Language learning during busy times can be a bit of a blur. (Image from freeimages.com)

Give yourself a break! Fluid language learning planning for busy people

How was your November? Mine was busy. Very busy. As fulfilling and rewarding as they usually are, work, family and friends ended up filling nearly every minute. And, if you’re like me, you’ll find that life, in these busier moments, can knock your language learning right off course.

Tools for staying the course

Now, there are plenty of great ways to try and keep on course. My personal go-to tool for weekly language learning planning is Evernote. I take time each Sunday to plan in tasks for the next week, basing them on my progress over the previous seven days. During the week, Evernote acts as the brain centre for my learning.

In our busier moments, however, our plans can become fixed and rigid. And that rigidity can sometimes overwhelm us.

Over a quiet Summer, your 20-point weekly to-do plan might be a piece of cake. But when life gets hectic, you might find yourself ticking off just a quarter of your tasks. That, quite simply, is demotivating. You feel like a failure, not coping, struggling to fit in your learning. Confidence knocked, you slowly slide into achieving less and less.

The answer? You need to accept that you are not a machine operating at a constant level of capacity, and add some fluidity to your planning.

Your capacity is not constant, but varying

In my case, I’d fallen into a particularly poor habit that was so far from self-care. Tired after a long week, and in total chill-mode on a Sunday evening, I stopped sparing the time to evaluate my previous week and plan the next. Instead, I simply copied and pasted the previous week’s plan to the next week, blanking off the ticks. An unthinking carbon copy.

The problem here is that every week is different. Expecting to take on an equal amount of labour at a constant rate is, frankly, putting an unreasonable demand on yourself. Our capacity is finite, and life’s demands are always changing. Pretty soon, I found myself filling in fewer and fewer of those ticks from a copied list that was based on my capacity months ago, and not today.

It was a shortcut, but a mindless, inappropriate one. It was actually costing me progress in the long run.

My engine was overheating, and I needed cooling down.

Strip off to cool down

First things first: in this situation, you need to force a break. You need to get off the ride in order to cool down and catch your breath back. It’s perhaps obvious, but as with many obvious things, sometimes we need to be reminded about them.

The easiest way to do this is simply to strip your weekly tasks right down to a bare minimum. What this bare minimum is, is up to you. It should consist of the things that are most important to you in your language learning, but things you can comfortably do in ’emergency mode’, without exacting too much energy from yourself.

Be honest about what you can realistically do right now, given your current circumstances and life events. In my case, my skeleton language learning plan was stripped down to simply these two tasks:

Now, that was quite a step down from the cascade of weekly tasks up to that point. Gone – for now – was the pressure to fit in X podcasts, Y chapters of a book, Z iTalki lessons. Instead, I recognised my need for space, and committed to maybe 15-20 minutes of maintenance every day instead of the frantic daily hamster wheel.

Back to full throttle – with care

Maintain this level for a week or two – just long enough to gather your thoughts and reset your pace. Then, with a constant eye on your energy levels, start adding tasks back in every week. Stay mindful of stress, and remain realistic about what you can do if things are still manic in the rest of your life. With a little care, you can work your way back to full throttle in a matter of weeks.

It can be hard acknowledging that you need some breathing space. But it is a vital skill to master in avoiding burnout. Self-honesty is worth its weight in gold for the self-powered learner. It should certainly count in your arsenal of language learning tricks, just as much as memorisation techniques and lesson preparation. The fluid planning that comes from it will pay dividends compared to a rigid, unyielding taskmaster approach.

Fireworks at New Year - the best time for resolutions!

Happy New Language? Linguaphile Resolutions for 2018! 🎉

It’s that time of year again, when we take stock of the last twelve months, and formulate resolutions for the next. And a major part of my planning for the next year will focus on my favourite topic: language learning.

I’ve had a packed year when it comes to languages. It hasn’t always been a breeze, especially when trying new techniques or tackling new languages. But easy or difficult, it’s all been a valuable learning experience! Picking through the spoils of 2017, here are a few things I want to take forward into the coming year.

Try new techniques

It’s easy to get stuck in your ways. In 2018, I’ll be making a concerted effort to research and try out new learning methods. Particularly helpful sources of new ideas this year have included language guru Benny Lewis’ packed website and newsletter – highly recommended.

One technique I want to try over the coming months is bidirectional translation, popularised by polyglot legend Luca Lampariello and recommended to me by fellow polyglot friend Marcel, one of iTalki’s very best German community tutors. It looks like a great way to approach learning from texts in a systematic, efficient way.

But I’ve also made a pact with myself to continue old, tried-and-tested techniques. Why mess with what works? Even better if old mingles with new, like when pen and paper meets the digital.

Not get carried away

I have a tendency to want to learn anything and everything. I’m slowly coming to terms with the fact that I only have a single lifetime to fill, and am maybe better off focussing on a few, choice areas to excel in. That means a few – not a hundred – languages. (Boo!)

As such, 2018 will be about consolidation of my two lifelong ‘biggies’, German and Spanish. I’ll also carry on learning Norwegian (B1), Icelandic (A1) and Polish (A1/2). And maybe Russian. And perhaps a bit of French and Chinese? OK, I’m already mentally breaking this resolution…

Be a couch potato

Well, not exactly. But I want to carry on watching fab foreign-language TV series on Netflix and other platforms. I was late to the party, discovering these treasures in 2017, and I keep uncovering new gems with every passing week.

I’ve already worked my way through Norwegian Okkupert, Icelandic Hraunið and Brazilian Portuguese 3%, amongst others. I’ve just discovered the Cold War, DDR-themed Der gleiche Himmel, too, which I’m sure I’ll devour in a matter of days. Hopefully Netflix will keep the foreign series flowing throughout 2018.

In terms of audio-only entertainment, trusty companions throughout 2017 have included NRK’s Språkteigen podcast on the Norwegian language and ORF’s news journal radio programmes from Austria. They’ll continue to keep me company in 2018, and hopefully be joined by others. I managed to switch out a lot of my trashy TV watching for foreign-language entz in 2017, and I plan to carry on that trend.

Keep blogging

2017 was the year of the blog for me. And I’ve enjoyed it hugely; it’s allowed me to crystallise my own approaches to language learning in writing. Simply putting words onto a page can be a fantastic way to consolidate your thoughts and plans.

What’s more, it’s a great way to share. And the more I learn about the online polyglot community, the more I see that sharing reigns supreme in our world. I hope that my humble blog has also helped or inspired others to try new things with languages.

Set targets

Setting and maintaining targets, like my aim of one blog article per week, has been a great self-confidence boost. It’s all about about sticking to personal goals, which has everything in common with language learning. I’ll be keeping this up in 2018, making full use of productivity scaffolds like the 12-week year system.

We all have our favourite apps for doing this. Personally, Evernote, Wunderlist and Anki are my workhorses of choice, and I’ll continue to milk them for their maximum organising power.

Resolutions for fun

Of all my resolutions, one jumps out as the most obvious. Above all, I’ll continue to love learning languages, and enjoy travelling to practise them (on a budget, of course). It’s probably the easiest of all resolutions to keep, too.

Whatever your own personal resolutions, may your 2018 also be filled with success and language fun. Thanks for reading and learning along with me. I hope to spend lots more time with you on our learning journey next year!

We feel enthusiasm for chocolate, but it's not healthy to gorge on it!

Rationing enthusiasm for more effective language learning

Some things can be moreish. Chocolate, for example. You might think you can’t get enough of it. Your enthusiasm for the sweet stuff takes over, you race through your stash of secret supplies, and before you know it, you’re feeling bleugh. Those four Mars Bars and the family size Galaxy have done you no good.

Likewise, if you enjoy learning languages, extreme enthusiasm can be a hindrance. That sounds like a terrible thing to say – enthusiasm for learning is truly wonderful, of course. But, at the sharp end, it can be too much of a good thing.

When I’m on a learning kick, and the enthusiasm bug bites, I speed up. I want to devour words, rules, facts, figures.

And often, that means I rush ahead and skip the basics.

Dangerous enthusiasm

Now, I could pick any number of languages I’ve tried learning in the past to illustrate this. For example, the Icelandic language truly fascinates me. Historically a pretty conservative language, it’s as close to Old Norse as a modern foreign language gets. And as Norwegian learner too, there are tons of common points of interest between the two. It’s just incredibly interesting.

I spent a good year thrashing away at it some time ago. I did reasonably well, too, learning lots of grammar in particular (I am a total grammar boffin). However, I never really gained any colloquial fluency.

The reason for that is the chocolate problem. I found the language enthralling, and developed a real taste for it. But that meant I raced ahead, guzzling up the interesting stuff long before I should have. That’s a great recipe for learning without practical application.

I became the kind of linguist who could explain and conjugate complex verb paradigms in Icelandic, but couldn’t tell the time, count or say hello. Oops. Not so handy in Reykjavík.

DeFEating my nemesis

Because of this, Icelandic was always a bit of a ‘nemesis’ language for me. Every time, it would entice me a little too much, and I’d gorge on it to the point of saturation. Every time, it beat me, leaving me bursting with grammar, but with little practical application.

But I like a challenge, and if anything, Icelandic is the perfect vehicle to exercise a new, restrained enthusiasm. I picture myself down but not out, bellowing “you shall not beat me!” at it from the boxing ring floor. To that end, I’ve returned to the language recently, and thanks to a really good teacher on iTalki, am systematically filling in the gaps in the basics. We’re using a set of beginner’s resources that are available for free: Íslenska fyrir alla (Icelandic for everyone), and, for a change, I’m sticking to the plan.

Pig out – but not too often!

So, to return to chocolate (what a great idea), taking it bite by bite is advised. Little, but often. It doesn’t mean you can’t sometimes pig out – but don’t let it ruin your diet!

Learning multiple languages CAN be as simple as putting together coloured blocks!

Tackle multiple languages by blocking your time

I am a language hog. I’m eternally curious about them, and genuinely love studying them. So, I’m often actively learning multiple languages at the same time.

However, advice on learning multiple languages usually suggests plenty of caution and good planning. Now, you can be over-cautious; some suggest avoiding languages that are quite closely related, such as Norwegian and Icelandic, or Polish and Russian. However, I find that sometimes, this can actually help.

But overstretching yourself – however fun the activity – is a recipe for burnout. And, I’ve found, successful study sessions in a foreign language require a bit of conscientious preparation. You have to get in the mindspace for that language. At the very least, you need to (re-)activate your existing knowledge and plan to have something to say.

Because of that, few students will learn effectively by cramming three or more different languages into back-to-back study blocks on the same day.

Multiple languages pile-up

The problem was this: when I first started taking online lessons on iTalki, I had a tendency to spot any free time in my diary and fill it up. A sucker for punishment, you might think; rather, kid-in-a-sweetshop syndrome! So many languages, so little time…

For all busy people, it’s very tempting to do this. A free afternoon on Saturday? Squeeze in your German and Spanish. Only have one free evening in the week? Schedule three different language classes in it to make sure you’re getting your practice.

Nonetheless, this was a disaster for me. The result was always the same – I’d do well in the first class, then struggle to switch mindset for the following ones. I noticed the problem even when I left slightly longer, like a single day, between lessons. And, frankly, it’s a waste of the money to spend money on lessons and not be able to do the best you can in them.

Language blocks

However much I wanted to chop and change, it was necessary to create some separation. This way, at the very least, I could give each language a fair allocation of my time and energy. To this end, I’ve used trial and error to find an approach that works. And the trick, I’ve found, is spacing different languages into learning blocks of a few days.

What I do now is to carve my time into blocks of learning. Each one leads up to the big lesson ‘event’, where I can practise what I’ve learnt. Importantly, as much as possible, I keep each different language lesson separated by at least a couple of days on my calendar. In effect, you are spending your block working up to the pinnacle, which is the face-to-face lesson.

Short, sweet and focussed

It’s probably best not to make the blocks too long; two to four days working on a language is probably optimal before you cycle to the next one. You don’t want any one language to have too much downtime. But for those few days, ensure that your all your active learning is focussed on the single language.

The exception to the rule is with your languages in maintenance mode. These require less fresh learning and intensive vocab prep. For example, German and Spanish are my degree languages, and my strongest; therefore, I’ll pop a Spanish or German class on the same day as an Icelandic or Norwegian one – but never an Icelandic and Norwegian one on the same day.

Finally, it’s important to ‘sign off’ properly after you finish a block. For instance, I write up my lesson notes, add new vocab to Anki and spend some time putting any new vocabulary into example sentences. Tying it all off nicely after the big event is as important as preparing for it.

Why limit yourself?

If languages are your joy and passion, then why limit yourself? It’s true that you may well learn more quickly if you concentrate on a single one. But if you are a language guzzler, like me, then timing tricks like these will help keep you satiated, while still squeezing the most from your lessons.

Building languages into your daily routine as habit is the first step to polyglot success!

Essential habit-forming apps for language fluency ⏰

Efficient learning hinges on habit. A little, every day, will go a long way. “We become what we repeatedly do” writes motivational mogul Sean Covey, and this could not be truer for linguists. If you want to become a polyglot, languages must become a regular fixture in your daily routine.

Inevitably, we are all human, and most of us need a helpful nudge now and again. Fortunately, there are some excellent self-organising tools to build those nudges digitally into your day. Here is an updated list of some favourites I couldn’t do without!

Evernote

Probably one of the most fully-featured and best-known note apps, Evernote has earnt its status as essential app. It also has a free, basic plan, which will suit many users; this limits note upload size, but as linguists, we deal mostly with words rather than pictures – handily making most of our notes pretty small! You can also access it on pretty much any of your devices (although you will have to choose just two on the basic plan).

At its simplest level, it’s excellent for storing your lists of vocab. You can tag notes with language / topic titles, making them easy to search through later on. The ability to have multiple digital notebooks is great for the polyglot, too – you can set one up for each language.

Habit-boosting Evernote

But in terms of habit-forming, there are some brilliant extra tools in here too. You can create quite rich to-do lists using the checkbox feature.

Example of an Evernote productivity list to help create a routine for your language learning - ideal for forming a habit

Creating language routines with Evernote

I’ve had great success organising my time using Evernote with Brian P. Moran’s 12 Week Year system. Evernote allows me to create weekly to-do lists as part of that plan. For example, these include tick boxes for things like:

  • listening to foreign-language podcasts
  • reading a certain number of target language articles
  • doing my Anki flashcards
  • getting my daily Duolingo fix

At the end of a week, I score myself on my completion rates, aiming for 75% or above. In the same Evernote note, I can also note down comments such as ideas for improvement or amending tasks. It’s a great way to stay on top of projects like multiple language learning.

Incidentally, I use this system to organise my work and fitness projects too. I’ve really noticed a difference since I started!

Wunderlist

Wunderlist is another staple app with a superb free tier. This is to-do organisation as its very best; the tick box is the very heart of this service.

However, here is the real magic: Wunderlist can supercharge your language habit formation with its recurring to-do items. Is there something you need to build in daily, like vocabulary testing? Add it as a repeating item, and Wunderlist will remind you every day at the selected time. You can even have shared to-do items with linguist buddies, using the app’s social features.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Streaks

The Streaks app lends itself so well to languages, that ‘Practise Spanish’ is one of the examples on its home page. This is a to-do app with a difference; it borrows gamification ideas from educational apps as a motivator.

The premise is simple – the user is motivated through the challenge of maintaining an unbroken run of successful regular task completions. In this way, it will be instantly familiar to fans of language systems like Duolingo. Streaks allows you to add this feature to any area of your life and learning.

Streaks is currently only available on iOS, and costs £4.99 / €5.49 / $4.99USD.

Coach.me

A free alternative, and one available on Android as well as iOS, is Coach.me. Unlike a standard to-do tracker, Coach.me has several achievement paths that you can sign yourself up to. These contain standard milestones for you to tick off as the app digitally ‘coaches’ you with regular reminders. There is quite a handy one titled “Learn To Speak A Foreign Language”, which contains twelve steps to get you started on any language path.

If you struggle with self-motivation, the app even offers the option of paid coaches. Although none are language-specific, there are a few study specialists on there that may fit the bill.

Hidden gems in the everyday

These are just a few of the sea of organiser apps that stand out for me. Honorable mentions must also go to Google Keep and Todoist, apps not specifically aimed at linguists, but perfect for learning languages. This is often where the best language learning gems are found; very general, everyday apps that can be repurposed for polyglots.

Are there any other favourites that make your top list? Please share them in the comments!