Nobody is perfect…
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.
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 German, 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. Furthermore, just the other week I got into a discussion with my Danish colleagues about pronunciation – and yeah, you guessed it. Now I’m learning Danish too. (Though not seriously).
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 German after a casual fling with Spanish 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.
But not nearly as much as I should.
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.
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.
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?