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.

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!