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It's not how much you study, it's how you study: Sleep on it


Many students of English complain that they spend many hours studying English only to forget most of it soon afterwards. At first, I thought it was just the same old thing about “some people are good at languages and some simply are not”. Sure, being good at languages is something which is going to help a lot. Yes, a lot. But if you are not counted among those lucky guys who pick up a foreign language just like they pick up a scent in the air, keep reading.

As I said, I used to think those students had problems assimilating what they study because of their nature, which includes being older than 17... until I started paying attention to the way they study. Every little detail ads (or subtracts) to a good learning process and, of course, talking about languages, practice is paramount. But on this post I want to focus on a “little” thing most people miss out when talking about how to study best: Time Management.

Maybe you have heard about all that neurolinguistic gibberish of alpha waves, REM sleep stage, neuron synapses and so on. We won’t trouble you with loads of scientific information which is interesting to know but hard to understand. We will go straight to the results of all that learning process and speak to you in plain English. And for our learning purposes, here is the thing that matters: You need to sleep on it. And that for two reasons.

The first reason is quite obvious. Think of your brain as an axe. A brain which takes enough rest is sharper in every way, so you can assimilate faster and better. Sleeping sharpens your axe. It is also obvious that being tired and drowsy makes your attention level drop, as well as your assimilation capacity.

But we want to focus on a less obvious point; reason number 2. Think of your brain as yet another muscle in your body. It is not a muscle, of course, but it behaves much like a muscle when it comes to learning, processing and assimilating new information. So once you get the picture, it is quite easy to understand.

Imagine you are a 30-year-old man, all flabby and out of training. New Year’s Day arrives, and with it, the usual good-willed resolutions. Yours will be to lose weight, get fit and grow your muscles. So you start training.

Now, you go to the gym and work out for 7 hours in a row. Results? Supposing you could survive and complete your 7-hour training, which I really doubt, all you would get the next day would be muscle damage, horrible pains and… no muscle gain. And let’s keep daydreaming and suppose one week later you do the same, and you keep doing the same every weekend. After 3 months your body would not be any better. On the contrary, you would feel like hell and probably about just as much out of shape.

Yes, putting aside the fact that your body would never resist such a crazy training agenda, you would eventually gain some muscular mass, but not much. You’d be stupid not to throw in the towel and stop for good.

And now let’s get reasonable again and do it the wise way. Instead of training for 7 hours every weekend, you decide to train only 3 hours a week, but for half an hour every day, from Monday to Friday. Results? After the same 3 months you lose weight and gain muscle, feeling healthier, fitter, more agile, and even happier… so you have good reasons to keep training.

Everybody can understand that building muscle, the same as loosing weight, requires time and discipline, but also going little by little and giving your body time to adjust. 3 hours distributed among different days will bring much better results than 7 hours a week in one go, or even 3 hours every 3 days.

Why is that? You make an effort and your body responds to it adjusting. But if you force it too much, your body has no time to adjust and breaks. And it is sleep what makes all the difference. Your body gets strained, pushed to new limits during training, but it is not during training that it strengthens and develops, at that time it’s too busy trying to keep up with you. It is later, while you are resting, but especially while you are sleeping, that your body repairs the damage and strengthens the structure to get ready for future similar efforts. Sleep is the time of the day when your body repairs itself and adapts to new circumstances, when your muscles grow.

But what has learning English to do with all this? Well, I told you to see your brain as just another body muscle. And I said so because your brain reaction to effort is basically the same as your muscles.

Now take out gym and put in study hours. For your neurones, studying is like physical exercise for your muscles. Instead of going to the gym, you lock up inside your room and bury yourself into books, audios, the internet, movies, M-E videos or whatever you are using to put new information into your brain. You force your brain to work hard and do lots of things, just like your body in the gym. But again, while you are exercising, your brain is too busy trying to keep up with all that new information. It is so busy trying to learn that it has no time to try to remember, so it hastily dumps all the new information into a little store room called short-term memory.

What is the short-term memory? Exactly the same as the RAM of your computer. RAM is a temporary memory where your computer stores information so it can do things with it. Everything you’re doing is there, but as soon as you switch off your computer, RAM disappears, and with it, everything stored there. If you want the information to be still in your computer the next day, you need to save your work into a driver. Drivers could be called long-term memory, because data will still be there forever, as long as the driver is not damaged, of course.

Things are much the same into your brain. When you are busy learning new things, all that information is stored in the short-term memory so you can work with all that data. Some time after you finished studying, many things you learned are still there, in your brain’s RAM, and you think you learned a lot, since you can remember a lot. But all RAM is temporary. As soon as your brain switches off from that business and starts getting busy with other things, your short-term memory starts getting cleared to make room for processing new information. Only the stuff which is stored in your long-term memory will still be there next week and next year. So learning something new consists of recording information in the long-term memory, otherwise it would only be a waste of time. Or short of it. What is the use of studying hard if then you forget everything?

While we study, or listen to audios or watch videos, we are putting information inside our brain, but only in the short-term memory. And now the big secret: it is during our sleep, while our body and brain is shut off from the outside world, when our brain concentrates all its energy in “putting the house in order”. It collects all the information it gathered during the day, processes it, connects it, and stores it in the long-term memory. Well, not everything, of course, but as much of it as it possibly can.

Our brain can do so much during our sleep, so imagine your brain as having a busy person storing information. During the night, this lady gets up and does her job, and has time to store 1000 units before you wake up and she goes to sleep. The consequence of all this is simple: if you put 300 units in during the day, the organiser lady will process them. If you put 1000 units in, she will manage them too. But if you put 7000 units in, this efficient woman will have time to process 1000 units, but no more, so the other 6000 units will be washed down the drain as soon as your RAM memory is reset. And that’s where much of what you learn goes, so it seems. But in fact things are even worse, since having an overload of information can make assimilation harder and slower, so more than 6000 units will actually go to waste.

That means, if you want to get fit and build muscle, exercise a little every day; exercising many hours every few days is a waste of time and won’t help. Likewise, if you want to process what you learn and remember it, studying for half an hour 5 days a week will be much much better than studying 5 hours only on Saturdays.

But, hey, there is another very important conclusion we can draw here. We have seen that sleeping “sharpens your axe” and that data organisation and assimilation happens during your sleep. So put both things together and something comes out pretty obvious:  the worst thing you can do right before an exam is to study, because all the information will be rambling inside your brain creating confusion, and that can only make things worse and get you more nervous. Rest the day before, or at least, sleep well the night before and don’t try to push any more information on the D-day, since you will have no sleeping time to let it be absorbed and settle down.

And before we put an end here, we want to concentrate in a little paragraph all the essence of what we are trying to make you see. Keep it well graven in your memory:

If you want to assimilate English much better and learn faster, take it easy, take it slow, study for half an hour or one hour every day, but be constant. Half an hour 5 days a week is much more efficient and will not worn you out. Sometimes less is more. It is not all about quantity, it is about quality. And remember, you study during the day, but assimilate during your sleep. And also, rest enough to keep your axe sharp. Don’t forget this, it is a little secret that will take you far, and keep you motivated and sane. Spread the word.


Written by Angel Castaņo

© Angel Castaño 2008 Salamanca / Poole - free videos to learn real English online || InfoPrivacyTerms of useContactAbout
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