My 7 Worst Language Study Habits

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Nobody is perfect – no, not even me…

Especially not me.

If I followed my own language learning advice 100% of the time I’d be a lot further along on my own language projects. Alas, I have fallen into the same traps and pitfalls and experienced the same failures as everyone else – and I still frequently do!

This isn’t going to be another one of those “make lots of mistakes!” posts, because lets face it – those kind of suck. We all know that making mistakes helps us grow, that we shouldn’t be as afraid of our shortcomings as we are, and that it’s just another part of life and essential to the acquisition of any new skill. Does hearing that repeated really make you feel better about your mistakes though?

So rather than regale you with “motivational” banter about embracing your mistakes, I’ve decided to tell you all about the ones I still make all the time in the hope that you can take heart in the fact that you’re not alone and maybe we can learn a thing or two together about what not to do.

  

1. A huge lack of motivation

You might think that someone as devoted as I am to writing about language learning would spend a similar amount of time actually studying.
Unfortunately I’m bloody lazy. I procrastinate, and put everything off until the last second. I love learning languages but I have as hard a time as any schoolboy when it comes to actually buckling down and working on things.

My motivation comes and goes. Sometimes I’m able to spend days at a time working regularly on a project only to then spend a week accomplishing very little – and not usually for any good reasons.

It’s certainly not a lack of time – I have plenty of that, and I usually spend it doing things like gaming, Facebooking and making (likely unnecessary) tweaks to this site.

It’s not that I don’t want to learn languages, so then what gives? Read on:

2. I’m terrible at routines

I attribute a lot of my motivational issues to not having much of a routine. Not only for language study, but for life in general.

I work at strange hours. Everyone in my household either works, eats or sleeps at strange hours, and while I certainly have the physical time to study and still do everything else, the whimsical nature of my routine makes it difficult to form a habit.

It is said that forming a habit takes about 21 days – a common myth actually.

The truth is that habit formation – according to researchers at University College London – is based on something called ‘context-dependent repetition’ and the length of time it can take to develop a routine varies dramatically from person to person.

I’m sure some of you are better at routines than I am, but even three weeks to me seems like an awfully long time within which to pre-plan my life.

A well established routine makes learning a habit. I don’t want to sound discouraging to those of you who also struggle with habit formation, but we all know it isn’t a cakewalk. I think this is the first step to getting back on track and making language study a regular thing once more.

One language learning tool that could help with this is The Pimsleur Approach. By calling you back every day for half an hour it really does try to set you up for success. Other spaced repetition programs, including Memrise and Duolingo are also great for this, but I find that they’re both slightly less demanding than Pimsleur and the results less immediately obvious.

3. Speaking to strangers is scary

This is huge. Most  of us aren’t exactly thrilled with the prospect of wielding our new, ungainly, awkward language skills with another learner, let alone a native speaker.

It doesn’t matter that we know most of them aren’t out to judge us, that most people are happy to hear others learning their language, and many of us also know that despite our fears things usually turn out just fine.

But that doesn’t stop it from being horrifying every single time!

Believe me, I’m still just as shy as I ever was, despite having done this for a while now. I get nervous as heck every single time I’m preparing for a Skype convo, or even just text chat on Facebook in one of my foreign languages.

It does get a little bit easier, but it’s a slow, grueling, gradual process that will take time, effort, and no small amount of simply diving right in.

The best policy, I find, is just to bite the bullet and take the plunge. It does get easier after a few minutes of conversing, struggling and laughing.

4. I bite off way more than I can chew

Unsurprisingly I’m a big language junkie.

I never really got into this for “practical” reasons such as employment or mental health, I just like studying culture and meeting people from around the world. So I’m always finding new languages to experiment with – most of which never really go anywhere.

I’ve always been terrible at sticking to one project. While I strongly believe it’s perfectly possible to learn more than one, or more than even two or three languages at once, the more you add to your work load, the rougher your life is going to get.

Then there’s me. My Memrise dashboard at one point had about twelve different languages that I was attempting to work on at once. Like I said, studying multiple languages is fine, but there does eventually come a tipping point at which you’re really just overdoing it.

Lately I’ve been making a push to remove all of my Memrise courses that are not Russian or French (My two primary projects right now), but it’s hard because just as soon as I’ve cleaned Kyrgyz, Quechua, Ukrainian, Japanese, and Esperanto from my list of projects, suddenly I see Mongolian and the trend continues.

On the one hand it’s a lot of fun to study languages like this – especially if you don’t have any particular long term goals other than “learn lots of languages!”  But it can get confusing after a while, and I would likely be more advanced in my primary projects if I stopped messing around so much.

5. Sometimes it’s hard not to view language learning as a competition

I get jealous on occasion when friends or acquaintances who are studying the same languages blast past me in a storm of righteous language acquisition fury, out striping my capabilities by one hundred fold in half the time.

This is pretty bad because language learning is absolutely not a race! It isn’t a competition, and it’s so incredibly important to remember that it doesn’t matter at all how fast others are learning. The only thing that matters is that you’re making progress.

Unless you’re crunched for time – for instance you’re anticipating a trip abroad, or there’s a job opportunity for which you need to increase your language proficiency, there’s never a good reason to overwork yourself.

Doing so can make it hard to stay focused on what matters and the feeling of ineptitude can contribute to a potential loss of motivation. Which as we all know by now is what really kills a language project.

6. I frequently overlook the little things

Certain programs, such as Memrise and Duolingo give you the ability to “skip” over content you feel you’ve mastered. This can be a nice feature but I’ve discovered that I have to be more careful with it than I have been.

Especially when I’m learning more than one language I do forget easy things from time to time. And I’m willing to bet you do too.

There’s really no such thing as too much reinforcement and even the tiny linking words “and”, “but”, “or” or simple nouns such as “cat”, “dog”, “house” that we think we’ve got, and can’t possibly forget, can occasionally slip away.

It doesn’t happen every day, but whenever I come back to Russian after a casual fling with French I run the risk of blanking on a particular word or article, straining my memory to recall something I know should be easy.

Just what I get for my infidelity.

Of course I kick myself after I look it up and remember that I stuck it in my “ignore” pile months ago having thought I had it memorized beyond all shadow of a doubt.

Be cautious with your confidence. It never hurts to go over “easy” stuff again every once in a while for old time’s sake.

7.  I don’t manage my time very well.

Just earlier this week I posted my latest attempt at an infographic that outlined five ways in which language learners can make time for language study, despite a busy schedule.

Despite knowing how, I’m not always very good about managing my own time.

I’m the last person in the world who can in good conscience claim to not have time for language learning.

I have a lot of time actually. I work overnights as a residential counselor at a drug addiction facility. Despite low pay, the job does come with some serious benefits – particularly the fact that for probably seven hours out of an eight hour shift – barring special circumstances – I can do pretty much whatever I want.

 

I frequently use this time to write these blog entries, manage the social media sites, handle LATG’s email and sometimes yes – I do spend time studying my languages.

But not nearly as much as I should.

I currently update this blog twice a week, each blog post on average takes four or five hours to complete, sometimes more, sometimes less. I do spend a fair deal of time with my family, but even factoring all of that in, plus sleep, I still have a huge portion of each day in which I don’t usually have anything more pressing to do.

By all accounts I should be using this time for languages – and I do – but not as much as I could be.

I find that it’s best not to let language learning consume you. You don’t want to burn out, and most of us have other hobbies, interests and responsibilities (not to mention day jobs…), but there does come a point where we’re just being straight up lazy.

Conclusion


I’ve made New Year’s resolutions in past years. The last couple years I resolved to significantly improve one language or another, or to learn a new one entirely.

With 2015 only about two weeks away; this year, I’m not going to do that.

This coming year I’m going to resolve to work on overcoming a few of these issues.  I want to improve my ability to learn and refine my technique.

So what about you? Do you have any of these problems too? How do you deal with them?

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  • Aloka

    I am bad with schedules, too. When there is motivation, though, this isn’t much of an issue. For other times, one crazy trick I discovered is keeping the thing I should be doing open in front of me and not doing anything else. Requires a bit of discipline (avoiding the urge to check fb for instance) but less than forcing yourself to do that ‘thing’. Eventually you should find that you start working on it. Not sure if it is out of boredom or cos your mind starts thinking about what’s in front of you. I have a couple friends I shared this with and they verified it works 🙂

  • That’s great to know! Keeping things right in front of you is certainly going to be a great way to keep yourself focused. I guess I’m still just a bit of a scatterbrain.

    Ideas pop into my head and I run off. Maybe I should focus on sitting still first. :-p

    Thanks for your comment, as always!

  • Aloka

    btw, I forgot to mention – though maybe it is obvious – it’s important to keep staring at it!

  • Nico the language fed

    Sure thing, keeping your eyes on something in front of you may not be a great challenge. Keeping your mind on it though, when you have thousands of things to do that very day, may become into something more hard to achieve, so I totally understand you in that, Brian!

    Listening is one big “unmotivational” issue for me. I’ll try Pimsleur as you advice, to see if it helps, but thing is point 3 is a bigger challenge due to the simple fact that when you read or write, you have a little more time to think, but when you hear someone talking you have no time to process. This may sound awkward, but does it ever happen to you that you’re still thinking on last word and then you cannot catch the next one when they tell you something? Is that because I’m doing something wrong that you remembered having corrected? Do you do some special preparation before talking with a native?

    Thanks for the insightful and frank article! It is already helpful!

  • Hi Nico, thanks for your comment.

    So it doesn’t sound awkward, your problem is pretty common for me too. Sometimes audio programs come at you quickly – which is actually a good thing, though it can be difficult for a while.

    The speed that they use is designed to put pressure on you to come up with the words quickly, but there’s no shame in not making it every time.

    All we want to do is progress, progress, progress, but sometimes it’s a good idea to repeat certain audio lessons more than once, or even more than twice.

    As for Pimsleur – if you’ve had bad experiences with audio courses in the past, you might want to consider a cheaper option. Pimsleur can be fairly expensive. I do happen to learn fairly well via audio – I’m a terrible note taker – so it worked for me.

    If you do decide to buy it, the link in the article is an affiliate link and I’ll make about 15% of the profits, but like I said, I’d rather you not spend the money if you aren’t confident that it will help.

  • Anthony659225

    Brian, what you describe is something most people can relate to. In other words, we’ve all been there. Of course, the old chestnut about enjoying the journey rather than obsessing about the destination can certainly help. Whether on any given day you travel a step or a mile, enjoy it. And it is movement forward, no matter the distance.

    I enjoy your blog. Language learning is so much fun, and I am happy that I stumbled onto a site where I can learn from others who also find joy in studying languages.

  • Thank you very much for reading and for your kind words. I’m always glad to hear that someone enjoys my work. It really validates what I do!