Overcoming the Dips of Language Learning

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.

  • Tadeusz Mollin says:

    Great idea! Don’t despair. Fill in a short template every morning about the previous day. I should do it, too.

    • Kris Broholm says:

      That is a great idea. I think simplicity is key as otherwise it will be tough to maintain.

  • This is a joint comment for both this article and your podcast episode 114.

    I think you’re being a bit too hard on yourself. It’s a massive jolt to someone’s life to move to another country. I’ve moved country 5 times, and every time it was a massive disruption, turning my exercise and study habits upside down.

    You’re not making excuses for yourself, it was bound to happen. It happens to everyone. Give yourself some time to get used to your new city and job. The language-learning books will still be there waiting for you when you’re ready.

    • Kris Broholm says:

      Thanks Aidan, I appreciate the support and I’m aware I might be hard on myself, but it’s an old habit that will be hard to kill. I’ll try and work on my goal-setting and implementing some basic new routines for my languages so I can make a smooth start on this new challenge.

  • dandiprat says:

    I think you should just give daily facebook posts on your work. That way other people can comment with their own work. I agree you’re being a bit hard on yourself. Four years spent learning a language is NOT long, at least not for me. I’ve been working on Vietnamese for 3.5 years almost daily and I still have a long, long way to go. With Japanese and Mandarin I was way behind where you are now with your Russian by four years. I know plenty of people who make slower progress than that.
    For Spanish I think you really need to start talking to tutors, if you haven’t already. Good luck with your new venture.

    • Kris Broholm says:

      Thanks I appreciate the support as always, and I totally agree 4 years is really no time – especially if you expect to reach higher levels of fluency. As I mentioned in the post my latest disappointment is more related to my lack of productivity and not so much the level I’ve reached.

      Re: Tutors you’re absolutely right. Just need to find a slot during the day where I can pop in 30 minutes and just book a week in advance.

      I don’t think Facebook is a good choice, unless I post just to our LMM group as so many of my friends and family have no interest in my language learning journalling 🙂 I’ll think about it this week and come up with a concept asap

      • dandiprat says:

        That’s true. I rarely post stuff about my language learning to my Facebook account unless it’s really something important. I think my friends and family would not want daily updates from me recounting how many times I listened to such and such dialogue and how many words I looked up. Maybe on Twitter, but I guess even some of your Twitter followers might not want that either even if they are interested in language study. Your blog is fine I guess. Have a special section for your language journaling. I just think it would be great if other people could join in somehow.

      • Artie Duncanson says:

        If you want to post daily updates, but don’t want to flood the facebook pages of your friends, maybe you could create another Facebook page specifically for posting your language updates? You could post on your regular Facebook about your plan to create another account to share your daily language updates and ask people to send you a message (public or private) if they want to receive these updates. Then, you can help keep yourself on track by posting daily updates without having to fear pestering others.

  • Dot Read says:

    I agree with the previous comments that you should be a bit easier on yourself, for a little while, having just had a major life event – moving countries. (But not too easy, and not for too long! I know from my own experience that it’s not difficult to get used to doing not a lot and telling yourself there is a good reason for it.)
    Two things spring to mind – Firstly, I think it would be better not to post your progress on Facebook, as not everyone is a member (including me!).
    Secondly, could you do a daily update yourself, then post it every week, so you don’t have the pressure of writing a post every day?
    Good luck with it anyway!

  • Dorothée says:

    I agree with Aidan: you come into a new life, you need time to adjust. The good thing is that you realised having problems with your learning, and then you can do something about it 🙂
    Regarding the accountability, I think a weekly recap is enough: that’s a LMM lesson “don’t overwhelm yourself” :P. You keep daily track for yourself, the more you follow and track your learning, the more you see when you deviate, but you know that!

  • Katherine says:

    Oops, I typed this up and gmail and then pasted it here… sorry about the formatting!

  • dandiprat says:

    I hope everything’s going well with the language learning, Kris. Look forward to hearing from you.

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