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.


Write Your Own Grammar: A Gaelic Case Study

Today I wanted to talk about something I think is pretty important for how to learn grammar, but that I never hear anyone talking about. And since today puts me I’m in the middle of a Scottish Gaelic Mission, I’ve decided to use my experience with Scottish Gaelic as an example.

That being said, the concepts apply to all languages, and I’m sure they will help everyone who’s trying to learn a language, especially when they encounter difficulties in the grammar.

Take Your Lessons with a Grain of Salt

Where would we be without our lovely language books, podcasts, and video courses? They are great! The distill a lot of information, making it easier for us to learn our languages. Although it is certainly possible to learn languages without materials, it is significantly harder. I vote that we keep the using the materials that work for us.

But all language materials have an inherent problem: they have to try and be “one size fits all.” Any language book, for example, is written to be purchased and used by as many people as possible. This means that it can’t address everyone’s particular needs or their particular learning styles. This is why a teacher is so helpful. A good teacher will learn what you need and present the material in a way that is best for you.

But the onus isn’t all on the teacher. As a learner, it’s your job to figure out what works best for you. It’s also your job to engage with what you are learning. And sometimes that means being critical of the very materials you are using to learn.

Now, I don’t mean criticizing them and tossing them aside. I mean looking to see if there is a better way that the lessons are presenting the information to you. And that means digging deeper.

There is no time this is more apparent than when you are learning grammar.

Languages are complicated. It’s a fact. That’s part of what makes it fun to learn them. But it’s also part of what makes it difficult. And a lot of that complexity is in the grammar.

A lot of the time, lessons will make you learn things in ways that seem overly complicated or dismissive because they don’t want to overload you with too much information at once. This usually comes in the form of “You will learn about this in a few units, but for now just do X.” Sometimes you aren’t told a rule will come, but grammar is taught like it’s a series of exceptions. While this is helpful at moving you along, sometimes it adds complexity where it isn’t really there.

At these times, I tend to ignore the grammar. In my experience learning languages and studying linguistics, if it’s being presented as something complicated, it rarely is complicated. So, I make a note that something seems fishy, and I keep my eye out for more clues as to what is going on.

Gaelic Definite Articles

There is a great example of this over complication of grammar in the vast majority of Scottish Gaelic materials. The Definite Article (or essentially “the”).

Early on in your Gaelic studies, you learn that the definite article is an. But you start learning that an changes to things like a’, am, an t-, and a few other forms, all in different situations based on the first letter of the next word, the gender of the next word, or if there is a preposition before an. Very quickly, it starts to look complicated and full of exceptions. What’s interesting is that it seems like all of the Gaelic material out there handles the definite article that way.

That’s when I start to smell something fishy going on!

Well, it usually takes several chapters before you come across an explanation: Noun cases. The 3 main cases in Gaelic are the Nominative, the Dative, and the Genitive. (There’s a Vocative as well, but it’s really irrelevant here, so we can ignore it). And if you understand that most prepositions take the Dative case, and some take the Genitive case, most of those frustrating exceptions turn out to be rules.

Great! After all the hard work, the truth has been revealed. Thank goodness for the grammar. Now you can learn what was really going on. They all lived happily ever after. Right?

Make Your Own Grammar

The problem is that not only do a lot of students finally learn about things like these noun cases already confused and believing there are awful exceptions. But in the case of Gaelic, these cases are presented as a list of rules. In other words you aren’t asked to engage with the material, merely memorize it. This is when your job as a learner is to look at what you now know and see if there is a better way to present it.

After a little effort of looking in different books, I was able to compile this chart of Scottish Gaelic Definite Articles:

Gàidhlig Definite Articles
Gàidhlig definite articles organized by case, number, and gender

It’s a little disconcerting that I would have to compile that chart, or even have to put effort into finding a chart like that. (Not that I’m biased or anything). Merely constructing a chart for myself makes it easier to look up what form is used when / if I get confused.

But why stop there? The chart doesn’t necessarily help me if I don’t understand how to learn from it. Sure, before the chart it was hard to keep track of how many sets of articles there were to remember. And mathematically speaking, there would appear to be 9. A lot different from the seemingly endless exceptions.

However, my job isn’t over. Humans are pattern oriented. It’s in large part because we see patterns so easily that we can learn languages at all. Therefore, I need to scrutinize this chart to look for patterns that might make things easier. Some of you may have already seen it, but here’s a color coded chart to clear things up (pardon the awful colors – I wanted to make sure it was easier for people with color blindness):

Gàidhlig Definite Articles - Color Coded
Gàidhlig Definite Articles – Color Coded

Wow! There are only 4 different sets of definite articles for me to learn?!? This grammar pattern went from extremely complicated to a LOT easier. Now I can go to work coming up with good mnemonics and sample sentences to help me learn these rules better.

How come this isn’t explained in the textbooks? Well, it really doesn’t matter. The truth is that this chart may work really well for me and not for you. But that’s the key! I needed to be willing to ignore what the lessons was telling me about the grammar until I could figure out a way to make it make sense to me. I didn’t just let the the books tell me what to learn.

How do you make your own grammars?

What are some ways you have reworked grammar from your various language learning materials until it made sense? And if you are a Gaelic learner/speaker, do you find this chart as helpful as I do?

How are your language goals coming along?

Let me know in the comments!

5 Reasons You Should Be Memorizing Sentences

In order to learn a language, you have to learn a lot of vocabulary. Period. You just can’t speak a language if you don’t know a lot of words. At no time is this more obvious than at the beginning of a new language when you feel completely incapable of expressing yourself and are constantly looking up simple things in a dictionary. But even later when you feel comfortable expressing yourself, even paraphrasing to get your point across, you know that the subtlety you seek is behind a looming pile of words.

A lot of people think this means there is only one solution: brute force. It seems like you will just have to memorize list after list of random vocabulary and look up every new word you come across until the language makes sense. It’s a daunting task. And it’s bound to be quite boring. You probably won’t succeed.

Good news! There’s another way.

1. Greater than the sum of its parts

The next time you have a list of vocabulary and grammar that you want to learn, don’t just throw the single words on to flash cards. Combine them into sentences and learn those.

I know what you are thinking: “But that’s more work! A sentence is harder to remember than a word!” But not only is it easier than memorizing each and every word in the sentence, but it’s a trick you are doing already and probably didn’t realize you were doing!

When you combine the words together you are doing something called “chunking” – It’s a term for batching information so your brain only has to remember 1 thing instead of multiple. It’s the reason why the number 201 is just as easy to remember as 4 or 8, even though it has three times as many numbers. It’s also the reason we split phone numbers into groups (like 867-5309 for a U.S. style number or for a French style number).

By grouping information together, you can remember the whole more easily than remembering each individual part.

2. No word is an island

Words gain a lot of their meaning from context. And a sentence gives you context for the word. With certain words it can be difficult to remember how the word is actually used. A prime example of this is prepositions. They are notoriously difficult in every language because even when we DO remember the proposition, we often don’t remember which one to use in which context.

An example from German is the word for “to,” which could be nach or zu (or several other words depending on context). So if you want to say I’m going to Berlin, is it Ich gehe nach Berlin or Ich gehe zu Berlin? ( it’s nach, by the way). Knowing translations for the English word doesn’t really help you here. But if you memorize a sentence, you know what word is used, instead of trying to remember the specific grammar rule!

The same happens in reverse. If you learn that the Mandarin word 讓 (ràng) means make, you don’t know if that is the word you’d use for make food or for make somebody do something (it’s the latter — make food is 做菜 – zuò​cài). But with a sentence or two you’ll have that all cleared up.

3. The only constant is change

In a lot of languages, words change their sound and spelling based on their role in the sentence. We usually encounter this in the form of verb conjugation like eat and eats in English or tenir (to have), tengo, tienes, tiene, (etc…) in Spanish. This also comes up with nouns in the singular and plural (cat / cats), or declensions in the more extreme cases (Latin’s nautus, nauti, nauto, nautum, etc…). Sometimes it’s worth it to just buckle down and memorize a conjugation / declension chart. But sometimes, especially with irregular words, it can be helpful to learn whole sentences.

I’ve been dealing with this problem recently with Scottish Gaelic (Gàidhlig). Gaelic has a complex set of prepositions that will fuse with pronouns. Take, for example, do (roughly meaning “to/towards”, but which is used in a lot of idiomatic constructions):

do + mi = dhomh (to me)

do + thu = dhut (to you, singular or informal)

do + e = dha (to him)

do + i = dhi (to her)

do + sinn = dhuinn (to us)

do + sibh = dhuibh (to you, plural or formal)

do + iad = dhaibh (to them)

In many cases you can see the resemblance between the forms – there are a lot of shared letters – but it is by no means intuitive. And it turns out almost every preposition is this way. So how do I approach a challenging word like this? I make sentences for each form and learn those. Then I know exactly which form of the word to use in which context.

4. You Go with the flow

Learning a sentence gives you more fluidity with the language. When people learn words in isolation, they often end up getting stuck… between… every… word… trying to… uh… remember– you get the idea. Well, if you learn a sentence well, you also learn to say the sentence at a normal speed. Don’t believe me? Find some actors and ask them if they’d rather learn their lines word by word or whole lines at a time.

I still remember a sentence from my First Year Mandarin course in University (那張照片是你的嗎? – nà zhāng zhào​piàn shì nǐde ma? – Is that picture yours?) that our teacher had us repeat over and over again. What’s so special about that? Well not only do I know the word for picture (照片 – zhào​piàn), I don’t have to think about which measure word I have to use with it (張 – zhāng). The phrase just comes out naturally.

And if I want to ask about something else, like a table, or a sheet of paper, I can just swap out the word instead of having to build the whole sentence in pieces. If I DO get stuck on that word, I’ll only be stuck in one place.

5. Sentences can help you talk about your own life

When you start learning a language, it’s not going to be long before you learn things like “my name is…”, “I’m from …”, or “I have …. sisters and … brothers”. These are basic ways to describe the world around you, and naturally you are going to end up using a lot of them early on in meeting people. But learning disjointed fragments of sentences is awkward and hard to relate to.

If I can learn a phrase like “My name is …”, then you can learn “My name is Alexander”, or “I’m from The United States” instead of merely “I’m from…” And it’s better for you because then you can talk about real world details about your life more readily and comfortably. In other words, it’s (almost) just like real-world, conversation practice. What’s more, you’ll remember it better if it’s relevant to you.

How do you learn your vocabulary?

Do you use sentences to learn vocabulary? Do you find it helps you speak more fluidly? A lot of these tips are also why I advocate learning songs and reading poetry in your target language. What other tools and techniques do you use?

And what about your current language projects? How are they coming along? I’d love to hear about them. Let me know in the comments.

Gaelic in 3 Months

For the next 3 months, I’m going to learn Scottish Gaelic (otherwise just known as Gaelic, as Irish Gaelic is more commonly referred to as Irish). It’s been a long time coming now. I’ve flirted with the language on and off for a while, and I’ve never given myself a big enough or solid enough goal to make it happen. But I have a dream of becoming a Goidelophone [a speaker of a Goidelic language], and there’s no time like the present.

Why Scottish Gaelic?

There are a multitude of reasons:

  1. It’s a beautiful language
  2. I love Celtic / Highlands culture, music, arts, etc.
  3. My ancestors were Scottish
  4. I would like to visit the Highlands & Hebrides
  5. There are Gaelic speaking populations here in the Americas (Canada)

… to name a few!

I definitely have intrinsic motivation to learn this language.

What’s the end goal?

3 months is a long time, especially as some of my language learning projects often go. What am I hoping to achieve by the beginning of February?

I  would like to reach a B2 level in Gaelic, have little to no difficulty listening to programs on BBC Alba, and hold a 15-minute conversation with a native entirely in Gaelic. That’s a tall order, and I don’t know if it’s possible, but I think it’s always best to aim high, especially when you are motivated to meet your aims!

What will my challenges be?

Some challenges are always unpredictable. In this case, I suspect the biggest challenge I will have is finding conversation partners. Gaelic is spoken by less than 100,000 people, and it’s not every day that you meet someone who you can speak with (unless you live near the Gaeltacht). Even on sites like iTalki there are fewer speakers. I’ll do my best to engage them, but this is likely the biggest challenge I will have to overcome, even beyond the complex grammar and phonetics.

For this reason, if you have any suggestions or know of anyone that can help, please leave a comment or reach out to me on Twitter!

What resources will I use?

I have so many Gaelic resources already, that it’s hard to decide. As you can see from the picture at the top of this post, I have both the Teach Yourself: Gaelic and the Colloquial: Scottish Gaelic books, as well as some poetry and music. I think that’s a fine place to start. I may even use both TY and Colloquial side by side, since I have sound files for them both and it will give me some variety. I also intend to actively learn Julie Fowlis songs to sing.

All of the new words, phrases, idioms, etc. will go into flash cards.

Real flash cards.

My Turkish experience showed me that going analog with flashcards makes a huge difference, and I think that’s how I should start.

Though I don’t have a video to start my mission today (I am sick with a cold and don’t think it would be a very good video), I will be posting articles and videos along the way to mark my progress.

What about you?

Are there any language projects you’ve been wanting to do for a long time, but you’ve been holding off? How could you make a mission that motivates you to embrace that language? How are your language projects going in general? Let me know in the comments!