Fireworks at New Year - a great time for Language Learning resolutions!

Resolutions and reasons to be cheerful : a language learning retrospective

There is something motivationally magical about the turn of the New Year. That arbitrary line in the sand humans draw to mark the start of a new round-the-sun tour seems a better time than any to wipe the slate clean. Out with the bad habits, in with the new – and that goes as much for language learning as anything else.

However, when making resolutions, it is just as important to look back and acknowledge our successes over the past twelve months. It is too easy to say I will do better and to downplay what you already did so well.

Bearing that in mind, here are my reasons to be cheerful, which shape my language learning hopes for the next circuit round the solar system.

A place to call home

We all have places where we feel comfortable. That counts as much for our online learning spaces as hearth and home.

In 2018, I’ve continue to feather my nest on Anki. Few tools are as versatile as this behemoth of the language learning arsenal.

But this year, I started to extend my Anki home. I have made increasing use of the mass sentences site tatoeba.org, mining it for useful sentences to fill my decks. Finding a source of sentence-level material to supplement my single-item vocab approach has been one of the most effective changes to my learning routine in 2018.

2018 was also the year that I cosied up to the fireplace of Duolingo, like I owned the place. Its random practice feature alone has provided valuable structure and variety to my daily routine, and kept me coming back for more. The foundation of my Polish is much stronger for it, and continues to solidify.

There is a reason Duolingo regularly tops educational app charts across platforms; its gamification of learning really draws you in, if you let it.

Finally, offering a language home at home has remained the healthy domain of Netflix this year. The entertainment outfit continually churns out a wealth of compelling viewing in multiple languages. That is pure gold to the language learner looking to achieve that unifying spark between learning goals and personal interest.

Recent personal gems have been the gripping alternative history series 1983 from Poland, and, unexpectedly, French film Je ne suis pas un homme facile (recommended to me by a non-linguist, and serving as some brilliant French revision). I even unearthed some subtitled Polish comedy, which has been a fun way to experience some really earthy language!

Which platforms have you felt at home with over the past year?

Filling the shelves

You can’t beat a good book. And so it can be with language learning too, especially if you hit upon a structure course or guide that really works.

I must admit to becoming a bit of a fanboy to the Teach Yourself Tutor series over the past few months. They provide a much-needed update to the traditional grammar workbook format. Even more exciting: they are available in a range of languages that will delight polyglots.

The Polish version has been a great helping hand this year. But as someone perennially fascinated by how any language works, I have even acquired a couple for languages I don’t (yet!) study, like Turkish. Here’s hoping to more of the same – in new languages – from Teach Yourself in 2019.

Note that the above affiliate links earn a small portion of commission per sale, which helps keep Polyglossic.com running – thanks!

Planning to learn

Using Evernote to plan my language learning is second nature after a couple of years with the note-taking app. I preach the simplicity and utility of it to a fault, as it has been a massively valuable organisational tool.

And at the risk of sounding like a broken record: Evernote can be transformative as a habit-building framework for learners. I expect it to continue as one of my most diligent electronic workhorses in 2019!

Language learning on the move

As with many linguists, language learning and travel have always been inextricably linked for me. That pairing took me on some enriching, educational adventures this year, a trend I hope to carry over well beyond the next January 1st.

A highlight of 2018 was, of course, the Polyglot Conference in Ljubljana this October. In so many ways, it was a serious shot in the arm for my language learning. Above all, that raw feeling of community works wonders for your confidence, and is an amazing antidote to impostor syndrome. The 2019 meet takes place in Fukuoka, Japan; I hope very much to attend.

Otherwise, I continue to support my language learning (and thirst for adventure) with mini breaks abroad. As lavish as that sounds, it is quite possible to do short trips on a small budget. Germany has hosted me several times over the year, as I work on maintaining my strongest foreign language. I trust that the adventures will continue into 2019 (as I keep a cautious eye on the end of March, hoping that travel remains as friction-free as possible, given my very British circumstances!).

Blogging

Last, but not least, we come to this very blog. I started Polyglossic.com over two years ago, intending it to be a place to explore ideas and share experience around language learning. Writing my weekly Polyglossic posts has been a wonderful way to crystallise nascent thoughts, and develop a more unified philosophy to underpin my own learning. If others have found these ideas useful, that is hugely rewarding.

Regular posting has also drawn me into online dialogue through social platforms, and I continue to learn heaps from fellow language nuts. Over the past year, the online community has continued to show me the positive power of social media. That’s a great lesson in an age when we hear more often about the negative impact of the online world. There are some truly lovely people out there.

On that note, colossal thanks to everyone who has joined me on my Polyglossic journey again this year. I hope we’ll keep walking that road together in 2019.

What were your language learning highs of 2018? What are your hopes for the new year?

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.

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 clipboard for marking off your routine language learning tasks

Routine-building: productivity tricks to turbocharge your language learning

Good intentions are cheap. A new learning project can fill anyone with enthusiasm and optimism. But without one extra thing, good intentions quickly sink. That thing is routine.

Life has a habit of getting busy, and people get distracted. Days run into weeks, and before you know it, you haven’t done any French / German / Spanish since last month. It happens to the best of us, even those who consider themselves fairly well organised. That’s why creating a scaffold of systematised routine around your learning goals can help keep you on track.

Keeping up momentum

Ideally, you should be setting yourself daily learning goals in order to keep up momentum with your studies. This might sound like a hefty commitment, but needn’t be more than a few minutes a day if you’re fitting learning around a busy life; you’ll benefit from the regularity of it (and not get bored by mammoth learning sessions either).

But it’s sticking to this daily routine that can be problematic. It’s too easy to forget, to get sidetracked, or make promises to catch up that you never honour. Fortunately, there are several great tools for tackling these problems, and none of them need cost a penny.

Never forget: Wunderlist

We’re lucky that today, apps can pick up the slack for our sometimes overtaxed brains. One app that I entrust the job of reminders to is the wonderful Wunderlist.

The magic of to-do apps like Wunderlist is in the facility to set automatically repeating tasks with reminders. For instance, I aim to run through my Anki Flashcard vocabulary every day (it just takes 10 minutes or so). In Wunderlist, I add a to-do for that, setting it to repeat daily, with a reminder in the evening. I set up similar to-dos for my weekly tasks, like listening to a podcast and taking notes, or reading news headlines in the target language.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Why is Wunderlist better than the plain old to-do app that comes with your phone OS? Well, it can do some very fancy things very well, if you want to stretch your learning. Learning a language with someone else? You can have shared to-do lists, and to-do list folders. Learning several languages? You can have multiple lists, and list folder to help you organise. You can even use it as a basic project manager, assigning subtasks to your more general to-dos (perhaps breaking ‘Learn French Vocabulary’ into ‘5 irregular verbs’, ‘5 phrases from Book X’ and so on).

It’s also cross-device, so you can manage your tasks on any device with an Internet connection. Perfect for when I’ve just done my words on the bus, and want the satisfaction of marking it as ‘done’ immediately!

Moreover, as a sweetener, you can add emoticons like flags to your to-dos quite easily on a device (see my screenshot above). It’s the little things! 😉

Tick-box challenge: Evernote

I’ve mentioned the excellent 12 Week Year plan in a previous post. This productivity method, rooted in the business world, outlines short-term goal-planning techniques as a means to boost efficiency. However, it can work brilliantly for language learners.

The approach uses a weekly list of ‘tactics’ that you need to complete in order to stay on track. Ticking off your daily / weekly tactics as you complete them can give you a real sense of achievement, and you find yourself motivated to keep your completion rate high, and beat your previous form. It turns to-do lists into a kind of personal challenge – learning, instantly gamified!

I find Evernote – available in its basic version for free – is perfect for making these weekly plans. You can add dynamic tick boxes next to your list items in the app, which makes tracking your progress really easy. Like Wunderlist, it’s available on many devices and platforms, too.

To give your learning an Evernote boost, first decide on the things you want to do each week in order to progress. Then add them to a note in the app, including a tick box next to each one. At the end of each week, tot up the percentage of boxes you ticked, and make a note of your score before writing a planning note for the following week. Brian Moran, writer of The 12 Week Year, suggests 85% as a good completion rate to aim for.

Ideas for entries might include:

  1. Add 20 words to Anki Flashcards every week (one tick box)
  2. Drill with Anki Flashcards every day (seven tick boxes)
  3. Read 3 full-length articles in the target language each week (three tick boxes)
  4. Have two half-hour language exchange conversations with a partner (see iTalki for more about finding language exchange partners)
Example of an Evernote productivity list to help create a routine for your language learning

Creating language routines with Evernote

Routine browser links: Chrome

Setting yourself a reading goal is a great challenge for language learners. There is a ton of material published across all sorts of subjects online, and the trick is to find stories that spark your interest.

But how can you keep your list of regular reading organised and accessible? Well, browser bookmarks are a start. But if you’re anything like me, you’ll enthusiastically bookmark a page, never to dig into your bookmark list again (let alone every day, which is my goal).

There is another way to bookmark, though. It’s called the bookmarks bar in Chrome, and many other browsers have a similar feature. Instead of tucking your most visited links away in a menu or folder, it puts them right at the top of the browser window, always visible. If you find a really useful site, you can drag the address from the URL field to the bookmark bar to pin it there.

So how to take advantage of this? I have a couple of news sites that I try to check every day to practise target language reading. All of them are my first bookmarks bar links, so the moment I open the browser, they’re there, reminding me that I need to check them. No forgetting, no hiding, and a bit of guilt if I ignore them. It becomes almost second nature to click them as soon as you fire up the browser – the ultimate habit-former. Magic! You can only fit a few in your bar, so reserve it for those sites you feel you’ll get a daily benefit from.

The Chrome bookmarks bar can be an excellent way to build routine into your language learning

The Chrome bookmarks bar

 

Cross-pollination

Learning a language is a commitment, and commitment takes routine. I’ve come across these routine-building techniques through my work in a business environment, rather than the classroom. But I’ve become a huge fan of cross-pollinating these kinds of productivity hacks with language learning.

The greatest lesson I’ve learnt in this is not to box off your language learning, but let it be informed by, and inform in return, the rest of your life. Creating routine is a great place to start that melding process!

A calendar page, which you might use to beat procrastination!

Procrastination, begone! The 12 Week Year [Review]

Confession time: I get hopelessly lost in optimistic procrastination. I always think I have time for everything.

That goes for language learning, too. I start with great intentions of doing a bit every day, yet quickly fall behind when everyday life demands my attention too. I’ll forget to do my daily dose of Anki, letting the cards pile up. I won’t read the daily news in my chosen language, like I promised myself. I’ll put off listening to that podcast until I’m already two or three episodes behind. Then I’ll beat myself up for getting so lazy!

Time for some discipline!

Enter The 12 Week Year by Brian Moran. It’s a productivity guide that I took a punt on when I spotted it on Amazon Kindle Deal of the Day, admittedly with some initial scepticism. I love the idea of productivity frameworks for organising my language learning, but most books are a poor fit. They’re generally either too business-oriented, or too complicated to apply to everyday learning.

This one takes quite a fresh approach. You start with your ultimate vision, the end goal you see yourself at in a number of years. For linguists, that might be ‘complete fluency / zero accent in the foreign language’. It could also be something more concrete, like ‘managing without any difficulties in any situation when I’m in Country X etc.’, or ‘passing my Spanish exam with top marks’.

Then, you break it down to an achievable, shorter-term goal. What would a major step towards that end point be? Again, for linguists, it could be ‘going shopping in Country X and using only my target language’. The book then encourages you to break that down into the even shorter term goal windows, namely 12 weeks.

Zap procrastination!

Why 12 weeks? Well, as the book explains, when setting ourselves goals, we often go with the calendar year as our window of action. We will set ourselves resolutions on January 1st, and aim to achieve X, Y or Z by the end of the year. This regularly fails due to vast amount of time we perceive before we need to act. We put off action at the beginning of the year, meaning to catch up towards the end. 12 week windows are much tighter, creating a greater sense of immediacy between ‘now’ and ‘achievement’, and providing an extremely effective vaccine to procrastination.

With that 12 week goal set, you can then start planning your weekly ‘tactics’ to achieve them. These might be one-time, set goals like “Read chapter 2 of Textbook X”. But they can also be general, regular tasks, like “Listen to a podcast in the target language at least once a week”, or “Do your Anki flashcards every day” – the kind of things you should be doing frequently in order to keep your new language blooming.

Keeping score

Now here’s the bit that really works for me: you score yourself weekly! Take all of those tactics, and you turn them into a weekly score. This can simply consist of crossing off list items on a paper plan each week. However, I like to use Evernote for making my lists, as you easily can add tick boxes to keep track. Here’s a sample weekly list from one of my plans:

Evernote tick list

Evernote tick list

At the end of the week, you tot up your score as a percentage, aiming to hit over 85%. This turns execution into a fun thing, a challenge to yourself. You’ll find yourself positively buzzing to tick boxes off early in the week in order to hit the threshold. Executing tasks for score-boosting ticks is surprisingly addictive!

It’s as simple as that. And it works!

The book is full of extra tips and tools for fine-tuning your plan, but the general idea is amazingly simple to implement and work into your life. It turns each day into a bit of a game for me, and I’ve cut my language procrastination right down.

Teachers could adapt these techniques for their students, too. Devise a weekly check-list of all the tasks they should be doing to improve steadily. There’s lots of scope there for adding competitive elements here, and comparing productivity rates at the end of every week. Who knows – they might find it so useful that they apply it elsewhere in their lives.

If you’re in a vocabulary rut, or find yourself falling behind and running out of time with your language goals, The 12 Week Year is worth a shot.