Evolving as a Language Learner : Changed for good

Language learning - we evolve continuously. Picture of a page from a Greek dictionary. Picture from freeimages.com.

Life is a journey, and our paths through language learning certainly reflect that. Through our experiences with languages, we constantly evolve.

Old habits fade as they prove themselves less effective. And new ones get grafted on, particularly as we learn from others. The online language learning community is a goldmine of fresh approaches and novel techniques to try. Last week, I talked about a chance spot on Twitter that led to me back to a brilliantly effective listening strategy. In the words of Glinda (there must be a few Wicked fans amongst you), I do believe I have been changed for the better by my friends and colleagues through such lucky circumstances.

It is helpful to take stock of your evolution as a learner in this way at regular intervals. For one thing, it is a well-needed confidence boost to notice how you gradually hone your craft over time. For another, it is very meta – you learn about your learning – and that bird’s eye view of your language learning approach can inform how you develop further. I have certainly spotted a shift in my own behaviour over the last few months in particular.

So how have I changed for the better lately?

Keep it active

First off, I did away with a rather convenient excuse for being lazy.

The thing is, we all like the idea of shortcuts. I’ve been chasing them for years, spurred on, I must add, by the indefatigable legions of ‘get fluent quick’ peddlers. After all, their claims are hard to resist. The notion of passive learning is one in particular I fell for. At its most extreme, it covers techniques like subliminal or sleep learning – nod off listening to your learning material, while your subconscious takes care of it all, silently and efficiently. I was fascinated – and ultimately disappointed – by this as a young language enthusiast. 

Older and wiser, the idea of passive learning in rather less snake-oily formats still grabs me. But its hold is weakening. Although nobody will wake up fluent in German from a night of slumber accompanied by Goethe or Schiller on the headphones, there is something in the idea of creating your own immersion environment to soak up the language effortlessly. Put simply, having language all around you simply gets you in the mood.

That said, it is no magic pill. Working actively and regularly with the language through techniques such a dictation represent the real elbow grease. Instead of doing the minimum and hoping ‘it will all stick in the end’, I am much more likely to put the hard work in now – and enjoy it, in the knowledge that it brings better results.

At least in my experience, passive absorption is only truly effective in a dynamic target language setting – that is, working or living for some time abroad.

This is not to say that we can’t gain a little benefit from setting up immersive environments with an aim to (very gradual) language acquisition. Passive listening is by no means a complete dead duck, and I still use it as a way to attune my ear to a language before an iTalki lesson, for instance. And it is still a rewarding and fun experience to ‘target language up’ your home.

Language rage: Chasing the points

In the same get fluent quickly and easily! (flashing neon sign) vein, we have the ubiquitous language learning app. In this age of casual, gameified learning, there is an app for almost any tongue you might care to learn. And don’t get me wrong – I love that. I am a self-confessed Duolingo fiend. As a leg-up into a new language for beginners, or a daily vocab-boosting tool for more intermediate learners, it is hard to beat. As an app developer myself, I wish I had produced a tool like that.

But I stand up now in my Appists Anonymous meeting and proudly proclaim: I am a reformed addict. When I realised that it had become all about chasing the points and moving through the leagues, it dawned on me: the technology should never become the end in itself.

I still love apps like Duolingo and Drops, and spend a little time on them every day. But now, I use what I call the “what will I gain from this” test. When the urge takes me to go on a Duo points binge, I ask myself: what will I gain from this? Is this a productive use of my time? Are the things I would get more from for the same time outlay? If so, should I maybe give those priority.

Competitive, game infield apps can be great motivators, but great time drains too. Control them. Don’t let them control you.

Social Bookending

Many of our community are runners-before-walkers. It comes from studying a subject from a point of passion, a fuel that pushes us on to skip the starters and devour that juicy, advanced content as soon as we can.

While that is a happy place to be – languages are joy, after all – I now take time to revisit the social building blocks, the prosaic scripts of the everyday, too. I wrote recently about spending time on the social bookends of foreign language communication, the day-to-day transactional ‘glue’ that frames the meaty, interesting stuff we really want to say. It is a transformative habit. It has made countless iTalki lessons immeasurably smoother and more pleasant.

What’s more, the lovely feedback I received after writing that post made me realise that it is something we are all tackling together.

If you love an academic bent to your language journey, the wallowing in grammars and arcane vocabulary, this can be one of the hardest shifts to make. But it pays off. Not least in a language like Greek, which I recently picked up again. Greek language and culture is the apotheosis of social bookending. χάρηκα, τι κάνεις φίλε μου, πώς είσαι, αμάν, λοιπόν, έλα βρε παιδί μου! You can reel off three or four in a row before you even get started. And you will sound like you know the language MUCH better than you really do. Winner.

No baggage

Finally, life is replete with ‘should’ and ‘supposed to’. Our language learning world is no different. For years, I felt some moral obligation to focus on one or two languages at a time. However, that limit-your-options stipulation is baggage from a pre-internet world where we had to choose just one or two languages at school.

But there is no have to in self-directed learning today. Everything is out there fo the learning.

And why not go for it? Dabbling is an extremely healthy habit that can bolster your main language projects. It is also a tool to cast a wider net, offering an excellent route to greater cultural awareness. And there is no better time for that.

Leaving the polyglot guilt behind is a game-changer, and my fellow community dabblers reaffirm that every day through their enthusiastic, shame-free social media shares. I am glad I embraced it.

Taking stock

Of course, it doesn’t stop there. I keep going, and I keep evolving. I am open to ideas. The online community continues to be a source of huge inspiration, and I am forever grateful for that. So, what next?

Well, who knows? And that is the exciting part. I like to imagine myself writing this article again in a year or so. And I like to think I might surprise myself.

How have your language learning habits changed over the years? Let us know in the comments!

Richard West-Soley

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