High-Intensity Language Training: What it is and Whether it Works


Ever heard of HIIT? High-intensity interval training. The idea is that you exercise fiercely for short bursts of time, with a few seconds of rest in-between. The results of a HIIT session are proven to be a lot more beneficial than another exercise of the same duration. It’s almost like condensing a two-hour workout into an hour-long one but reaping the same rewards.

HILT (note the ‘L’) stands for high-intensity language training, the latest learning craze. It’s adored by learners willing to break traditional study boundaries. Each study session is long (usually about eight hours a day) and students try not to revisit any page or grammatical rule already learned. Mistakes are inevitably made but, instead of feeling ashamed, the student has to become familiar with accepting mistakes as a part of learning. They make the mistake; they move on. This lack of immediate revision and self-punishment breaks a mental barrier that could cause anyone to give up learning a foreign language. (Research also shows that mistakes can actually help to learn, rather than hinder it.)

Like HIIT, with thirty-second rest periods following one-minute exercises, HILT allows you to take a five-minute study break every 30 minutes. Lunch and dinner are treated as rest too, with about twenty to thirty minutes recommended. Every week or so, the student can finally revise what they’ve studied and be genuinely surprised by how much they retained. Unlike cramming, HILT is structured, with the idea that you’ll eventually revise and regularly have speaking lessons (solely in the chosen foreign language) with your teacher. The consequence? Retaining knowledge for a long time after you’ve studied. Short-term memory is good for tests, but long-term is necessary to master a language.
Though in its early stages, HILT is popular. The International Centre for Language Studies supports High-Intensity Language Training and SaySomethingIn is a language training company dedicated to this new way of studying.
But why would someone want to study that intensely when we’ve always been taught to revise, revise and revise what we’ve learned? Today, life leaves no time to spare, let alone 8 hours in a block. HILT sounds exhausting and the idea that you can remember all you’ve learned (with accuracy) seems a bit naive.

So why do some people swear by it?

The Research

Traditional massed learning is the study of a subject for long periods of time, but with less frequency and little revision. When you were studying for your school exams, you might have done this. Some call it cramming.

Similar to HILT, and with a wealth of research behind it, spaced learning makes the persuasive argument that cramming isn’t the best way. Spaced learning supports revision through incremental intervals, working on the basis that we retain memories for longer each time we review. For instance, if you studied an English story today, you would study it again in two days, then in a week, then in a month and so on until every word of that story was fixed in your memory.

According to Dr. Robert Bjork, a Distinguished Research Professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, blocked practice is the most common, but not the most effective, way of learning. Blocked practice means that, if you have a lot to learn, you break it down into bits. Take learning a language: you would study vocabulary, then verbs, and finally sentence structure on separate occasions. Focusing on one thing at a time is widely accepted in schools. Dr Robert Bjork prefers interleaving. His research has found that when many things are studied through mixed practice (for example, reading, writing, and speaking are studied at once), our memory retains what we learnt for a longer amount of time.

Spaced learning, massed learning and interleaving are actually at the backbone of HILT. The mixture of the three methods combines to create a tour de force for learning.

But, is it really effective?

The theory is, you learn rapidly and retain knowledge for longer. The creator of SaySomethingIn has put his money where his mouth is and applied the training himself, documenting it on video. He explains the feelings students experience when they go through the process too, knowing he has thousands of followers and purchasers of his book and courses to relate to.

He advises you to embrace mistakes so that learning isn’t so mentally arduous, keep going at a pace, immerse yourself in the language you’re learning and only revise what you’ve learned when absolutely necessary. This is definitely something to be encouraged if you’re a business owner considering training your staff in English. The CEO of Japanese online company Rakuten famously changed the canteen menus to English rapidly after deciding on changing the company language. Now that Rakuten is snowballing into a global giant, it’s clear that he understood the benefits of immersion.
Perhaps eight hours a day might be excessive for employees, but regular study, immersion and speaking lessons are the essentials to succeed at HILT. Our businesses need a bite-sized HILT, you could say…

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