A new calendar means new language learning resolutions. But how to stick to them? (Image from freeimages.com)

Five Ways to Stick to Language Learning Resolutions

We are well into the New Year now, and – if you are like me – you probably have a list of language learning resolutions as long as your arm. But doesn’t cold, damp January feel like the longest and hardest month for keeping to them? It can seem far too easy to get discouraged.

Never fear: here are some sure-fire tips for staying on track (or getting back onto it). 2019, we are coming for you!

Set reminders

Set your watch for timely language learning

If it’s a case of simply not remembering to stick to your routines, you can employ a little digital help. Setting training reminders on your devices is one of the easiest ways to enforce a new routine and begin habit-building.

My to-do and reminder app of choice is Wunderlist, which is both free, and goes far beyond a simple reminders app. For instance, you can subdivide your lists of tasks into separate sections, like simply ‘Languages’, or even one for each of your languages. It also allows for repeated tasks, which are perfect for daily and weekly learning tactics. Ticking these off regularly creates a real sense of ongoing achievement.

If you are a fan of Evernote (a fantastic, yet unsung hero of language learning!), you can use its reminder feature to similar effect. I use Evernote for longer-term planning, and setting reminders for regular reviews of planning documents is a resolution-saver.

Also worth checking out are Coach.me, Streaks and, of course, your plain old smartphone to-do / calendar apps. Sometimes, the simplest solutions are the best.

Tie your language learning to other habits

Our lives are already complex webs of routine and habit. Leverage that by linking your new, desired behaviours into what you already do.

Jogging is a routine you can easily tie new language learning habits to. (Image from freeimages.com)

Regular walk? Use that to listen to target language material like podcasts. Regular commute? Make sure you have plenty of foreign language Netflix downloaded for offline viewing. Spare minutes after getting ready for work? Do your 5-10 minutes of Anki or Duolingo.

You can find multiple points where your existing habits can anchor your new ones, too. With apps, taking advantage of a variety of platforms gives you multiple entry points in your daily routine. I use the Anki app on my bus and train journeys, but open up the desktop app for a quick revise before I start work at my desk.

If apps feature heavily in your language learning life, try chaining them. Piggy-back your new platforms on the back of an already well-established one. Already doing 5-10 minutes of Duolingo every day? Try coupling your Verb Blitz or Memrise right onto the tail end of that.

Enlist help

Strength in numbers - enlist the help of others in your language learning resolutions. (Image from freeimages.com)

Strength in numbers!

Personal goals shouldn’t be a lonely business. Do you have friends or relatives who can lend a hand? A supportive partner to remind you to do your daily Anki every day could work wonders! Tell them how much it means to you to succeed in your language learning goals. Getting them on board will be an invaluable source of encouragement.

A popular concept in peer coaching is the accountability partner. This is a friend or colleague you regularly meet up with to compare progress on goals. Each participant’s goals can be quite disparate, as the function of the accountability partner is to act as a sounding board and motivator. All you need is someone else who is also working on self-improvement goals for 2019.

You can also help others to learn while helping your own goals along, too. We learn, and consolidate previous learning, through teaching. Even sharing an overview of recent progress with others can help you to reflect critically on your own learning. With that in mind, why not commit to sharing progress in your resolutions with your nearest and dearest?

It’s also worth mentioning the immense value a professional coach can offer, if you really want to bring in the cavalry. I circumnavigated some sticky learning impasses in 2018 thanks to working on my goals with a coach.

Get right back on that horse!

Controversial fact: the “New Year” in “New Year’s Resolutions” is the least important part of all!

The truth is that New Year’s Resolutions are lent a bit of artificial magic by dint of that special date of 1st January.

If you have slipped up, there is no need to write off your goals until the next year. The best time to start again is always now. As with a diet, saying “I’ll be good from tomorrow” is a delay tactic that you should never fall for.

It might help to regauge how you divide up your blocks of time. Let’s face it: an entire year is a very long stretch for goal planning. Instead, productivity writer Brian Moran suggests a 12-week cycle, which has worked a treat for me.

Don’t burn out too soon

Finally, make sure to keep yourself mentally and physically in kilter. Pushing yourself too hard means burning out, or worse, coming to resent your own resolutions.

Learning to build pace and pause into your routine is as important a skill as fully-fledged language learning work. Too much rigidity can stifle the most enthusiastic learner – aim for self-kindness by allowing for fluidity in your plan.

Regular audits of your progress help, too. It may be that you set the bar too high for January 1st. Be honest with yourself. Can you scale back slightly before stepping up again later? Better to do that, than give up completely.

A recent example from my own 2019 challenges illustrates the need to be flexible, and revisit / reformulate resolutions on a regular basis. One ambitious target I set myself was to make at least one overseas trip a month to practise my languages. Now, that might sound difficult, but it is quite possible on a budget; there are a number of tools to source cheap flight and hotel dates. But, alas, at the mercy of dynamic travel pricing, it looked like I might miss that target in the very first month.

Not to worry: I’ve reformulated that goal as: make trips to at least 12 different overseas destinations in 2019. Resolution rescued!

Whatever your goals for 2019, let these guiding principles keep you on track for language learning success. Here’s to a fruitful twelve months… and beyond!

Variety adds a bit of a colour to your learning. (Image from freeimages.com)

Five ways to maintain variety in your language learning

Routine and regularity are cornerstones of language learning. But if your structure is too rigid, you might find yourself tiring of the same old, same old. Fortunately, it’s not too hard to work some variety into your language learning plan to keep things fresh.

There is evidence to suggest that a more varied learning approach might prevent context-bound recall. One stock study of Psych 101 classes shows how we remember more when we are in the same environment the material was learnt in. Of course, students can leverage that when preparing for exams. But perhaps an even better approach would be to employ variety to avoid binding your knowledge to specific circumstances. After all, you want those words to flow wherever you are, right?

Let’s take an example to illustrate the point. Do you, like me, sometimes find it easy to recall a word in Duolingo, phone in hand, but struggle to dredge it from memory in conversation? It could be that your mental record of that vocab item is bound to that specific context of using an app on your phone.

So, variety is key. But how can you hit that magic balance between routine and variation to free your recall?

Different platforms

We all have those favourite e-learning tools that we turn to first. Anki, Babbel, Duolingo, Memrise count amongst the most popular quick fixes that we can all build into our daily language task list. And they are excellent at their job; there is no need to use any of these favourites any less.

But instead, we can vary how – or, more specifically, on what – we use them.

Many language learning platforms like these are multi-platform, so you can play them on a variety of devices. Duolingo, for example, can be played on your phone, tablet or on any computer via the browser. Anki, Babbel and Memrise, too, can be played on a device or on the web.

If you always play on the same platform, change that up a little. Work through your Anki cards on the computer one day, and on your phone the next. Vary when you access it, too. Sometimes I will bring up Anki on my laptop during the day, for example, in a few spare moments between work tasks. At other times, I’ll use the mobile app while I’m waiting for a train.

Don’t always make your language app work a phone-in-hand learning session. 

Different times, different places

Just as simple a route to varying your routine is to change your environment. Mobile apps make this easy – you can learn anywhere you like. But even book-based learning can be mobile if you always make sure you have some course material in your bag wherever you go. If you find yourself with a spare half an hour in town, find a coffee shop and settle down with a chapter and a cappuccino.

Flexible resources help here, too. You may have both the paper and PDF / electronic versions of a resource, and these lend themselves to different environments. Leverage that by alternating between them, studying them at different times and in different places. The very fact that you can study the same resource in different formats is a boost to variety in itself.

Keep your scenery constantly changing, and your brain will not have a chance to bind recall with context-based clues.

Veer off course

If you doggedly stick to exactly the same learning materials every day, every week, then feelings of stagnation soon creep in. Pushing through the same course for weeks on end can seem like wading through sludge.

What to do when the beaten path gets muddy? Take a detour. You can achieve this in language learning by having a couple of courses on the go simultaneously. For instance, you might choose to work through both Colloquial French and Teach Yourself Complete French as part of your plan. Throw the new (and excellent) French Tutor into the mix too, and you have a range of course materials you can switch tracks between. Bored of one? Switch to the other for a lesson or two.

The joy of this is not limited just to the change of paper scenery. Different books explain things in different ways. And, given a range of explanations for the same grammatical rules, we often understand better.

It’s like viewing an object from several aspects. Together, those different views give you a much clearer mental picture of the object.

Dare to be non-linear

On that tack, whoever decreed that everybody must work through materials from cover to cover, never deviating from the plan? Naturally, course materials are written with linear progression in mind, and you need some structure. But it doesn’t need to be done to the letter.

From time to time, it does not hurt to jump forward a little. It can be quite exciting to sneak a peek at later chapters of a book. It’s like stealing a glance at what is to come in your learning journey. It reminds me a little of finding out what the ‘big kids’ are doing in the years above you at school. There’s a delicious anticipation about it, a sense of “so this is what I’ll be doing when I’m even better at my language!”.

In many ways, however, it is a completely legitimate way of pre-preparing yourself to learn future material even more effectively. By breaking away and racing ahead, even just for a moment, your brain can get a little head start. And, by the time you come to study that material for real, who knows what subconscious cogitations it has been subject to? You will positively run with it!

Back to the future

Breaking away from the linear is as valid for electronic resources as it is for book-based courses. For example, Duolingo offers more than just the familiar step-by-step, topic-based tree. It also features a Practise section, which selects a random set of words and phrases to test you on. There is no way to tell which topic Duolingo will throw at you, except that it will be one you have studied.

Here, it is about jumping backwards rather than forwards, offering an opportunity to strengthen material you have already covered. Rather than choosing – and therefore expecting – a particular topic, you hand the choice over to the platform. How about that for a bit of unpredictability? Give that a whirl regularly, and your brain will benefit from handling more unexpected material.

In the wild

Our learning resources and plans, of course, necessarily represent a safe bubble of predictability. This is no surprise; nobody wants to be overwhelmed when they first start learning a foreign language.

However, you can carefully stage-manage your gradual release into the wild of everyday language use. After all, there is no greater variety than the real world. A mindful choice of media materials like podcasts and news sites can be a safe dip of the toe into the waters of real-life language.

For a once-weekly dose of current affairs variety, I like the News In Slow … range for French, German, Italian and French students. The podcasts are free, although you can subscribe for extra support resources too, if you prefer to layer some structure on top of that. The language is slow and simple enough to get the gist as a beginner, but current enough to feel relevant.

If your language is not amongst that list, you can often find news programmes in your target language by trawling national broadcaster and other media sites. The Icelandic television company RÚV, for instance, has a daily news programme for kids called Krakkafréttir. And for Norwegian (Bokmål), learners can take advantage of KlarTale.no, a news resource aimed at readers with dyslexia and speakers of Norwegian as a second language.

As always with authentic texts, a bit of Googling will go a long way. I recently unearthed a treasure trove of simplified Icelandic texts intended for school learners. The authors probably never realised how useful they would be for those learning Icelandic overseas!

Gradual exposure to real-world, real-time resources will definitely keep your linguist brain on its toes.

Mix it up, max it out

I hope that the above points convince you that a combined structure-variety approach will maximise what you get out of your learning time. We are not learning robots, and mechanical, unchanging and unbending routine will do no human being much good in the long run.

Follow the variety principle, and keep your learning fresh!

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.

The coastline of Banff, Aberdeenshire

Finding a Language Retreat : Peace and Quiet to Reset Your Learning

Do you have a retreat? A place to escape to, just you and your books? Maybe you have a few places that earn that title.

I’ve spent a bit of time at one of mine this week. And it has reminded me of the importance of pace, pause and a change of scenery in learning.

Macduff, viewed from Banff, Aberdeenshire - a special place, and a language learning retreat of mine

Macduff, viewed from Banff, Aberdeenshire – a special place, and a language learning retreat of mine

Sometimes, our special places are not always those we choose for ourselves. Instead, life moves in mysterious directions, and we end up drifting along its currents to surprising destinations. So it is with Banffshire for me.

A born Midlander, family, friends and work have conspired together to move my centre of gravity to Scotland over the years. Specifically, to Edinburgh, a wonderful place to come to rest. But Banff and Macduff, nestling in a far-flung corner of Northeast Scotland, have exerted an ever-stronger draw in recent years.

Thanks in part to family circumstances, and partly to their natural beauty, Banff and Macduff have become important pins on my personal map.

As a Midlander, of course, the sea was always something special. Being landlocked, it was only on long trips to the faraway coastline that we ever managed to see it. Perhaps, then, that is why Banff and Macduff have captured my affection and imagination.

Reset with a Learning retreat

Why, then, are our special places so useful as learners?

Well, if you are anything like me, life tends to pull you in all directions. Work, social life, family commitments are fulfilling, but take an energy hit on the body and soul. Somewhere in between it all, we need to fit our passion for language learning. It can sometimes feel, though, that languages are playing second fiddle.

Sometimes, we just need a reset. And a retreat can do that.

Leaving behind the to-and-fro for a while, travelling light (apart from your trusty books, of course), can be a tonic. For a start, it’s a chance to focus on what you love most – learning languages. Calendar cleared, long journey ahead of you, you can get down to study as soon as your train / bus / plane leaves. It’s time to focus on what you learn, how you learn, cocooned by a peace and quiet that rarely comes in the day-to-day.

Choose your landscapes carefully, and they can really inspire, too. For me, Icelandic is an important, currently active language project. And there is something very Nordic about the sweeping seascapes and weather-battered heath on the journey up north to my selected spot of Scotland. Reading the Icelandic sagas (albeit in simplified form) and glancing through the train window, it is engrossing to imagine the action taking place in settings not unsimilar. It does not hurt that some of the stories actually wind their way through Scottish soil on the way, too.

A language retreat can connect your subject to the whole world around you, as well as free you from distractions in order to refocus on learning. Near or far, find and nurture that special place for you and your books. Your brain / blood pressure will thank you for it.

Hit upon the right system and learn languages like clockwork. (From freeimages.com)

Systematise your reading with Learning With Texts (LWT)

System can be everything in language learning. This was the thrust of an excellent talk by Lýdia Machová of Language Mentoring, which I was lucky enough to catch at the recent Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana. As chance would have it, a chat with a conference friend and subsequent recommendation for a piece of software – Learning With Texts – came together to give my own system a real shot in the arm.

As a lover of structure, I wasn’t doing too badly in terms of system and regularity in my learning. Tools like Evernote help me plan my language week around repeated tasks, for example. Likewise, language learning apps with a streak feature, like Duolingo, add to the regular-as-clockwork, systematic approach.

Feeling fuzzy

However, some of my routine tasks had a bit of a nebulous, woolly feel to them. They were a little fuzzy. Check boxes like “Spend half an hour with Book X/Y/Z” are not particularly rigid as system-builders. As such, it was sometimes difficult to monitor what I was actually doing in my foreign languages.

Now, what I loved about Lydia’s talk was the specificity of the sample systems she presented. In particular, one of these broke weekly to-do tasks down into the four skill areas of reading, writing, listening and speaking. These will be extremely familiar to UK language teachers. Of course, it is not the only way to granulate language learning. But it does offer a way to focus on particular areas of profess, rather than more general tasks like “do a chapter of a book”.

Reading resonated with me as a key area to systematise. Like many polyglot friends, I love reading in my foreign languages. But sometimes, my approach is a little haphazard. I’ll read an article here, a chapter of a book there, an easy reader in between. I was benefitting, of course, but couldn’t say exactly how (or how much). Or, more importantly, I couldn’t see if there was room for improvement or harder work. I needed a system! Lydia’s talk confirmed this, but how would I systematise my reading?

Mining fellow minds

The great thing about specialist and enthusiast conferences is the confluence of similar minds. Through socialising with others, we learn as much from fellow attendees as from speakers. And so, it was through a chance encounter with a new conference friend that I learnt about Learning With Texts, a free, browser-based software for learning foreign languages through reading.

If you have come across the Lingq website before, the concept behind Learning With Texts will be very familiar. The interface presents a foreign text for reading. All words are clickable, and start off blue for ‘not met before’. As you read, you either click to deselect the word if you already understand it, or look it up and add it to your bank of new vocabulary. As such, it is both a support for reading, and a tool for vocabulary mining. A nifty Anki export feature complements the latter.

Using Learning With Texts to read an article in Icelandic

Using Learning With Texts to read an article in Icelandic

Instantly, my fuzzy ‘read something in the target language’ has become a lot more concrete. Now, for example, I can set myself the task to use LWT daily to read the top article on news site mbl.is. From the fuzz rises my system!

Fiddly but fun

It might all sound a little too easy to be true. And, true to life, it is at times a less than perfectly smooth journey, although your perseverance pays off.

The particular rub with Learning With Texts is its slightly tricky installation process. Although it is browser-based, it needs to be set up on a local server, which many non-tech specialists will not be familiar with. It’s not a huge stretch to follow the step-by-step instructions on the Learning With Texts site, but it might be advisable to enlist a techie’s help if you are completely unfamiliar with servers and such like. In my case, I am running it on the pre-installed Apache server on Mac OS, which means there was no extra step to install a local server package first.

After initial setup, the interface is quirky, but fairly intuitive after some poking and playing. Once you’ve figured out how to add dictionaries for your languages, you can start adding and reading the texts of your choice. It’s not a perfect or foolproof system – I experiences a couple of issues with character encoding and certain dictionary sites, for example. This seems due to some sites not using UTF-8 (a character encoding format with support for multiple alphabets and characters with diacritics). On the whole, though, you can work around these issues with a bit of trial and error.

For all its foibles, it’s a fun process when things are up and running. It feels very hands-on, full-on language geek, if you like that kind of thing. (I do!) Thanks to my fellow conference-goer Ondřej for bringing it to my attention. My system got just that little bit better.

A vast array of colourful baubles, as varied as your own mass sentences can be. (Picture from freeimages.com)

DIY mass sentences technique : self-made repetitions for grammar mastery

I’ve talked about the utility of mass sentences previously, including the vast resources at Tatoeba and Glossika. It can be particularly helpful in drilling language patterns through high exposure to model content and multiple repetitions. However, it’s possible to replicate some of that power under your own steam.

I got the following idea from a fellow member of a Facebook language challenge group I’m a member of. Now, his particular sticking point was German cases, but the idea lends itself to all sorts of material you need to master.

With the help of his teacher, he created a set of ‘model sentences’ as a corpus of focussed learning material. In this case, the sentences chosen covered all of the permutations for cases with articles, for example. Fellow Germanists will recognise the challenge of learning those as a beginner! For instance, this set could include:

  • Der Hund kommt. (The dog is coming – nominative)
  • Ich sehe den Hund. (I see the dog – accusative)
  • Ich gebe dem Hund ein Eis. (I give the dog an ice cream – dative)
  • Das ist der Korb des Hundes. (That is the dog’s basket – genitive)

They can be much more complex than that, of course, including adjectives, prepositions that take certain cases, and so on. The important thing is that they are clear examples of the grammatical points the learner is finding tricky.

Drilling your mass sentences

Once the set is complete, the sentences can be added to your drill tool of choice. That is, unsurprisingly, Anki in most of our cases in the group (it helps having an Anki wizard as the group founder!). You could equally well use a tool like Quizlet or Educandy.

Of course, they can be a ‘mass’ as you like, incorporating from just a few sentences to hundreds. But you should have at least one sentence per grammatical point you’re trying to drill. The only golden rule is to check your sentences with a teacher before you start to drill them. You want an error-free collection of source material!

Conquering the foothills

Since I am currently learning Icelandic, I had plenty of opportunity to put this into practice recently. Four cases, definite and indefinite forms of nouns and both strong and weak adjective declensions had me pretty much stumped for months. The perfect testing ground.

Having started with my sentence stash a couple of weeks ago, I can already see significant progress. Finally, I’m latching on to some of the patterns thanks to repetition. Somehow, those cases are sticking!

Example of DIY mass sentences in Icelandic drilling masculine nouns in the dative case.

Sample of my DIY mass sentences in Icelandic (here, drilling masculine nouns and adjectives in the dative case).

Like all techniques, naturally, it is no magic pill. It can be a gradual and sometimes uneven process, for many reasons. For one thing, our brains are attracted to certain elements first and foremost, partly due to links to other material we’ve happened across. Mine particularly likes the masculine indefinite accusative adjective ending, which reminds me of the German -en ending (German is my first and strongest foreign language). The Icelandic nýr > nýjan (new) maps pretty neatly onto the German neu > neuen.

Whatever the cause, though, that tiny victory is a little foothill of the vast mountain range of Icelandic that I’ve managed to conquer. I now proudly seize upon any chance to use masculine nouns in the accusative when chatting to my tutors! (I know – I will have to move on from that habit at some point…) With a bit more mass sentences graft, I’m hoping that they all start to fall into place soon.

If you’ve not done so before, have a go at making your own sentence corpus to learn from. Incorporate your own most fiendishly difficult grammatical sticking points. You can reap some of the benefits of a mass sentences technique without relying on third-party word banks or subscription sites. Not only that, but you’ll increase your recall power through this hands-on approach to making your own materials.

Adding a language is like adding another colour to your communication swatch! (Picture from freeimages.com)

Language learning, fast and slow : one-track hack or polyglot glutton?

As a language learning addict, the idea of having multiple projects on the go at the same time is always appealing. But is there a sensible maximum to the number of languages we should be studying simultaneously?

The topic came up on a very interesting recent Hangout with Benny Lewis, the mastermind behind the Add One Challenge. Quite rightly, the general advice was that progress will be faster if you focus on one at a time. It stands to reason – we only have a finite mental capacity, and if you want to see results fast, you should direct it all in one direction.

Learning: fast and slow

But there are two differing attitudes towards learning in competition, here. The key selling point to much of the language hacking approach is ‘results fast‘. There is nothing wrong with that. I have used it to great effect myself. Efficiency and speed are fantastic study skills to develop if you have particularly practical (or urgent) goals in language learning.

By contrast, there is also a much more gradual approach to languages. Instead of a focus on short-term working knowledge, it emphasises the joy of the learning process. It regards learning it as a gentler method of layering knowledge upon knowledge over time. It is about finding fun in the detail, revelling in the rules. Furthermore, the lower priority on speed means that it supports multiple language learning a little better, if that is what you want to do.

There is room for both of these methods in the same language learning life, of course. The learner can chop and change according to circumstance and need. Need working fluency for a trip? Choose the fast route. Greedy linguist who wants a taste of everything? The slowly-but-surely approach is an excellent option.

Back to school

After all, early experience of languages in school is frequently in the mould of the gradual grammar crammer. For example, at my own secondary school, all students studied French and German for their first two years. Later, when the time came to take our options, we selected the one language we wanted to continue with.

Practices are similar in other European schools, with Icelandic students learning English and Danish, for example, or German students learning English and Spanish. Learning a couple of languages at a time in your own time is no unusual feat – kids have been doing it for decades.

The more the better?

There is even an academic argument for adding multiple languages into your study routine. Closely related languages, for instance, can be part of a larger voyage of discovery, opening up a whole language family. The resulting bird’s eye view can give a truly deep understanding of each individual member of that family, as you begin to make connections and colour between the lines.

What’s more, human languages share particular characteristics, regardless of family. There are common, abstract concepts across them, like nouns, verbs, tenses, moods (although they may appear vastly different, and be given differing names and explanations). Experience with the mechanics and terminology in one tongue can support your understanding in the other(s).

With a bit of organisational panache and sensible separation, it’s quite possible to handle multiple language projects. As always with matters of the mind, though, avoiding burnout is paramount. Take care, and you can keep that long-term, polyglot passion a joy, rather than a drain. And there is no need to give up that lexical gluttony, if it floats your boat!

If a big draw of language learning is enjoying the process, does it necessarily matter how quickly you progress? As linguists, we have the tools for language learning, fast and slow. Employ – and enjoy – them both.

Sidenote: the title for this post was inspired by the utterly fascinating “Thinking, Fast and Slow” by Daniel Kahneman. Read it for an insight into our truly two-track brains!

Trying to complete a Rubik's Cube - a case for micromastery?

Micromastery: chunking and rationalising your language learning

Always on the lookout for new learning hacks and tips, I’ve been digging into Robert Twigger’s Micromastery this week. The premise of the book is simple: learn new skills by breaking them down into manageable chunks and deal with them in a systematic, gradual way.

Six steps to mastery

The system is not so much a concrete plan for learning, as a set of principles to break your learning into pieces, and conceptualise and organise your first steps with them. The author uses a six-part approach as a framework to your first steps in a skill:

  • The entry trick
  • Overcoming rub-pat barriers
  • Background support
  • Payoff
  • Repeatability
  • Experimentation

And, while a bit of this is reinventing the wheel, I found them to be a good reminder of the importance of a structured approach in learning. As a sometimes overeager linguist, a Micromastery approach could organise my educational nourishment into regular light bites, rather than a colic-inducing binge.

So how can these Micromastery tricks help us to learn languages? The book doesn’t explicitly deal with languages, so you’ll have to do a bit of rethinking. But those six conecpts can provide a handy guide your first steps in a new language. Here’s my take on just a couple of the six concepts above.

Entry trick

The ‘entry trick’ rang bells immediately. Specifically, Twigger describes this an easy way in to the skill that pays off immediately. For example, it could be learning to balance on a static board before launching into full-blown surfing.

Where have we heard that before? Well, in languages, it mirrors advice from Benny Lewis and others to start your language learning journey with simple, rote scripts. Like stabilisers on a bike, they support solid skills-building whilst protecting the student from the stress of full-blown grammar and vocab cramming.

The chunk-by-chunk system also lends itself well to thematic language learning like this. Rather than throwing yourself at an amorphous mass of grammar, focus on several, well defined themes to script out, week by week.

True to the author’s promise for these entry tricks, there is the immediate payoff with using scripts. You quickly learn something practical and useful straight away. The reward is both self-satisfaction, and, hopefully, the ability to impress target language speakers early on in your study.

The rub-pat barrier

Twigger’s second point is particularly pertinent to language learning, too. Essentially, the rub-pat barrier is the author’s way of describing things that are difficult to do together (as in rubbing your tummy and patting your head simultaneously).

Now, language learning is full of these moments to overcome. If you’re anything like me, then conversing and not panicking is a pretty important multitasking trick to master in the early stages! You can probably think of many more, such as speaking without pause and not getting verb / case endings wrong, for example.

By anticipating these ‘rub-pat barriers’ before we come up against them, we can prepare ourselves. For example, speaking crib sheets help me to feel I have a safety net in target language conversation. Moreover, mindfulness techniques can be great anxiety-busters – I’ve had great success with the excellent Headspace.

The real rub (!) is that you usually have to experience these barriers before you know they’re there. And you only find that out by throwing yourself into the skill. Sometimes it might be possible to foresee these kinds of difficulty when planning a new skill routine, but you’re a gifted learner if you can spot them all before they rear their ugly heads.

Background support

New skills require more than just a learner – they take materials, other people, paraphernalia and so on. Precisely these things are what the book dubs background support. This encompasses the resources – human and otherwise – that will form the scaffolding around your language project.

I did appreciate the nod to individual circumstances here. The truth is, sadly, that not everyone can afford the equipment to learn certain skills (the author uses surfing as an example). Fortunately for linguists, materials need not cost the earth; sometimes, they cost nothing at all.

And, perhaps most importantly of all, other people can form our background support as linguists. Making sure you have a good buddy network to check in on you – even recruiting family and friends who aren’t learning with you – can help keep you accountable and on track.

Repeatability and Experimentation

And then, we have two of the most vital skills in the set for linguists: repeatability and experimentation. The ability to repeat a skill is the end goal of the linguist: to communicate, to perform language X/Y/Z countless times in the future. And, with each act of recall and review, those neural pathways strengthen and extend. If anything, the notion of repeatability is a reminder to work very regular, active use of the language into your daily routine.

Experimentation goes hand in hand with this, and maps onto the particularly exciting stage of language learning: linguistic creativity. It’s that moment when you start to substitute words in your rote sentences to create brand new, unique utterances. In Twigger’s example of baking, you might start to play around with new ingredients. In languages, you push yourself to geek and tweak the framework material you learnt in your scripts.

Micromastery – a starting point for your own approach

Clearly, the book’s core principles have offer a guiding hand when devising your study plan. Choose your chunks carefully and plan your study calendar bearing the six points in mind, and the system could really be of benefit. Bear in mind, however, that language learning is a cumulative process; at some point, these individual chunks need to join up. The approach is perhaps a little sketchy on forming the whole skill from the constituent parts.

However, the whole idea does speak to the polymath in me. As a general framework for learning multiple, cross-curricular skills, it’s concise and based on common sense. There are elements in there that lend themselves to any kind of learning.

The book has received mixed reviews on Amazon. In part, this might be down to the slightly woolly examples the author uses to illustrate the system. Drawing circles, surfing and baking somehow fail to light the imagination, and a bit of extrapolation to your own world is necessary.

With a bit of effort to graft the ideas onto your own learning goals, Micromastery is well worth a read. There’s much to motivate here, if only to reiterate the importance of clear objectives at the start of your journey.

Real-life language can be unpredictable, like this tangle of colourful liquorice sweeties!

Preparing for the unpredictable – developing flexible language thinking

We’ve all been there. You’ve learnt the tenses. Have the vocab down pat. You have a head full of model questions and answers. You are totally ready for to be unleashed onto the target language streets. But – agh – what was that answer that came back at you? What was that word again, and why can’t you remember it now? And why is this so much harder than when you were learning it? Conversation so often doesn’t stick to the script, and we can be totally thrown by the responses to your perfectly practised communication attempts. Real life is just so darn unpredictable!

Well, rest assured that it isn’t just you. There is a psychological phenomenon dubbed ‘context reinstatement’ that explains just what on Earth is going on. It’s a fancy name for something many of us intuitively know anyway – that being perfect in a learn-and-drill situation does not prepare you for the unpredictability of real life.

Underwater understanding

Classic memory research by Godden and Baddeley shows how we find retrieval easier when the context is the same as the original learning environment. The psychologist duo split their subjects into two groups. One group learnt a list of 40 words underwater, and the other group learnt them on the beach. Then, they tested each participant’s recall of the words in either the same, or the alternative environment.

The result? On average, subjects remembered 40% more when tested in the same environment that learning took place in.

The lesson from this is not – disappointingly – that we should all buy scuba gear and go and learn languages in the water. Rather, we can assume that vocabulary and structures will be easier to recall in a classroom if they were first learnt in a classroom. The familiar surroundings contain lots of cues, networked to those original memories, that help them bubble up to the surface. This explains why you may perform brilliantly in a vocab test in class, but struggle to find a word in a shop or restaurant in your target language country.

Context – a blessing and a curse

Superficially, the effect of context on recall can sometimes be a useful tool. If you want to improve recall, then you can attempt to recreate the environment where you first learnt the material. Taking a French/German/Spanish exam? Then take in some familiar objects, like your favourite pencil case or pen. Maybe sit in the same desk for class tests, or even wear the same clothes. There really is some psycho-science behind having ‘lucky’ clothes in this case!

The trouble with extending these techniques is the impracticality, or often, sheer impossibility of them in real life. In reality, we have very little control over scenarios where we want to speak a foreign language! Language happens anywhere and everywhere – by its nature, it is unpredictable.

Training for the unpredictable

So, how can you prepare yourself for, literally, anything that could happen in a target language situation? First off, nobody will be able to do that. That is half the fun and excitement of speaking foreign languages – it’s a rollercoaster ride of social surprises. But you can increase your chances of coping well with that. The trick is to promote flexible, rather than fixed thinking in your learning routines.

Vary your study settings

There is a common study tip based on busting the context-dependency of Godden and Baddeley’s experiment. It is, quite simply, to vary the environment that you learn in. In theory, this prevents specific language memories from becoming too attached to elements that won’t be present in the field.

You can extend this idea of  ‘environment’ to the whole ecosystem you use to learn – the apps, websites and materials that you form your learning materials. Find yourself exclusively using Duolingo to practise languages? Then give Anki a try, and build some custom vocabulary lists. Only using fixed listening material from language courses? Then maybe it’s time to try some podcasts. Take the predictability out of your learning, and you may increase your ability to cope with it in the real world.

Fluid notes

It’s also worth addressing how you keep your phrase lists, crib notes and vocab records, too. A rigid, fixed, linear structure to memorising dialogues, for example, leaves little room for digression in actual conversations. A static list of ten words that you learn in order will, likewise, not really promote flexible use in the day-to-day.

Instead, think about creating frameworks for your vocabulary instead. Rather than complete sentences, learn structures that you can fit many different words into, depending on the situation. I should have…I’ve already … and so on – frames you can grab and fill in your head on the go.

Recycling material in different ways is key here, too. Maybe learning discrete lists of ten words is an effective memorisation technique for you. Stick with that if so, but introduce some variety to the way you practise them. Run through the words in a different order – maybe using a flashcard app like Anki – and challenge yourself to make different, even whacky, sentences with them each time you revise. Mix it up – make sure that no learning session is the same.

Speaking is supreme

Finally, books and static materials will never suffice for training for the unpredictable. Even the immersive, language-in-situ nature of podcasts won’t mimic the two-way dynamic of real-life conversation.

For that end, the old adage always applies: speaking is supreme in language learning. I’ve recently rediscovered the joy of iTalki for face-to-face language practise. I’ve been finding lots of extra time for regular Skype lessons, simply to chat with a real person. It can be hard, and it’s natural to feel an aversion to difficult things and hide from them. But if you stick at it, you’ll reap the confidence rewards of coping better and better with natural language.

Embrace the unpredictable

Human beings are creatures of habit, and love routine. That’s why these techniques might sometimes feel so hard to adopt, even though they seem like common sense. It can be disconcerting to mix up your learning approaches ceaselessly, or throw yourself into environments where you are tested on the spot. But in the long run, you’ll thank yourself for it. Embrace change and variety, and become a more dynamic linguist for it!