Learning languages is a wonderful intellectual pursuit, and I can honestly say that even my mediocre efforts have brought me more positive change than anything else I have ever done in my life.
When something is so massive and engulfing as learning an entirely new language independently it can cause some friction and struggles along the way.
In fact, I think this is the main reason that learning foreign languages is not entirely mainstream. People try in school or perhaps a bit later in their lives, fail miserably and believe they can't do it at all.
Learning languages in a complete vacuum is a strenuous task that takes a long time of consistent effort. When you add other things you have to do in your life to the mix it goes from hard to extremely hard.
At least when you don't deal with it the right way.
For the past week or two I have hit a bit of a roadblock with my language learning.
My Russian was improving quite nicely through input and the occasional chat at work.
I finally felt like I was on the cusp of cracking the code into Russian fluency – only 4 years later!
Spanish however, my so-called ‘focus language' has been a miserable effort. Not only have I spent a very little amount of net hours on it, I also have failed completely in formulating any kind of coherent plan of action to actually make progress in it.
Standing in front of my Spanish housemate in complete awkward silence because neither of us speak the other's language was a massive blow to my ego and confidence.
I became a bit disillusioned with myself, again. I had done barely anything in Spanish in the last 4 weeks, and it didn't seem like the trend was about to reverse anytime soon.
Of course I can't expect to move countries, start a new job, and just instantly click into a language learning routine – that's a given.
But even then I was still disappointed in my own EFFORT.
Notice that I'm disappointed in the work I put into the learning. I wasn't disappointed with where I was at skill-wise
And that's an important distinction to make. It's extremely hard (if not impossible!) to predict what skill level we should be on and when.
And so in effect it is very unproductive to worry about the result.
I usually compare it to losing weight. If you eat the right things and exercise (let's consider this the input) then the results should follow automatically.
In other words it's better for me to focus on not eating that donut for breakfast, than it is to get upset that I'm not on the exact weight I had hoped for that week.
Measuring is important to stay motivated and actually notice the progress – of course – but we must never get upset about a lack of progress or results as we cannot change those. Simply focus on changing the input (i.e the work we do on the language) and the output (i.e skill) should follow.
If it doesn't – well – we can talk about that another day.
The difference between being a casual learner and a ‘wannabe-learner'
I think that language learning should be fun and exciting for you as a learner. If it isn't then you really need to spend time revisiting methods, tools and your overall approach. It should never feel like a chore.
This means that you might not learn a new language in 3, 6 or 12 months. That's fine.
One of my friends Alex told me lately; “I started learning languages 20 years ago. Last year people started to describe me as talented in language learning”
It's a long road ahead of us, so be sure you're in it for the long haul!
However, I have to address the difference between the casual language learner and the wannabe language learner.
I have to do this because for a long time I have been worried I've been more of a wannabe, than a casual learner.
I've been telling the world I want to learn this and that, shown up to conferences and talked about learning languages for years but the results have been very mediocre.
Okay I have put in more work than a wannabe learner for sure, but it has been a bit chaotic at times.
The difference between the casual learner and the wannabe is that the casual learner is organised and knows why he or she is doing the language learning. Casual learners do not just talk about learning languages, they understand they also have to actually put in some work.
Wannabes on the other hand relish the idea of speaking other languages, but when it comes to actually putting in the effort they start to procrastinate and postpone it – sometimes indefinitely.
They are dreamers in a way, and often not on purpose.
It's a bit like Jekyll and Hyde.
Within each learner there is a serious and organised learner coexisting with a terrible dabbler or wannabe learner.
Every day we must fight this evil version so we can progress towards our dreams and be more organised and work more systematised towards our goals.
(I'm speaking a lot about myself here.)
This is why I'm taking this opportunity to revamp my language learning structure and my goals for my current language projects. Read more about this at the end of the article.
The good news about dips in language learning
The above paragraph might sound a bit grim.
Don't worry! It's not all bad 🙂
I'm not entirely on unknown ground with this dip. It's something that I've experienced throughout the last 4 years.
Thats why I developed an entire programme last year, devoted to recovering from struggles, so you can keep learning the foreign language of your dreams.
This means I have a lot of materials to get support from. Even though it is a bit strange to watching videos of yourself!
Goals+Tracking+Consistency+Documentation = success.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments below.
Kris is the founder of Actual Fluency, and has spent the last 8 years becoming an expert in language learning software, methods, and techniques.
Originally from Denmark, he now lives in Portugal and speaks 5+ languages at varying levels. His other interests are Wine, Online Marketing, and Travelling.