As the year winds down, many of us find ourselves in this quiet in-between time, wedged between Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. That little sandwich of calm is felt more keenly than ever this year, with many back in strict lockdowns again. Real life goes into suspended animation: we have a dose of downtime.
The question is: how to fill it?
One of my annual traditions is the Christmas holiday learning project. Trying to learn or improve a skill when I have the time and space to do it has become a fun challenge and a geekish treat. Sometimes the focus is language learning; often it is something computerish. In fact, teaching myself how to develop Flash games (a good twenty years ago now!) eventually led to a whole new career in educational software.
This Christmas, I had a particular new skill in my sights to delight my inner (and outer) nerd: C# and Unity, the games development platform. It’s important not to fall behind in a fast-changing profession, and Unity is everywhere in mobile gaming at the moment. Surely there is huge untapped potential for language learning applications there?
Somehow, though, there was a missing piece. My brain knew it; every time I settled down to do a tutorial or two, I’d feel sluggish and lacking in concentration. What was wrong?
I’d forgotten the true meaning of downtime: restoration.
This isn’t just about doing nothing. Downtime needn’t be aimless, results-free rest time. It can be a time for motivation and realignment of your goals, too.
Things just come to you when you pause, you see. Plans, dreams, hopes, old and new. Escaping the four walls and going for long walks along the sea, for example, I’ve found myself staring at the ships moored off the coast, looking them up on a marine tracker website and marvelling at the places they are coming from and going to. It’s recalibrated my sights on Iceland and Norway, and filled me with a renewed enthusiasm to take those languages forward in 2021.
All this is not to say we should simply down tools, lie down and daydream away this quiet time. As language enthusiasts, we worship at the temple of self-improvement, and it would be masochistic to deny ourselves the joy of it. Knuckle down, power forward and level up. It’s what we do.
But I’ll be fitting in lots of pondering, thoughtful walks as well as Christmas telly and stuffing leftovers this year, too. Give yourself a little replenishing downtime as well. Your next big adventure might be swirling around in there, waiting to emerge, fully formed, from a well-rested mind.
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).