It’s been a busy week for me in terms of language learning (and everything else!). I’d call the underlying theme motivation, more than anything else, as I’ve had a well-needed injection of inspiration juice from various quarters. Bouncing and bootstraps is what it’s been about – and here’s why.
Matthew Syed’s Bounce
I picked up a copy of Matthew Syed’s Bounce as part of my general reading this week. It’s the kind of motivational myth-busting book I love. The author takes down the intimidating idea of exclusive ‘natural talent’, and shows how success in any field comes down to dedication and practice above all else.
This seems really pertinent to language learning right now. Currently, it’s very easy to feel in the shadow of some of the ‘reknowned polyglots’ in the language learning scene. Sometimes it really does seem like they have some elusive linguistic superpower, or are somehow special, and different from us. (Sidenote: I know that’s not the intention of most of them – naturally we’ll always try to showcase our skills and potential, rather than our weaknesses. I do it myself!)
What Matthew reminds us of is that anyone can reach these levels of expertise with some graft. Using the well-known 10,000 hours to expert rule, he explains how hard work, not some magical, inborn ‘talent’, is what gets you to the top.
Of course, the polyglot scene is all about maximising your language learning, and making those 10,000 hours of practice as efficient as possible. Perhaps we shouldn’t be feeling in awe of these gurus’ language levels, but rather the learning techniques they employ so efficiently. We could all learn from that.
Muscle memory – for languages
Something else in the book rang true in my linguist’s brain. It’s been mentioned elsewhere in dialogue about language learning online, as the idea is a familiar one: muscle memory. Syed talks specifically about the movement of skill from the conscious to the automatic parts of our brain. In particular, he uses the example of table tennis. A champion player, for example, had internalised his physical technique to the extent that he could beat all competition – despite having the slowest ‘innate’ reaction times of the whole group tested.
Practise a language long enough, and the process of making certain sounds will move into this internal, automated memory. Your mouth will begin to shape certain sounds instinctively. You’ll interject in the target language without thinking about it. Fillers will come as if you were born speaking them. That’s your muscle memory in the target language kicking in!
Typically, you experience this at that click moment, when you realise you are thinking in the target language. It’s the autopilot feeling when you’re finally comfortable waffling away in it. I get it in German, for example, Deutsch being my oldest and strongest foreign language.
More surprisingly, it appears elsewhere even in languages I’m not so comfortable with. I’ve trained myself to interject frequently in Polish, so dropping a właśnie (exactly!) or świetnie (great!) happens almost without thinking now. And that’s still at a pretty basic level (A2). So you can leverage linguistic muscle memory at any level.
It’s a great book for a bit of a pep-up. You can get a second-hand copy from 78p on Amazon right now, so it’s worth a couple of quid if you need a bit of enthusing!
Language learning challenge and support
Of course, getting in that amount of practice is easier when you have support. I know I’m guilty of slacking off a bit when left to my own devices. So how can we encourage ourselves to get Syed’s golden 10,000 hours in?
To this end, I’ve been gaining bags of motivation from a new group I’ve joined on Facebook. It’s been literally pulling me up by the bootstraps with my Icelandic, after months of half-hearted attempts and disorganised dribs and drabs here and there.
A good iTalki teacher friend of mine is running the group, which, for the moment, is a limited pilot. Around a dozen of us are signed up, which is a nice, cosy number for a group like this.
Each member picks a language, and an improvement goal based on the European framework. We each have a schedule to report back to the group – either in writing or video update – about progress in our chosen language.
It’s the kind of accountability exercise that has had very positive results in the field of professional coaching. Peers motivate each other, keep each other on track, and – crucially – learn from each other.
Choosing which language to target was particularly tough, considering that I’m actively working on three at the moment (Icelandic, Norwegian and Polish). Add to that two further languages I’m maintaining (German and Spanish), and I had to think long and hard about which one to throw this special lifeline to. It was a close-run contest, with Icelandic narrowly pipping Polish. Not that the others will cease (I’m too much of a junkie for that!). They’ll continue in the background – it’s just Icelandic that will receive the shot-in-the-arm this time round!
Return to Duolingo Mountain
Talking of Polish, I’ve also rediscovered the joys of Duolingo after a few months of consigning it to the back of my mind. As a starter, I always found it a little dull in the first few lessons. However, returning to it with a slightly higher level of the language has been a revelation.
The ability to ‘skill out’ of the first lessons through tests has revitalised the app for me. I’ve now leapfrogged over the early material, and am using it for 5-10 minutes a day for sentence drilling. As I suspected, I now find Duolingo much more useful as a maintenance / drill tool. I think it’s really cementing the foundations of my elementary Polish.
If only Duolingo had an Icelandic course!
On the subject of support, I’ve also been inspired by the presence of friends lately. I’m constantly heartened by the regular newsletters of ‘happiness guru’ Nataly Kogan, who recommends making of note of your gratitudes every day. It reminds me to be thankful for language learning friends like Marcel above, for example, but also for friends who spur on my language learning through home baking treats, amongst other things (thanks for the flapjack, emmafull!). My Mum makes a mean apple crumble, too (carrying the baton forward from my wonderful Nan). Food for the brain and soul.
I’m also pretty grateful for the Swagbucks site in recent weeks, which is keeping me happy with the occasional free iTunes card via surveys and such like. Excellent for purchasing langauge learning apps and subscriptions! Especially handy if you spend a fortune on these things (as I’m sure many of us do).
What are you grateful for in your language learning world this week? Let us know in the comments!