Accept yourself as a wonderful, fallible human being. Image from freeimages.com.

Be fallible! Building resilience as a language learner

Human beings are fallible. We all make mistakes.

But our natural instinct is often to feel shame, and try to hide those mistakes. And so, this week, I give you the pep talk I would have loved as a newcomer to language learning. It is a lesson in the art of self-acceptance as a wonderful, fallible human being.

Starting out

When we engage in any passion, we get excited. We skip, run, and plough headfirst and giddy into new experiences. We race ahead, full of anticipation, eyes darting gleefully about, trying to take it all in. Learning new skills can be exhilarating!

Sometimes, however, we fall.

There’s no escaping the fact that sometimes, failing can feel like a painful knock. And it comes in many forms. It could be the local who brushed you off rudely after your attempts to speak the language. It could be a grumpy teacher giving corrections in an unhelpful, unsympathetic tone. In these days of lives lived online, it may frequently come in the form of unrequested, unconstructive feedback. A recent article of mine, for example, attracted commentary which came across as, shall we say, well grounded, but not exactly friendly.

What do all these things have in common? They all involve a stumble or a fall in front of others who react negatively. And they involve a degree of shame that can leave us questioning our credibility in what suddenly seems like an insurmountably giant world. Shame is a terrifyingly fierce demotivator. All at once, that excitement pales against a niggling feeling of being a fraud or impostor.

Now, it is easy to let these things hurt us. What is harder, but so much more useful in the long run, is to let these things galvanise us. So how can we best buttress ourselves against mean-spirited engagements?

Embracing your fallibility is key.

Fantastically fallible

We are all fallible. We all make mistakes. Not to do so is simply not to be human.

Look at it this way – if we refuse to accept we are fallible, it is tantamount to saying we have nothing to learn. That we are perfect already. And resting on your laurels is a great way to stop learning anything at all.

It’s a salient point in a world full of ‘perfect’ polyglot role models. Who do you relate to more – someone who admits that the road is sometimes bumpy, or someone who claims to have all the answers?

Cultivating thankfulness

As language learners, we expose ourselves to the risk of being very fallible in a very public arena. The trick to developing a thicker skin is to cultivate a thankfulness and gratitude for every smarting knock.

Yes! If someone knocks you down, thank them for it. They have given you a gift – even if it was with a grimace.

Feedback of all kinds helps us to improve, even the curmudgeonly kind. See that negative shroud as a product of the kind of day the other person is having, rather than a fault of your own. Then take whatever lesson was wrapped in it, move on, and grow.

In learning and using foreign languages, we ultimately deal with people, and people are inherently unpredictable. Many will be lovely. Others not so much. Simply face them all with no expectation but to learn. Putting yourself out there with this shield of thankfulness is an excellent way to practise and build resilience.

You might worry that your failures come from trying to do too much, too soon. Are you putting yourself out there too early? Are you trying to run before you can walk? But it is only through pushing boundaries that we progress. For a little extra support, you can also try safe environments to make mistakes amongst friends, like the excellent 30-Day Speaking Challenge.

Keep trying to run. Those falls are worth the ground gained.

Stand up. Invite criticism. Accept that it might not always be constructive. And be proud of yourself as a fallible, but ever-learning human being.

Is your learning on fire? Just check your streak! Image from freeimages.com.

Feel the heat: get a visual grasp on Anki with this natty plug-in

Anki is an incredibly powerful tool with a heap of learning science behind it.

But do you ever feel, as an Anki user, that the process is all a bit of a mystery? That, instead of being passively fed material, you might like to glimpse inside the flashcard box and find out a little more about its electronic, spaced-repetition plans for you?

A chance question from a teacher and polyglot pal this week helped open up that box for me. And it’s worth sharing this little-known secret with anyone who want a bit more data than the all-knowing app is ordinarily willing to provide.

Streak test for gold

It all starts with a streak. A learning streak, that is: a golden motivational corridor in educational gamification.

Streak is the presentation of unbroken, habitual use of the app as an achievement. And it has long been a staple of gamified platforms like Duolingo, which quickly grew on its sticky back. The streak almost becomes an end in itself, powering the language learning along with it. Proud players share their incredible feats with others who hope to reach the same heights.

While Duolingo's streak feature is very popular, Anki does not have one.

On the face of it, streak does seem like an intuitively natural thing to want to know as a learner. How committed am I, in terms of how regularly I study? So it comes across as an odd omission from the standard Anki installation.

It all came to light when language buddy Marcel (so often a source of tips on everything language learning) asked if I knew where to find streak reporting in Anki. Despite the raft of data in the app’s familiar stats section, streak was nowhere to be seen. I was stumped.

Fortunately, a natty little plugin came to the rescue.

Review Heatmap

Review Heatmap adds a panel of information to the summary screens in the desktop version of Anki. Although the extra information seems quite standard, you might otherwise rack your brains to locate it in vain in a vanilla installation.

Although still in Beta for the latest 2.1.x stream of Anki releases (with a version for older versions here), it runs reliably and instantly exposes useful stats on the very first run.

The Review Heatmap plugin for Anki

The Review Heatmap plugin for Anki

Learning how you learn

Along with streak info, you can see a couple of other handy stats that do not feature in Anki’s regular data breakdown, including your average cards-per-day rate. And knowing about your learning is valuable meta-knowledge that can be just as useful as first-level learning material like vocabulary lists.

For example, take a look at the mass of colour in the plug-in display. Each square represents a day of your Anki year. You see the blanks? Those are the days on which you broke your streak. Interrogating the data like this can really help in the quest to learn how you learn.

Is there a pattern to them? Do they happen regularly? And can you use that information to preempt interruptions to your learning, and avoid them in future? In my case, hovering over my streak break blanks confirms what I suspected – they were days when family were visiting. Now I know this, I can try in future to review my Anki decks well in advance when I know I will have people round.

Streaks are not just about fun and pride. They encapsulate knowledge about your learning. And knowledge is power.

Pick a card, Anki card

The power of streaks is only one great way that Review Heatmap can boost your Anki learning. Like many things that just work, the app can be something of a black box. We adds words, Anki feeds them back to us using its clever algorithms. But sometimes, it can be informative to get a grasp on the workings inside that machine.

Exploring the heat map of coloured squares – the visual display style that gives the plug-in its name – can give you a more instinctive feel for how Anki schedules its cards. The darker the colour, the more cards scheduled on that day. By casting an eye over that annual map, you get a sense of the ebb and flow of card reviews, past and future. Hovering over individual squares even yields the exact number of reviews due on that day.

Not only that, but it is oddly satisfying to flick forward to subsequent years, and see reviews getting more and more infrequent. That gradual thinning out of card reviews is something special: it is Anki’s algorithm determining that you have, in accordance with the theory behind the system, memorised those words good and proper.

Obviously, numbers shift and change if you are actively adding cards all the time. But the visual snapshot is a fascinating way to start understanding how the spaced repetition approach plays out in real time.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Review Heatmap in lovely magenta.

Obviously, it also doesn’t hurt that Review Heatmap looks pretty funky in your Anki app. And there are some gorgeous colour options in the settings, too!

Turn up the heat

If you are ready to turn up the heat on your Anki routine by adding streak info and more, Review Heatmap is an essential add-on. Although it only boosts the desktop program, rather than the mobile apps, its insights can give you a real bird’s eye view over your learning.

As always with plug-ins, be sure to back up your Anki data before giving it a whirl.

 

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.

Clontarf, Dublin: achievement is often about the journey, not the destination.

Achievement on our terms: language learning as the joy of exploration

If ambition drives you to excel in a field as (traditionally) academic as languages, chances are you are achievement-oriented. Striving for success – however we choose to measure it – is part and parcel of loving the polyglot craft. Achievement gives us a buzz.

As independent learners, however, we are free to define achievement however it works best for us. It’s something that occurred to me on a trip to Dublin this weekend, a break that prompted me to dip my now-and-again toe into the Irish language once more.

Strictly casual

You might have a similar relationship with one of your languages. Irish fascinates me. It is both somehow familiar, yet so different from the Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages I usually work with. It fills a missing piece in my understanding of the Indo-European family. For all that, I love dabbling in it through the odd couple of lessons on Duolingo, or a leaf through a basic Irish grammar.

That said, me and Irish are involved on a strictly casual basis. I have no particular goal in mind. No exams, no trip to the Gaeltacht to chat with locals. I just enjoy exploring when the mood takes me.

The way I approach Irish reminds me of the ‘down the rabbit hole’ experience many have with encyclopaedia site like Wikipedia. Browsing a single article can lead the reader to click link after link, hopping from one article to another. Exploration is the end in itself, the achievement won. Whatever the content, however idle the amble, we are just that little bit richer at the end for it.

The result? Walking around public spaces in Ireland is now a series of ‘aha!’ moments. This weekend, it chuffed me to pieces to recognise the occasional word and structure in the Irish language signs  in and around Dublin.

My proudest (and geekiest) achievement: recognising eclipsis on a sign for a men’s swimming area. It’s a lovely moment when you realise that even the most superficial amount of learning can help make sense of the world around you.

https://twitter.com/richwestsoley/status/1147912238373769221

Tantalising tangents

Achieving via the tangential route is nothing new for me, and you have likely experienced it too. At school, I was a diligent and effective student. But regularly, my teachers would drag me back on course as I’d drift off on some off-the-beaten-track knowledge expedition, away from the prescribed curriculum and onto (for me) exciting, uncharted territory.

In language classes, I was eager to express what had meaning for me – usually what I had been up to lately. Without fail, I’d thumb straight past the pages on “a strawberry ice cream, please” to the appendix reference on the past tense. That was where my spark of interest lay. Learning by personal detour meant that my sense of achievement was so much greater.

As my language journey progressed to college, one route led me to ‘collecting’ terms for birds and other wildlife in German. Useful for my A-level exam prep? Perhaps not. But fascinating and fun to the nascent language geek in me? You bet!

It hit homes in this lovely tweet I spotted recently, which neatly sums up our freedom to learn:

 Achievement on your terms

The fact is that the polyglot community has already uprooted language success from its traditional environment of formalised, assessed learning. Freed from the shackles of exam performance, there are as many reasons to learn and enjoy as there are methods to learn.

We are incredibly lucky to be part of a learning community that minimises achievement pressure like this. Even if that achievement is simply the joy of exploration and wonder, it is no less valid than acing written exams on a university course.

We are our own measure of success. Learn what, and how, you love. And let that be your achievement!

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.

The best cure for digital fatigue - paper and pen. Image from freeimages.com.

Digital fatigue in language learning: blending old school for a perfect mix

I’ve always been a big champion of digital platforms for language learning. It’s my passion – and my job. So it’s with perhaps with some sense of defeat that I admit to suffering from a bit of digital fatigue of late.

Maybe I’ve been overdoing it on Duolingo? Or perhaps the multilingual Anki decks have been a bit overwhelming. Either way, I felt the need to seek a bit of real-world, analogue solace this week.

Perhaps you’ve felt it too. That cloudy, foggy-headed feeling when you realise you’ve been idly staring at a screen for too long without actually achieving much. You wouldn’t be alone, given that 41% of respondents in one recent study report that same weariness with tech.

There is something energy-sapping about the sheer passivity of digital device usage and its hypnotic draw. For all the great things digital tools offer language learners, they are beasts that need control – or to risk being controlled by. It is no surprise that the great minds behind tech giants raised their children completely tech-free.

As much as I love the idea of adopting a wholly paperless routine, there was nothing for it. I had to prescribe myself a bit of old school.

Going old school

There is little else more old school in language learning than the trusty text book. Getting caught up in online learning means you can often miss developments and new releases in the book world, and there are some fantastic recent additions to the language shelf to give your eyes some screen-rest.

Teach Yourself books, for example, have played a winner with their recent Tutor series. Thoroughly offline – there aren’t even any digital versions at this point – they are modern, up-to-date grammar primers for A2-B2 level, packed with relevant examples and useful drills. I must admit to becoming a little addicted to them: four and counting!

Books are, of course, a joy. Being a bibliophile is almost part and parcel of being a language lover, so chances are you already have a wealth of material sitting on the shelf without rushing out to buy more.

Unless you have an e-reader with some novel e-ink features for a natural feel, spending time with physical tomes is the perfect way to beat digital fatigue and reconnect with offline learning. (Just don’t spend too long online ordering them – or even better, visit your local bookshop!)

You can work with these paper resources while still preserving the offline benefits. One combination approach I talked about recently was forward loading vocabulary from your books to your digital vocabulary tools. That two-track blend keeps you in those paper pages while leveraging the power of the app, too.

But what when it comes to written work?

Getting touchy-feely with words

Working a lot on my laptop, I’m used to using Evernote for language learning notes and other tasks. It’s simple, cloud-based and has lots of extra features like tagging (a lifeline if you make reams and reams of notes like I do).

That said, even amazing tools like this contribute to soul-sapping digital fatigue after a while. And when electronic note-taking is too much, there’s an obvious solution: good old pen and paper.

Physical writing, be it vocabulary lists, writing exercises or whatever other language tasks you choose, has a kinaesthetic, touchy-feely element that tapping on a device simply lacks. There is a level of preparation and care involved that makes it a wholly more active way to work with words.

Doing something physical with your material helps increase both your level of involvement and pride in it, both excellent get-it-to-stick tricks. And that’s not to mention the fun of enjoying lots of lovely stationery, too!

Old-school but environment-kind

Even still, nothing is perfect. Storage, paper waste, the general accumulation of stuff – the digital world promised us an escape from these downsides. Fortunately, there are ways to blend offline and online approaches so we get the best of both worlds.

An environmentally-friendly way to chug through reams of paper is simply to snap your handwritten notes into an app like Evernote or Scanner Pro, then recycle the originals responsibly.

Lately, though, there’s been a great deal of buzz around reusable notebooks on social media. Rocketbook and Infinitebook are leading the way for a new breed of paper: the kind you write on again, and again… and again.

Not only are they refreshed via a number of often novel methods (microwaving being the most out-there), but they contain crossover features that help them interface seamlessly with the digital world. Some pages, for example, contain checkboxes for the cloud platform of choice for storage (Dropbox, Google Drive and so on). Snap your notes with the dedicated app, and they will whizz across to their destination, safe and sound and without any bother.

Though affordable, these are something of a medium investment, costing more than even the average language text book. On the other hand, you may well save a fortune on traditional pads in the long run.

Fancy a cheaper option to Rocketbook and other pricey (but equally impressive) options? A mini-whiteboard can give you a place to scribble, scan and scrub at a fraction of the price.

 

Digital dream: still alive but reimagined

So, as a digital renaissance kid truly sold on the idea of a paperless future, maybe I am a little disillusioned at the reality. The idea of carrying my whole world – educational and otherwise – around on a 9″ tablet is looking a little jaded. But a blended approach really does save the day, pulling together the best of both worlds.

Ultimately, variety is the order of the day to keep language learning fresh. And if you only stick to digital platforms, you miss out on the wealth of resources the offline world has to offer.

Don’t feel defeat when digital fatigue sets in, like I did. Rediscover the offline to reignite your joy of learning. Then beat app anxiety without ditching it completely by blending your worlds!

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 short study break may do your brain the world of good between the book marathons. (Image from freeimages.com)

The returner learner effect : how a study break can be a language learning boost

Brains are mysterious things. Sometimes, they seem to display most counter-intuitive behaviour. Just take the study break, for example. Give yourself a few months off a language, and you might expect to be a bit rusty as a returner learner. But sometimes, on your return, you get that joyful feeling that it never went away. And somehow, could it feel even more solid than before?

It’s more common than you think.

Budding polyglots, by their nature, experience the returner learner effect a lot. Since it is rarely a good idea to study more that one or two languages at once, there can be stretches where any language aficionado is not actively working on several of them. Often, there may not even be opportunities to speak them regularly.

Some maintenance is essential, of course. And we can keep things ticking over with a weekly tactical schedule that at least gives a nod to all of our projects. But it is almost inevitable that some languages will be put into a deeper sleep than others.

Software-Switching

Never fear. I actually like to think that we are made to use our brains like this. Short-term, or working memory, for example, can only hold around seven items for processing at any one time. On a longer-term scale, learnt skills, like languages, are also processing-hungry programs that cannot all be run altogether at full capacity at the same time.

Computer analogies, although not always perfect, can be neatly apt ways to think about the brain. Just today, this nostalgic thread about early 1980’s, disk-based computing bubbled up into my Twitter timeline. What better metaphor for the nature of our active and passive languages? There is certainly an element of software-switching going on when I prepare to ‘load up’ a language I haven’t used in a while. Although it’s not quite “Insert Russian: Disk 4”, it can feel like some gear-shifting is required to switch a language back on.

Let sleeping languages lie…

For various reasons, I had parked my Norwegian in the cerebral software archive a few months ago. For one thing, I had enjoyed a couple of trips to Oslo already by last Summer. Now it was time for other plans, other countries, and other languages – at least for a while.

Not only that, but the perennial polyglot itch was making itself felt. I wanted to try new things, and reach new levels with my other projects. My Norwegian was at a decent level; it could withstand a little rest.

Of course, rest should never mean oblivion. Language skills are precious, and it is essential to have a maintenance plan for all of them. Optioned Anki decks is a favoured way to finely control the maintenance all of those you care about keeping, for example. In this way, maintenance can chug along in a fairly low-key fashion.

As long as you do something, those disks should only require occasional dusting to stay serviceable.

And so it was in my case. Along with occasionally reading the news at nrk.no, I kept my Norwegian on a low boil since the end of last Summer.

…until their day comes again

Ultimately, the time comes when sleeping languages grow impatient for the limelight again. My own travel plans had finally come full circle again, settling on Norway (a more irresistible return destination after each trip, believe me – it’s never too long before that scenery exerts its pull!). The time seemed right to dust off the Bokmål.

When bringing your languages out of storage, you need a strategy – something to help load those programs back into memory.

My own, personal favourite is to kickstart passive use via a podcast blitz.

I chose my old favourite Norwegian podcast to stage a return: the fantastic Språkteigen by NRK. It is a real gem for language lovers with a bit of norsk.

In fact, I had been putting off listening to the show for a while. There was a fear that I might have slipped back further than I thought. Would I understand a single word? Should I have been spending more time on Norwegian maintenance? To ease myself back in gently, I selected a low-pressure time – listening on the treadmill at the gym – and clicked play on the programme.

I had nothing to worry about. I was hooked by the subject matter from the first few lines, and zoned right back into it as I listened and ran. By the end, I’d jogged for thirty minutes without realising it, and felt boosted by how much I understood.

It almost seemed like I could understand more than back when I was actively studying.

The choice of material is crucial, of course. I chose something I’d missed listening to.  I wanted to understand.

The returner learner effect

That feeling of being better after a break is down to a number of elements:

Their effects are felt most keenly just in those days when we return to the language. If you select your return material wisely, you can maximise the motivation that provides. Feed on the renewed confidence. In a subject area that demands so much self-confidence compared to others, it is a rare chance to say: yes, I am not bad at this at all!

Building back active production

Of course, a dose of realism is also required. In my case, I had spent six months not speaking Norwegian at all. The extent of my Bokmål use had been completely passive. While the ‘background task’ effect of the brain may well benefit my active production of Norwegian in the long run, I must still acknowledge that work needs to be done to build back my speaking confidence.

But the lesson here is that all those hours of hard work were not in vain. The brain has the learner’s back. In those quiet months, it works on, patiently distilling that mass of material into a solid skill – one that was ready to load back into memory when needed.

Like all effects, the post-study-break boost wanes as the reality of the study regime kicks in again. You will feel challenged once more. That said, it would be worrying not to feel that way. To make a comparison to working out at the gym, it is often when the muscles feel most taxed that the builder makes the greatest gains.

However transitory the returner learner effect, seize upon it to ride a fresh wave of confidence after a study break. Maximise it by choosing media that you know you will respond positively to. Let it reassure you that your brain is on your side, whatever tricky conundrums language learning throws your way!

Meta-learning - know your brain (Image from freeimages.com)

Meta-learning: relearn how to learn with a new language mini-project

Dia duit! That’s Irish for hello – which, despite a million other things, I chose to start dabbling in this week. Unlike other come-and-go language projects of mine, it’s not a former language I’m returning to. In fact, I knew zero Irish before this week (save the welcoming céad míle fáilte of numerous 1990s Eurovision Song Contests!).

It’s not for want of something to do. I already have plenty of core language learning goals for 2019 to keep me occupied. Improving my Icelandic, Norwegian and Polish are already taking a chunk of my time.

So why the extra load?

Well, apart from the kid-in-a-candy-store nature of being a linguaphile, taking a language detour in totally unknown pastures now and again has great utility. Namely, it is a brilliant way to audit and augment your meta-learning skills: learning how you learn.

Stuck in our ways

Human beings like treading comfortable tracks. Because of that, it is all too easy to get stuck in our ways.

Of course, the familiar often works very well for us. Our regular approaches, methods and routine usually serve us grandly in our language learning goals. But knowing how to learn is a skill, just like any other. We can improve it, or we can neglect it and let it get rusty. And getting into that autopilot groove might actually prevent us from ever getting better at how we learn.

Taking a learning diversion can be a fun way to get unstuck and freshen up your daily language grind. The golden rule here is the more unfamiliar, the better. The idea is to audit how you learn; material unrelated to anything you already know will isolate the learning process from background knowledge that may act as a crutch and mask poor learning habits.

In my case, Irish is a real departure from the norm. My background is coloured by Germanic, Romance and Slavic languages, and so a Celtic language is something I can approach with completely fresh eyes, and few chances to rely too comfortably on pre-knowledge.

Unfamiliar material activates your aptitude for exploring your meta-learning skills.

Now, unfamiliar need not mean outside your own sphere of interest. Learning something you have no interest in is never a good idea. Why did I pick Irish? Simple: it’s a beautiful country next to my own, inexpensive to travel to, and I wanted to get to know it a lot better. In the words of Rita Mae Brown:

Language is the road map of a culture. It tells you where its people come from and where they are going.

Meta-learning lessons

One thing you find when you start on these kinds of language mini-project, is just how far your meta-learning skills have come. Regarding my own experience, you could say that I learnt my first foreign languages ‘the hard way’. That meant hours of book-based grammar study and reading in German and Spanish during the 1990s. That clearly worked well enough, as I did well in the subjects at school, and went on to get a degree and forge a career in languages.

That said, I had no access to wonderful tools like Anki, Duolingo, Learning With Texts and Wiktionary back then, or even on-demand access to foreign language media. Some of these things have become language learning staples to me, in many cases only very recently. I have gradually built them into my study routines for maintaining my main languages.

But how would they perform unleashed onto completely new territory?

The great news is that foreign language mini-projects are an excellent way to test the efficiency of all of your favourite methods.

Blended approach

A key discovery for me is the realisation that no single method works efficiently in isolation. A blended approach, using multiple formats, platforms and schedules maximises how well I learn. What’s more, joining up your learning resources manually is a good way to make learning more active, rather than simple passive reception.

You can turn a more passive resource into an active learning process by reworking its material into another format. For example, with Irish, I chose to use Duolingo as my primary lesson source. After each section, I look up new terms on Wiktionary, then add them to a deck of flashcards in Anki. I get more from this learning by doing than I would from using purely premade material.

Beyond that, there are so many things you can do to make lesson material your own. Look up sentences that contain the new words on Tatoeba, for example. Or listen to native speakers pronounce the words or phrases in different way on Forvo. As you experiment, explore and supplement, you expand your expertise in finding and adapting learning resources to get the most out of them. Meta-learning is understanding how to make new knowledge your own.

A dose of realism

Here’s the rub: chances are, that if you have a rose-tinted view of a particular platform, you might end up with a more realistic evaluation of it.

So it is for me with Duolingo. A fantastic free resource, without a doubt, and I was hugely excited to use it to learn a brand new language, rather than support one I was already learning. But how useful is it as your only resource?

I quickly discovered that without pre-knowledge, some Duolingo courses may need a little supplementing. Duolingo Irish, though a great introduction, is not quite enough as a standalone option for me. A particular issue is a lack of native speaker support for all phrases. In Irish, this is crucial given the very particular spelling system that needs to be learnt.

Also, I found myself craving more information about each word: the gender, the plural form and so on. I realised that my learning style requires more interrogation of new terms than the Duolingo course is happy to provide at first. No black-box thinking for me – I have to take those words apart and see every nut and bolt with my own eyes!

Plugging the gaps

Still, add a bit of support with Wiktionary and Forvo, and the creases are ironed out. I’m benefitting from the superb lesson structure and progression in Duolingo, and filling in the gaps my brain needs filled as I need to.

Without this insight, I’d be going around thinking of a single platform as a one-stop shop. Now that I can spot and patch the elements that need fleshing out, I’m both a better learner, and a better source of advice for friends and family who want to learn languages without the same frustrations.

And Duolingo is even more effective now I know how I work best with it.

Language learning report card

My mini-adventures in Irish have shown me where I am as a language learner. They also confirm that I already have a healthy understanding of how I learn effectively: I instinctively bend materials into a shape that fits my learning process best. That’s a decent report card and a confidence-building boost for any linguist (and we are all prone to occasional self-questioning!).

More than that, though: Irish has given me a chance to assess and experiment with those techniques in a way that does not interfere directly with my core language learning routine. Casual study of something completely different is ideal no-risk ground to do a skills audit without fear of knocking regular study off balance. It’s not that the new language doesn’t matter – it’s just that we are not invested in it enough (yet) to worry about making mistakes in our first steps.

Weird and wonderful world

Beyond that, using a brand new language as a meta-learning exercise can open your eyes to diversity. We so easily come to think of certain patterns or forms in language as normal or given if we never push our limits beyond the known. Exposing yourself to what, at first, seems weird and wonderful, can only promote flexible thinking.

So it is with Irish, a verb-subject-object language, so unlike many other Indo-European subject-verb-object languages commonly studied. I now know that this is far from unusual, sharing the trait with almost a tenth of world languages.

With wonderful projects like #LangJam promoting micro-study of languages, there is no better time to relearn how you learn. So much self-knowledge can come from those few extra minutes in your day. Give something new a try. It’s worth it for the better meta!

 

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!