I didn’t take much persuading, then, when a friend asked me to audition for a part in the opening ceremony. And what a take-me-out-of-my-comfort-zone treat for the soul that was. I found myself in a situation where I just had to be big, bold, and throw the lot into it. And I came out feeling like I’d gained a barrowload of courage and confidence, regardless of the outcome.
Fast-forward to now, and I’m halfway through rehearsals for the show itself. It’s been an amazing experience so far, with the big day (28th July) yet to come. I’ve made new friends, found my rhythm, got a lot fitter, and discovered my inner strongman. You’ll just have to watch the show to get that reference…
Standing by my mark and my prop!
And to think that I almost brushed off the idea of attending an audition as too much of a long shot, something others did well at, not me. If there’s any lesson here, it’s simply to explore every opportunity that crosses your path. You never know where an open door will lead.
And maybe, just maybe, that smooth narrative arc of yours was up in the stars all along!
I’m always studying something. It’s something that leads friends and family to think I’m some kind of superlearner.
Oh, I wish that were true.
Firstly, I’m always studying because I enjoy what I choose to study. And despite that fact, in many ways, my natural thinking pattern isn’t particularly conducive to long periods of close study. I get bored easily. I daydream. I’m impatient. I’m always thinking of the next exciting thing to learn, not the one I’m currently trying to grasp.
To be fair on myself, these are pretty universal human traits. Most people reading this will see a little of themselves in there, too! So how did friends and family come to think of my erring brain as a particularly effective learning machine? Largely thanks to a few tricks to get around those anti-focus tendencies. In particular, one big trick.
In pedagogy, multimodal usually refers to multi-sensory learning – including visual, audio, kinaesthetic aspects and so on. But the crux of it is variety, satisfying your brain’s craving for stimulation and novelty. In fact, your different modes don’t have to cover the whole spread of senses. They just need to provide an ample range of media and context to give the restless brain regular scene changes.
One thing that really helps me, for instance, is to have both a hard copy and an electronic copy of a text. I switch from one to the other, reading on multiple devices, and in multiple places. I can dip in and out, ten minutes here, ten minutes, there, and my brain doesn’t even have a chance to get bored. It’s a gem of a trick that works for course materials, reference texts and literature.
To get the most out of multimodal learning, it’s best to be organised; the first step is always a plan of exactly what you want to get through.
Right now, I’m ploughing through a mountain of book chapters and papers for two linguistics assignments due soon. I know what I have to read and take notes on, and have a tick-list of the material in Evernote.
But to make sure I get through it, in spite of my natural tendencies, I ensure the material is multimodal. I have my reading in a number of formats – PDFs on my phone, tablet, laptop, hard copies in my bag , audiobooks and video summaries where possible – basically, everything, everywhere. Reading in one format and one place to start with, then picking up in a completely different modality elsewhere, really helps stymie reading fatigue.
And a nice side-effect? The range of environments helps beat the context trap, too, not tying your recall to a single backdrop.
When my essays are submitted, and I’m free to return to my language learning materials, one thing’s certain: it’s going to be multimodal!
As a naturally busy (read: untidy) mind, the discovery of proper planning in recent years has been a godsend for my language learning. From happy-go-lucky, read-a-few-pages-here-and-there amorphous rambler (goodness knows how I managed to amble my way through university), an organised me rose from the ashes of chaos. The past decade or so has seen me become a much better learner for it. That bright but scatterbrained schoolkid who had to attend interventional self-organisation training at school finally realised the error of his ways.
The secret isn’t particularly well-kept, mind. Just the discipline to set weekly targets, combined with a bit of creative to-do listing using software like Evernote and Wunderlist, are enough to clear the path to a wholly more efficient kind of learning.
There’s always room for improvement, though. To-do lists are great. They’re just not particularly precise.
You probably know the issue well, too. You have a list of things you want to do by the end of the day. But come the evening, you realise that you’ve left them all rather late. That is the best way to turn tasks you might otherwise find fun or engaging into chores.
For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been spending some moments each evening to schedule explicitly each to-do on the next day’s calendar entry. It’s a flexible schedule, of course, with plenty of slack built in (I’m neither monster nor machine!). But giving my daily plan some solid structure has made a big difference.
Planning a day of leisure and learning through explicit calendarising
Following a plan you made the night before is a little like playing the role of both instructor and learner. In pre-planning, you determine the course of action for your future self. Following that route, there is a sense that this past self is instructing your present course of action. And for me, that purposeful split personality, separating planner-self and learner-self, both busts drift and yields a solid boost for discipline.
Seize the day
As your own day-to-day educational planner, you are designing your own curriculum as you go along. The upshot of this is that the day view of Google Calendars suddenly becomes extremely useful. And that goes for that wealth of other free tools, which suddenly become invaluable planning buddies.
The idea of creating your own ‘personal college’ with a disciplined daily approach has relevance well beyond languages. It has gained some traction particularly in the US, where university costs have become prohibitive for some.
Super-learner Scott Young, for example, took advantage of free online materials to work through the entire MIT computer science curriculum in his own time. With a raft of free platforms and resources available to linguists, we are perfectly placed to do the same. Playing the role of your very own course architect and calendarising curriculum scheduler, you can reap similar rewards.
So am I cured of my chaotic tendencies? Well, I never want to lose that bit of slack I still build into my routines. I think a little bit of chaos is good, especially for creative souls. But a little extreme calendarising gives me just enough structure to balance things on the right side of discipline.
Self-improvement. Doesn’t the mere sound of that phrase get you motivated?
As a kid, I was obsessed with it, this magical idea that you could train yourself to be better and better, turn yourself into something special – something more than human.
Consequently, the kinds of TV shows and films I loved centred on superhuman abilities – especially heightened mental faculties. Superman, Short Circuit, D.A.R.Y.L., Quantum Leap, Inspector Gadget (for Penny, not Gadget!) and other shows centered on genius protagonists (natural or created) were par for the course in the life of a kid who dreamt of building up his own special powers.
Reading an entire book in under a minute, performing complex programming feats with the swift tap of a few keys, solving impossible mathematical equations in mere seconds. Humans – or at least humanoids – but more than that. What a goal!
Now, you might worry that these kinds of unreachable ideals might set up a kid for a real inferiority complex. The antidote to that is to admit that there is no shame in being human. We do have our natural limitations; bionic brains haven’t been invented (yet).
But, taken with a pinch of salt, these superhuman ideals were a great motivator to a young Rich. They still keep me going today. And not just me, given the colossal wealth of self-improvement titles on sale for decades and decades.
Becoming a better version of yourself doesn’t happen overnight, though (barring radioactive spider bites and cosmic gamma rays). Self-improvement takes planning.
Languages are an excellent candidate for a key pillar in any self-improvement plan. Becoming a superlinguist comes with many very desirable qualities, some of which you might already recognise from your own learning path.
I must admit, I was always impressed at how suave language skills seemed in popular depictions in TV and film. Who wouldn’t be impressed at the ease with which James Bond slips into a handy foreign language at the drop of a hat?
The key here is fitting in, passing – being able to slot smoothly into any social situation, regardless of language. For a naturally cautious, reserved youngster, that aspect of languages was more than enough to recommend it for my superskills list.
And, true enough, language learning can be an excellent training ground for improved social skills. Just the need to practise speaking in the wild is great motivation to be brave and put yourself out there. Combined with a healthy dose of not taking yourself too seriously, languages can make you a bolder, more daring human being.
A more articulate you
Spending a lot of time with words has another wonderful side-effect, too: your first language is all the better for it. Firstly, there’s a heightened appreciation for how your own language works – its constituent parts and how they interact. It took my first steps into foreign languages to spell out what nouns, verbs and their kin really were.
Secondly, spending time learning words and phrases increases your exposure to different modes of expression, varied turns of phrase and a much wider vocabulary. That results in a much more articulate you – in any language.
Seriously, though, an extra language could be the difference between candidates with otherwise identical skills. That is not only added value for a company, but can also indicate a level of commitment to self-improvement that is otherwise invisible on an applicant’s CV. Adding a language might be one of the wisest career choices you make.
Nitro for your self-improvement engine
Languages, then, are like nitro for the engine of any general self-improvement programme. Mental gym, social lubricant, the gift of the gab and career success – the list of power-ups for the budding superhero is long. And, to be clear, I have barely scratched the surface here.
Of course, life does get in the way of idealism now and then. We do have finite capacities. But second language learning may well be a great hack to unlocking an even better you all round.
I’ve been a self-improvement junkie since childhood. Did it work? Well, I’m still grafting. I’m only human, after all.
But trying is the whole point of it.
Following the path to a better you is as rewarding for the journey as it is for the destination (which, by its nature, will keep morphing).