Today’s post is from Olly Richards, an accomplished polyglot from the UK who is currently living in Qatar.
Olly runs a blog called I Will Teach You A Language where he shares some really sound and helpful advice, as well as progress updates on his own language learning (Cantonese at the moment).
I’m delighted to have him share here what I consider to be a really vital point and one I couldn’t agree with more!
You’d think that after learning nine languages I’d have quite a few tricks up my sleeve. I do have a few, in fact. But most of the time I don’t use them.
These days I focus on one thing only, and on getting that right.
In this post I want to explore the idea of “hacks”, “shortcuts” and “methods”.
I’m going to give you my perspective on what really matters in the language learning process after many years of struggle and experiments in very different contexts and I’ll end with some practical suggestions for what you should do if you’re struggling.
Language Learning Hacks
The internet has brought with it great things. Now that information flows freely and instantly across continents, it’s only natural that we go hunting for the things that we need: Where to buy the cheapest travel insurance, How to get a book for half price online, Top-rated hostels in Buenos Aires…
…but how to learn a language quickly?
Language learners have jumped on the bandwagon and are looking for shortcuts. “What’s the best method?” “How can I learn Spanish in a week?” “Which app will teach me Japanese the quickest?”
In the digital age everyone is looking for shortcuts.
I’m going to put forward the case that shortcut is the one thing you should be avoiding at all costs.
Why Do People Fail?
Learning a language is not easy, but it is simple.
I didn’t used to think that, but I’ve changed my mind.
When I look back on the languages I’ve learnt, it’s quite difficult for me sometimes to figure out exactly what it was that worked for me. When I first started out learning languages, in Paris at the age of 19, I tried a load of different things. Language exchanges, textbooks, even a correspondence course. When I then learnt Italian, I tried other things. Spanish was a completely different process again.
And so it went.
It’s only been since I started my blog that I’ve started to really understand why the things I did were working.
One thing that’s helped me to figure this out are all the emails I get from people telling me what their problems are.
It’s become clear to me that the reason most people fail to get anywhere in a foreign language is down to one thing. They are distracted into spending their time on all the sexy but peripheral things that come with a TV screen and an internet connection.
Movies, YouTube videos, iPhone apps, language blogs. Everything except actually doing the work.
With so many options for learning on the table, which do you choose? The longer the menu gets the harder it is to choose.
The Paradox of Choice
Barry Schwartz calls this the Paradox of Choice.
Having too much to choose from leads to inner paralysis and poorer decisions.
Imagine a restaurant where there’s only one main course on the menu: You go in, sit down and eat that one dish. If you like it, you’ll go back.
If you don’t, you won’t. But either way, by the time you leave the restaurant you’ll know whether it’s for you or not.
This is the approach to language learning that I’m advocating. With fewer options to choose from, you just get on with it, using whatever materials you’ve got available. You do it for a while, observe the results, and then either carry on or change course. By choosing one thing and getting on with it, whether it works out or not, you learn a valuable lesson about what works for you.
Barack Obama only wears blue and grey suits. The reason? In order to cut down on non-vital decisions. He may not win “best-dressed president”, but what he does wear looks good, he’s cool with it, and he just gets on with business.
When I was at high school, my French teacher used to give us a list of 10 words to take home and memorise at the end of every lesson.
Rote memorisation is all but dismissed by almost everyone in the language learning field, but you know what? I learnt a load of words.
By doing just one thing every week for months on end, I defy you not to learn something!
How many language learning decisions have you made recently, and how important do you think they really were?
Going All In
I’m going all in on this approach right now as I’m learning Cantonese.
I’m juggling more things in my life right now than I ever have before – a busy job, writing a dissertation, writing for my blog, writing this! In the past I might have used this as an excuse not to be learning a language as well.
But I’m trying to take a leaf out of Obama’s book. Whatever the colour of the suit, it’s more important that I just put it on and get to work.
If you decide to try out this approach to learning, what would I have you do?
Earlier I talked about how people jump fleetingly from one thing to the next without going into depth on anything? Your biggest priority then, way before you even think about finding that prefect method, should be to avoid this scatter-gun approach to language learning. So what I would have to do instead is to choose one thing that takes your fancy.
One thing that you think you might enjoy and do this, and only this, for 2 to 3 weeks.
I don’t think the length of time for doing this one thing is particularly important, but it needs to be long enough that you can go into depth with it, and for me personally, 2 to 3 weeks is the time at which I start to get restless and want to try something else.
Whatever you choose to focus on, doing that only one thing for a period of time gives you a very clear idea of whether it works for you or not. You can choose to do it again or forget about it for good.
But here’s the thing, you would never be able to reach that important conclusion about your own learning if you don’t focus on that thing intensively in the first place.
Some Lessons Learnt
Here are a couple of examples of what I learnt about my own learning recently, through this “One Thing Only” approach.
During a period of burn-out late last year, I took a break from my daily Cantonese routine and did nothing but watch Hong Kong TV dramas every night.
I did that for a few weeks and I learnt a couple of important lessons.
Firstly, as a beginner, you’re not going to learn a lot from watching movies in your target language (despite what people often say). Secondly, resting my brain for that period helped massively in consolidating all the language I’d learnt before taking the break.
As a result of this experiment, I no longer try to learn languages through movies and make sure to take time off studying.
There isn’t much to choose from when it comes to Cantonese study materials.
I signed up for a paid online resource, which I didn’t think was particularly good, and was even a little critical of on my blog.
However, I persisted because it was the only thing available at the time. 5 months later and I’m still using it everyday – listening to the audio lessons in the car every morning. I’ve learnt a lot from it, and I adapted my own approach to make the best use of it. As a result of this extended experiment, I’m no longer fussy about the study material – how I use it is much more important.
Read a book you like, listen to the audio tracks in your text book, write a new conversation opener every day and memorise it, watch one single episode of your favourite drama 2 or 3 times everyday on repeat, even read through the grammar dictionary you bought last year and haven’t opened yet. I really don’t care what it is, providing it’s something you feel like doing.
But do it every day.
That’s the hack.
The Only Real Language Learning Hack
The one true language hack, then, is the ability to focus your available study time on something, consistently, and over time.
The ability not to get distracted and start browsing YouTube.
The ability to have enough confidence in yourself to just keep going, apply yourself to that one task, to watch what happens and to learn how you learn.
I’ve written before that variety in language learning is an important and necessary thing, and I still believe that. But I’ve come to believe even more strongly that nothing really matters if we can’t shake off this 21st Century addiction to instant gratification and learn how to focus.
As with lots of things in life, one thing done well is worth infinitely more than five things done half-heartedly.
So here’s what I want you to do:
- Choose one language learning activity (using the examples given above for inspiration)
- Commit to doing only this for the next 2 weeks
- Actually do it. 5 days in the week is a good target
- At the end of the 2 weeks look back at what you’ve achieved, being sure to note both the positives and the negatives, and decide whether you will carry on or change course.
- Leave a comment below to let me know what you’re going to try out, or alternatively, why you won’t be doing it! 🙂