3 habits of successful language learners

Roughly 1.2 billion people worldwide are currently learning a foreign language. If you are one of them, this article is for you.

Whether you are learning to improve your job prospects, do better in school, get ready for a trip abroad or even just for fun, there are three common habits that all successful language learners share. We analyzed data from millions of Duolingo users and, in the process, discovered what it really takes to grasp a foreign tongue.

Learning a language is a lot like losing weight (sort of)

Some language-learning services claim to be so effective that you’ll be fluent in weeks — or even overnight (yeah, right!). Others claim to make you fluent by passively listening. We are more realistic: science and personal experience indicate that most people need time to become proficient in a second language. So what does it take to be successful in the long run?

It might help to compare language-learning with losing weight and staying fit. Can you lose 50 pounds overnight? Fat chance. Over the course of several months? Much more realistic.

Just as you need exercise and a healthy diet to get fit, you need to develop a habit of regular study and review in order to stick with learning a language and succeed in the long run. And just as it’s helpful to know what types of foods and exercises are best for staying healthy, it’s important to know what types of learning habits are best for long-term language-learning success.

More than 150 million people across the world use Duolingo to learn languages, many of them with their phones and tablets during breaks and daily commutes. From these activities, we have gathered a tremendous amount of data about learning and behavior patterns. Here is some of what we have learned about the best habits for being a successful language learner.

Habit No. 1: weekends-only and 9-to-5 don’t cut it

One of the best predictors of long-term success is doing something on a regular basis. Language learning is no different. In particular, Figure 1 shows that most people who stick with language learning in the long run make sure to spend a few minutes practicing every day or two. On the other hand, people who slip to every 5 or 6 days are much more likely to give up altogether. Figure 2 shows that successful learners also complete considerably more sessions per week, meaning they spend a good amount of time studying.

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