Your Lifestyle Choices Can Impact Language Learning Success

Health lifestyle
 

So you’ve bought all the books, downloaded all the apps, discovered all the sites. You’ve secured yourself a language exchange via Skype twice per week and are considering paying for a professional tutor to really round yourself out.

Great! Sounds like you’re right on track. So what can you do to give yourself the extra edge  and further ensure language learning success?

How about something nice for your body.

In order to quickly learn – and more importantly retain – vast quantities of vocabulary and grammar your brain has to be functioning as optimally as possible.

The things you do (or don’t do, as is more likely) can and will effect your study performance far more than you might have thought.

  

I’m not talking about becoming a health freak – I sure as hell am not one – but there are a few things that many of us overlook that can significantly impact how successful your language learning project turns out to be.

Get plenty of sunlight

Okay, I know, coming out of your cave is intimidating. If I didn’t have to do it, I probably wouldn’t either. After all I’ve got everything I need right here, right? You can pretty much learn a language now almost entirely from the warmth and safety of your bedroom or office, so why would you ever go outside?

As great as learning a language in your pajamas is you really need to get some sunlight. Vitamin D is essential; you really can’t live well without it. In the developed world most of us don’t have life threateningly low levels, but even still there are links between getting enough Vitamin D and cognitive processes that can cause language learning performance issues – especially among those of us who are getting older – and I know that many of us are more nocturnal than we’d like to admit.

I’m not a biologist or a physician, so I’ll leave you with this article that outlines the connection between Vitamin D and  maintaining a healthy mind. Some of it sounds as though it is still a bit uncertain, but I’d still suggest soaking up some rays. I always feel more productive after I’ve seen some sun and even if I don’t go outside first thing in the morning (especially when it’s this cold out) I try to open the blinds in my office and take some time standing near the windows. It makes me feel more alert than when I don’t.

Sunlight is also essential in regulating your circadian rhythms – or your body’s internal clock. Humans are a diurnal species, meaning that we’re actually designed to be up during the day and sleep at night – something many of us, myself included, are really bad about.

Staying up late then sleeping all day wreaks havoc on your internal clock. This, along with the addition of modern artificial light may be linked to a range of negative health effects that can leave you less effective when it comes to your language learning projects.

Attribution: with wind, http://bit.ly/1Lg7yFu

 

 

You really need to eat

I’m probably the last person you want to get dieting suggestions from – which is why I’m not going to bother telling you what you should or should not eat, just that you need to eat at the right times.

When your mother woke you up for school years ago, cramming a bowl of oatmeal down your throat, she’d say something about how “breakfast is the most important meal of the day!” and that you’d function poorly at school without it.

You may not think about it anymore now that nobody’s there holding a gun to your head while you eat, but studying a language isn’t really all that different from the days of yore, and your mother’s demands were not without their merits.

I don’t care if you eat a healthy spinach omelette with juice and toast or you pound back 3 slices of cold, leftover pizza from last night; you really shouldn’t tackle language learning on an empty stomach! 

About half an hour to an hour before you plan on sitting down to study, taking your commute to work and listening to Pimsleur, or whatever it is you do; be sure to grab a bite to eat. Your progress will thank you later.

Sleep more


So now that we’ve established the whole circadian rhythm thing, it’s time to start setting a more regular sleep schedule as well. You really should be shooting for 7-8 hours if at all possible, but I know, that’s kind of a pipe dream for some of us. I consider it a good day when I get more than 5 hours of sleep and on the days when I get significantly less my language study performance tanks like you wouldn’t believe. And I’m miserable, which makes me really not want to work on anything. I procrastinate and no language progress was made that day. I’ll frequently be lying down, using Memrise or Lingua.ly on my phone, start to nod off then promptly drop it on my face.

I’m sure it’s not just me either. I do not envy iPad users, that’ll kill you.
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If you can’t stay awake through your own study session you’re doing something wrong. If you’re serious about making progress, give yourself a break and get some sleep.

Having a regular sleep schedule also does wonders for keeping yourself on a routine, which by extension makes it easier to factor language study into your daily grind.

Exercise, at least a little bit

So unfortunately for lazy people like me, exercise is not only good for keeping you physically fit but is also really important to maintaining a healthy brain and increasing productivity. No surprises there.

It’s actually super important for you to get up off of the computer from time to time. Studies are showing that there is a very strong link between regular physical activity and one’s memory and thinking power.

Exercise doesn’t have to mean an expensive gym membership either. The same studies suggest that simply walking for an hour or two a couple of times per week could be sufficient enough to make a difference.

There’s also no reason why you can’t take full advantage of your walks or workout sessions to do some language learning!

It seems to me that audio courses such as Pimsleur and Michel Thomas were made for instances such as these! What better time or place could there be to load up on all of your favorite foreign language podcasts, music or even audiobooks?

Alcohol and caffeine

So this one is tricky, but it’s still worth mentioning. Languages, studying, coffee and alcohol come up in conversation more than you might expect.

Everyone jokes about how alcohol improves their ability to speak a foreign language in person – and maybe that’s true for some people, though it’s still not really a method I’d endorse, particularly for a newer speaker.

It’s not that I have anything against drinking alcohol, in fact I’m a bit of a beer snob myself, but it’s not something I do before I sit down to study.

Any time I’ve spent time working on language projects while drinking or shortly thereafter I find that I can’t really retain most of my work.It should be fairly obvious to most people that drinking and thinking are not always the strongest of friends, but I still think it is important to mention that if you’re planning on having a few drinks, you might want to skip the language practice for the evening because if you’re anything like me you’ll just be wasting your time.

Coffee is another questionable beverage when it comes to language learning. For me it’s almost as essential as oxygen. I am one of those people who absolutely needs caffeine in the morning.

But is it really helping my language learning? That’s not quite as simple an answer. According to this Scientific American article caffeine’s effects on the brain vary throughout the day – at times enhancing and at other times hindering your cognition. Check it out and keep track of what your caffeine consumption looks like.

Conclusion

If you’re looking to make serious progress on your language learning project you would do well to think outside the box. Not everything is study habits, new products or different learning techniques. It may not seem like it but there’s almost always something else you can change to enhance your chances of success.

I could certainly do more to follow my own advice on several of these points, but that’s precisely why I’m able to tell you what does and does not work. Being a nocturnal, junk food gobbling, sedentary, computer-screen-vegetating insomniac is a perfectly reasonable goal to aspire to!

However if you want to add a foreign language to that combination it would really behoove you to think a little less about the language and a little bit more about the person who wants to use it.

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  • Hi Brian!

    Very useful tips—often forgotten when talking about improving language learning.

    For me, going to bed earlier, even if I sleep the same amount of time, has been game changing.

  • Thank you for this, Brian! I am a huge coffee drinker myself and I find it essential that I have 1-2 in the morning, to keep me alert. I also make sure that I work on new flashcards at this time because I feel that I retain them better than when I do them in the afternoon or night.

    I also like to listen to Michel Thomas and Assimil while I jog/walk. I don’t run fast so I can concentrate on the audio 😀 I get a lot of listening done in an hour’s jog.