A new calendar means new language learning resolutions. But how to stick to them? (Image from freeimages.com)

Calendar blocking: a little book to bust your rut

Oh, how the days of a new year sometimes seem to melt into an ambling, amorphous mess. From the high hopes of resolutions to the January Blues, language learning motivation can be in short supply in this cruellest of months. Dry Vocabanuary, as one friend succinctly puts it. One thing is keeping me on track at the moment: calendar blocking.

You see, my natural, inborn tendency – despite the treasure of posts on language learning planning and productivity – is to veer into disorganisation. I try not to beat myself up too much for this. As Daniel Kahnemann explains in Thinking, Fast and Slow, human brains evolved to try and make it easy on themselves. They can make an effort when they really have to, but even then, only in short bursts, like a surly teenager.

What helps in bucketloads is a routine to act as a stricter, more explicit executive in charge of self-direction. So, every night, I put on Manager Ricky hat. I imagine my tomorrow self as a third-party employee to delegate to. With my larger objectives in mind, I plan my next day’s work and study in more-or-less hourly chunks.

The resulting plan is loose and flexible enough not to feel stifling, with in-built breaks (Pomodoro is your friend!). But it defines goals tightly enough to prevent focus-drift into an unproductive mush.

In short, it makes me a better worker and learner.

Calendar blocking with purpose-built pads

Now, who doesn’t like a new item of stationery? There is something exciting and motivating about a fresh, shiny, empty notebook that e-tools like Evernote – however brilliant – can fail to replicate.

To that end, I treated myself to the organisational geek’s perfect purchase for a productive 2020: this natty daily planning pad! This purpose-designed calendar blocking pal is simplicity to use. The star of each page is an hour-by-hour rundown of the day, with extra space for the most important to-do items. Being compact at just A5 size, it also discourages over-planning. The overarching ethos is keep it clear, keep it simple.

Calendar blocking with a brand new pad!

Calendar blocking with a brand new pad!

You don’t need a special pad, of course. I just like new stationery, so any excuse. But any medium will work, as long as you can map out the day in roughly hour-long sections, and cross-reference with key to-dos.

Your very own Hogwarts

So far, so good using the pad. In the most satisfying way, it does feel a little like writing your own special daily school timetable. If you are a fan of ambitious personal improvement regimes, or want to create your own personal Hogwarts of horizon-broadening lessons, then this will appeal greatly.

Admittedly, I am not quite at the point of scheduling lessons in potions and transfiguration. But there is always a sense that this is my à la carte plan for developing myself in ways that are magical for me. Namely languages – and if you are reading this blog, chances are that will be your magic, too.

Have you employed other productivity hacks into your language learning routine? Let us know in the comments!

Dictionaries - a great fallback, but is it cheating? Image from freeimages.com

But is it cheating? Language support tools and polyglot pride

You’ve prepared for this moment. You’re about to walk up to the counter and order that coffee in the language you’ve been learning for months. But it’s the heat of the moment. You’re a bit nervous. What’s the polite way to ask for something again? Is it cheating to look it up?

These are times when the sheer availability of information blurs the line between achieving and cheating. Digital tools are challenging the notion of success across all education fields. So what exactly is cheating? And do we need to worry about it, as independent language learners?

Defining cheating

How we define cheating changes a lot according to circumstances. For example, during my high school language exams, the idea of taking along vocabulary support was a strict no-no. Students had to commit everything to memory. It was hard work, but we accepted it as a necessary slog.

So it was with a little envy that I learnt, some years later, that some exams boards were now allowing dictionaries in during the writing component. Dictionaries! They would have chucked us poor students straight out of the hall after even a whiff of a crib sheet or a glimpse of scribbled notes on a hand.

That said, there is some sense in allowing some brain-support tools into the exam environment. Learning how to use resources like dictionaries and verb tables is as much a part of language proficiency as the actual committing to memory, and more so than ever these days. We live in a world full of expert, digital help at the touch of a smartphone. Testing how students use their language knowledge and resourcefulness is, perhaps, a better way to gauge how they will cope in the real world.

Setting a high bar

Despite all this, there is a gleeful satisfaction in smashing the memory game. I suspect that there is a memory purist in many of us polyglot enthusiasts, setting the cheating bar pretty high. Who hasn’t felt a little fist-pump moment that time a perfectly formed phrase just trips off the tongue without a single prompt?

More importantly, no support tool is perfect. Maybe you have also given a knowing eye-roll when hearing that old, annoying chestnut about language learning being unnecessary in a world of Google Translate. Likewise, you have also probably spotted a couple of very iffy translations yourself when using it. Machine translation is getting good – but it’s not quite there yet.

The fact is that tech tools are incredibly powerful. But knowing how the language works and combining your own knowledge with their answers is exponentially more powerful. These platforms support – they do not replace – the expert linguist in us.

Parlour tricks for the everyday

Of course, improving memory to maestro levels is a noble goal in itself, and many have achieved fame on the back of that. Russian mnemonist Solomon Shereshevsky displayed some phenomenal recall skills that bought him to the attention of a public far beyond his home country.

A raft of pop science books and documentaries feted his seemingly superhuman abilities to remember items. In the 1950s, a decade obsessed with the rapid progress of humanity towards a perfected pinnacle, Shereshevsky ignited the question: are we born with super-memory, or can we develop it? As language learners, it’s something we would all love to know.

Well, the answer is encouraging: it seems that we can learn it. Memorisation expert Tony Buzan has been impressing amateur mnemonists for years with his books, crossing the divide between parlour trick and genuinely useful learning skill. He has even applied some of his mind-mapping memory techniques directly to language learning, and the results seem promising from the reviews.

Whether or not we call dictionary look-up cheating, getting these tricks under your belt is surely more rewarding than that reach-for-the-phone “I give up!” moment on a trip.

Aim high – but be kind to yourself

In short, there is no need to be too hard on yourself. Support tools help us through many a sticky situation. In fact, these tools can be invaluable during the learning process itself. Translation and dictionary sites can be systematically mined to make connections and expand your vocabulary from day one.

Still, perfect recall improvement techniques can help you use these tools less and less frequently in the wild. And managing that can be a rich source of pride at your abilities as a language learner.

Going for gold - the goal of self-improvement. And language learning should be a big part of that. (Image from freeimages.com)

Language Superhero: Why languages belong in every self-improvement regime

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!

Only human

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.

And so, on the back of all my grand superhero designs, was born a love and respect for the regime. Organising yourself is a prerequisite of treading the path to a better you. Discovering new tools to help build those regimes is a favourite pastime of mine. But what do you include in the regime? Physical fitness, mental agility, musical ability, social skills…

What about languages?

Superlinguist

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.

So what kind of better you do languages create?

A cleverer you

The question of how language learning positively affects the brain is important enough to attract a lot of research. The phenomenon of brain plasticity, for example, is particularly evident in neuroscientific studies into language learning. If you need evidence that minds are not fixed, but malleable and flexible, look no further than second language acquisition.

The positive changes we can make to our brains through language learning are many. Certain physical changes effected on the hippocampus by language acquisition may result in better memory overall, for example. There is even some evidence that language learning can slow brain ageing, even offsetting the effects of degenerative conditions like Alzheimer’sThat is a superpower that could change a lot of lives for the better.

The superpowers that multilingual mastery bestows on the user is a regular staple of TED talks:

As a side note, many of the mental benefits of language learning are shared by music, too – so perhaps languages and music could also make perfect travelling partners on your own self-improvement route.

A more sociable you

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.

Add to that the layers of world knowledge you gain from diverse cultural exposure, and you will have a lot to talk about, whichever language you choose to do it in. Incidentally, there is evidence to suggest that this makes linguists much more tolerant people, too.

A more successful you

Learning a language can be a lucrative bolt-on for your best life. What superhero isn’t successful?

Money isn’t everything, of course, but the earnings differentials between monolinguals and multilinguals are striking. And what better to spend that extra money on that more self-improvement books and courses?

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).

Enjoy your trip to superhero status!

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!

Time is precious

Time to learn? Fitting languages into busy lives

As a language geek, I’m often asked: “how do you find the time?”. My answer: most of the time, I don’t.

Most self-directed learning is an imperfect process. Adults don’t have time to subdivide their day into neat lesson-shaped slots, as others did for us in school. Learning has to fit around sometimes very hectic lives.

Using ‘dead’ time

A strategy I use every day is making use of what I call ‘dead’ time. It’s time standing, sitting, waiting, otherwise just doing very little. These are our ‘engine idling’ moments. Here are some of the things I do when waiting for a train, bus, haircut, or friends to show up for coffee!

Anki decks

The odd few minutes here and there are ideal for Anki flashcards. I make self-testing on Anki a daily tactic, but, like most humans, I’m susceptible to procrastination. Getting this ticked off during ‘down time’ is much better than leaving it until just before bed!

Reading practice

With smartphones, it’s the easiest thing in the world to tap up some news articles to read. You don’t even need to read the whole article – just looking at the headlines in your target language is some great minutes-long language gym. Right now, I’m actively learning Norwegian, and maintaining German and Spanish. A nose at NRK.no, Spiegel.de and ElPais.com is the least I can do to keep them ticking over.

Don’t even have time for that? Then subscribe to a Read Later service like Pocket (my favourite) to queue material for later. These services facilitate perfect browsing and bookmarking for even the busiest linguists. Several services can also recommend potentially interesting articles after learning your preferences.

Socialise

There are myriad social groups for all kinds of interests on Facebook, and other social media. Find a couple that grab you, and lurk for a while. Read what others are posting in your spare moments. When you feel more comfortable, try commenting in the target language yourself. It can be quite a thrilling experience to join a thread for the first time in a foreign language!

Another trick is to search twitter for #yourcountryname. For instance, I sometimes check #Norge or #norsk for Norwegian – you’d be surprised what comes up, and it’s almost all in the target language!

Casting a wider net

Podcasts and spare moments are positively made for each other. The match is so obvious, I’ve left it ’til last. But the trick is not to be a perfectionist. If you only have time for five minutes of a podcast in your target language, it’s still worth it. Don’t think (like I used to) that it’s pointless unless you can sit down and listen to the whole thing.

That said, some language podcasts are made with our fleeting minutes in mind. For a daily dose of listening practice and current affairs, I love ‘news in easy language’ services. Some recommended ones include:

🇫🇷 French: News in Slow French
🇩🇪 German: Langsam gesprochene Nachrichten (News in slow German) by Deutsche Welle
🇮🇹 Italian: News in Slow Italian
🇳🇴 Norwegian: Språkteigen (a show about language – not aimed at new learners, but it’s often easy to guess unfamiliar words as the topic is so familiar!)
🇪🇸 Spanish: News in Slow Spanish
🇨🇳 Chinese: Slow Chinese

Any other favourites, or biggies I’ve missed? Please share in the comments!

Don’t overdo it

Even the most avid efficiency-seekers amongst us shouldn’t downplay the importance of dead time for a bit of rest. Not even the geekiest brain can (or should) be switched on, full steam ahead, 24/7.

I recommend Headspace for ensuring you turn the volume down regularly. It’s a programme of short meditations that fit perfectly into the ‘between moments’ described in this article. The first ten are free, so it’s worth a try!

Fill your spare minutes, but be kind to yourself.
Balance is key for an active, healthy linguaphile brain!