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!

Anki Stats : Review Graph

Language Learning by Numbers : Anki Stats

If you use Anki to drill vocabulary, it’s tempting to sit back and let the app do all the work. Feed in your phrases, and simply let the algorithms work their magic.

On the other hand, if you really want to know what’s going on, you can dabble in the dark art of Anki stats.

Let’s face it, statistics are not everyone’s cup of tea. I’d be surprised if even half of regular Anki users take a look in the stats tab. Confession: I completely ignored the section myself for years. But with the start of a language resuscitation project recently, that extra information has become meta gold: a way to learn about my learning, and have more control over it.

In short, Anki stats allow us to view the past and see the future.

Get Him to the Greek

Way back when I started learning Anki, Greek was an active project of mine. I eventually rested that to focus on other languages for a while, so tagged my Greek deck as a ‘rested’ language in Anki.

Fast forward to 2020, and my Greek has been resurrected from its lengthy slumber. Firstly, I switched my Greek deck back to active in the Anki options. But given the lack of engagement for so long, I also went for the nuclear option: I reset all my Greek cards. I would drag those words and phrases back to the land of the living (languages) by drilling them all afresh.

The thing is, those active settings are now shared with my other active learning projects in Anki. Anki sets a maximum daily new card limit, which my revival Greek now takes up since I drill it first. That’s the plan for now, of course. But for the sake of planning, it would be great to know when my other languages will get a look-in again.

Stats Life

To keep on top of what’s coming your way soon, two sections in the stats are worth getting familiar with: Card Counts and Future Due.

Anki Stats: Card Counts

Anki Stats: Card Counts

Making sure the Greek deck is the one selected, I call up the Stats window. The number I’m interested in is New. These are new (or reset) cards that are queued to present during future reviews. Only when these have been drip-fed through will my other languages get a chance to serve up new words (if I continue to prioritise Greek).

The total currently reads 392. That sounds colossal, but at 10 new cards a day, I will have worked through them in just over a month. A month, that is, if I don’t add any more words for the time being! But that’s just the point: I can use the information here to make a more informed choice about how regularly I add more words to the deck. I am managing Anki, not the other way round.

Anki Stats : Future Due

Anki Stats : Future Due

Similarly, Future Due takes elements of the card count info, but lays it out graphically. This is incredibly useful – at a glance, you can see how the current crop of Greek words tails off after just over a month. By that point, I will have revised and learnt hundreds of Greek items. That’s also when my other projects will start popping in their fresh cards.

Taming Anki

Knowing your numbers is a little thing, but knowledge is power. Anki is no longer a black box spitting out words with no end in sight. I can see exactly where I’m going. And perhaps that’s the clincher for me, as a visual thinker. I like to see my way. (Incidentally, if you do too, there is an excellent heatmap visualiser available for Anki, too.)

Not everybody works well with woolly goals, either. The stats can give you a sneak peek into your language learning future. From that vantage point, you can visualise the finish line (or at least the next checkpoint).

By date X, I will know 500 words and phrases. That is powerful stuff.

You can be a surface user of Anki. It is tremendously useful even if you only use its basic functions. But getting a hold on your numbers can provide a world of support.

Shooting Stars : Logging can help you reach for the skies with your language learning! Image from freeimages.com

Task Logging: Realise You’re Smashing It

If only we’d all be a little kinder to ourselves.

I read it all the time on social media: fellow language learners beating themselves up for not studying harder, longer, more often. It seems like everybody feels they’re not doing enough.

In fact, Covid lockdown has made things worse for many. Faced with all that extra time at home, how have we not turned into super-productive learning machines, devouring languages by the barrowload?

But far from egging us on, this type of chat is goal-wrecking. Feeling that we aren’t doing enough can be hugely demotivating. All that self-flagellation can have the opposite effect.

You simply give up.

Owning up

I raise my hand at this point. I am as guilty of self-criticism as the next learner.

I’m not doing enough. I’m not spending enough time on language X, Y, Z. I’m a bad student! I must try harder.

The thing is, it is difficult to fit learning into the busy lives we lead. No question. Few of us have the resources or options to be full-time, always-on students, and learning sometimes boils down to a bit here, a bit there.

But this was my biggest mistake: I thought a bit here, a bit there amounted to nothing.

So, to try and prove myself wrong, I started logging what I was actually doing. And the result was a bit of a surprise.

Looks like a lot, doesn’t it? Well, at the time, none of this felt like a lot. These bits and pieces were often just ten minutes or so, snatched around busy working days. Several of them were fairly passive activities, like listening to a podcast, or watching a short programme and making brief notes.

But just look how they add up.

The fact is that often, we simply don’t realise the cumulative effect of what we do. But the little and often approach pays dividends if you have a hectic rest-of-life in the background.

Logging logistics – the simpler, the better

So, how best to approach this?

As a productivity nerd, I’ve experimented with methods until the cows came home. Truth be told, there are as many ways to journal and log as there are learners. It’s worth trying out a few approaches to find what works for you.

Recently, I hit upon a winning formula that was immediately effective, but gradually morphed into something more streamlined. I started a logging cycle by creating monthly language report cards for each project. It worked really well straight off the bat. But since then, the multiple documents have slowly melded into a single list in recent weeks, and now it works even better. It’s highlighted one of the few hard and fast rules of learner logging (there aren’t many):

The simpler the logging method, the better: it is much easier to keep it up.

At first, I also tended to separate the more ‘meaty’ learning activities from repeated daily language habits, such as app work with Anki, Drops and Duolingo. Instead, I track these as regular tactics following the 12-week year system of goal setting. They have become so ingrained that I don’t even count them.

But there I go again, diminishing my efforts to nothing. Not counting these daily tasks as real work was another reason for getting a false impression of my efforts. The antidote – I moved my daily tick boxes to the same place as my log. So another rule learned:

Keep all of your logging, large and small, in one place: don’t overlook any of your efforts.

The magic of logging

When you get logging down to a tee, something magical begins to happen.

The act of filling your list up becomes a motivator in itself.

You start to take pride in that busy list of flag-lined milestones by the end of the week, and develop a mindfulness for even the smallest learning activities you might otherwise have written off as nothing.

The heart of that magic spark is the imperceptible accumulation of riches – in this case, educational ones. Just like regular savings pile up in a bank account, so do your little and often moments. The least you can do for yourself is make these many, miniature wins visible.

Logging needn’t even be in list format. I have a pad on my desk that I use to scribble down my language notes. During lockdown, I paid no attention to the number of pages I was filling up. But, one day, I suddenly realised that I have written reams and reams. It never seemed like a lot – but little, and often, it really was.

Smashing it – and not even realising it.

The language jotter that sits on my desk.

The language jotter that sits on my desk. Before I knew it, it was full.

I wrote this post as a personal pep talk – I needed to celebrate my efforts, and stop belittling them. But I hope it suggests a way for you to get that same satisfaction if you feel the drag  and don’t feel what you do is enough.

Look a little closer – you’re smashing it and you don’t even realise.

Use logging and journaling to remind yourself that you’re doing a good job, and give yourself a pat on the back more often.

A clock on a wall. How long is the perfect one-to-one online lesson? Image from freeimages.com.

Online Language Learning: Counting the Hours

How long should one-to-one online language lessons be? 30 minutes? 45 minutes? An hour? Even longer?

I spend a lot of time in online lessons on iTalki. There, as on similar sites, the norm is the hour-long lesson. Although other options are sometimes available depending on the individual tutor, they are not a given. Many tutors only offer 60-minute sessions.

The trouble with an hour

Of course, there is nothing wrong with the idea of the hour-long lesson in itself. A full hour to work systematically on your language, one-to-one, can be great. However, it does depend on the teacher. If you strike it lucky with a tutor who organises meticulously and uses varied and engaging resources, an hour can fly by.

This does require a skilled and experienced tutor, though. I have worked with a handful of excellent teachers on the platform, who make an hour work really well. I get solid results in that setting, and I stick with them for that. But since iTalki tends to foster a more casual and informal vibe than traditional face-to-face lessons, the full whammy can sometimes feel a bit too long with others.

It depends on the student, too, of course. I won’t let myself off that lightly! An hour – plus the pre-prep and the post-housekeeping (adding words to Anki, etc.) – represents a substantial chunk of a busy day. You might end up, like I do, spacing our hour-long lessons across ten-day to fortnightly stretches, just to cram everything in along with work and general ‘life stuff’. At that pace, you risk losing momentum.

A more brain-friendly approach?

For me, for the majority of lessons now, there is a better way: plumping for sessions of just 30 minutes at a time. There may be fewer tutors that offer them, but they are worth the hunt.

For a start, since language learning is embedded in a busy life already, the 30-minute format mirrors the way I fit other activities into my schedule too. Just as I grab half an hour here, half an hour there, shorter lessons can be squeezed into a lunch break on the busiest of days. This way, classes are both less disruptive and a lot less painful to keep up as a habit.

Secondly, best practices around attention span and pacing during independent study support the idea of shorter, snappier and more effective lessons. When approaches like the Pomodoro Technique chunk our time against a maximum span of 20-25 minutes, then long, amorphous online language lessons should ring alarm bells. We need either shorter sessions, or very conscious and deliberate pacing of longer lessons for optimal learning on the part of the tutor. In the fairly informal setting of iTalki and similar platforms, the former is a lot easier to achieve.

Spaced learning

Combined with a more regular timetable – easier to achieve with shorter sessions – half an hour also respects the old little – but often adage. Why wear out a tired brain lumping all those minutes together, when you could spread the load? Techniques like spaced practice / repetition rely on the fact that the brain works on new material in the background between study sessions. Shorter but more frequent lessons give it the chance to do the same.

That said, I did initially worry that half an hour might be too brief to get anything substanital achieved with my tutor. A lot of that comes from the pressure of the norm. It can be hard tofind the self-assurance to question that and go against the grain. Maybe, that little voice says, there is good reason that many tutors only offer a full hour.

But in practice, it just works for me. Cumulatively, the effect is just as much learning with a lot less learner fatigue. And given the short window of time, the determination to eke the very most out of the lesson is all the greater.

Shorter online language lessons: worth the extra

There is one extra consideration to take into account. The minute-per-minute ratio between hour-long lessons and their shorter counterparts is not quite even. Generally, there is a price disadvantage for the student with shorter sessions. Understandably so, since, as a former teacher, I know well that there is a minimum time layout for topic-based prep for your students, regardless of the lesson length.

That said, I find that the extra cost is worth it for the attentional and organisational benefits. Looking for new teachers, I now filter based on lesson length offered. I am much more likely to go for the half-hour squad, especially with community tutors.

Ultimately, the teacher rarely loses out in my case. As I can fit them in more easily, I am much more likely to book a more frequent classes if I have the shorter option. The result: a much more lucrative student!

Online teachers, please consider adding a 30-minute option to your menu if you haven’t already. There’s nothing like having more options as a student to make these choices and have a little more control over your learning calendar.

How long is your ideal online lesson? Let us know in the comments!

Sunlight through the clouds. Image from FreeImages.com

The Power of One Deep Breath

Content, content, content. So often, the sole focus is on what we study. We hear a lot less about the setting, the timing and the flow. But these can have a huge impact on learning success. And something as simple as a long, deep breath and a moment of pause can be the difference between successful study and an uphill slog.

I hit my latest brick wall this week. Studying, working, eating, relaxing in the same place was taking its toll. There was just no ebb and flow, no contrast between functions.

And contrast is important. Human beings need variety. We crave perpetual motion. Lockdown robs us of that, and even the most committed of us can struggle without the punctuation of life’s usual rhythms, the momentum of an ever-changing background.

It hardly helps that for many language enthusiasts, the arcs of motion usually swing well beyond house, home, library and coffee shop. There is solidarity on social media, where once avid travellers console each other over the Covid wing-clipping. A static, motionless life can have a stalling effect on motivation.

It is time to take a breath of fresh air.

Catching your breath

Fortunately, inspiration was close at hand. I am lucky enough to count a bunch of wonderful professional coaches amongst my friends. This enthusiastic group is adept at helping others overcome stumbling blocks in the way of achieving their goals. I recognise the power of good coaching – I have first-hand experience of how working one-to-one with a coach can bring great results in language learning.

Through one of these wonderful colleagues*, I recently came across a simple space clearing exercise. Now space is what I desperately needed. With every task, every chore, every project running into a big amorphous mass, it felt like there was no separation, no flow. I was going straight from household chores to work tasks to close study, but without the usual change of scene or mental breather. Mental baggage from one task would hang around in the next. 

Logjam.

The antidote uses deep, focused breathing to clear the air – quite literally – before a focused session. Essentially, it is a forced stop and reset before changing gear. My coaching colleague uses it to great effect at the start of his coaching one-to-ones, but it is just as helpful before a study bout.

The technique is simple. Sitting comfortably at your workspace, close your eyes. Inhale deeply three times, exhaling each breath in a slow, controlled way. Focus closely on the cool air entering your lungs, then exiting, warmed by your body heat. Then, take in another long, deep breath, and hold it for two or three seconds before exhaling. When you are ready, open your eyes.

You just added a bit of sorely needed punctuation to your routine.

The whole thing takes less than a minute and requires zero practice or tuition. I have tried it when switching between work and study over the past week, and it is an excellent quick fix. It eases the transition from one mode to another, creating a stopgap, a fresh start, and minimising that tendency to carry across mental baggage and distractions.

Mindful learning

Of course, this is is the bread and butter of mindfulness – a general approach to mental wellbeing deemed effective enough be run as part of student support programmes in a number of UK schools. Fans of mindful apps like Headspace will likewise be very familiar with these kinds of techniques using breathing to slow down, step back and reset the mindset.

That said, there can be a certain reluctance amongst many to try out these techniques. I should know – I was initially sceptical myself. With an eye on the soley practical sphere, the learning content alone, spending time getting the mind ready to learn retreats into the background a little. It can also feel – let’s admit it – a bit silly sitting at your desk with your eyes closed when you first try it.

But the space clearing technique shows that mindful approaches need not take up any significant amount of time, or even require lots of background research. A couple of deep breath – that really is all there is to it. No long-winded, complicated techniques to master.

And even if the desk-breathing technique is not for you, you can create your own punctuation points. Jog. Do five minutes of simple stretching. Make a coffee. Have a bop around the living room to your favourite song.

Anything can be your one deep breath, as long as it clears your head space.

*Big thanks to Simon for introducing me to the space clearing technique!

A clipboard. Image from freeimages.com.

Keep tabs on your efforts with language learning report cards

Now, if you hadn’t noticed, I am a complete control freak. But in a good way… honest! Well, most of the time. And especially when it comes to language learning.

The “good way”, of course, mostly involves tracking how regularly and effectively I learn. I am beholden to a raft of productivity tools like Evernote, Wunderlist (now Microsoft To Do) and even good, old-fashioned paper-and-pen lists to keep track.

Lists are my friends.

To do – or to have done?

Mainly, my focus has always been on forward planning. The lists I write are study to do lists on the whole – things I plan to do or feel I should be doing. But lately, I felt the need for something a bit more retrospective. A have done list, if you will.

How much am I actually achieving?

The need has been even greater under COVID-19 lockdown. Lethargy and indolence wheedle their way in during times of slowdown, and days disappear into the abyss. What is the best way to stay accountable to yourself when faced with an amorphous calendar of days in?

A really simple solution is to keep a language learning report card on each of your active and maintenance projects.

Keeping tabs

The language report card is, in short, just a retrospective diary of what you have worked on recently. I find the system works best on a monthly basis, with a separate document for each language project. Months make for quite a natural dividing line, with enough days to track and spot patterns in your learning, but not so many that planning for the next one seems aeons away.

To get started, simply fill in a few lines day by day to record the study resources you have used, and for how long. Include all your immersion activities too, even the odd five minutes listening to the radio here and there.

Engage in regular housekeeping of your language learning report cards.  Cast a frequent glance down the list throughout the month to monitor your progress and reassure yourself that yes, you are actually doing quite a lot. Or, conversely, that hmm, you might need to fit a bit of extra [language X] in tomorrow. And at the end of each month, cast an eye down the list by way of self-congratulation and preparation for how to go into the next one.

A diary of my language learning activities for Icelandic in April 2020

The simple act of keep a language learning diary can be one of the most effective for motivating yourself

Diarising your study provides a real sense of progress and satisfaction as you watch your document fill in over the month. Learning just a little every day soon adds up, and your personal report card makes it clearer than ever how much cumulative learning you are doing.

If you have multiple projects on the go – particularly maintenance languages – it helps highlight unintended neglect, too. It becomes starkly clear when you see a gap of several days pile up without touching one of your languages. We all need a bit of a study health check like that now and again.

Like some of the best language techniques, it is both exceedingly simple and brilliantly effective. It has really sorted out my Icelandic out this month after a period of drifting and coasting – my iTalki teacher noticed with the improvement.

With a new month around the corner, why not give it a go?

Language learning report cards are not the only way to journal your way to success – why not consider a target language daily diary too?

A wooded path - image from freeimages.com.

The Habit Trap: Becoming the master of your routine (and not its servant)

It was all going so swimmingly. There I was, walking that trusty path of habit, happy as a lark. You know, that path I always go for a stroll along. Know it like the back of my hand, I do!

Then – WHUMP – I almost fall into a gaping hole where the path should be.

Bewilderment.

Don’t worry – I’m not the character in some reworked Asbjørnsen and Moe tale. That trusty path was favourite productivity app repurposed for language learning, Wunderlist. Now, my affection for the tried-and-tested tool is no secret. It has been, in a word, a brilliant ally in the quest to regularise my language learning.

Those unexpected roadworks, though, were the at the hands of a big, not necessarily bad wolf. Namely Microsoft, who have purchased the company, winding down the app and replacing it with… a usurper. (Dan dan daaaaaah!) Like some wicked stepmother, my Wunderlist-shaped comfort-blanket was ripped from under my feet. Now, Microsoft To Do, like a brash, uninvited guest, had burst loudly into my very neat and tidy room, proclaiming hey! I’m your new buddy!

Friends, I felt resistance. Like an embattled legionnaire, I would stand my ground. Never surrender!

Back to reality

Right: enough with the allegory and mangled metaphors. What I am trying to describe is probably something you have experienced at some point, too. Habit, however, good, can sometimes lead to inflexible thinking. Rather than a safety net, rigidity breeds complacency.

And that leaves you unprepared for the change that life inevitably throws at you at regular intervals.

Habit becomes a trap.

The habit trap

The habit trap gets a hold on the best of us. Humans simply like predictability in their day-to-day. We can all feel friction and resistance when this predictability is threatened, sometimes by the tiniest changes.

Just look at the Duolingo message boards, for example. They are full of unhappy users complaining about the (admittedly quite frequent) functionality-tweaking changes and updates.

But look closer, and you might spot the flip side of the story. Just as many users embrace change and run with it.

Outwitting the trap

One strategy against letting the surprise of change knock you off course is variety. Spread your routine across a range of tools. Avoid relying on a single platform. This is an effective insurance policy against total wipe-out when your tools and techniques of choice change without warning.

Secondly – and this is more obvious, but harder to do – is to foster a mindset open to change. This is what those Duolingo forum users demonstrate, those happy souls brimming with positivity in the face of flux. Now, this is not simply the result of some imaginary split between ‘naturally’ glass-half-empty and glass-half-full people. It is quite possible to train your brain to seize the opportunity change brings.

Unsurprisingly, this is the stuff of a million self-help authors’ dreams. From the classic Who Moved My Cheese to more recent bestsellers like Atomic Habits, finding the pep talk to suit you is no hard task. The consensus is deafening, though: control your habits, rather the vice versa, and you can thrive.

And writing this at a time of lockdown, it strikes me that there is no better opportunity to experiment with your window of comfort to become a master, rather than a servant, of habit.

Needless to say, like all – well, most – fairytales, there is a happy ending. I embraced that party crasher, Microsoft To Do. And you know what? We really hit it off.

Don’t fall into the habit trap. Be its master, not its servant.

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.