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).
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:
- 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.
- 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?