About four years ago I met an American lady near Estepona on the southern coast of Spain. She previously lived and worked in America and knew no Spanish. This was unfortunate because she had a dream – to live and work in Spain. How to do? She solved her lack of Spanish problem by attending one of those Spanish language intensive courses hosted in Spain. Attending the course was expensive1 but effective.

For six months she followed the course guidelines and studied 25 hours each week in the classroom and 25 hours each week of homework. She passed her exam (B2 level), lives in Spain these days and could certainly speak Spanish well when I met her. A dream come true. She appeared to be especially happy about it too.

Back to her course – that was 1200 hours of study to acquire a 4,000 word vocabulary2. To complete her course she had to give up working for 6 months and study like a maniac. She has my undying respect for maintaining that level of intensity and reaching her goal. It has been expensive, time-consuming and I would imagine quite fatiguing. No one showed her how to learn more efficiently leaving her with only sheer will to enable her to succeed.

During my Italian program I acquired an 11,000 word vocabulary in just 253 hours thus I averaged 42 words gained per hour compared to her 3.3 words. Is it likely that I am approximately 12x as smart as she is? Of course not! Is it likely that I am capable of working 12x as hard as she does per hour? Of course not – it is more likely the other way around in her case! Is it possible I am 12x more efficient when I study? Yes. That is exactly what those numbers mean.

How? Because at Total Fluency we have been considering learning efficiency and have been doing so for 40 years. If you think about one thing for 40 years you are likely to get very good at it. It’s an unusual focus. Is it a valuable focus? Well she could have learned Spanish and kept her job saving $26,000 of lost income or just studied almost 9 hours less each day and taken the extra time to make friends and enjoy starting her new life in Spain and achieved the same level of pass. So I would say so. Yes.

Perhaps you are someone struggling with a language right now, frustrated by your progress. You might be thinking “oh, thinking about efficiency is a little grand for me – I am really mostly trying to survive right now.” Perhaps counter-intuitively thinking about surviving won’t help you survive (in this case) but thinking about efficiency will help you survive and prosper.

Hot tip – get interested in 4 specific numbers you will seldom see discussed. If you are applying for a course or hiring a tutor discuss and track these numbers – the numbers in brackets are [her number : my number]. Oh and be aware that very, very few language tutors know these numbers and estimates are often wrong sometimes by as much as 10 times from both students and tutors so ask for some evidence too.

By focussing on efficiency I can get more done in the same time or take less time to achieve the same amount. This reduces my emotional and mental cost, my time cost and my financial cost – therefore it is easier for me to maintain my enthusiasm thus my probability of successfully completing the course goes up. Visible progress fuels motivation and motivation fuels results. Simple. Efficiency is your friend. Start directing your attention to the accomplishment of painless increases in your efficiency of learning. You see people think I must be working hard to learn so fast – but it is the exact opposite. I did less work and had to exert less self-discipline than our American living in Spain. And so can you.

1 – The course was only around £2,250 but her largest cost was not working for 6 months. She was making around $1,000 a week so her 6 month forced “holiday” cost her around $26,000 in lost income add her course fees and you are approaching $30,000 for a 4,000 word vocabulary

2 – In saying 4,000 I am being generous. When we met I had a vocabulary of 2,200 words and while she could speak more fluently and more easily than I (she had lived and worked in Spain for over 2 years when we met and I only gave myself 2 weeks to learn Spanish and was living in England) we appeared to have a broadly similar sized “working” vocabulary. Perhaps she had an edge over me but it was not obvious from our conversations.

3 – Assuming I paid for my course the same as she paid for her course but did not have to quit my work as 1 hour per day is perfectly achievable after work whereas her 10 hours of study is not something that can realistically be added to a working day for most people.