Variety is the cheese of life. Image from freeimages.com

Variety is the cheese of life : Acknowledge and bust your rut!

Variety of approach has always been a hot topic for me in language learning. Changing up your sources and materials is one of the best ways to maintain high interest and motivation in a study regime.

But I discovered something more to that trick in recent weeks: the same guiding principle is an excellent strategy for keeping the rest of your life bubbling effervescently, rather than fizzling out into stagnation.

Someone moved my cheese!

In the classic productivity title Who Moved My Cheese, Dr Spencer Johnson details the very human tendency to fall into patterns of sameness. These patterns make us inflexible and impervious to change. In other words, they get us stuck in a rut.

Ruts are funny things. You can be stuck in one, yet not realise it. And it can take a big disruption to shed light on it.

For me, life was seemingly in perpetual motion. Working between several UK cities, the commuting rhythm gave the impression of a geographically open, free life. And don’t get me wrong; there is a great freedom in working both remotely and on the move, with a couple of weekly office days providing an anchor point between travels.

But what we do not see is how rigidly arranged everything is behind the scenes. Movement was ongoing, but within very narrow confines. It was motion, for sure, but it was always the same motion. I played the role of master of my own destinies, but in reality, it wasn’t me doing the managing. It was the train and plane schedules. Travel plans come with unique, prohibitive restrictions thanks to peak pricing, busy services to avoid (especially for someone who hates big crowds) and fitting work around family and friend commitments.

The result? I’d become a creature of habit without realising it. I knew exactly where my cheese was, and I always expected it to be there. The same trains, the same planes, the same routes.

Until they messed my train schedules up!

Desperately seeking cheeses

Yes: London Northwestern and Virgin Trains, in their wisdom, took a bulldozer to my well-trodden paths up and down the country. Obviously, there was some greater logic behind this. Some improvement or efficiency saving for the greater good. But my safety blanket, my familiar routine, was simply no longer there.

First, I felt panic. Then, realisation: I had been in an unknowing rut, always returning to the same spot for my little nub of cheese. In a life characterised by change, I had become inflexible to it, spoilt by the continuity I enjoyed up to that point.

It was time to relearn cheese-hunting.

Experiment and enjoy the variety

With nothing to lose – my original services were no longer an option, in any case – I started to change my calendar up a little. I experimented with a number of alternative routes, not settling on one, but going out of my way to try out the possibilities.

Crucially, I resolved to be brave, and particularly, to try routes I might not have ordinarily considered. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone is a healthy habit in learning. And, I found, it can be just as helpful in day-to-day life too.

Somewhere in the mix, you hit upon some nice surprises.

Same place, fresh eyes

The treasure in the ruins, for me, was the discovery of some very cheap and empty early hours services to London. Instead of arriving at 9:30am, I would get to the capital at 7am. Ouch.

But wait. There’s a gift in there. It’s the gift of time.

Instead of racing to the office to get a good two hours of desk time before lunch, I could take my time. And it dawned on me that I could take my time in a pretty exciting place. London was mine for a full two hours.

It’s a wonderful experience rediscovering a place that you began to associate only with work. I planned walks, coffee stops, sightseeing detours. I got to know the city as a pleasure again, rather than a chore. The Thames. Westminster Abbey. And St Paul’s Cathedral, just a stone’s throw from the office! I’d been missing out on so much.

St Paul's Cathedral, London - my bit of variety this week!

St Paul’s Cathedral, London –
a bit of variety for me this week!

Coming full circle

Linguists, bear with me: these circumlocutions do come full circle, right back to language learning. On my London walking adventures, I stumbled back into the territory of Foyles, the magical book Mecca on Charing Cross Road. Foyles has, by a long stretch, the best language learning department of any UK bookshop. What a rediscovery!

And just think: if it hadn’t been for those pesky schedule changes, I’d never have stumbled across that Aladdin’s cave of volumes again – at least for a long while.

Foyles - the place to find variety in language learning books!

Foyles, London

So in life, as in languages, a change – forced or not – can respark the joy. Someone moved my cheese, but it reminded me that life is full of different cheeses for the hunting (and not just the corny song kind).

Keep movement in your life. Learn the lesson of variety. And stay on the lookout for fresh cheese!

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.

Learning multiple languages CAN be as simple as putting together coloured blocks!

Tackle multiple languages by blocking your time

I am a language hog. I’m eternally curious about them, and genuinely love studying them. So, I’m often actively learning multiple languages at the same time.

However, advice on learning multiple languages usually suggests plenty of caution and good planning. Now, you can be over-cautious; some suggest avoiding languages that are quite closely related, such as Norwegian and Icelandic, or Polish and Russian. However, I find that sometimes, this can actually help.

But overstretching yourself – however fun the activity – is a recipe for burnout. And, I’ve found, successful study sessions in a foreign language require a bit of conscientious preparation. You have to get in the mindspace for that language. At the very least, you need to (re-)activate your existing knowledge and plan to have something to say.

Because of that, few students will learn effectively by cramming three or more different languages into back-to-back study blocks on the same day.

Multiple languages pile-up

The problem was this: when I first started taking online lessons on iTalki, I had a tendency to spot any free time in my diary and fill it up. A sucker for punishment, you might think; rather, kid-in-a-sweetshop syndrome! So many languages, so little time…

For all busy people, it’s very tempting to do this. A free afternoon on Saturday? Squeeze in your German and Spanish. Only have one free evening in the week? Schedule three different language classes in it to make sure you’re getting your practice.

Nonetheless, this was a disaster for me. The result was always the same – I’d do well in the first class, then struggle to switch mindset for the following ones. I noticed the problem even when I left slightly longer, like a single day, between lessons. And, frankly, it’s a waste of the money to spend money on lessons and not be able to do the best you can in them.

Language blocks

However much I wanted to chop and change, it was necessary to create some separation. This way, at the very least, I could give each language a fair allocation of my time and energy. To this end, I’ve used trial and error to find an approach that works. And the trick, I’ve found, is spacing different languages into learning blocks of a few days.

What I do now is to carve my time into blocks of learning. Each one leads up to the big lesson ‘event’, where I can practise what I’ve learnt. Importantly, as much as possible, I keep each different language lesson separated by at least a couple of days on my calendar. In effect, you are spending your block working up to the pinnacle, which is the face-to-face lesson.

Short, sweet and focussed

It’s probably best not to make the blocks too long; two to four days working on a language is probably optimal before you cycle to the next one. You don’t want any one language to have too much downtime. But for those few days, ensure that your all your active learning is focussed on the single language.

The exception to the rule is with your languages in maintenance mode. These require less fresh learning and intensive vocab prep. For example, German and Spanish are my degree languages, and my strongest; therefore, I’ll pop a Spanish or German class on the same day as an Icelandic or Norwegian one – but never an Icelandic and Norwegian one on the same day.

Finally, it’s important to ‘sign off’ properly after you finish a block. For instance, I write up my lesson notes, add new vocab to Anki and spend some time putting any new vocabulary into example sentences. Tying it all off nicely after the big event is as important as preparing for it.

Why limit yourself?

If languages are your joy and passion, then why limit yourself? It’s true that you may well learn more quickly if you concentrate on a single one. But if you are a language guzzler, like me, then timing tricks like these will help keep you satiated, while still squeezing the most from your lessons.

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!