving to an upper-intermediate stage and beyond.

In addition to these committed hours of practice, I’ll also be monitoring my usage with some other possible, casual learning activities. These include:

1. Anki cards.

For some people, Anki is a grind and would definitely require committed focus. Personally, I find it very easy to fill spare moments with Anki, and that’s why I got through over 16,000 cards in Chinese (probably too many, to be honest). I’d like to make a deck I can do the same with Korean, but I won’t push myself if it feels onerous.

2. Korean television or movies.

Not sure about this one. I know Korean dramas and K-Pop are a big reason many Westerners become interested in Korean culture, but I’m not a huge fan of soap operas or bubblegum pop. That said, I love moves like Oldboy and The Wailing. Although I’m still at a level where watching without subtitles isn’t enjoyable enough to sustain without effort, so I’m not sure how much benefit will come from watching with English subtitles.

3. Socializing in Korean.

Here I’m lucky. I live in downtown Vancouver, Canada, right next to a large community of Korean speakers. Many Korean students come here to learn English, so my section of town is full of Korean restaurants and bars. In theory, it shouldn’t be too hard to practice if I feel up for it.

What I Want to Achieve

Honestly, I don’t expect to accomplish anything impressive with this project. That might sound defeatist, but simply because, having done a lot of public projects, I know a lot of the biases that go into what other people think is impressive.

The monthly-over-hourly bias means people tend to view projects done over a very short time as more impressive than a similar project which took the same number of hours over a longer period of time.

Another bias is that people see projects which start from scratch as more impressive than those which start from an intermediate level. In part, this is because zero is an easy benchmark to imagine progress from. The other reason is that outsiders are bad at evaluating skill level, and so often can’t perceive even large differences in intermediate skill level.

However, while these biases mean that my project probably isn’t going to be as compelling as some of my other ultralearning projects, I think there’s a good chance I can still make some important personal gains in my Korean to justify the commitment.

My long-term hope is to reach an upper-intermediate level of Korean. I recently traveled to China and did some public speaking in Chinese. While I’m far from that goal now in Korean, that’s something I’d eventually like to reach.

My more immediate goal is to be able to spontaneously participate in Korean, the way I feel I can comfortably do in the other languages I’ve learned. This means I should be able to have a conversation with Korean people without anyone feeling they need to switch back to English to accommodate me.

It’s not clear how long this will take. I may be closer than I realize and can accomplish the goal in a couple months. It may be further and require closer to a year. I don’t really know.

For now, my goal is to commit month-to-month. Meaning I’m going to commit for one month and renew my commitment each month as I feel necessary. I’ll try to provide semi-regular progress updates to show how the project is getting on.

Interested in Leveling Up With Me?

I realize that many people find themselves in a similar situation. They’ve been learning a language for some time, but don’t feel it’s quite where they want it to be. However, they don’t have the opportunity to travel or otherwise commit full-time to improving it.

If anyone else is interested in doing something similar to “level-up” their language ability, why not share your plan in the comments?

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  • Kira

    Great post – unfortunately I cannot dedicate as much time as I’d like to, but 5 hours a week sounds manageable. I work part time at a job that requires both English and Japanese so I try to speak as much Japanese as possible. Thanks!

  • Tebogo Leshabane

    Hey Scott

    I’m from South Africa and about a year ago
    I quit my job, sold all my stuff and moved to South Korea to teach English. I’m
    currently at a low intermediate level, but my advantage is that I live in a
    small rural town with hardly any English around. What started as a nightmare
    was my greatest blessing, an environment for high immersion.

    I currently do an hour of what Mr. Ericsson
    coined, “Deliberate Practice” in the morning before I go to school. I do a 1
    hour conversation lesson every week with my Korean tutor which has helped
    tremendously.

    But something I recommend you do is to get
    a diary and write down in Korean what you did for the day for a year. This has
    pushed my grammar up remarkably in a short amount of time. As it challenges you
    to start thinking and articulating in your target language.

    Good luck and I wish you all the best with your Korean challenge.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks! Best of luck to you too!

  • yue bei

    Hey Scott

    Are you try to communicate other learners or present your thought visualized by mindmap,ProcessOn,or visio?

  • Scott Young

    I don’t use mindmaps. I think they may be somewhat useful for conceptual subjects, but I don’t really see the point for languages.

  • Max

    Thanks for the post Scott!

    I think this approach is more
    practical and thus more realistic for the rest of us. Performing one
    hour of a learning activity a day is definitely doable as one can do it
    before or after work. I really like the yearly timeframe and commit 30
    minutes a day studying for X. Why only thirty minutes? Well over the
    course of time that is almost 200 hours.

    Looking back, how many people can say they focused on something for 200 hours?

    Regards,
    -Max

  • Alexey

    I’m in the process of slowly learning Spanish. I started in February or so and I dedicate like from 20 mins to an hour every day. I never spoken to anyone in it, but I just hired a tutor on italki (waiting for her to approve).

    I’m going to do 1 hour speaking lesson every two weeks, maybe in the future I’ll be able to squeeze in an hour every week.

    My goal is to get to a conversational level as I’m in English, timeframe doesn’t matter.

    I feel, I should just be committed to doing it every single day, little by little, slowly getting better.

    I’d love to talk in Spanish with someone for like an hour a day, but it’s not possible right now)

  • Scott Young

    Good idea. Keep up the habit!

  • Scott Young

    Thirty minutes a day is good. I think for a language, 200 hours is probably enough to reach a conversational level, although probably not enough for fluency.

    Plan a trip to the country after the year, to give yourself something to look forward to!

  • Mark

    Hi Scott,
    Nice post. I would be keen to hear any of your thoughts on learning a language where the availability of resource is as constraining as the time you devote? My partner is Serbian and I’m struck by the lack of material for learning this (aside from constantly pestering her…).
    Thanks,
    Mark

  • sharatea

    Hi Scott! Pursuing japanese here. Also just starting. When I saw this post, I thought OMG YES cause I’m working a full-time job and pursuing other projects important to me. But I really need to learn Japanese. So this was a no-brainer to read (when it popped up in my email). So far, I just gauged what level I needed to be at by going to a language exchange meet up – so haven’t officially started yet (though I learned the very basics in high school it wasn’t enough). Can’t wait to see your progress! (and update mine haha)

  • Mike Hall

    Thanks for this post. I will start doing this to improve my Korean with a heavy lean towards listening. My biggest problem is comprehension as I have a lot of trouble understanding what is being said at a normal speaking rate. I have a website, mike3344 Hangul, that I use to keep words and phrases in one place rather than a bunch of notebooks that anyone can use if it will help them. To use a some of it you need to be able to read basic Hangul and it not organized very well, but it’s 100% free.

  • Wayne Jones

    Hi Scott, great articulation of a project. I am learning French and at an upper intermediate level but would like to push up to gain my B2 certificate. I think your outline sounds very logical. In terms of listening input I find watching the news to be very good – they speak a bit slower, quite clearly, each piece is relatively short and you usually have some context for most of the content. Mr Trump is on tv everywhere for example.
    However, watching the news won’t help you with vocabulary for ordering a coffee or talking about your day at work so I read novels to also help in this area. My goal is 4 novels this year – 90 days per novel (about 2 pages per day) and I am using youung adult level books so they are interesting without being too hard.
    Good luck and keen to hear how it goes. Language learning is such a microcosm of learning a skill on so many levels.
    All the best.

  • Mosbie Chiweza

    hie Scott. Good article as always. Studying japanese writing and one thing that I’m doing is reading novels and trying to journal in japanese. i liked a small section in your article where you explain how you dont limit yourself to those five hours and actually do all those other “fun” things in your free time. sometimes i think self learning can be frustrating and uneffective when we spend too much time doing the fun things without pushing ourselves in intense focus. then the “fun” things really shine.

  • phuc le thanh

    Hi Scott, thank for your sharing

  • Lilia Sabitova

    Thanks for the post! It’s arrived just on time. I live in Russia and my current challenge is Chinese. I just gave birth to the second child and I was struggling with making time to continue with Chinese. Now I plan to revise Rapid Literacy in Chinese Series by Zhang Pengpeng https://www.amazon.com/Rapid-Literacy-Chinese-English/dp/780052695X and study characters using trainchinese.com

  • hookdump

    Wow, your site is awesome. Thanks A LOT for sharing!!!

  • Scott Young

    I’m in a very similar situation. My fiancée is Macedonian, which is even more constrained resource-wise than Serbian.

    I honestly haven’t given learning Macedonian a full effort yet, so I won’t confess too much, but there’s a few things you can do:

    1. Even obscure languages often have community tutors in iTalki.com. I was able to find one or two in Macedonian.

    2. Look for old textbooks. Most national languages should have a textbook somewhere you can use to pin down the basics.

    3. You can use your partner to generate some Anki decks for listening practice. The process is simple. Write down a bunch of high frequency words and sentence patterns that express a variety of simple type thoughts (“He said that.” “Do you want to go to the park?” “I’m not hungry.”) and use this to build up some exposure.

    Ultimately, the best tool is probably to do something like a no-English rule with your partner for either some dedicated time (an hour once per week) or for a stretch (one week with no English), as a way to slowly ratchet up your ability. Not having material is more of a beginner weakness because once you get to a low conversational ability, you can more easily improve through native-level media or through actual conversations.

  • Glad I came across this post! My Spanish has been getting rusty lately, and I haven’t motivated myself to really get into it since I felt too busy to give it all of my attention. But you’re absolutely right that it is possible to get a lot of benefit in the long-term out of small burst of focussed practice, and it’s not so difficult to set up your routine to accommodate small amounts of study, even just switching the language you typically read or watch TV in. I’m sure I can find 5/week to work on Spanish on even the busiest weeks, just by remembering to change my browsing and viewing language, and even that should be enough to improve it considerably over the course of the year.
    I may even look at passing the C1 exam this fall.
    Good luck with your Korean project! Btw I loved your most recent post about filters vs pipes in maximizing performance. Great and clear analogy!

  • Mark

    Hi Scott,
    Thanks for this – have got some textbooks but the Anki deck idea is great, will give it a go!
    Mark

  • Barry Harris

    Hi Scott,

    I’m interested in what you will be doing for writing practice? Will you be writing italki journals that then will be corrected by others? Do you do writing practice for Spanish or other languages?

    Thanks!

    Barry

  • Wale

    I have been trying to learn French for a while now, of course, I like to give the convenient excuse of there being no time. But I like your idea of putting stuff you did during the day down in the language in question. Thanks for that shared idea.

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