Good Morning, Good Afternoon, Good Evening and Good Night: What Time of Day is Best for Learning?

We are all bound to the rhythms of time.  Therefore we often label ourselves as a “morning person” or maybe a “night owl.”  We find out after a few years of experience know that we have a unique chemistry and disposition for certain times of the day.  These times of day we are more alert, receptive to new ideas and generally more content.  Other times of the day, in contrast, we may feel sluggish and less on top of our game.  Therefore you can subjectively label a time when it feels “best” to learn.  However, while subjectively someone may feel better at one time of the day rather than others, there is never a “bad” time to learn.  It is a dichotomy in that the time you feel the worst may, in fact, be the “best” time to learn.  You may make fewer hard-earned gains because of fatigue, but this, in turn, can inspire a feeling.  Feelings are good in language learning.  They help you remember better.  There is a charged urgency to what you have learned.  You may remember how much you suffered just to learn that one conjugation at 5 a.m. or whatever you view as your worst time of day.  However, it is much more likely that moving through your learning cycle is going to at least make you proud of what you accomplished.  Pride and self-esteem (taking pride in one’s actions and accomplishments) are vital to language learning and fluency.

Elizabeth hated mornings.  When she woke up, it often felt like she was attempting to resurrect herself from the dead.  Groggy, out of sorts, and often stubbing her toes as she shuffled across her bedroom floor, she struggled to do what she had to do.  If she went back to bed it was often without guilt or a second thought, even though she knew she could get more done if she just bloody well could stay awake.  How in blue blazes anyone ever got up early and felt energized and ready to go was beyond her peception even during her “best” times of the day.  It seemed impractical to expect, given everything she had experienced through young adulthood, that she could learn anything of value during the early morning.  There was a tranquil quality of the early morning that was difficult to replicate any other time of day.  However, her job and family commitments made this impractical because she felt too fatigued even just waking up.  There was supposed to be a refreshed feeling like all the actors in all the ads when waking up on their picture-perfect beds, in light airy sheets, with the sun streaming through an open window and a gentle breeze blowing.  This did not seem to depict her cold February morning.  “Oh well,” She thought, “I can do it tomorrow.  Tomorrow will be different.” 

     Except that she never could and it never was.  When you practice your target language you are working out your brain.  You are acquiring valuable knowledge and skills and that if it is worthwhile it is not going to be easy.  If you have to push through fatigue it may be so much the better.  Memrise (premium) is interesting in that it will track what time of day you study the most.  This is of marginal interest and perhaps not very useful.  Even if it is a good idea to study even if, and maybe especially if, you are tired, then knowing when you most often practice can clue you into your habits.  Your habits end up defining who you are as a person.

While any time of day is a good time of day to study your language, you may want to consistently study at the same time of day.  This usually ends up being early in the morning just purely for the fact that most people are still asleep and you are less likely to be disturbed.  Arguably, it could also be late at night for the same reasons.  However, sleep is essential to distilling what you have learned and there are few health issues as pernicious or detrimental as a lack of sleep.  This leads us back to Elizabeth’s dilemma.  it can seem pretty hopeless as you struggle to just function in the early morning, much less learn how to recite a poem in Thai.  There are some commonsense steps you can take that don’t cost a cent.

  1.  Don’t consume caffeine late in the day.  There is no evidence that this could possibly have a positive impact on your sleep and a lot that it will have a negative one.
  2. Go to bed as early as possible. This is what parents do with their kids because it only takes a few mornings of pain to realize that if they don’t sleep well then it will take a prodigiously long time to get them ready in the morning.  Be your own parent in this case.
  3. Ditch digital screens as early as possible.  This includes your laptop, tablet, and smartphone.  Everything.  8:30pm is generally a good rule of thumb.  There are many good language books in print that you may find relaxing before bed.
  4. Keep your bedroom dark, cool and quiet.  Some folks enjoy white noise during slumber and this does not seem to be particularly harmful.  Adjust the volume on your humidifier or device and see what works well.
  5. Most importantly, keep your expectations realistic.  It would be wonderful to wake up every morning completely refreshed and ready to learn.  However, your body varies in chemistry and general efficiency from day to day.  The best case scenario is that you will have a normal or better distribution of amazing sleep nights.  The frequency of those wonderful nights will increase.

Finally, it is key to get into a routine once you wake up.  Pick the simple language tasks you may want to accomplish that day to do first.  Do the same ones every day at the same time.  This will give you an early “win” that will reinforce the belief that you can learn another language.

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