Busuu is the world’s largest social network for language learningThrough online apps, they offer audio-visual courses for learning 12 languages. According to an independent study by City University of New York, 22 hours spent on busuu Premium is the same as one college semester of language study.

At Busuu we are always interested to hear how our users motivate themselves. We asked some of our power users, “If you could give one piece of advice to other language learners about how to stay motivated, what would it be?” Not surprisingly, the most common response was that the key to success is to practice little and often, or a bit every day. Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going.

We all know that there’s a difference between what people should do, and what they actually do. We say we should work out for 30 minutes a day, or read for 20, but no one actually does it. Does effective language learning have to take up hours of your day? At Busuu we’re able to use data science to answer that question, once and for all.

We’ve crunched the data from millions of learners and found that language learners who study for short, frequent sessions complete 2.5 times more content than those who ‘binge’ for longer, more infrequent sessions. That’s right, people who are consistent and who develop healthy, daily learning habits, are more effective learners than people who binge or cram. Slow and steady wins the race.

How do we form healthy habits?

A habit is a routine behaviour that is repeated regularly and tends to happen subconsciously. Often, habits are formed out of things we enjoy doing, like hobbies. We are unlikely to form this kind of habit unless we have a strong motivation for doing something. Habits transform your ability to learn by constantly reinforcing knowledge without you having to make an extra effort, and turning productive thought processes into second nature.

Once a habit is formed, doing something becomes automatic and much easier. Phillippa Lally and her colleagues at UCL’s Cancer Research UK Health Behaviour Research Centre conducted research on habit formation with people trying to form healthy habits. They made a number of conclusions which are applicable across the board:

  1. It takes around 66 days (just over two months) to form a habit.
  2. Past this point, people form a strong automatic association between cues to do an action and then completing that action (for example, going for a run or opening your language learning app at 10am every morning). The automaticity of the action means it requires much less effort to perform.
  3. Missing an isolated opportunity to form a habit didn’t affect the habit formation: “In our study we showed that missing one opportunity did not significantly impact the habit formation process, but people who were very inconsistent in performing the behaviour did not succeed in making habits.”

Memory overload! Cramming is the enemy of success.

Keep everything short and sweet. Psychologist George Miller from Harvard University wrote a famous paper in which he concluded that people are able, on average, to hold between 5 and 9 items in their short-term memory. At busuu we have done some extensive research with our users and have found that, when we build a vocabulary lesson that contains more than 10 words or phrases, our users are far less likely to complete the lesson. In other words, they get frustrated and drop out.

When we reduce the number of vocabulary items to memorise to 10 or below, the completion of the unit goes up. Students are able to handle only a certain amount of information at a time, due to limits to their short-term memory. Around 6-8 items seems to be the ‘sweet spot’, and this is one of the reasons why we design all of our units to take no more than 10 minutes.

If you contrast this with a 60-minute session, in that time a student could be exposed to close to 60 or more new words. They will be unable to hold so many items in their short-term memory, and this is likely to cause frustration and/or exhaustion!

Don’t expect the impossible from your brain. Just do a little every day, the rewards will be worth it.

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