Learning to Pivot: What to do when you aren’t progressing

Sometimes when we are studying we get stuck.

I don’t mean stuck on a problem or language question. I mean stuck in our progress. We aren’t improving. And more often than not, we aren’t progressing because we aren’t working on what we need to be working on. Or, in the worst cases, we aren’t even working on anything at all.

That last one? That’s what happened to me in the last week. I started the month with some new goals, and I only managed to do them for 3 days.


Life throws us a curveball sometimes. Maybe your internet went down and you couldn’t use Skype. Maybe you had to work long hours at work. Maybe you had to console your friend who was stressing out over the elections. Whatever the reason, you may find you haven’t been sticking to your goals for language learning and you are starting to fall behind.

This is completely normal and understandable.

If something is working for you, but you are falling behind because of life, that’s the time to persevere. Just pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and start up again – today. Every day is a new one.

Sometimes the problem isn’t what you are doing, but how much you are doing it! Memorizing 50 words a day can be a bit excessive, especially when you have all those reviews piling up. Why not try fewer words! Or maybe 1 hour a day of study is hard to keep in your schedule? Try a half hour.

It’s okay to slow down. Just keep moving.

Find something you like more

We all need to practice grit sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we need to torture ourselves.

If your language learning plan is mildly uncomfortable because it makes you step out of your routine, then it’s probably good for you. If you’re making progress, then it’s probably good for you. If there is something that can give you the same or better results for your goal, but you like it more, you might want to consider trying that.

This shouldn’t be an excuse to go back to reading because speaking to people is hard. Nor should you just go study grammar because you don’t think you are ready for real interaction or input. Language learning works best when you push yourself, not when you fall back on the things that are most comfortable. But you should be strategic about it!

You need to focus on the need you have in the language. If you are working on listening comprehension, maybe you need to switch from that news podcast to some youtube videos. If you need to improve reading, but your eyes glaze over every time you dive into that book you bought 6 months ago and have been meaning to read, maybe you need to put the book down and go find a wikipedia article that’s interesting. Subtle changes can make a load of difference.

Scrap it. Start over.

But sometimes you have set a goal, and as time passes you realize your plan just isn’t the right approach at all. Be willing to change everything.

This is what happened to me.

My plan to use the month focusing on grammar patterns in Chinese and French has been hard to maintain because of life. But as I considered returning to my plan, I have learned more about what my current language needs are.

Looking at my approach lately, too much of my Mandarin time has been spent visually (i.e. reading and writing). My plan of going through the Chinese patterns book this month, though meant as a break from active vocabulary learning, is still a very silent and context-less activity. Context is critical to my needs right now. And while with a European language I might be doing more reading to help create that context, Chinese reading significantly more difficult. So, I need to double down on my speaking and listening.

I already have a reasonable knowledge of characters for everyday life, and I find that it is much easier to learn characters for words I already know. So by upping my auditory learning I can return to characters later, when my vocabulary and contextual understanding is stronger to support it. I’m not cutting all characters out. I still look up words I encounter in Pleco and add them to my personal Memrise decks. But by only doing this with the words I encounter, I will be able to focus on reinforcement instead of memorization.

In order to up my minimum output (per Olle Linge at Hacking Chinese), I will be speaking at least one hour at the Chinese table at the local Taipei Polyglot Meetup (that’s three days a week), and I have a language exchange partner I will be meeting with on Thursdays. That leaves me three days I have to fill will Chinese conversation. Meanwhile, I will shift my daily routine to podcasts and vlogs. I’m sure I’ll tweet things as I find them.

My French study, on the other hand? The grammar book is a little dull to go through at the pace I intended, and the exercises aren’t as helpful as I would hope. I will still use it, but more as a reference as I note what I’m doing wrong. There is also a French table at the local Polyglot Meetup, so I will go there to talk, and I will keep watching TV5Monde. But, vocabulary and context are still the main goals of my French, so I will be increasing my French reading for the rest of the month.

Stay Flexible

All in all, a large shift in my Chinese plans and a minor one for French. But this is the point. Change things so they benefit you.

And change things so that you keep momentum. Language learning is a never-ending journey. Unless, of course, you stop learning.


Grow your language Roots

It’s now been just under 6 months since I was at the 2016 Polyglot Gathering in Berlin. (As I speak the Polyglot Conference is happening in Thessaloniki.) But one of the big takeaways for me from the Gathering was how I needed to shift my focus.

People kept commenting on how many languages were on my name badge. I on the other hand was very aware of how only French and English were above a B level. Though mentioning that didn’t seem to make a big difference for the majority of people, it was an experience that stuck with me. Though I am proud of my ability to speak those non-advanced-level languages, I left the conference with the desire to spend the year until the next conference improving the languages I already speak instead of learning new ones.

So now what?

So 6 months later, I am ignoring the temptations of Hokkien, Indonesian, Japanese, Icelandic, Cantonese, and many more, while I focus on my first two foreign languages: French and Mandarin. Here I wanted to share what I’m doing to improve those languages, and why. To catch people up, I posted a video on YouTube last week on what I’ve been doing for the past month and a half while I’ve been in Taiwan:

Looking at things in the big picture, my self evaluation of my French and my Mandarin are C1 and B1 respectively. My long term goals are to keep learning these languages indefinitely– I love them, and there really is no level where I would like to just “settle” and say they are “good enough.” But that’s not a very clear or helpful goal if I’m trying to focus on them right now. So in the shorter “long term” I am trying to lift my french from C1 to C2 and advance my Mandarin from B1 to B2, and hopefully to C1 sooner than later (but B2 is a good goal for the moment).

Techniques and Timelines

I’ve been trying to move away from the idea of setting the language level goal in some predetermined point in time. I think it’s more valuable to think about the shorter term steps that you can take and enjoy while knowing that you are moving forward. We should be less concerned with the speed we learn a language than the enjoyment and persistence of our learning. I learn languages because I love learning them as much, if not more, than I love having learned them. Thank goodness every language is a life-long journey!

For this reason, I still look at my goals and what I need to achieve those goals, but I also try and look at what smaller steps I can sustainable make to enjoy getting there?

French C1 to C2

I’m rather comfortable in French. I don’t have to really think that hard to live my daily life in France, nor to enjoy what French culture has to offer me. But while I speak with friends, watch TV, read books, and even attempt (poorly) the crosswords all in French, I’m still aware that I miss subtleties and would benefit from a thesaurus here and there. In that way I’m more like a fluent, academic/nerdy teenager than a fluent academic/nerdy 30-something- which makes sense since I’ve been learning french since I was 12 (19 years ago).

And while I am very comfortable using the subjonctif imparfait, I still make tedious little mistakes, such as the odd preposition here or there, or using a near-synonym that has been “sufficient” to describe something in the past, but maybe wasn’t le mot juste.

In other words, I need to learn more vocabulary and idioms while I tidy up my grammar.

That’s why for October I’ve been devouring word lists on Memrise. There are good materials there for vocabulary, including much more advanced terminology and expressions. I have definitely benefited from the ~800+ items I learned this month.

And while a lot of vocabulary acquisition happens slowly over time through reading and exposure (which I love, and which is valuable), I do think it can be helpful to make more intentional and focused leaps. It’s the same reason kids in the United States still study for SATs and GREs. The methods work better together than apart.

Although I want to return to my 30 words/phrases-per-day studying in December, I really want to focus on cleaning up those little grammar mistakes! Back in May, when I was in Lyon after the Polyglot Gathering, I bought a book called “Grammaire Progressive du Français: Niveau perfectionnement”. It has 85 lessons on various grammatical concepts, and I intend to do 3 lessons a day. Since the lessons aren’t very long, I will be able to spend each day really thinking about how each grammar pattern / structure works in my daily use and exposure. Quality over quantity. Just keep trekking along! Besides, that’s a pace that makes sure I don’t overshadow my big and immediate need: Mandarin.

Mandarin B1 to B2

My Mandarin needs are quite simple, and quite similar to my French needs, albeit at a different level. First and foremost, I need more vocabulary. Since I’ve been speaking Mandarin for so long at a very comfortable B1 level, I don’t have a hard time dealing with the speed at which people talk, picking out which words I do or don’t know, or just saying a sentence at a reasonable pace. The number one thing holding me back is not knowing enough words to function well outside of my familiar and controlled contexts.

I know that vocabulary is always a bigger deal in Chinese languages for an English speaker than it is when learning a closely related European language, but my more immediate goal is to have greater ease of understanding and the ability to “work around problems”– that is to say, being able to get my meaning across even when you don’t know the word. That’s still a problem for me, making my Mandarin conversations constantly switching from fast-and-fluid to completely halted-and-confused, and then back again.

But much like my French, vocabulary isn’t everything. There’s an awful myth going around that Chinese has no grammar. But what people don’t understand is that word order and sentence patterns are critical for comprehension, especially past a beginner level. This is why Chinese students so frequently have the experience of seeing sentences where they will know every character / word, but still not understand what the sentence means.

In order to address this, I bought a book shortly after arriving in Taipei called “330 Common Chinese Patterns,” and I will be learning 10 patterns a day doing the exercises and writing the sample sentences in my notebook to test my comprehension.

Then in December I will likely Jump back on the HSK study and start doing HSK 5 vocabulary. Meanwhile, I expect to still end up learning vocabulary because I am speaking, reading, and listening to Mandarin every day here. This is also why I’m more comfortable doing 10 patterns a day. I don’t foresee myself burning out on them because I have enough exposure that many of those patterns will have immediate relevance to me.

The next several months

I believe that learning more slowly has it’s benefits, giving your brain time to consolidate what it has learned. This is one of the main reasons I am cutting back on vocabulary this next month. And even though I think I will get back into big vocabulary study in December, I’m not going to commit to the specifics yet. I think it’s important to have that as the goal, but check in every month to make sure I’m actually moving in the right direction. Let’s just say everything after December is “penciled in.”

Coming back to the Polyglot Gathering, where this whole discussion started. Do I think I will likely bring any of my languages up to a C level before the next Gathering? No, not really. But my real goal is just to speak my current languages better. And as fun as those name tags are (I love those stickers), we should be learning these languages for ourselves. The progress and enjoyment are more important than some arbitrary outcome.

What are your language goals? Are you enjoying what you are learning? How do you make sure you make progress? Let me know in the comments!

How to forget a language in 1 month

Or how I learned Vietnamese in 3 months, and why I can barely speak it now.

I recently tweeted about my exploits learning, forgetting, and then failing to speak Vietnamese:

There’s a huge appeal in the idea of learning a language quickly, and contrary to what skeptics may say, it is possible.

I’ve done it!

But what we don’t see discussed very much on polyglot blogs and in polyglot videos, is that it’s also very easy to forget that language quickly. Sometimes you even forget it faster than you learned it in the first place!

Yes, many times that language isn’t completely gone. A lot of it is “hibernating,” waiting for you to re-immerse yourself or dive back in. But even then there’s a lot of work you have to do to try and catch up with where you were.

Why do we forget so quickly?

This isn’t just a matter of “Use it or lose it.” Though that is definitely a factor, it’s more a factor of time.

We forget things that we’ve learned based on two key factors:

  1. How deeply we have elaborated on what we have learned
  2. How long we have been remembering what we have learned

The first factor explains why it is that we don’t remember nonsensical information as well as information that we do understand.

The second factor, how long we’ve been remembering information, is the basis behinds SRS (spaced repetition systems) for flash cards and reviewing material. Each memory is like a muscle. By remembering something, we “work out” that memory. But also like a muscle, you get stronger by working out consistently over time, but not by doing one big workout all at once. Your brain needs time to grow that memory and make it stick.

This doesn’t mean that you can’t learn quickly. You most definitely can. It just means that you can’t remember quickly.

How can you remember what you’ve learned?

One common piece of advice I hear is that you will remember the language better if you attain an advanced level. I agree about this, but not just because the language will be at a higher level, magically making it stick. Maybe there is some truth to that happening since more connections get made the more “holistic” your understanding of the language becomes. But what’s more important is that the higher your level in a language is, the more easily and naturally you can incorporate that language into your daily life.

Think about it this way: when you are a low level speaker of a language, you have to actively learn the language in order to engage what you’ve already learned. This usually means the same books, podcasts, apps, or conversation partners you may be using. But if you attain a level akin to daily life, you put no more effort in reviewing a language than you do in living your life.

My personal example is French, by far the language I speak best after English. I read the news, watch TV/movies/podcasts, and speak with many friends in French. This isn’t practice time. This is just my normal life. When you get to a higher level, your normal life becomes practice time, just like it’s been for your native language your whole life.

Go for the Long Haul!

You might be saying, “But that sounds a lot like Use-it-or-lose-it!” Alright, you got me. In some ways I suppose it is. The important takeaway here, however, it’s less important how much you use it, but over how long a span of time. When it comes to remembering, consistency trumps speed. It’s more important that you keep practicing, even if it’s just a little bit every day, so that your brain gets practice remembering.

If a person goes from 0 to A2 in 1 month and stops speaking the language, and another person learns the same amount in 12 months, the person who took a whole year will remember what they’ve learned for much longer. It’s just neuroscience in action. Of course, if another person goes from 0 to A2 in 1 month but then continues to practice and use the language for the remaining 11 months, that will produce the best outcome, which is why it’s best to do language projects when you are going to be able to then make the language a part of your life afterwards.

This is, unfortunately why so many of us have lists of languages we have studied and just can’t speak. I marked them as “A-” languages on my Polyglot Gathering name tag. My friend Shaun over at Ultimate Language likes to call them “Dishonorable Mentions”

My list includes Farsi, Japanese, Arabic, Kreyol. What about you?

Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

So whatever you may be doing for your current language projects, just keep going. Make sure you can make the language something you get to use and review constantly. Incorporate it into your life. Because if you don’t, you may lose it faster than you think.

Back in the US of A

After 4 months of traveling, I am back in Seattle for a few days before driving across the United States. A lot has happened since my last post, much of which will deserve its own post. In the meantime, here is a quick summary:

Now, as I get my affairs in order to continue my journey by exploring more of my own country, I’m also getting back on the horse for blog posts. I also plan to start doing more video uploads.

So where does that leave us for the second half of 2016? New projects, old languages, more surprises.

Stay tuned.