How to Learn Any Language: 7 Tips for Staying on Task
We live in the golden age of language learning. The Internet brings us an unprecedented cornucopia of language learning resources, tools, communities, exchange websites and more. We can buy audiobooks, ebooks, access online newspapers and magazines in the language of our choice.
We can follow these resources on our iPhones and iPads, and have them with us wherever we are. We can import all of this material into language learning websites like LingQ to make them even more accessible and powerful learning material. This is true whether we attend language school or not.
This astounding wealth of language resources and connectivity comes at a price, however. It is now much easier than ever to be distracted. In the New York Times bestseller Willpower by Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, the authors describe experiments that show just how frequently people are distracted from their tasks by thoughts of food and other temptations. This doesn’t even take into consideration the modern temptations of wanting to check our email, Twitter or Facebook.
So how do we stay on task in learning our target language?
1) Get Organized
In their book, Baumeister and Tierney describe research that shows that if people are disciplined in some part of their lives, this carries over into other activities.
If you have a regular fitness routine, or are good at organizing your working day, focusing on one task at a time, you are more likely to exhibit willpower in other areas of activity. Of course, the reverse is also true. If you can develop a disciplined and organized approach to language learning, this should have benefits in other areas of your life.
2) Eat Well
Will power takes energy, according to Willpower. In controlled experiments described in the book, people whose energy is depleted or insufficient demonstrate less will power. Therefore you should ensure that your diet keeps you energized. If you run out of fuel, or if you are exhausted, you will be more easily distracted, it turns out.
A hit of high sugar nourishment may help in the short term, but may not be the best long term strategy, since the effect wears off quickly. Will power will also be weakest when you are hungry and out of fuel. You are more likely to be distracted in the late morning or late afternoon.
3) Establish Good Study Habits
If you schedule certain times of the day for language learning, especially when you are rested and well fed, you are more likely to engage with the language successfully. We tend to be creatures of habit. If you are able to set aside certain times of each day for language study, you should try to do so. If you can stick to this schedule for a few days, it will become habit.
Some language learning tasks can be combined with other mechanical tasks during the day. I am able to combine listening with exercising, driving or doing the dishes. This listening activity at various times during the day represents more than half of my language learning time.
However, I do need to devote concentrated time towards learning the language. The best time for me to sit down and read on my iPad, saving words and phrases into LingQ, and then reviewing them, is right after breakfast or lunch.
Stephen Krashen speaks of the importance of compelling input. If you are forcing yourself to learn something out of a sense of duty, you will be more easily distracted. If you can find content or activities of interest, your sense of enjoyment will override any possible temptations to stray.
Imagine that you are engaged in an activity that is in itself enjoyable or interesting, like reading or listening to something that you find interesting and compelling. Imagine further that you get a sense of achievement by being able to do this in a new language, one which six months earlier was strange to you. This gives your brain a high, such that there is very little room for distractions and temptations. If anything you will be tempted back to these activities, away from less interesting or less stimulating activities.
5) Vary Your Activities
Even when engaged with interesting foreign language content, the longer you read or listen, the more energy you need to stay on task. It is a good idea to mix in easier material for variety in order to lessen the burden. If you can arrange an online discussion or lesson with a native speaker, this will also recharge your batteries.
It is also a good idea to do more mechanical learning tasks, like flashcards or vocabulary review. If you do mix flashcards in with your reading and listening activities, don’t just do one kind of vocabulary review activity. The five different vocabulary review activities at LingQ are a good example of how mixing or randomizing these activities makes them more enjoyable, and keeps you focused.
6) Set Goals and Refer to them Often
The essence of willpower is to forego short-term gratification in order to achieve long-term benefits. If you set the long-term goal of fluency in a language, constantly remind yourself of why this is important to you. You have to be conscious of why, at a given moment, you are committing yourself to this language learning activity. You need to believe that you are doing what you want to be doing whenever you are studying. You are where you want to be!
You should also set medium-term targets, such as the different targets that are tracked at LingQ. Numerical targets give you more immediate milestones, something you want to strive for on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Achieving or surpassing these milestones gives you encouragement, which is often necessary when you doubt your own progress in the language you are learning.
7) Force Yourself to Stay Focused
We now know that our brains are constantly evolving. Our brains are constantly learning and changing in response to life experiences we confront. That is why we are able to learn languages, whatever our age. Our brains evolve and create new neural connections to manage the new language.
Our own will to change our habits causes changes in our brain. Our will to learn a language is part of why we are able to do so. You can also will yourself to be more focused, and the brain will gradually become more disciplined. The discipline you achieve in your language learning will carry over into other activities, if we believe Baumeister and Tierney.
Few activities are as rewarding as language learning. Yet, whatever the task, we know that our mind wanders. Language learning success depends on the time we are able to devote to it. However, if you can develop a greater ability to stay on task, you can multiply the effectiveness of your learning activities.