Learning a new language is an inherently scary idea. Thousands of unfamiliar words, an entirely different grammatical structure and the high potential for embarrassment are enough to intimidate many of us. With a busy work life, finding the time to commit to a new language can be a challenge in itself.
But experts agree that it’s more than possible to make meaningful progress in just one hour a day. Not only that, the skills gained from practicing a new language can feel like superpowers in the workplace and beyond.
Research shows there is a direct correlation between bilingualism and intelligence, memory skills and higher academic achievement. As the brain more efficiently processes information, it is even able to stave off age-related cognitive decline.
Depending on your native tongue and which new language you’re learning, you can develop a diverse toolkit of both short-term and lifelong cognitive benefits. Of course, the further apart the language the tougher the challenge (think Dutch and Vietnamese), but focusing on a specific application can drastically narrow the practice time.
Whether it’s for a new job, for literary competence or for making casual conversation, you can sharpen language skills no matter your age or previous exposure.
'Intercultural competence' - knowing how to build relationships across cultures - can be a valuable skill (Credit: Getty Images)
The most difficult languages
The US Foreign Service Institute (FSI) divides languages into four tiers of difficulty for native English speakers to learn. Group 1, the easiest of the bunch, includes French, German, Indonesian, Italian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish and Swahili. According to FSI research, it takes around 480 hours of practice to reach basic fluency in all Group 1 languages.
The US Foreign Service Institute divides languages into four tiers of difficulty. The easiest take around 480 hours of practice to reach basic fluency
The difficulty begins to spike as we move down the list. It takes 720 hours to achieve the same level of fluency in Group 2 languages, which include Bulgarian, Burmese, Greek, Hindi, Persian and Urdu. More difficult are Amharic, Cambodian, Czech, Finnish and Hebrew, which places them in in Group 3. Group 4 is comprised of some of the most challenging languages for English speakers to grasp: Arabic, Chinese, Japanese and Korean.
Despite the daunting timeframe, experts say it’s worth learning a second language for the cognitive benefits alone. Doing so naturally develops our executive functions, “the high-level ability to flexibly manipulate and utilise information, and hold information in the mind and suppress irrelevant information,” says Julie Fiez, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh’s department of neuroscience. “It’s called executive functions because it’s thought of as skills of a CEO: managing a bunch of people, juggling a lot of information, multitasking, prioritising.”
Bilingual brains rely on executive functions – things like inhibitory control, working memory and cognitive flexibility – to maintain balance between two languages, according to a study from Northwestern University. Because both language systems are always active and competing, the brain’s control mechanisms are constantly strengthened.
At an hour a day's practice, a native English speaker could learn a Group 1 language in two years (Credit: Getty Images)
Lisa Meneghetti, a data analyst from Treviso, Italy, is a hyperpolyglot, meaning she is fluent in six or more languages - in her case English, French, Swedish, Spanish, Russian and Italian. When embarking on a new language, especially one with a lower difficulty curve that requires less cognitive stamina, she says her biggest challenge is to avoid mixing words.
“It’s normal for the brain to switch and use shortcuts,” she says. “This happens more often and more easily with languages that belong to the same family… because the similarities are great but so are the false friends!”
The best way to avoid this issue, Meneghetti says, is to learn one language at a time, and to differentiate the linguistic families.
An hour of difference
Learning the basics of any language is a quick task. Programmes like Duolingo or Rosetta Stone can guide you through a few greetings and simple phrases at lightning speed. For a more personal experience, polyglot Timothy Doner recommends reading and watching material that you already have an interest in.
“If you like cooking, buy a cookbook in a foreign language; if you like soccer, try watching a foreign game,” he says. “Even if you’re only picking up a handful of words per day - and the vast majority continue to sound like gibberish - they will be easier to recall later on.”
Learning a new language becomes much easier if you combine it with something else you enjoy – for instance, watching a football game with foreign commentary (Credit: Getty Images)
Before you go too far, however, it’s important to consider exactly how you plan to use the language in the future. And which language you learn depends on your personal motivations, says Beverly Baker, an associate professor and director of language assessment at the University of Ottawa.
“A busy professional might see Mandarin as important to learn because they have business contacts, or it could be a language your family spoke and you lost, or you’re in love with someone who spoke that language”, she says. “Maybe you’re just interested in saying a few things to your in-laws.”
Once your intentions for the new language are defined, you can begin planning out a productive hourly schedule for daily practice
Once your intentions for the new language are defined, you can begin planning out a productive hourly schedule for daily practice that includes multiple learning methods.
Advice on how to best spend this time varies depending on which polyglot or linguistics expert you’re speaking to. But there’s one tip they all seem to stand behind: devote at least half of your hour to stepping away from the books and videos to practice with a speaker face to face, be it someone who's native or highly fluent in the language. “To go over questions and do activities, to talk together in the language, and to discuss the culture,” Baker says. “I would not skip that part, because learning about the people and culture will motivate me to keep up with the rest of my learning.”
“Adults, some of them do their language learning trying to memorise words and practice pronunciation, all in silence and to themselves. They don’t actually take the leap to try and have a conversation actually using the language,” Fiez says. “You’re not really learning another language, you’re just learning picture-sound associations.”
Language-learning programmes are important, but spending time with a native or skilled speaker is the most effective method (Credit: Getty Images)
Just like exercise or musical instruments, people recommend a shorter amount of practice time on a regular basis rather than larger chunks on a more sporadic basis. Baker says this is because without a consistent schedule the brain fails to engage in any deep cognitive processes, like making connections between new knowledge and your previous learning. “An hour a day five days a week is therefore going to be more beneficial than a five-hour blitz once a week.”
According to the FSI index, it would take 96 weeks at this pace to achieve basic fluency in a Group 1 language, or nearly two years. But by following the advice from experts, narrowing down your lessons for specific applications rather than general fluency, new speakers will be able to shave off significant time towards reaching their desired level.
IQ and EQ
“Learning a second language can satisfy an immediate need but it will also help you become a more understanding and empathic person by opening the doors to a different way of thinking and feeling,” says Meneghetti. “It’s about IQ and EQ combined.”
Communicating and empathising across language barriers can lead to a high-demand skill called ‘intercultural competence’. According to Baker, intercultural competence is the ability to build successful relationships with a variety of people from other cultures.
Dedicating one hour of your day towards learning a new language can be thought of as practice in bridging gaps between people. The result is a more malleable communication skillset that brings you closer to your peers at work, home or abroad.
“You’re faced with a different worldview with someone from a different culture. You don’t rush to judgment and are more effective at resolving the clashes in the world that come up,” Baker says.
“Just learning one language, any language in any culture, helps you to develop that adaptability and flexibility when faced with other cultures, period.”
If you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter called "If You Only Read 6 Things This Week". A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Capital and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.