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I was told I could be in a beginner's Hebrew class that meets for two hours per week, without any required out-of-class work. I said (or rather, wished to say) that this situation is hopeless: two hours a week is about as good as zero when it comes to developing actual functionality in a language. Not only is the progress too slow in a linear sense; there is also a lack of something which I would call "momentum." (To someone who knows physics: what might be a better word?)

I guess I am referring roughly to "the principle in language learning that the farther you are, the easier it is to do more, faster"; that is, the rich get richer and the poor stay poor. But I am also arguing that, especially at the beginning, not only are a certain absolute number of study hours necessary, but they must also be accomplished within a short enough period of time to see progress.

  • I am convinced that this is true, but I don't know why. Why?

  • It may and probably does apply to other fields of study than language learning, but to language learning, it seems, for some reason, particularly relevant. Why?

  • I think this notion encodes why beginners often give up languages, and is closely related to the concept of frustration. Enabling "momentum" at the beginning is therefore important, but axiomatically almost impossible. How can it be done?

  • How much (and how frequent, etc.) and what kind of study are necessary to create/maintain momentum at different levels of language learning? If two hours a week are not enough, what is?

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I am convinced that this is true, but I don't know why. Why?

I would say memory is a very important factor here. People may have better or worse memory, but in general it's very easy to forget what you learnt a week ago, if you didn't repeat it in the meantime.

It may and probably does apply to other fields of study than language learning, but to language learning, it seems, for some reason, particularly relevant. Why?

In most subjects you can relate things you learn to other things you already know, and that makes them easier to remember. In the case of language learning at the beginning you need learn completely arbitrary words and constructions. Of course, it gets easier after a while, because you begin to have an intuition how the new language works. For the same reason, learning is easier if you already have foreign language learning experience, or if the new language is related to some of the languages you already speak. But in general, when you learn a language, there many things you need to remember that are completely arbitrary.

I think this notion encodes why beginners often give up languages, and is closely related to the concept of frustration. Enabling "momentum" at the beginning is therefore important, but axiomatically almost impossible. How can it be done?

Something that works for me and for many people, is spaced repetition. In my experience, it's important to get at least passive understanding of at least 1000 most frequent words in a language in the shortest possible time. And since there is no one-to-one equivalence between words between different languages, it's best to learn them in the context of sentences. Of course, that's not the only thing you need to learn as a beginner (depending on the language, some knowledge of the phonology, morphology and syntax of the language may be crucial), but it's very important. When you know the core vocabulary, the language stops being completely arbitrary, and you can relate things you learn to the ones you already know. And it makes the new words and constructions easier to remember. At this stage the intensity becomes less important, and even with 2 hours per week some progress is possible.

The advanage of using spaced-repetition systems (SRS) is that it can be very motivating: you know that in a short time you can get to the level where you at least have a general idea about a lot of what is written in the language. It's also resistant to breaks. It's most effective to study every day, but what do you do when you had a few day break? Normally it may be hard to decide, if you should just go on with new material, or go back and repeat what you've learnt. SRS make that decision for you, and it's usually an optimal one.

But SRS is not for everyone. For some people, SRS (and flashcards in general) are simply too boring, and even if they know it's effective, they can't be bothered to spend their time on it. They probably need to use other methods, but no matter how it's done, getting familiar with the core vocabulary remains very important.

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Momentum in general:

The concept of "momentum" seems true because we find that it is through our experience with many other aspects of our lives. Eating healthy foods once a week, exercising once a week, studying once a week, being religious once a week, being kind once a week etc. will do very little to increase character in those respective areas.

I'd argue that the concept of momentum seems particularly relevant to language learning in your case because it's something you're actively pursuing.

Gaining momentum is hard on principle. There's no easy way to gain momentum—it takes practice, dedication, and determination. You can start small (5 minutes a day, for example) to get yourself started.

More important than your two hours a week is a consistent daily effort. I'm not sure if I spend more than two hours a week learning languages, but I spread that out so I learn a little each day. Again, as with quite a few other skills and habits, doing a little each day is much more effective than doing a lot once a week.

Specific suggestions for your situation:

Since you're in a class and can't really control that time you spend there, I'd recommend supplementing it with daily practice. Duolingo has a Hebrew course you can take. You can also download the Hebrew Word Fireworks app for $2 to get the basic writing system down. Spend 5-10 minutes a day practicing on your own and you'll build and maintain a lot more momentum than if you just take a class.

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