Toil vs Effort: The Right Kind of Lazy

How technology can help you learn a language

Toil vs Effort: The Right Kind of Lazy
Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Learning a new language requires effort. A. lot. of. effort… Much like anything that requires hard work and discipline, it can be tempting to spend more time trying to find the perfect tool that will make the experience effortless than actually working towards your goal. Unfortunately, all learning requires effort and attention, after all you don’t become a stunt car driver just because you’ve been driving for 30 years. Fortunately for us, all effort is not created equal and that is where technology can help.

There are two kinds of effort:

  1. Genuine: Effort that brings you closer to your goal
  2. Toil: Effort that is required, but doesn’t intrinsically bring you closer to your goal

Let’s say your goal is to run a 5k. Genuine effort towards achieving that goal would be running every morning. Toil would be cooking healthy meals. A good diet is absolutely necessary for achieving your goal, but cooking is not. If a personal chef showed up at your door every morning with a stack of healthy meals, you’d be no further from achieving your goal of running a 5k.

In language learning, no polyglot’s magical method, or app is going to allow you to memorize 200 new words every day. If you want a working vocabulary that even begins to approach that of a native speaker, then do the math. Take how many words are you able to learn each day and project that out to 25,000, and then tack another 30% more time onto that because finding new words to study gets harder the more words you know. Be prepared to work at it every day for years, or set more realistic expectations for yourself.

Language learning involves a lot of toil, for example just finding something to read in your target language at your level and this is interesting can be challenging. It seems simple enough, but much like trying to pick a movie on Netflix, a lot of time can be wasted figuring out where to look and what interests you.

The good news is that while a lot of time is wasted on toil, this is an area where technology can help. Technology can help in the following areas:

  • Content Discovery
  • Vocabulary Acquisition
  • Scheduling
  • Review

Content Discovery

There are a couple of approaches to content discovery. Most apps have lessons and modules that provide enough content to give you a working knowledge of the language without needing too much external material. But what happens after you outgrow those tools? Most people take to reddit or language learning blogs to find content at their level.

Lingmo’s approach to the content discovery problem is to provide two main sources of material. News articles, which help users build a contemporary vocabulary, and audiobooks, which provide exposure to more complex grammar and vocabulary as well as helping train your ears. Of course copyright law limits the breadth of what can be made available.

Vocabulary Acquisition

One of the core features of Lingamo is its ability to recognize the words you are studying in new texts, regardless of the word form (ie habla, habló y hablaba would all link to your definition for hablar). Lingamo also provides native definitions and translations when you look a word, which is important in helping resolve ambiguity.


You should be able to study whenever and where ever you have the time. Lingamo is a mobile application and most of its functionality works completely offline (audiobooks, translations, vocabulary review, etc…) .


You shouldn’t have to use another tool to study vocabulary, unless you want to. Lingamo has a spaced repetition flashcard system that allows for efficient review sessions. Your progress learning a word is color-coded and when a word you are studying appears in any text, it will be subtly underlined in that color. This makes it possible to explicitly try to commit a word to memory both within the flashcard review session and anytime you see it in the wild.


Learning a language requires work. But just like a planner can help you get organized, there are tools that can make the process easier to manage. The more of your time and attention you can spend learning a language, the closer you’ll be to meeting your language learning goals.