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.

Perseverance

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.

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.

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!