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.


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.

Motivation and a Change of Pace

It’s the end of January, and that means several things:

  • I have come to the end of my Gaelic Mission
  • It’s a new year, and with it I am changing the way I’m handling language learning
  • I’m about to embark on a new adventure

That’s a lot to cover, but I’ll try and do it quickly.

Mi agus a’ Ghàidhlig

After three months of Gaelic study, I have a lot to share. First and foremost, I must admit that I didn’t make my B2 goal. This isn’t surprising. But I didn’t even come close. I’d say I’m somewhere in the A2 range, though more so written than spoken. With all that time, you’d think I’d get farther, and I had hoped to, but I didn’t push as hard as I could have. I’m completely fine with this.

When I set out to learn Gaelic, I wanted to get to a B2 level so that I would have two things: (1) the ability to converse with people with relative ease and (2) a high enough level that I didn’t have to worry about losing the language too much if I were to get distracted by another language or just be unable to use my Gaelic for a while. This was an even greater concern given that I don’t live near much of a Gaelic speaking community.

I learned a lot of Gaelic, and my passive abilities went up enormously. But I learned more about how to learn languages, the value of communities, and how I personally approach my language studies.

As I mentioned before, connecting with the online community is invaluable if you want to learn Gaelic. Not only is there a wealth of people who want to learn and help you learn, but with so few speakers outside of the Gàidhealtachd (the Gaelic speaking regions of Scotland and Nova Scotia), it is really rare that you might find a lot of people to speak with. A large percentage of the community are heritage speakers, and they are all passionate about keeping the language alive. Connecting with them is a great way to connect with the culture.

But learning Gaelic has forced me to work harder to interpret the grammars, phonetics, and vocabularies of the language I’m learning. I’ve had to improvise new ways to approach problems I’m having as I study. It’s also been a great language to use to prove to myself the value in memorizing sentences versus words (though I actually advocate BOTH). Most importantly, Gaelic has made me consider the way I have been approaching language learning over the past year.

The Great Language Experiment

For the past year or so, I have been trying to learn languages in burst – small, controlled missions. Some of them are documented here, such as my Turkish and Gaelic Missions. Some of them I haven’t blogged, such as my attempt last winter at learning Japanese. But much like the projects by Benny the Irish Polyglot, they were attempts at singular, focused, massive language immersions.

Though in every case I have learned a lot, they have all been partial failures for me. They weren’t failures however because of what I could or couldn’t accomplish in that time. They were failures because they weren’t what I wanted.

In each case, after the project, I moved on to another project and ended up forgetting a lot of what I learned (My Turkish is deplorable for what it was in October). What’s more, I always felt bad practicing other languages when I had one language that I was focusing on. It’s true that if you want to learn a language quickly, the fastest way is to focus on that one language with intensity. But I know myself and I burn out, get bored, or both. This even happens with languages I love. In some regards it happened with Gaelic, and I slowed down how much I wanted to work on it in the last month.

The main reason for this is because so much of the discussion about language learning right now is focused on getting to the goal: “I want to speak at this level”, “I want to have the ability to converse”, “I want to be able to read a book” etc. This is important, and there are times that this is the best way to approach a language. But not everyone is motivated by the end results. For people who don’t actually enjoy the process of learning a language (Benny is a self-admitted example of this), the GOAL-focused approach is probably very beneficial. If you are more excited at being ABLE to speak a language and what you will be able to DO with it, then by all means focus on a goal and work your butt off to get through the tough parts and make it to the end.

I on the other hand, like several other people I know, am more interested in the journey than the destination. I am more motivated by my experience doing something than by where I will end up. And when it comes to language learning, I love learning the language itself more than getting to some eventual “level” in that language.

For the past year, I have been experimenting with the goal oriented and focused approach, and I can definitively say it isn’t for me. I can also say that, though I have had some fun, I also don’t think my languages have progressed as much this last year as they have when I have taken a enjoy-the-journey approach to my languages.

Most of my languages I learned by simply enjoying them while I learned other languages on the side. It hasn’t been the fastest method, but it has been the most fun. And that’s why I learn languages, because I love learning languages. So it’s time for me to go back to that.

Adventure Time

This takes me to the present moment. My wife and I are currently packing up our apartment and moving all of our things into storage. In 5 days, we will be on a plane to Vietnam, where we plan to spend the next 3 months.

Do I intend to learn Vietnamese while we’re there? Absolutely! I will probably even dive in and obsessively learn it for a large part of the trip. And I will definitely blog about it. But am I setting a goal for it? Not in the least. I know that I’ll enjoy learning the language, as well as geeking out about the language, so I’ll be content with whatever level I end up at.

I also have several other languages that I care about (including Gaelic), that I intend to continue using, reading, studying, listening to, singing. Why? Because I like them. I’m also fine with taking my time to learn them if it means I go at a pace that is right for me. The point is, I’m going to go with the flow.

Do what you Love

It’s important that we do what we love. And doing what we love depends on taking the time and making the effort to be more self aware — we have to learn what we love.

What do you love? What motivates you to learn a language? Are you more goal oriented or experience oriented? Do you prefer to learn one language at a time or many? Does it matter to you if you have a community to speak with or not? Share with me in the comments.

5 Ways to Keep From Confusing Your Languages

It will happen to you eventually if it hasn’t already.

You will be speaking in one language and words from another language will just come out.

The question is, why doesn’t it happen more often?

We all have techniques to try and keep these sorts of things from happening, keep languages compartmentalized and reduce interference. Today I want to share some techniques or “tricks” I use. I’ve read about some of these in other blogs or talked about some of them with other polyglots. Some of them seem to make a difference for me, but I haven’t really heard them mentioned. This isn’t meant to be an all-inclusive list, and I would love to hear about your experiences, and what you’ve found helps you!

1. Build a language persona

A lot of polyglots, myself included, find that when they speak another language they become a different person. I’m still me when I speak French, but I’m not the American-me, I’m the French-me. I’m not alone in experiencing this either. In fact, this is so common an experience, that it’s probably the #1 thing that makes a difference in language learning. You need to create your [insert language here] persona.

I’m not saying you act like someone else. I’m not saying you lie.

Languages aren’t just words, sounds, and grammars. Languages exist in a culture, a set of social norms, gestures. Changing between languages isn’t just about saying the words, it’s about changing how you act and talk. We do this all the time: do you speak and act the same way with your grandmother as you do with your friends on the street? Probably not. And you probably don’t have to think too hard about it either – it just happens.

Linguists call this “code-switching,” and the sooner you can learn the WAY people express themselves in a language and culture, the sooner you won’t even have to think about which language you are speaking.

Which leads to the next tool…

2. Practice. Practice. Practice.

You can learn to do that pursed-lipped shoulder shrug that the French do when they say they don’t know something (“j’sais pas, moi…”), but if you aren’t practicing using it, it won’t become a part of your French personality. The point is that the WAY you act has to be as natural as the way you act in your native language.

When you are speaking with natives or characters in movies/TV, watch how they hold themselves, what kind of gestures they make, and listen for words or phrases that they use more often and try to use them more often when you speak. And when you don’t have anybody to speak with, have conversations with yourself so you can practice! (Maybe you should do this in a private place, lest people think you’ve lost it)

How many hours a day do you end up using your native language? Or speaking with people in your language? Chances are that it’s a lot (or has been in the past, for those of you who are living abroad). So no wonder you communicate so naturally. You don’t have to think about acting [insert your native cultural group here] because you’ve been practicing it for a long time! We tend to forget just how much time children spend learning to behave like a member of the culture.

Reviewing vocabulary isn’t going to get you to “be” a speaker of the language. It’s just going to make sure you know the word. You have to practice the words and phrases in context and with your whole body. When you do that, not only will you speak the language better, but you won’t get it mixed up with any other language. How could you? You’ve made the persona natural!

3. Study one language at a time

This is a common piece of advice from a lot of polyglots, and for the most part I agree with it’s benefits, even though I don’t think it’s right for everyone.

But one thing is for sure: if you are only learning one language at a time, it’s easier to focus on getting that natural persona with that language. (This doesn’t necessarily include maintaining languages you already speak, however!)

It’s also, undoubtedly faster, which appeals to people who have many languages as a goal. I’m more of a journey person than a destination person, myself. Sometimes I work on only one language, because that language has interested me so much that it has my undivided attention. Sometimes I have a few languages pulling at my heartstrings. But even in those cases, I usually …

4. Don’t START two languages at the same time

When two languages are at the same level, particularly the beginner stages, the vocabulary and phrases you learn are often one and the same. You learn how to say hello and goodbye, how to introduce yourself, how to talk about your family, etc. The introductory “scripts” are extremely cookie-cutter.

So if I’m learning that thank you in Turkish is “teşekkür ederim” but “motshakeram” in Farsi, and the Turkish phrase is rolling off the tongue faster, it’s not surprising that I might say it when I’m trying to speak to an Iranian.

Sometimes it’s better to try and elevate one of the languages to an intermediate level first before adding a new language. I will admit, however, that I don’t always do that, and I have managed to get by unscathed – this isn’t a hard and fast rule. There are other forces at work here. For example, you might notice that the Turkish and Farsi words for “thank you” look a little similar. They both come from the same Arabic root.

So if you are intent on starting two languages at the same time, it might help if you…

5. Don’t work on languages that are too similar

Of course, eventually, you could be working on even subtler things like speaking Mandarin Chinese like a Beijinger or like someone from Taiwan. But at first, it’s probably not going to make things too easy for you if you jump in to Spanish and Italian together, whereas Spanish and Norwegian might be easier.

When languages have a lot of similarities, of course you might get them mixed up. Not only is that reasonable, but in some cases people just shrug it off because you are a foreigner and they know that these things happen. I have had many a conversation in Spanish where Portuguese words managed to make their way in to the conversation, but the people I was talking to didn’t mind because they still usually understood what I was saying. This isn’t, of course, ideal, and you can avoid it by working on diversity in what languages you are speaking.

Another unintended consequence on working on languages that are similar is that early on you might not know enough about the cultures to understand the differences, and it will take a while to build separate personae for the languages. If the languages are too similar, in some cases there are a lot of similarities in the cultures as well. This will just slow you down and cause headaches.


This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it’s full of things that I have found helpful. Have you tried these things? Have they helped you? Let me know your thoughts and experiences!

Let go of the past

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.
drop it.
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.