When Language Study Sends You Running for Cover

Running from language learning
 

It doesn’t matter how much you love learning languages: sooner or later a time will come when your language study starts to get tough, and you won’t always feel tough enough to keep going.

If the hardest part of a language learning project is getting started in the first place, the second hardest is what happens after the “honeymoon period” – the time in which you’re making rapid beginner’s progress, learning all sorts of new vocab and otherwise feeling great about yourself.

After you hit that intermediate “plateau” phase, something changes. The drudgery sets in, it gets harder to remember beginner words, and your progress begins to stagnate. You lose motivation, then you lose interest, then you stop.

So what gives? How did something that started out so awesome suddenly become such a drag and more importantly; what can we do to change it back to the way it was?



First of all, you are still making progress!

Chances are your forward progress hasn’t slowed – just your perception of it. Yes – you’re going to start forgetting words. It’s easy to remember the first couple hundred but when you start really racking up the vocabulary you’ll almost always begin to forget some words. This is normal and the only thing you can really do is keep going, keep reviewing and most importantly speaking.

  

One thing you can to do prevent this decay is to take a break from the new stuff and go back and review beginner content. Not only will you be amazed at how quickly it all comes rushing back, you’ll reinforce your memory and revitalize your confidence.

Take a look at your study schedule.

When do you spend time studying languages? Is it every day? For how long do you study?

To give yourself the edge you need to optimize these times for you, your learning style and your schedule in order to create as ideal a learning environment as possible.  One of the keys to maintaining success is going to be the forming of learning habits. It’s important to establish a routine that you can return to day after day.

A Memrise Premium subscription can offer some really awesome features for keeping track of your learning and study habits. You can read all about it in a full review here, but I can personally attest that it not only helps you track the times at which your studying is optimal, but sometimes simply seeing these stats can motivate you to keep going. It provides several charts and graphs that actually map your progress.

Shake it up

If you’re losing steam repeating the same Duolingo and Memrise review each day, throw something new into the mix. Keeping your learning techniques revolving is a great way to make sure you don’t grow too accustomed to the same questions and answers and gives your brain a chance to flex its grey matter.

Assuming you’re pursuing a general fluency in your target language, you’re going to need to find resources that target all four of the vital language learning areas; speaking, listening, reading and writing.

There are very few programs out there that cover all four of these – and that’s okay – it just means that you’ll need to diversify your language study strategies to incorporate each of these.

If you’ve been spending weeks really focusing on listening and speaking, maybe it’s time to work on your reading and writing for a little while. A change of pace can not only round out your language study but it can also give you a new perspective on the material you’ve already been covering.

It’s time to start using it

If you’re not seeing the progress you’d like, chances are you’re not actually going out and speaking your new language with real people. Finding people to talk to is extremely easy and if you can just build up the courage to get started with it you’ll very quickly realize that people aren’t out to get you. In fact most people want to help you and learn from you themselves.

Speaking with people is both the best way to learn as well as the best way to actually see progress being made. Feedback from a native speaker, encouragement, and the satisfaction of carrying on a real conversation with a real person are great motivators and reinforce to you that you’re moving forward.

Unfortunately many – if not most – people aren’t going to go out and actually  find a speaking partner. You should, but I know why you aren’t. It’s scary, it’s hard, it takes work, or some other such BS. I didn’t do it at first either, so I get it, I really do, but it could be – and probably is – the answer to the stagnation in progress you’re currently experiencing.

Go out and do it. Speaking a language to another person is just like a swimming pool in early June – it’s cold for about 15 seconds, then you never want to leave.

After a while the progress you make from a program or from flashcards and things like Memrise stops having as significant an impact on you as it did before. You need to actually get out there and start talking to people. It doesn’t matter that you’re not fluent – with that attitude you never will be. Use your new language as much as possible, be it with native speakers, on Facebook, as the language you set your Playstation 4 to or whatever. It doesn’t matter how you use it, just that you do, frequently, always, and regardless of any mistakes you make long the way.

Some language educators and bloggers advocate speaking from day one. I support this idea as well – it doesn’t matter whether you speak fifteen words or fifteen hundred, you should start using what you know, despite its size, as early as possible. However I understand that it’s difficult. If you can’t even string together a sentence, how can you possibly hope to communicate your desires or interests to another person?

You’d be surprised. If you’ve ever seen a foreign tourist or immigrant to your own country struggle to communicate with only a few words you’d be amazed at how far even the most elementary or casual words can get you by. Don’t wait until you’re “conversational” or “proficient”, don’t wait at all.

By this point you already know more than you think you do, so stop thinking about it so much and just dive in.

Conclusion

There inevitably comes a time in everyone’s language study quest in which progress slows, self doubt begins to creep into your mind and it feels as though your hard earned progress has begun to stagnate. There are ways past this when simple perseverance no longer does the trick all by itself.

Dredging through the tough spots isn’t as easy as I might make it out to sound sometimes. It takes a bit of elbow grease and no small amount of confidence (and speaking!) to push through the trials and tribulations and keep yourself on the straight and narrow path to fluency, but if you try one or two of these strategies it could breathe new life into your project and show you that you are still moving forward.

What are your biggest hurdles? After you’ve beat through the initial beginner crap, how do you keep yourself motivated, interested and making significant progress? Leave a comment!

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  • Knowing how to sustain motivation is one of the keys to the necessary persistence in language learning. I really agree with your advice, especially when you recommend to diversify our language study.

    • Thanks Jorge! Your comments are always appreciated.

      Diversification is one of the biggest points I try to make. It’s very common for people to settle into a single method such as Rosetta Stone or Pimsleur. Diversification not only helps you cover the different facets of language learning (writing, reading, speaking, etc) but also keeps things from becoming too boring.