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 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!