This post is a transcript of a video on my YouTube channel.


Studying English? Here’s the transcript as a lesson to study on LingQ.

We live in an age where there are lots of distractions. The multiplicity of media has made it easy to be distracted from whatever task we are engaged with.


I do a lot of my studying on the iPad right now, in fact, I’m going through some material from a podcast in Persian called bplus where he provides concise reviews of books, a lot of self-help books, one of which was Deep Work by Cal Newport and the other one was Focus by a gentleman called Goleman. This is what triggered this idea in my mind of how we cope with distractions. When I sit now, I’m going through these in Persian, I listen to them and then I read them and I look up words and it’s tremendously tempting to just check my Twitter feed and see what’s happened, what the latest news is from Ukraine or to check my email or all of a sudden there’s a message from someone. And so how do I deal with this?


To the extent that I understand the Deep Work book, a lot of the advice given there is pretty standard, like set certain times of day aside for doing certain things, set yourself goals, deadlines, but one of the more interesting concepts there is the idea that if it’s rewarding to go and see what sort of message has come in or check your Twitter feed, then every time you do that, you are rewarding yourself and therefore building up a habit. Checking your Twitter feed instead of staying with the task of reading, here in Persian, and looking up words and so forth.


So you have to train yourself so the more you can resist that temptation. If this is a 10 minute audio lesson with the corresponding number of pages of text that I have to read through and look up words and I maybe I’m reading it for the third or fourth or fifth time. So I’m again going over yellow words that I don’t yet know.  If I’m able to stay with it and perhaps a 10 minute audio file will take me 30 minutes to go through, if I do manage to stay on task for 30 minutes, whenever I do that I feel that I’ve achieved something. The brain is rewarded according to Newport if I understand him in Persian translation, then I’m training my brain just as we train a muscle.


If you do certain things and repeat certain activities, you’ll build up that strength. So similarly, every time I succumbed to the temptation to look up my Twitter feed I’m weakening my brain. When I resist that for 30 minutes, then I’m strengthening my brain. I think that’s an interesting concept because of course we want to build up habits, not only language habits, but study habits.


I like to make a distinction between being distracted by things that don’t relate to the language you’re learning because you have the distraction is related to the language then that’s different because I think one of the concepts in Goleman’s book about focus is that that, to some extent we should be open to new ideas, open to new stimulus and not constantly responding to the more basic instincts of ours that make us afraid of this or nervous about that, or want to know about. And so that keeps us in a sort of established routine. In a way we should be more open to new things. So the distractions might be quite positive. For example, if my wife is watching a Netflix series in Egyptian, which she was doing a couple of weeks ago, that’s a distraction and all of a sudden, wow, I want to do more Arabic. In other words, the distraction can be a source of stimulus.


I think when we’re we’re language learning, we’re vagabonds, we want to wander around and sample some of this sample some of that. It’s not like we sit down and “ok for the next hour I’m going to try to nail this vocabulary list.” That’s not very effective. If we allow ourselves to be distracted a bit that can bring a lot of reward and maybe makes our brains more open because after all, when we’re learning a language, we’re trying to get this newest thing, this new way of seeing things of expressing things into our brain and I think we need to be flexible for that to happen. We need to be open to new ways of saying things and this sort of flexibility in our attitude I think it’s a big part of what makes some people better language learners than others.

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So it may just be, and I have no research to support this, but it may be that a certain degree of openness, ability to, willingness to be distracted, willingness to enjoy the distraction can be beneficial while at the same time, if that is a distraction that takes you away from the language learning tasks, then that’s not a good thing. I often feel that if I could read better in Arabic or Persian, I would love to read actual paper books because then there’s even less distraction, less likelihood of going to my Twitter feed. I’ve found that say for Czech or even for Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, where I can read those languages more easily then reading and a paper book is again a way of getting more deeply into the language. Whereas reading on my iPad I’m looking at words and I’m listening to the text to speech, those are kinds of distractions from the actual task of absorbing the content. Of course, when we read and when we absorb the content, we are getting our brains used to the language.


So I guess what I’m saying is that you have to have a strategy which allows you to be distracted. When you are good enough to read paper books, I definitely recommend doing so. On the other hand, if, as in the case of my Arabic and Persian, there are just so many words that I don’t really quite know how to pronounce and I really don’t know the meaning of them, that is simply too frustrating to read a paper book so I read on my iPad, but my objective eventually is to be able to read paper material in those languages.


So leave yourself open-minded to distractions, but try to suppress those distractions that take you away from the language entirely and doing that you can develop some good habits, just like muscles, which will make you effective more effective language learner. That is all based on the distraction of me reading these Persian language summaries of these two English language books. I throw this out there as a distraction, as a stimulus, ideas and you can make of this, whatever you want.

Enjoyed this post? Check out Steve’s article on how to stay motivated in language learning!