Polylogger makes tracking your study hours easy. And it can throw up some revelations! Image from freeimages.com

Polylogger Revelations

I finally boarded the Polylogger train and joined the enthusiastic activity tracking community a couple of weeks ago. And to tell the truth, it’s been a bit of a revelation.

Chances are you might well have beaten me to the best seats already. Polylogger already has a well-established, sizeable, active and very sociable fanbase on social media. In fact, it was on Twitter that I first spotted fellow language aficionados singing its praises, so it seemed timely to hop on board already. Better late than never!

Getting started was a cinch. It’s quick and easy to sign up, and the study diary tools are a piece of cake to use. When you get into the swing of things, logging – and watching those graphs grow – is real language geek fun. I love being motivated by what other people are working on, and have already spotted a couple of new resources I didn’t know about through community entries.

But to make the most of the tool, it was what I should be logging that I needed to sort out first and foremost.

That is, what counts as a study session? Just those substantial chunks of time, like hour-long iTalki sessions? Or every little thing, including the odd couple of minutes minutes here and there on casual language apps, or a brief podcast listen during breakfast?

The great #langtwt community, once again, had the answers. It should definitely include the latter. After all, those little bits and pieces all add up. So, off I went, logging my language learning life.

But what secrets did Polylogger have to reveal?

Polylogger : exposing your true habits

By far, its most scandalous exposé for me is the mismatch between what I think I focus on, and what I actually do spend most of my time on. Let’s call it delusion-busting, since I certainly had a very different idea about what I was getting up to. In my mind, I split my main language learning time equally between Greek and Polish. They’re my current active learning projects right now, and I’ve been having at least one iTalki lesson in both every week, as well as fitting in independent activities. I’d actually set Polish as my default language, assuming it was the one I was prioritising most, even attending extra group classes with my tutor.

The thing is, the Polylogger stats do not lie. Shockingly, I’ve actually been spending hours more on Greek. Pretty much twice as many, in fact. How could I not know that?

After analysing the diary stats, the reason jumped out (and was pretty easy to guess in any case). It’s back to that logging every little thing strategy. The numbers show that I naturally fall to Greek when I do my little daily pass-the-time activities like Anki, Duolingo and Glossika. In the long run, that was a massive added value for Greek, and none for Polish. Polish was certainly no poor cousin, and I was working in a couple of major sessions a week – just not the cascade of extras that Greek enjoyed.

No wonder I’ve been finding Greek easier and easier while my Polish level continues to edge along so gradually. Thanks to Polylogger, I can start to rethink my strategy and redress that bias.

Polylogger has been a revelation in itself, providing extra focus and deeper insights into my learning. Whether you’re new to the tool too, or a seasoned user, feel free to add newbie @richwestsoley to your circle!

A bit of self-discipline and soon you'll be celebrating with fireworks. Image from freeimages.com

Automatising Self-Discipline : From Zero to Two Hundred Posts!

This post is a particularly special one for Polyglossic. It marks two hundred weekly posts since the site launch almost four years ago. And the secret to that unbroken run? The old trick of repeating a new habit to the point of completely automatising self-discipline.

It is boggling to look back on the journey. It started as a personal challenge to improve my writing and focus my ideas on language learning. Through sticking with it, it became a habit almost by stealth. And it is a habit I wouldn’t do without now.

Hitting that weekly goal was not always easy, however. Some weeks have involved a long, hard think about fresh and original material. But there is always something to write about, and there is always the joy of writing it. Fortunately, there are the trusty favourite themes to revisit: Anki, Evernote and iTalki tips, amongst others. Exploring them on Polyglossic has been the source of so many valuable discoveries as a language learner.

Automatic self-discipline

But the best part about that weekly writing challenge? The self-discipline to write regularly has now become automatic. Where blog planning was once a deliberate effort, it now happens almost imperceptibly, in the background, without a second thought. Making sure to leave aside a couple of hours on a Sunday for editing and proofing, for example, is so ingrained that it just feels normal.

And that magic can work with any habit we want to adopt, including language learning.

So how do we go from zero to hero with a brand new goal? Here’s how I found the spark to get going – and keep going!

Use All the Available Tools

We’re only human. Sometimes, we forget, especially in the early stages of building new habits. As a helpful initial scaffold, we can enlist the help of all the modern-day tools at our disposal. These include to-do lists (electronic or old-fashioned pen and paper), mobile phone alerts / reminders and planning tools like these nifty time blocking notepads.

Tools like these keep you afloat while your habit is still sinking in, like water wings holding a learner swimmer above water. Eventually, your habit will be firmly established, swimming under its own power, and the supports can drift merrily away.

Likewise, there are ready-made frameworks for planning and organisation that support solid habit-building. The Twelve Week Year is a very straightforward, goal-oriented system, for example, and one I keep returning to. Scour the productivity shelves at the bookshop for gems like this. One bonus: they tend to be pretty short reads, too.

Pre-empt

Forewarned is forearmed. Avoid deadlines creeping up on you by keeping an eye on the calendar. Just because you aim to do Task X on a Sunday, doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do some groundwork if you find yourself at a loose end on Saturday.

With a blog, be alert to post ideas during the week, and note down useful phrases or a skeleton paragraph structure as they come to you. With language learning sessions, glance over the material you plan to work through before the time. Search for extra resources and handy links on your phone whenever you have a spare moment. Embed good habits in your life – those that stick are not just isolated islands or quick bursts of activity here and there.

Developing a pre-emptive self-discipline extends to your work or study environment, too. Choose your time and place carefully to avoid interruptions. I find coffee shop working effective – it removes me from home distractions and the bustle helps me focus.

Have Contingencies in Place

We can pre-empt on a longer-term scale than just the week-to-week, too. Since life is often less than plain sailing, have some contingencies in place for disruption.

For blog writing, that might mean having a couple of draft posts almost ready for publishing just in case it looks like you will miss a deadline. More than once I’ve been saved from missing a week by a handy backup post!

For language learning – especially time-oriented goals like X hours a week – calendar slack is your contingency. In practice, this might mean setting aside a catch all hour or two in your week, when you can make up for any slippage. Or it might involve smart planning, where your scheduled ‘hour’ is actually 45 minutes, with some wiggle room either side.

Also think about building in margin to bulletproof your schedule against upsets. By not filling every waking minute, you have some space to hit your targets even when things go awry.

Share, share, share

Taking pride in the fruits of your good habits is important. And interacting with peers over them is an especially warm and sociable way to do that. For some projects, like blog-writing, sharing is a natural part of the process. But telling others about your progress works with all kinds of other projects.

Take the polyglot community, for instance. Like-minded souls use social media platforms to share their hopes, wishes and progress updates. It needn’t even be anything lofty. Revelling in a shared love of dabbling, for example, is a fun way to get others on board with your regular language goals. In return, the likes and comments can be a valuable source of encouragement.

Feeling recognition for our efforts can keep us coming back for more, reinforcing new habits and further automatising self-discipline. Better still, it sparks an exchange of expertise and advice that helps make everyone better.

Want It!

Lastly, make sure that your habits are building towards something you really want, some overarching goal or life plan. Doing it because you want it takes some beating as a motivator.

Polyglossic was born of that initial spark and desire to create, and through those cycles of organisation, repetition and encouragement, the self-discipline to keep the wheels turning has become automatic. That’s proper everyday magic, there. But any of us are capable of it!

Happy birthday, Polyglossic – here’s to the next two hundred!

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

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

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!

A clipboard. Image from freeimages.com.

Keep tabs on your efforts with language learning report cards

Now, if you hadn’t noticed, I am a complete control freak. But in a good way… honest! Well, most of the time. And especially when it comes to language learning.

The “good way”, of course, mostly involves tracking how regularly and effectively I learn. I am beholden to a raft of productivity tools like Evernote, Wunderlist (now Microsoft To Do) and even good, old-fashioned paper-and-pen lists to keep track.

Lists are my friends.

To do – or to have done?

Mainly, my focus has always been on forward planning. The lists I write are study to do lists on the whole – things I plan to do or feel I should be doing. But lately, I felt the need for something a bit more retrospective. A have done list, if you will.

How much am I actually achieving?

The need has been even greater under COVID-19 lockdown. Lethargy and indolence wheedle their way in during times of slowdown, and days disappear into the abyss. What is the best way to stay accountable to yourself when faced with an amorphous calendar of days in?

A really simple solution is to keep a language learning report card on each of your active and maintenance projects.

Keeping tabs

The language report card is, in short, just a retrospective diary of what you have worked on recently. I find the system works best on a monthly basis, with a separate document for each language project. Months make for quite a natural dividing line, with enough days to track and spot patterns in your learning, but not so many that planning for the next one seems aeons away.

To get started, simply fill in a few lines day by day to record the study resources you have used, and for how long. Include all your immersion activities too, even the odd five minutes listening to the radio here and there.

Engage in regular housekeeping of your language learning report cards.  Cast a frequent glance down the list throughout the month to monitor your progress and reassure yourself that yes, you are actually doing quite a lot. Or, conversely, that hmm, you might need to fit a bit of extra [language X] in tomorrow. And at the end of each month, cast an eye down the list by way of self-congratulation and preparation for how to go into the next one.

A diary of my language learning activities for Icelandic in April 2020

The simple act of keep a language learning diary can be one of the most effective for motivating yourself

Diarising your study provides a real sense of progress and satisfaction as you watch your document fill in over the month. Learning just a little every day soon adds up, and your personal report card makes it clearer than ever how much cumulative learning you are doing.

If you have multiple projects on the go – particularly maintenance languages – it helps highlight unintended neglect, too. It becomes starkly clear when you see a gap of several days pile up without touching one of your languages. We all need a bit of a study health check like that now and again.

Like some of the best language techniques, it is both exceedingly simple and brilliantly effective. It has really sorted out my Icelandic out this month after a period of drifting and coasting – my iTalki teacher noticed with the improvement.

With a new month around the corner, why not give it a go?

Language learning report cards are not the only way to journal your way to success – why not consider a target language daily diary too?

A firework mid-display! Image from freeimages.com

New year, new goals: a language resolutions toolkit

New year, new decade. And time again for lots of New Year language learning resolutions and great intentions.

Twitter is awash with plans, hopes and dreams from language enthusiasts far and wide. We certainly know what we want out of 2020. But how to best go about it?

Arm yourself with the right kit with these top tools for staying on track!

Get your streak on in Anki

One of the most motivating, keep-on-track features of platforms like Duolingo is the streak feature. However, this is not always available in staple, bare bones vocabulary drill tools like Anki.

That is, until Review Heatmap came along!

This desktop Anki add-on helps you keep daily momentum by offering stats like streak and past performance. The heatmap graph allows you to glance forward and gauge how many card reviews are coming your way in future. An excellent way for language geeks to stick to daily vocabulary resolutions.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Resolutions reminders

Establishing a new routine and changing ways can be tough as a typical creature-of-habit human being. Thankfully, there are plenty of to-do list apps to help organise our resolutions, and Wunderlist has been one of the best (not to mention free).

You can organise goals and subgoals using the rich, tiered reminders in the app. Personally, I like to take a weekly tactics approach, with regular repeated tasks. This is a piece of pie to set up on Wunderlist, with phone notifications to remind you when items are due to be ticked off.

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Creating a regular language routine with Wunderlist

Now, since I first began proselytising about the app, it seems to have caught the attention and imagination of the bigwigs. The upshot is that the company and app will morph into Microsoft To-Do by May 2020. So somebody was clearly listening!

Luckily, everything that made Wunderlist so great looks set to stay. So, jump straight into Microsoft To-Do if you want to give to-do organising a go with your languages. Existing Wunderlist users can easily import their data into the new app, too.

Evernote for ever-ready resolutions

Talking of list-writing applications, cross-platform Evernote allows for to-do tick lists as well, amongst a geeksome cascade of other features.

Evernote is as much a place to plan as it is to collect, study, write and do just about anything else you need language-wise. Clip a web article into it to translate and create a vocabulary list from. Create your weekly plan in it, and let the app notify you when a review is due. Email yourself a list of words while you’re at work to pick up and work with later. Or snap a page of exercises from a textbook, and complete your answers in the note rather than deface your book. You can even share that note with your tutor for marking.

However you use it – and there are as many ways as there are users – Evernote can be a real workhorse for language learning.

And it’s free to use on a basic plan!

Write to remember with apps and reusable pads

My love of lists and notes betrays my true colours. I am a big proponent of good, old-fashioned writing to remember (as no doubt many of us are!).

I just love a scribble. And one of my all-time favourite techniques to take advantage of this for language learning is the brain dump. Regularly recycle what you’ve learnt by letting it all flow, as creatively as possible, onto a single page. Incidentally, this makes for a great weekly tactic in your resolutions to-do list above!

Now, for the sake of saving paper, I enjoy using sketch apps on my tablet to splurge:

A brain dump of elementary Irish

A brain dump of elementary Irish

However, nothing quite beats traditional pen and paper. Thankfully, there is a tech-savvy way to work traditional media into your 2020 resolutions without working through a forest:

Rocket Pad - stick to your writing resolutions without wasting trees! Image from Amazon.com.

Rocket Pad – stick to your writing resolutions without wasting trees!

The best of resolutions

And before you set off, keep in mind the best of all language learning resolutions: have fun. Language learning should never be a chore, but always a joy. Explore, dabble, and never feel guilty for doing what you love.

Just revel in that love of words.

Good luck with all your language learning goals and resolutions for 2020. Happy New Year – and happy learning!

It’s a date! Planning for language success with extreme calendarising

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.

It’s a date

Recently, I came across an article about a woman who halted that drift into nebulous indolence by calendarising everything. Now, her example might come across as, well… a little extreme, as far as productivity drives go. Rising at 4:30am, scheduling time with family and friends to the minute – well, my life isn’t that busy. But there’s definitely something in this approach worth trying.

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

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.

A stash of tourist leaflets and guides in various foreign languages.

Lovely Leaflets: Making the most of foreign language tourist ephemera

What have I been doing this week? Well, apart from obsessing over topping Duolingo’s new global leaderboards? Mostly, I’ve been hacking my way through reams of foreign language leaflets and tourist material I’ve amassed over the past few months of travel.

Despite a fixation with order and decluttering, I have to  admit that I let the piles of paper mount up. When faced with racks of foreign language material on holiday, my eyes light up. I can’t help but feast on the freebies. From talking to fellow polyglots, I am certainly not alone.

So how can we feed our fascination, but ensure we make the most of these fun, free resources?

Scrapbooking is your space-saving friend

First things first: these things take up room!

“Kiitos” (thanks) on a grocery bag from a Helsinki supermarket. Soaking up Finnish in Finland.

A trip to Finland resulted in bags of extra material in Finnish and Swedish!

The fact is that few of us have room to store wads and wads of paper from a lifetime of travelling. We call this kind of material ephemera for a reason: it is not meant to hang around long.

As a teacher, I would store authentic materials like this to use in lessons. The physical resources actually had a use. Now, as a learner, my instinct might still be to hoard them, but most of the time they simply end up lying around. It is far too easy to forget about your stash of leaflets. My cache has often sat, forgotten, in a side pocket of my suitcase for weeks.

The good news: this is what digital scrapbooking was made for. I use digital scrapbooks to create snapshots of all sorts of cultural ephemera from trips. Leaflets fit the bill perfectly.

Scrapbooking tools

You can get started with any note-taking software or app. Create a document, snap your items, and annotate.  My tool of choice is the brilliant Evernote. But Microsoft OneNote is perhaps even better for the task, since you can position image elements more freely on each page. Most importantly, both platforms are free to use at entry level.

Alternatively, document scanning apps can capture your material and turn it into PDFs. I use Scanner Pro on iOS, but there are many alternatives across platforms, including free apps like Adobe Scan. Most of these apps will also hook up to online drives like Dropbox or Microsoft OneDrive, making sure your material is backed up safely.

Leaflets captured, you can safely offload the originals into the bin. But remember to recycle!

How to work with leaflets as learning resources?

To make our leaflet-foraging worthwhile, we need to actively use these resources. And the great thing about digitally storing your leaflets is that we can simply type your notes and workings straight into the same documents that contain the scans. Nice and tidy!

There are myriad activities and approaches for active consumption of the material. The trick is to be as creative as you can with them to eke out the most benefit. Here are a few simple exercises for starters:

Vocabulary mining

The simplest activity is simply mining the material for new words and phrases. If you are still at a more elementary stage of the language, focus on the titles and headings. At a more advanced stage, you can introduce grammar tasks such as highlighting all the verbs or other parts of speech. Interrogate that material for as much new knowledge as you can.

Translation

Try to produce an idiomatic, flowing translation of the material in your native language. Note where it is necessary to express the ideas quite differently from language to language. Are there phrases that are difficult to reproduce exactly in your own?

Play the interpreter

Imagine you are taking a group of friends or family to the attraction. Read or skim the material a section at a time. Then, put it down between each reading and interpret the gist out loud, from memory, in your native language. This is great practice for actually performing the task for real-life travel companions!

In your own words

A real test of language mastery is creative production. Can you say the same thing in several ways? Paraphrasing and summarising are fantastic leaflet drill activities for this skill. Read a section of material, then look away. Try, from memory, to reproduce the material in your own words. This can be spoken, written, or (ideally) both.

Local language for local leaflets

Remember, these are local leaflets for local people! Well, not quite. But be enthusiastically cautious about leaflets in languages other than the local one for that attraction. Most of the time, professional translators, who are native speakers, will have translated the documents. However, this is not always the case. We have all spotted errors in even the most careful of translations into our own languages.

As a rule, it is always safest to grab the guide in the actual language of the country you are visiting. That said, this never stopped me snaffling literature in German and Polish when visiting the Book of Kells in Dublin. And it shouldn’t curb your enthusiasm either! Just regard such material with a careful and critical eye.

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

A leaflet in Polish from the Bundestag in Berlin

These guidelines should help inject some purpose and organisation into your pursuit of lovely leaflets. Above all, just enjoy this excellent – and free! –  source of learning material without getting lost in sea of paper. Oh – and leave a few behind for everybody else, too!

How do you learn from the material you pick up on your travels? Do you have specific leaflet-learning ideas that help? Share them in the comments below!

Eat the frog - not literally, of course, but in a language learning sense! Image from freeimages.com.

Frogs for breakfast! Language planning and the early bird

Do you ever get to the end of your language learning day, week or month with a heap of tasks to get through from your planning? Does your joy turn into a chore when you realise how many Anki flashcards have built up, or how many pages of your book you need to read to keep on track?

Then maybe it’s time to start breaking the fast on a bit of frog.

Before you baulk at the prospect, don’t worry! It’s not as gruesome as it sounds. The eat-the-frog principle is about getting big tasks out of the way early on. You would want to get that task out of the way as quickly as possible if you had to do it, right? Well, you can similarly prioritise lengthy and effort-intensive learning activities to do early in your planning.

Applying eat-the-frog planning to your learning, you avoid letting routine tasks queue up and become overwhelming later on. It is a stock technique of productivity coaches. Self-development author Brian Tracy has written a whole book on digesting your grenouille early in the day.

A more palatable metaphor?

If the frog image is a little too disturbing, then perhaps there is another way to think of this. Last year, I came across a wonderful idiom in Spanish: comerse un marrón, literally to eat up a chestnut. That chestnut is the unpleasant morsel to swallow, the tedious task to get out of the way. The sooner you get it done, the better you feel.

But, candied chestnuts also being tasty treats, perhaps this is a more apt way to think of our language tasks. Lovely, but leaving them all at once to eat at the end of the day will do us no good at all!

Eat up those chestnuts early! Image from freeimages.com.

Eat up those chestnuts early!

Language learners tend to place high expectations on themselves. To keep these many frogs and chestnuts as sweet as possible, it can help to combine weekly planning with a regular routine to tackle them systematically.

Build a morning routine

The business of simply living a life can really throw our language learning off the tracks sometimes. Job, family, friends, other interests – they all suck up our time. It’s tempting to leave our languages to the end of the day, after all that is done. After all, we love languages, don’t we? To indulge in them in the last, quiet hours of the day should be a treat. Right?

Well, in our passion for the subject, we forget how energy-intensive study is. Often, all I want to do after the sun goes down is chill. For sure, certain language exercises fit the bill – foreign language Netflix, passive podcast listening and so on – but more vanilla study activities like textbooks and Anki decks require our full attention and effort.

Moving some of these tasks to the morning can have a drastic effect on your study stamina. You not only have the benefit of a more fresher, less depleted you. You also avoid that sense of stress and urgency from running out of road at the end of the day.

Anki cards, for example, soon pile up if you leave them. It’s an uncomfortable feeling when, at 11pm, you realise that you have to shift 80 card reviews before the pile up on tomorrow’s to-do list. Then there’s the Duolingo XP that you need to get to maintain your streak – but it’s nearly the end of the day. That stress makes the task all the more uncomfortable.

Instead, swallow that frog for breakfast. On the train to work, at your desk before you start your daily tasks, during your morning break. Blast them when you have time and energy in abundance.

Micro-task regime

This kind of planning works especially well with smaller, more granular micro-tasks. These are typically standalone activities, taking 5-15 minutes each. Vocabulary review and online / app tutorial sections are a good example, although you could turn any activity into a micro-task. For instance, a ten-minute session of foreign language reading soon mounts up over time. This works particularly well if you are reading a book divided into very short chapters (like the Norwegian crime novel I’m currently reading!).

My own weekly language learning to-do currently looks something like this, with both daily and weekly tasks. As the foundation for these weekly planning lists, I use the 12-week year system, which helps focus my efforts on defined goals.

Planning a language learning week in Evernote

Planning a language learning week in Evernote

Before work tends to be my ideal time for frog-fighting. I try to get my 100-200 points on Duolingo then, as well as all of my Anki card reviews. One thing I know for sure: if I haven’t shifted the bulk of it by the evening, it feels like more of a chore. If I blast it in the morning, I not only have my routine learning / review done and dusted. I also get a feel-good buzz of “this is a productive start to the day!” from it.

If you follow a seven-day cycle like this, the same applies to your entire week. If, by Saturday, you still have a heap of weekly goals to tick off, the pressure mounts. The stress that causes is the biggest passion killer for a subject you love. Instead, try tackling your heftier language tasks, like active podcast listening, at the beginning of the week.

Language learning should never become a chore. Prevent your own frogs / chestnuts / other appropriate metaphors from getting big, ugly and stressful by building a structured morning routine. Frogs for breakfast – sunny side up!

A place for everything! Decluttering into boxes. (Image from freeimages.com)

Digital Decluttering : the Delete an App a Day Challenge!

A place for everything, and everything in its place: the mantra of decluttering.

There has never been a better time to tackle clutter, it seems. Japanese tidying whizz Marie Kondo is enjoying great success with her Netflix series Tidying Up, in which she helps us mere mortals order our chaotic lives. Friends and family are talking about it. She has inspired some of the messiest amongst us to clean up their act.

She has achieved the seemingly impossible: she has made tidying trendy!

Now, as someone constantly seeking a system – both in my learning and my wider life – it is an exciting thing to see neatness and order back in vogue via a little Marie Kondo magic. Creating order, and finding a more productive path through that order, has been a passion of mine as long as I can remember. I am forever playing with planning tools like Evernote and Wunderlist to fulfil my own version of everything in its place, and improving my learning goals in the process.

After all, tidy place – tidy mind, true? And that can only be a good thing for living your best language learning life.

Digital decluttering : the case

The thing with clutter is that it often gathers imperceptibly, cheekily, brazenly, under your nose. Junk piles up, dust gathers, and you didn’t even notice it! And nowhere is that more apparent today than with digital junk.

And the worst culprit? Unused mobile apps.

My phone was steadily getting clogged. It’s a slow but sure process, for sure. The ease of finding and installing apps these days means you, too, have probably ended up with pages of icons you barely click on. And ever-increasing phone storage mitigates the natural ‘memory warning’ limit that might have once alerted us to our app gluttony.

The glut encompasses seemingly harmless educational apps, too. There has been an explosion in language learning platforms over the past couple of years. And, excitable linguists that we are, it is hard to resist the instant tap-install impulsion when a new language app suggestion pops up.

But we have to ask the question: how many of those scores of language apps do we really use?

Certainly, some of them are my most used apps. On iOS, you can even check that with the new Screen Time feature. True enough, Anki and Duolingo are up there in my most frequented apps.

Others, though, I haven’t opened in months. Years, almost. They’re just sitting there, gathering electronic dust on my phone.

What’s the harm, you might ask? Well, a bloated phone can cloud clarity of purpose when it comes to using it. A mass of too many apps is amorphous, disorganised. We look at the phone and are lost in a chaos of possibilities. Too much choice can be paralysing, and even interfere with good habit-building.

We can’t see the wood for the trees.

So how to tackle it?

An app a day (keeps the clutter away)

You could spend a good chunk of time going through everything, bit by bit, getting rid of the clutter in one go. But there is a much gentler way – and one that gives you time to evaluate and reassess in your own time what you really use and value in your handheld learning space. This gentle antidote involves the gradual and regular application of a little Marie Kondo Zen.

Marie famously invites followers to interrogate the connection they have to their clutter. Touch it – and see if it sparks joy. Although you can’t touch an app like a piece of clothing, you can still probe your connection to it. Open it, play with it, see if you still feel its worth to your aims and objectives in life. Each of those myriad apps – what would your life be like without it? If there’s no joy, then there’s no need to hang on to it.

Since you probably have lots and lots of apps to interrogate in this way, this could be a big task. And it’s always best to approach a big task with a method.

To that end: say hello to the Delete-An-App-A-Day challenge!

Each day, for as long as it takes for you to feel on top of your phone again, commit to deleting one app. No more, no less. If you have a cluttered tablet, do the same on that. Keep going until you get to the gold – those apps that do spark joy.

Enlightenment through decluttering

The upshot of all this is that you don’t just end up with a lighter phone. You also learn a lot about yourself and your learning preferences.

I set myself this challenge a couple of weeks ago now. My phone screens are already less busy. But there are extra bonuses along the way: rediscovering apps I’d forgotten about, rearranging the apps I want to keep so that they are harder to overlook, realising how much I can recall from language app lessons I thought were difficult the first time round. By cutting out the dead wood, I can squeeze more out of the items I decide to keep.

So what have I uninstalled? Well, I won’t name and shame here. All apps have value to someone, after all. What we connect with is deeply personal, and the apps I shun will be another language learner’s indispensable go-to.

will say, however, that I miss none of the apps I’ve deleted so far. A sure sign that digital decluttering is the way to go!

Be honest, be ruthless, dare to delete!

Going forward

Ultimately, you will come to a point where you are left with just those apps that really work for you. There is no need to keep going. But some general house rules will help avoid future clutter.

One strategy I find helpful is a one-in-one-out code for app installations. Incidentally, this is great for applying to your clothes, too, if you want to avoid wardrobe sprawl. If you want something new, then it must take the place of something old that you want to get rid of. Of course, deleting an app needn’t be as permanent as donating clothes to a charity shop: you can always reinstall later if you made a terrible mistake.

Mobile device operating systems can lend a hand, if you are in two minds about a certain app. As mentioned above, Screen Time on iOS 12 will show you the apps you spend most time looking at. Google’s Digital Wellbeing offers similar functionality for Android. Ultimately, though, how you feel about an app should determine your final decision: chop or not?

You may also find further helpful features by digging in your phone settings, too. iOS, for example, can be set to automatically offload unused apps so that they no longer take up valuable space. The app icon remains, though, which you could argue is continued clutter. That said, offloaded apps do appear with a download arrow on your screen, so the feature is handy for flagging up apps to delete manually.

Once you have a handle on digital decluttering on your phone, you can apply it to other areas of your online world, too. Twitter is one platform that certainly benefits from a little pruning now and again. When you start, it can become a healthy addiction. After all, what area of life won’t benefit from a little Zen?

Streamline your digital life. Make your daily productivity path a little bit clearer. Take the Delete-An-App-A-Day challenge and spark your own joy!

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!