Building in Margin as Language Learners : Restful Gains for Real-World Brains

Mountainous landscape - build some margin into your life and breathe in the fresh air. Image from freeimages.com

Do you have enough margin in your life?

Margin is that bit of extra time you choose not to fill. It is the calendar slack, the breathing space, the room to manoeuvre – the opposite of ‘too busy’. It became a popular topic in the self-help and pop psychology world around half a decade ago. And it is as important as ever.

In fact, for the polyglot community, this band of extreme language learners, it pays to be aware of its importance. For all students, margin can make the difference between resilience and burnout. However, it can feel against the grain. If you love your subject, spending every spare hour of the day on it might not seem excessive.

But brains tire, too.

Funnily enough, that is something my very wise grandmother warned me about many times as a book-obsessed kid. Don’t study too hard! It seemed so counter-intuitive back then. For one thing, the rest of the world was screaming work your socks off, smash those grades! You snooze, you lose! Great, if you have the passion and the energy to keep that pace up.

As kids, though, we lack that regulator switch to tell us when to step back and recharge. We need it less frequently at that age, to be honest; youngsters have seemingly boundless energy and live lives constantly switched on. Nowadays, with a bit more wisdom (and a slightly older corporeal vehicle), I know exactly what Nan meant.

A finite resource

The hard lesson to learn is that brainpower is a finite resource, the brain an engine. And no engine is capable of perpetual motion. Like the body, the brain burns energy to do its work. And like the body, it needs rest and recovery. We can rest when we sleep! I hear you say. True, but building in some idle waking time gives you chance to enjoy it while you are conscious, too.

And so we have the gift of margin.

Sometimes, building it in simply requires a little mindful calendar management. When I first started using tutorial platforms like iTalki, for example, I gorged on lessons out of the sheer excitement of having easy access to native tutors. I would regularly book two – or even three – lessons on one day. They would often be in completely different languages, too. At just 30-60 minutes, I guessed they were pretty small chunks of the day, in any case. There was plenty of time between them.

The issue was that a lesson is never simply 30-60 minutes. There is the build-up, where you are mentally preparing yourself for the face-to-face challenge of speaking in the target language. Sometimes this is barely noticeable. But your brain is working on it, silently, in the background.

Then there is the post-lesson cool down. Aside from the obvious admin, like noting down new words and structures, a lot of processing is going on. Some of this will be purely about content – what you said, what the teacher said. But some of the involuntary replay is more about judging your performance in a social context. Did it go well? Is the teacher pleased with me? Am I even any good? Squashing impostor syndrome gremlins is a universal human task, and it takes a lot of mental energy.

Factor all that in, and two or three lessons are enough to occupy the brain all day long.

Rules for Margin

Now, realism is not a fun-toting party guest at the best of times. Any community of super-learners likes to think in Übermensch terms of anything is possible. And it is, within the limits of our own humanity. Our own amazing, unique humanity, but a humanity nonetheless limited by the regulation physical hardware.

To work with that, I find it helpful to set a few rules.

The first, you can guess: just one language lesson a day. It is easy to stick to that, and quite honestly, makes more sense if you plan your week by blocking your learning time. By extension, I also try to avoid three or more consecutive days with one-to-one lessons.

Similarly, it is helpful to respect the concept of a weekend, even if you follow a different weekly rhythm. Build in a couple of free, study-free days every week, whether they are Saturday and Sunday, or some other combination. Now, where I used to see an empty days as a chance to squeeze in another lesson, I try to savour them as commitment-free breathers. This takes away the feeling of relentlessness that can build up without thinking gaps.

Magical Realism

But here is the magic about margin: leaving time free is not the same as doing nothing with it. Not being committed is not the same as not using the time at all. And what you do in your breathing space might well be language learning itself! The only stipulation about margin is that it is free for whatever you might need it for – contingency time, in other words. If you get to it and have no other plans, maybe you will even feel like a bit of extra language learning. Or a walk in the park. Or a coffee with friends. It’s up to you.

Doing something because you feel like it can be a lot more replenishing and recreational than doing it because it is in your study calendar. In this way, margin becomes a great way to rediscover the joy of random study. Leaf through a book, watch a TV programme in your target language, read a novel. Just enjoy it as a recreational activity, rather than an obligation.

I have a ready list of time-fillers when I feel like a bit of easy language. Of late, I love watching random episodes of the BBC Gaelic programme Speaking Our Language. I’m learning bits and pieces as I watch, of course – but I also simply enjoy seeing different parts of Scotland I’ve not visited yet (as well as reliving early 90’s fashions). In the same vein, I often listen to the odd episode of Greek by Radio (hosted by Kypros.org) in my downtime. The Greek lessons are useful, of course, but those vintage productions have me revelling in those more innocent days of broadcasting. And, of course, there is Eurovision.

Whatever you find yourself pottering about with, make sure that it feels less like work, and more like fun. The most important thing is to exercise that self-care, and make some space for it in your routine.

Margin is a gift to your future self. Build it into your schedule to keep your brain in prime, language-learning condition!

Richard West-Soley

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