Recently I made a simple change in how I approach language learning, and I’ve already experienced a supreme difference in results.
For the last two or three years I’ve been having a hard time making real progress with my languages. I’ve been falling in to a common trap that polyglots fall in:
I’ve been bouncing around.
There are so many languages to be enjoyed, and so much to learn, it’s easy to get distracted. I’m sure many of you understand what I mean. First, you dive into a language and all the new phrases, grammar, sounds – they excite you. They keep you going. But then, maybe you hear another language in a scene in a movie. Or maybe it’s a friend who’s telling you about a cool idiom in a language they speak. Or maybe you see an old language book on your shelf and you start to feel simultaneously guilty and curious.
The next thing you know, you’ve abandoned your first project and moved on to the other. Or worse, you try and do both at the same time – though half the time that merely results in dropping the old project after a few weeks so you can spend more time on the new and exciting one.
Age old story. Or at least as old as easy access to foreign language speakers and materials. (curse you internet!)
We’ve all struggled with this at some time or another, but for the last few years it has been a repeating story for me, like those ads on Hulu that they keep playing no matter how many times you click the button saying it’s not relevant. (Why do you keep asking me if you aren’t going to stop!?)
A few weeks ago, I noticed something. There were two kinds of languages that kept cropping up on my project list:
1) Languages that I had studied for a significant amount of time over the years, coming back to them over and over again, but not necessarily with the kind of verve or focus I needed to become fluent.
2) Languages which were mere passing fancies (up to this point), that had only managed to hold my interest for a few weeks at best, and that I often started after running across a cool resource in a used book store
We all experience the Category 2 languages. That’s part of being a language fanatic. We’re curious. We love learning. We love speaking. Category 2 languages will always be there.
But the Category 1 languages interested me the most. In some cases these were languages that I had studied since university, like Mandarin (I have a major in Chinese), German, and Italian. Why hadn’t I become fluent in them? Since I’d learned so much about language learning, why had I never crossed over the threshold to fluency?
Because I didn’t really care.
Don’t get me wrong. Mandarin, German, and Italian are beautiful languages and come from beautiful cultures. I also enjoy speaking them, and I am conversant in all three (albeit with hesitations and hangups). I’m just not passionate about them. Nor am I motivated to take them beyond the basic conversational level. At least not right now.
This is a hard thing for me to admit, because I have spent so much time on these languages. I put a university degree (READ years of life + student loans) into Mandarin. I have traveled to China, Germany, and Italy. I have spent hours of my own free time just studying the language. How can I give up after all that? How can I NOT push through to fluency?
The truth is, I just don’t want to. And this whole time, I’ve believed that I SHOULD keep going with them. So, I kept coming back to them.
But SHOULD isn’t a reason to learn a language.
Languages take time. A lot of time. They take a lot of commitment. If you don’t LOVE the language and don’t LOVE why you are learning it- stop!
When I took these SHOULD languages off my lists and out of my projects, I felt freer. A weight had been lifted off my shoulders. It was OK for me to focus on the languages that excited me the most – I didn’t feel any guilt just because of this looming sense of “unfinished business.”
If you are truly honest with yourself, do you have languages you keep coming back to because you’ve already put time / energy / money into them? Languages that you study because you think you SHOULD, but not because you LOVE them?
let it go.
cut your losses.
move on with your life.
Did you catch the key word there? Life!
You’ll enjoy it a lot better if you spend your time doing something you enjoy. And that includes learning a language because you LOVE it.