If the number of promotions and discount offers by language learning companies around year end is any indication - 2013 should indeed be a banner year for learning a foreign language.
While nobody knows how many such offers have been accepted world wide, we can safely assume that there are indeed many who have made learning a new foreign language their New Year's goal.
There is no lack of research and literature that analyze and describe the challenges of achieving our goals. I recently came across a post from 2008 on zenhabits.net. Here are some suggestions how this blog can be applied to language learning:
- Start small. Many language programs overwhelm a learner with too many options and choices. We, at Gamesforlanguage.com, add 15-20 words with each lesson. The phrases of each lesson are part of an ongoing travel story. Learning these words and phrases should take about 20 minutes. If you get into a daily habit of committing those 20 minutes, you'll have made a great start. You can always add more time later.
- One goal. Focus on one achievable and realistic goal. No, you will not speak a new foreign language fluently in a year - unless you are willing and able to commit considerable time and energy. Learning a new foreign language as an adult requires discipline and sustained effort. Completing the course you have purchased, subscribed to, or enrolled in may be your one realistically achievable goal.
- Examine your motivation. Write down the reasons you want to learn a new foreign language. Maybe you plan to travel to a foreign country, you have a friend, spouse or relatives you want to communicate with, or your education or business interests motivate you.
- You have to really, really want it. The above reasons have to be strong enough for you to commit the energy and time needed to make real progress. If you can stay excited about your choice long enough to reap some benfits, e.g. reading an article or a book, watching a foreign movie or video, chatting with a friend, etc., your feeling of succes and accomplishment will then carry you along. But if you have just been “seduced” to learning a new language by an unrealistic promise such as “Speak a language in 10 days,” or other slick marketing ads, think again. You have to stay excited about your goal and continuously fuel your enthusiasm.
- Commit publicly. Today there are many ways to do that. Many online language programs let you post your progress scores on your Facebook page. If you are into blogging, you can report your experience and progress. You can tell your friends. And, especially if you have friends that speak the language you are learning, let them know.
- Get excited. See also 4. above. The more you learn, the more opportunities will open up for you, whether reading on-line blogs or articles, watching foreign movies or videos, linking up with online chat rooms, or preparing for your trip. You need to find your way of visualizing the benefits of achieving your goal.
- Build anticipation. You may want to start today: Buy that CD course you saw in the mall, enroll in the Adult Ed course your local college promotes, or subscribe to an online course you saw advertised. But hold it! First do some homework: What is your learning style? Are you a visual or an aural person? Where and when can you commit the time? Before work? After hours? At home? In a class setting? At work?, e.g. during a lunch break? What is your budget? Think it through, take some time and make your choice deliberate.
- Print it out, post it up. (Right from the blog): “Print out your goal in big words. Make your goal just a few words long, like a mantra (Exercise 15 mins. Daily.), and post it up on your wall or refrigerator. Post it at home and at work. Put it on your computer desktop. You want to have big reminders about your goal to keep your focus and to keep your excitement going. A picture of your goal also helps,” e.g. a picture of you friend, spouse or relative, or of the foreign country you want to visit, etc.
Even if you have followed all the above tips and have carefully set your goal, you'll need to find ways to keep going when your enthusiasm starts to wane. In several of our future blogs, we'll apply the "20 ways to sustain motivation when you are struggling" to learning a foreign language.
A recent NPR article by Stephen M. Walt, professor of international relations at Harvard University, caught my attention: Foreign Policy: 10 Things Future Wonks Should Know. The article meant to address the "things" our future Secretaries of State or for that matter, the students and future international policy wonks should learn. (The 1938 photo from the article shows undergraduates from Oxford University as they walk to lectures, well equipped with books.)
While I certainly cannot argue with any of his ten points, I wish he had listed “Foreign Language” as #2 or even #1 (instead of #3) for all the excellent reasons he mentions:
“... I know that everyone is learning English these days, but learning at least one foreign language provides a window into another culture that you can't get any other way, and also provides a sense of mastery and insight that is hard to achieve otherwise.” It seems clear to me that among the many other “things” a foreign policy expert should know, foreign language and history should be on top.
Considering the interconnections of our lives with the rest of the world, Prof. Walt's reasoning does not only apply to foreign policy wonks, but indeed to many industries, businesses, and people. He also speaks to “a sense of mastery that is hard to achieve otherwise,” a point that is rarely mentioned when enumerating the benefits of knowing a foreign language.
The current presidential election campaign in the US also makes me again painfully aware of the fact that knowing another language (than English) does not give any candidate an advantage with the voting public.
You may all remember that John Kerry downplayed his knowledge of French in 2004, and Mitt Romney is currently doing the same. President Obama is now staying away from that topic as well, as he got blasted in 2008 when regretting: “I don't speak a foreign language. It's embarrassing ... It's embarrassing when Europeans come over here, they all speak English, they speak French, they speak German. And then we go over to Europe and all we can say is merci beaucoup, right?" (CBS News 7/11/2008)
But for those who endeavor to learn another language both the “window into another culture” and the “sense of mastery” provide ample rewards.
You want to learn a new language. You’ve picked it out and have a program that suits your learning style. But the learning is just not happening. Some days you forget to do it, other days you clearly procrastinate. Cleaning up your desk seems vitally more important than learning and practicing 15 more vocabulary items.
Language Learner’s Block
What you may have is Language Learner’s Block. It has some similarities with Writer’s Block. To borrow and adapt a definition: Language Learner’s Block “is the condition whereby a language learner cannot summon up the will and energy to continue learning a foreign language.” (From Fiction Writers’ Mentor)
There may be various reasons for feeling blocked. A lack of confidence in yourself as a language learner may be sapping your motivation. Or you may feel you’re too busy with other things. But even people with a full schedule find ways to add an item they want to do. As a matter of fact, doesn’t the saying go: “If you really want to get a job done, find a busy person to do it”? The implication is that such people will be disciplined and efficient.
Seven (7) Habits...
Here are seven (7) simple ways to help you get out of a Language Learner’s Block.
1. Tell yourself that you’ll do a minimum of 5 minutes a day. Be honest with yourself, if that’s all you do, that’s fine. Your main goal is to get into a routine that will get you into an easy language learning mode.
2. Get a daily reminder. For most online programs, you can sign up for a daily e-mail to remind you. Or, you can put a daily alert on your phone.
3. Set yourself a small, specific task for every session (see examples below). Then do it with gusto, for a minimum of 5 minutes.
- Go through a specific exercise/segment in your chosen language program.
- Learn & pronounce 1 new verb, and its conjugation in the present.
- Learn, write, and pronounce 7 new words.
- Learn & practice 5 new phrases.
- Read (aloud if you can) 1 page in a book that’s on your level
- Watch a YouTube news video.
4. When you’re done, set yourself a quick next task. That will make it easier to get right into your next session.
5. Try things out, and don’t worry about making mistakes. As Benny the Polyglot says, perfectionism leads to paralysis. Don't go for perfection in speaking and writing in a foreign language. Even when you sound a little weird (in comparison to the native speaker on the program), don’t worry about it. Your first tries may be tentative, but if you keep trying, you will improve. The same goes for writing. With time, you’ll master the new spelling and grammar.
6. Every time you complete a task, feel good about it! Or treat yourself to something special, after 10 days in a row, after 30 days in a row, etc.
7. Embrace a new personality for your new language. For example, when practicing Italian, allow yourself to be more dramatic than you usually are. Have fun with exploring new ways to express yourself. And read, Change of Language, Change of Personality? by François Grosjean about being different when you change languages.
PT Lessons for BT (Brain Therapy) and Language Learning
Moreover, as a Lifehacker blog sums it up, engaging in regular language learning will begin to boost your brain. If you’ve ever done physical therapy after an injury, you know that patience and persistence can lead to very rewarding results. Most of the PT exercises you do at first consist of small movements done for a short time. Eventually, you’ll be moving normally and no longer have think about doing things carefully. That’s also a good lesson to take into language learning.
A recent article by Dan Hurley in the New York Times suggests as much. Hurley starts by describing a “memory game” where kids have to remember “which window a cat was in.” First, it's in a window just before, then in a window a Level before, and finally in a window two Levels before. It's as simple as that: “The cats keep coming and the kids keep remembering.”
Working Memory and “Fluid Intelligence”
Apparently, the “cat game” is one of the games that some researchers say can improve “working memory,” which is defined as: “the capacity to solve novel problems, to learn, to reason, to see connections and to get to the bottom of things.” All of us use “working memory,” Dan Hurley explains, for remembering telephone numbers, doing math in our head, understanding metaphors or analogies, for making sense out of language, etc. The sum of the skills of working memory is what we call “fluid intelligence” (as opposed to “crystalline intelligence,” which is produced by long-term memory skills).
Long-term memory and “Crystalline Intelligence”
It seems clear to us that language learning requires long-term memory skills. You need to acquire a good store of vocabulary, grammar structures, and (foreign language) sounds in your brain to be able to communicate, and thereby enhancing your “crystalline intelligence.” But “working memory” is just as essential. We, at GamesforLanguage.com look forward to research that analyzes the relationship between second language acquisition and improvements of “fluid/crystalline intelligence” in adults.
Language Fluency and “Working Memory”
Just learning words, with the many flash card games now available for phones and tablets, is a good way to accumulate a store of vocabulary, and rules for pronunciation and spelling. But flashcards alone won't make you fluent. Fluency requires the ability to speak and communicate. And this, in turn, involves a “working memory” that is well-engaged. A new language confronts a person with many “novel problems.” The learner will have to decode and use new grammar patterns, new sound combinations, to figure out the meaning of new words, and so on.
Language Learning Requires Practice
We can well imagine that real and continuous efforts to acquire and try out a new language will make you smarter by boosting your working memory. As Hurley states: “practice improves performance on almost every task humans engage in, whether it’s learning to read or playing horseshoes.” However, the required practice is often the greatest hindrance to becoming proficient in a new language. And as Hurley cautions: “Just like physical exercise, cognitive exercises may prove to be up against something even more resistant to training than fluid intelligence: human nature.”
Language Games to make Practice Fun
Games can make language practice fun, and by taking the boredom out of the required language practice, you’ll improve your “working memory” playfully. Will you end up being smarter by learning a second (or third) language? Hurley's article seems to suggest as much! But we're also looking forward to more research on that particular topic. In any case, if you start learning a new language now, you'll be ahead!
There are typical reasons for learning a new language: family/friend, travel, job, research, etc., but the motivation to become fully proficient greatly differs. If your approach to language learning is "casual," then don't let anyone - including us at G4L - tell you that you "must" practice regularly. You may be the quintessential “dilettante,” who loves learning on his or her own terms. Time may be scarce, or there may just be many other things you also want to do.
This sets you apart from the "steady" language learner, who has a fixed goal in mind and advances toward it step by step. You are also different from the "hardcore" language learner, for whom language learning is a major focus in life.
Here are 3 ways a casual language learner can make significant progress:
1) Embrace your image as a language learner "at will." Be positive, forget about the guilt of not being disciplined. Even small forays into language learning are a good thing! Everything you learn will leave a trace in your brain. Be reasonable with yourself. It's good to have expectations, but make them not too high. Expect something "in the middle."
2) Pick a way to learn that syncs with your lifestyle. If you're on the go a lot, get into mobile learning. If you're a just-before-you-go-to-sleep learner, keep a book or an iPad by your bed. If you're super social, find Facebook friends to chat with and write your posts in your new language.
3) Add some fun by doing things you really like. A few foreign language suggestions, starting with activities even a beginner can do:
- Listen to songs
- Research, make, and talk about delicious dishes (lots of sites on the Internet)
- Watch movies, most will have English subtitles (Netflix, Sundance Channel, etc.)
- Read cartoons (Asterix, Tintin, etc.)
- Watch news videos on foreign online newspaper sites
- Listen to audio books
- Play games in your new language (board games, computer games, video games, role playing games
For more suggestions, here's Ryan Layman's list of 25.
And, there is no telling where any of these small steps will take you. One thing, however, is certain: You’ll keep the neurons in your brain working and you’ll expand your world view at the same time...
When you google something like “language learning boosts the brain” dozens of entries come up. The technology for studying the brain has become quite advanced, so there seems to be some proof. But not everyone has the same experiences with the same results. Here are some musings of mine about language learning.
For me, learning something new or getting better at an activity requires that I engage in doing it. If I don't, I don't progress. For example, I'm a skier and every year in November, I start my first run of the season thinking: “OK, weight on your lower ski, stay away from ice, avoid the moguls for now.” During my first days on skis, I discover muscles I hadn't used for months, I get used to my edges again, I try out all kinds of turns. But, hey, by the end of ski season, I happily head for the moguls, and feel that I could follow Lindsay Vonn down a black diamond. Preferably in Austria.
Something similar is happening with my Italian language skills. For a while, I didn't practice my Italian very much. I was too busy with work! But then I found a way to motivate myself to do a daily practice. What I do is read Roberto Gervaso's daily “Tu per tu” column in ilmessaggero.it and watch an episode of the soap opera unpostoalsole.rai.it right on their web page.
Does this help to keep my brain fit? I think it does. When I can read through Gervaso's article and get the meaning without looking up any words, I get a great feeling of pleasure and boost in confidence. This affects whatever else I do during that day. The same happens when I understand what's going on in an episode of “Il posto al sole.” They speak fast and there's always some kind of underlying scheming going on. I learned Italian from scratch when I was a mature adult. It didn't all come easy. For instance, it took me a couple of weeks to fully learn “pomeriggio,” the Italian word for “afternoon.” With all the claims about how hard it is for adults to learn a language, I feel I've done well.
Emboldened by my success with Italian, I'm now learning Spanish. For obvious reasons, I am using our GamesforLanguage.com Spanish 1 course, and the new techniques and technologies are great. In addition to the language games I am using Twitter feeds for practice. When I'm ready, I'll start skyping with Spanish speaking language partners. For now, my biggest challenge isn't assimilating a word like “pomeriggio,” it's trying not to mix up Italian and Spanish. The two languages are similar and my comprehension of Spanish is good. But when I speak Spanish, Italian gets in the way.
But everyone's different. What about those who say they can't learn another language? That their efforts are doomed to failure because ...? My answer to that brings me back to skiing.
During this week, Waterville Valley NH is hosting the National Adaptive Alpine Ski Races. I've been watching the skiers, many of them quite young, skiing through difficult race courses. Each one of them has a physical challenge, lost limb(s), spinal paralysis. Each one of them skis with such skill, that he or she way outshines the rest of us on the mountain. The pleasure that these skiers radiate makes me appreciate the value of determination and the effort for overcoming challenges.
As the Dutch say: “You must row with the oars that you have.” (Je moet roeien met de riemen die je hebt.) So for language learning, the approach: “I've tried it once and it didn't work” – is not a good one. You've got to have passion, patience, and persistence. And you may find that your brain will thank you for it.
It's Monday morning, top of the week, and I'm more than ready for the following headline in the G section of my local paper: "How Willpower Works. Research indicates that willpower can be strengthened like a muscle - and is a key predictor for success in life." That looks promising. I'm just embarking on learning Mandarin Chinese, my first non-European language. A little extra willpower will be helpful for sure.
Deborah Kotz, health reporter/blogger for the Boston Globe, has tracked down pertinent research about willpower in general, and mentions various studies that show the benefits of self-control. She concludes: "Willpower, it turns out, is one of the most important predictors of success in later life."
But how can the research she describes apply specifically to learning a new language, which Kotz calls a "high-willpower activity"? One key premise is a quote by the "endurance artist" David Blaine, who states: "Getting your brain wired into little goals and achieving them helps you achieve the bigger things you shouldn't be able to do."
Learning a new language, sticking with it, and getting some real results is definitely a "big thing." Like staying with a diet, language learning has a high failure rate. In part, this may be because people expect too much too fast and don't find a way to stay with it.
So how can you best strengthen your willpower for learning a new language?
1) Set your mind on a specific long-term goal and be clear why you want to achieve that goal. For example: You're planning a trip to France in the spring and you want to get a good command of survival French. You want to learn how to buy fruit at an open market or a newspaper at a kiosk; navigate the public transportation system; ask for directions to someone's house or apartment; make formal and informal introductions, etc.
2) Get into the habit of doing little self-control tasks on a daily basis. And as I understand, they can be really "little." Some of these tasks don't need to be language related. Remember, you're just exercising your willpower muscle. In his book Willpower Roy F. Baumeister suggests that cultivating specific new habits that require a mental effort - such as doing a habitual action in a different way - can strengthen self-control. For example, you can fix your posture several times a day, or brush your teeth with the other hand.
3) Become creative with language learning mini-tasks. Besides the regular language learning schedule you're committed to, do a number of language learning mini-tasks throughout the day. For example, keep a journal in your new language and make several short entries throughout the day; practice a few vocabs intermittently on your smart phone; or line up a couple of YouTube videos for the day to cllick on. Or scan the online edition of a foreign newspaper, initially just for some phrases and sentences, later for full articles or stories.
4) Get to know that part of your brain where you make your decisions. Kotz explains the function of the prefrontal cortex (here, radically simplified by me): the right side helps you say "no" to temptation, the left side helps you say "yes" to the good choice, and the middle part helps you weigh the either/or. Each time you achieve a small goal, it's a springboard for the next one. Also, be aware that there are things that will drain your willpower. Fatigue is one, being hungry or stressed out are others. I would also add boredom and being overwhelmed with choices.
5) Learn to pace yourself. Unless you're studying for a language exam or you're one of those rare language geeks, a step-by-step approach may be best. Break the language down into chunks and then put it together again. Make sure that there always is a meaningful context. Doing 15 minutes a day, every day will get you farther than doing 1 hour twice a week. But if you miss a day, don't be self-critical. When you're ready, just continue where you left off.
So here's the bottom line. Doing little self-control tasks throughout the day can help your willpower for language learning. Conversely, setting regular language learning goals for yourself can help you be successful with other, larger achievements. It's a win-win situation. Now, will my tennis practice help my acquisition of Manderin Chinese, or is my language learning helping my tennis? The answer is yes! The issue is not just the tennis or the Chinese itself, but the discipline of its practice. It's all good.
OK and now, before I start on my 15-minute Mandarin Chinese practice, should I have a little left-over Halloween candy for a glucose boost, or should I have that apple?
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