Managing Language Learning When Life Happens

From time to time, I decide that it’s time to get organized. That’s when I prepare a beautiful weekly schedule and I promise myself to stick to it. To be fair, I often don’t. I’m sure that the best language learners manage to do everything they plan 100% (or at least 95%) of the time but the point is you can still be pretty good at languages without being perfect. Today, I’ll tell you how to manage your language learning when life takes over.

Life Is Unpredictable

Here I was over a month ago with my new language learning plan that looked completely doable. 10 hours of language learning per week covering all my language needs. Sweet!
And then life took over. First, we had house renovations to finish off. Getting rid of unwanted things, buying new ones we needed, all a lot of admin with a full-time job+. Then the move came and made me realise that OMG I’m no longer a 23 year old who came to Cape Town with two suitcases. Just after we moved in, it turned out that the house still needed some work so we dealt with builders when working from home. And then we fostered a second dog. This is life and life in unpredictable.
It’s important to schedule your language learning because otherwise you’ll never progress. You need to find the time to study and to practice. Still, sometimes life takes over. You can beat yourself up about it or try to do your best given the circumstances.

When Time’s More Precious Than Ever Prioritize

To see true progress with language learning you need to do many things: listen, write, speak, read… There are grammar exercises to do and mistakes you keep making to eliminate. There’s always more and more you could do. When the circumstances are right you can do all of these things but when life is a bit crazy, you have to cut all the fluff out.
Have you heard about the 80 20 rule? It’s been popularised by self-development and productivity gurus such as Brian Tracy and Time Ferris. According to this rule, 20% of what you do gets you 80% of your results. It’s a really useful thing to keep in mind in terms of language learning.
What it means in practice, is that some of your activities give you better outcomes than others. Now, in my learning and teaching experience what exactly this is depends on a person. For me, it’s the repetitive drilling by speaking and doing exercises that works best. However, I’ve seen people who learn most effectively while actively listening or reading.
Think about when you feel like you’re learning and retaining the most. I’m not talking here about activities you like the most but the ones that you think are the best for language learning. When you have little time focus only on these things. For more tips on what to do when time matters more than money, read my other blog post.

Trick Yourself Into Learning

Prioritizing what works the best is very important so that you spend minimal time learning while getting maximum return. It’s very helpful when you’re tired and finding motivation is tough. It’s much easier to tell yourself “only this one hour class today and I’m done for the week” than feel that it’s just one thing among many other activities to tick off the list. The first scenario feels invigorating (doable, at worst), the second one daunting. Tricking yourself into learning is sometimes the only option to still have anything done!
You can also add additional strategies to your language learning in dire times. Choose a movie or a series in your target language over something in your native language. Read a comic book in a target language for fun. When researching something on Wikipedia for leisure, try reading the article in the language you’re learning. There are many ways to add a bit of language to your life in a way that doesn’t feel like work. I speak more about such things in my post 5 Easy Language Learning Opportunities.

Don’t Be a Douche to Yourself

It’s very easy to be hard on yourself, when things are a bit out of control. After all, you were supposed to be doing this or that and it’s just not happening. How can you be so stupid and lazy? There are people who have three kids, a responsible job AND a side business! Blah blah blah blah blah, your brain continues to make you feel bad. It’s counterproductive.
This isn’t a self-help blog so I won’t go on about what to do about your inner critic. For me, meditating, exercising, sleeping well and breathing deeply helps. You can try these and see for yourself. In any case, allow this voice to stay with you but try not pay attention to it. There are millions of people worse off than you are and millions of people who are better off. You are who you are, just chill and do your best whatever it means.
Beating yourself up about the lack of progress just kills your motivation. It also makes you feel like learning is just another chore. This isn’t good for you and can get you on a bender where you keep improving your mood with short-term pleasure. A day or two of being lazy won’t kill your language learning goals. Being a douche to yourself may turn a small detour into a big one, though. The longer the break, the more difficult it is to get back on track.

Just Do It. Thanks, Nike!

Identify what you consider to be your priorities and just do it. No excuses. For me, those were two sessions of Russian every week. It didn’t matter that some of them happened on a Sunday evening, I kept my promise to myself. Sure, I was ashamed in front of my teacher and language partner that I clearly haven’t done anything since our last meeting. I was ashamed and I forced myself to do it anyway.
Do whatever it takes to keep you going even if it’s at snail’s pace. It does feel well to achieve even the smallest goals.

Ok, meus amigos. That’s it for today. I hope this PEP talk will help you with your motivation and language learning goals when life is a bit too out of hand. Shihemi se shpejti!

5 Easy Language Learning Opportunities

Thinking about language learning as a game is a great way to go about it. Sure, you’ll need to put some hard work too but to succeed it really helps to have fun. When you think about learning a new language in that way, you start to see opportunities in many different place. Here are some things that’s been working for me:

1. Social Media in Your Target Language

Did you know that an average user spends almost 2 and a half hours on social media in 2020? Even if you’re not a heavy social media user, setting your social media in your target language will give you everyday exposure.
It’s also pretty easy to learn vocabulary that way because you’re dealing with an interface you already know. If you’re feeling more adventurous, you can set your phone to your target language too.
I’ve been mostly successful with this technique apart from one dreadful episode when I was having a go at Arabic (you can read about lessons from my language learning failures here). I was unable to do anything on my phone because I was so confused. It took me a few hours to set my phone back to a language I could actually understand!
You can also use social media to learn languages by following certain accounts. I’ve written about it in my post “How to Use Instagram to Help You Learn a Language“.

2. Sticky Notes

Whenever my student struggles with a particular word or expression for a long time I ask them to write it down and stick it to their fridge. They laugh but they do it and it helps. If you’re dealing with a number of words you’re trying to remember, you may spread them around the house too.
Looking at a given expression a few times a day, will help you remember it. Stubborn expressions are, well, stubborn so you need to defeat the enemy with their own weapons.
Sticky notes are also super useful for learning household vocabulary, when you stick names of items in your house in your target language on these items. Are you worried about the environment? Most sticky notes are recyclable (have a look at the FAQ section of Post-It, for instance).
A fair warning: this method has its limits. The more sticky notes around, the more likely you are to stop paying attention to them. You should also change them regularly because feeling that you “know” a word will make you overlook it.

3. Labels

This is a trick that I discovered on a toilet once when I had nothing to read so I started to study labels on the toilet paper packaging. Labels for cosmetics, cleaning products, medication, packed food and similar are usually translated to a number of languages. It’s easy to understand what it says in your target language as you can compare it to the language you know.
Labels are a cool tool because they give you naturally sounding words and expressions and not just a translation without the context, which is often the case with dictionaries. You can also squeeze this trick in quite easily, when doing your household chores or waiting for a cup of tea to brew.

4. Podcasts

Language learning podcasts such as coffee break languages or news in slow… are great for beginners and intermediate students, while more advanced students can benefit from actual podcasts in their target language.
You can listen to podcasts when shopping, commuting or cleaning the house. You can also add them to you runs or dog walks. In other words, whenever your hands are free you can squeeze a bit of listening comprehension in.
Just a note to working with language learning podcasts: make sure there’s not too much banter in a language different to your target language. Some podcasts can be very entertaining to listen to and teach you a lot about the culture of a given country, but if there’s not enough of the target language you’ll unlikely to see any progress.

5. Daily News and Content

If you follow the news, you can switch to listening to it or reading it in your target language. I’d recommend reading at lower levels, unless there’s an “easy news” option you’ve found.
You don’t read the news? Try reading about things you’re interested in, in your target language.
In the beginning shorter articles work better, you can even just have a look at the headlines daily. The point of building habits like this is that they will be more and more helpful as your understanding increases.
A good way to work with news and content is also reading about the same topic in two languages which significantly increases your understanding. Spend 10 minutes a day doing that and you’ll see for yourself what I mean.

I hope this list of language learning opportunities will be helpful to you. If you don’t know how to use a method for your level, let me know in the comments section and I’ll gladly help. Do you have your own tricks? Do share!

Adiós por ahora, queridos amigos! Hablamos pronto!

Lessons from My Language Learning Failures

I’m usually a pretty productive individual but I must say that I’ve been struggling with having things done in the last two months (because COVID). My workload is the same (touch wood) as before and if anything I have more time for doing cool things such as working on my Russian. And yet, I haven’t even done a Duolingo lesson in over a month.
I don’t think I have to tell anyone that life is tough at the moment, even for those fortunate enough to still have jobs. All I’ve been really doing is reading a lot and playing computer games, which are both coping mechanisms I’ve been using since childhood.
I think this is a perfect opportunity to speak about my language failures. I’m fluent in four languages but I could have been fluent in at least 7 had I been more consistent, motivated and productive. Why would I talk about these failures? Because there are lessons there to be learnt there, of course.

The Unheimlich German

German was not my language of choice. In the early 90’s German was THE language you learned as a second foreign language after English in Polish schools.
I was definitely not excited about learning it. I liked school but languages weren’t really my thing back then plus I didn’t find German particularly appealing. Also, my father’s wife at the time was a German philologist and she never failed to remind me how little of German I knew and how many mistakes I made. The school experience was full of grammar exercises, memorising vocabulary and little speaking practice. After 3 years of German and knowing only the bare essentials I was thrilled to move on to French traumatising my parents outraged at my decision of abandoning what I started. Their reaction was nothing else than sunk cost fallacy and I proved them wrong quickly.
Learning French in high school taught me I loved learning languages. After 2 years of learning with a group of beginners, I realised that by ACTUALLY learning what’s assigned you can get to an intermediate level in that time. While others still struggled with the basics, I decided to spend three weeks of my summer on a French course. When I got back to school I asked to be moved to a more advanced group of people who had 3 years of French ahead of me. The teachers didn’t love the idea and everyone expected me to fail. I was stressed, I was shy but I ended up being completely fine. I finished the year with a B in French and concluded it with the matric exam (A-levels equivalent) on both the basic (CEFR B1) and advanced (CEFR B2) level. I got 98% on B1 and 78% on B2.
What was different between my German and my French? In both cases we’re talking about 3 years. In high school I had 5 hours of French as opposed to 2 hours of German in middle school, but this doesn’t account for the difference. Most people who started with me as beginners in French spoke little French towards graduation, not more than I spoke German after middle school. Similarly, as much as there was no evil stepmother to discourage me from French, I had a number of teachers against me and the population of Paris during my course.
What really differed was: my motivation, my determination to succeed, my eagerness to show that the system is outdated and my genuine interest in French.

The Evasivo Spanish

If you google my name, you’ll find some bios of mine saying that I’m currently learning Spanish (to be fair you’ll find some saying that I’m learning Russian too, sighs). Spanish has been on my wishlist for years and years and I’ve had numerous attempts at learning it. I had two language partners during my studies I’d see regularly (it didn’t help with my Spanish that I made out with one of them and then he told me he wasn’t ready for a girlfriend!). I tried studying with books and with apps later but without much success.
In the meantime I became fluent in Italian by attending two intensive summer courses with two girlfriends and doing some annual courses in between. I took my first intensive summer course in Italian in summer 2008. In summer 2010 I took the B2 exam at my university and got a B+, leaving my examiners on the oral exam with their mouth agape.
What was the difference here? For Italian I had the structure and girlfriends to share my passion with (all hot Italian boys didn’t hurt either). For Spanish I had a liking for the language, for sure but no real structure. Also, by the time I was fluent in Italian between my French and Italian I understood a lot of Spanish which made me additionally lazy.

The Onoorkomelike Afrikaans

When I first came to South Africa, the social circle I ended up hanging out with was predominantly Afrikaans-speaking. That meant that whenever they got drunk (and we got drunk A LOT) they’d switch to Afrikaans, the language that I didn’t understand. I got an exchange partner I saw four times a week and within few months I was able to understand quite a bit of Afrikaans and have basic conversations. When the group and I drifted apart I just lacked the motivation to keep going and today I can only tell people that I speak Afrikaans a bit (n bietjie) or not at all (Ek praat nie Afrikaans nie!), depending on whether they look like someone I want to make the effort with or not.
What went wrong here? It’s complicated. There are millions of reasons why I’m no longer learning Afrikaans. One is that the people who speak it usually also speak English. The other that I feel that maybe a different South African language such as Zulu or Xhosa would be a better choice. Last but not least, my life wouldn’t really change in any positive way if I spoke it.

What about Russian?

I think it’s too early to count Russian among my language failures. The first time I tried to learn was two weeks in high school one summer with a book and CD recordings. Thanks to that experience, I can proudly say “Excuse me, does this train go to Minsk?” (Извините, пожалуйста. Этот поезд идет в Минск?) to this day!
The second time was a month before our trip to Azerbaijan in March 2019. I learnt to read Cyrillic and important survival expressions during a self-made crash course. The third time was three or four months ago when I decided to give it a try again and as you know I failed to build on my newly regained enthusiasm because COVID 19. And also, because I’m myself which means that I tend to have too many irons in the fire and apart from learning Russian I was trying to prepare to my C2 exam in Italian and make myself sound British.

Lessons From This TLDR Post

I’m certainly capable of learning languages and learning them fast too (and so are YOU and anyone who’s willing to put in the work) but the learning process requires the right circumstances to happen:

  • You need something you’re excited about that has to do with the language you’re learning, in other words, you need a strong WHY for choosing a given language in the first place
  • You need motivation and determination
  • You need structure, ideally not entirely self-imposed (get a motivated exchange partner or even better a language tutor or enroll on a course)
  • Strike while the iron is hot – maximise on your initial excitement with learning a new language and get as much done as you can then

Good luck on your language journey and good luck to me too!