The Most Important Sentence I Learnt in 2 Years of Language Teaching

The biggest, baddest language learning technique that you can ever learn is to realize what's irrelevant and what really needs to be done. Did you ever feel guilty about a distraction, and then try to make it into something "productive"? I sometimes catch myself watching Season 6 of Gossip Girl (If it's in French, is that still procrastination? Answer: Yes. Especially when you're meant to write something for Compass.). But there are also the times where I just read a lot of irrelevant things and start wondering about font sizes or blog article length or other nonsense. So here's my theory: Distraction comes in many different guises, hides in the back of your mind and drives you to the internet or to YouTube to spend more time and money standing in your own way. 

high standards

There are 1000 questions that pop up when you start learning a language, and even though the answer to each one brings you a little further, today I just want to write about the rabbithole risk of them.

Here are a few:

  • Should I be learning German or Spanish or French or Italian?
  • Or Russian or Japanese?
  • How difficult is Welsh?
  • Do I need a language exchange partner?
  • How many words should I learn every day?
  • When should I improve my accent?
  • What are the business benefits of learning another language?
  • Is it enough that I'm only spending two hours a week learning my language?
  • Can I really do this?

It's not that these questions aren't productive things to spend our time thinking about. I'm a language blogger. Of course I want you to wonder about this stuff and share your views and experiences with other language learners.

But here's where I see the issue:

You Set Yourself Really High Standards

The sentence “You set yourself really high standards” is actually one of the most important points of what I have learnt in two years of working with adults. If you are picking up another language after childhood, things are different. Most of the world out there will actually work on telling you that it’s a lot more difficult to learn this other language. To be honest, I don't really buy that thing about kids being the naturally gifted language learners. The problem isn't in how tired your poor brain has become in 20 years of doing things that aren't language learning. The problem is your expectation.

Adults are used to being able to do most things without having to learn them first – we’ve all gone through growing up and being guided and then becoming independent, and it’s difficult to give that independence up once you’ve got it. In language learning, that means that someone who is really great at their native language is now putting themselves back into that position of being a complete starter. You are used to expressing yourself comfortably and knowing what everything around you is called. You restrict 99% of what you say about yourself to the world, and it ends up making you feel like an idiot. No wonder you'd need a break, even if you've only just learn how to say How are you? in German. This is not about how many words you already know, it's about the psychological adjustment to being a learner. No matter how limited or advanced you are, you deserve a break. But as you might not feel that you "deserve" that break yet, you end up questioning the whole undertaking and chasing online rabbits.

The Cult of Language Genius

When you encounter someone who can speak more than one language, you will not see how CRAP they were at the beginning. The world skips straight to the end of the success story and you zoom in on how eloquent and confident they are.

But it is not about becoming a super-person and I want you to make sure that you check where your standards are before moving on. Being kind to yourself and setting realistic expectations is the only way that you can build a commitment to achieving the level of fluency and expertise that you dream of.

Here are a few things that are totally normal:

  • Even when you've read a word five times already, you'll still forget it. You'll need to hear it like 100 times.
  • When someone corrects you, you feel like you just want to throw the towel.
  • Even after five years of learning your language, you still don't get the jokes.

There's lots of this. Don't lose heart. Here is a quick cheat sheet to being amazing and stopping the worries:

Adjust your standards, put your head down and do the work.

Does it sound a little dull? Yes, maybe. It's less exciting than following an internet rabbit hole or watching the polyglot videos or hoping to be fluent in a very short amount of time. But these three steps are what keeps you succeeding over and over again. I'll have to write an article one day about how I ran my first 10k, and what I was like the first time I ever tried to go for a jog. Kids were laughing at me as I puffed around the 1/2 mile park. I was awful, and now I'm less awful. And I promise you just one thing: If you're awful at your language now, you will be less awful soon.

The War of Art

Here is an excellent book recommendation for those of you who feel that today's article spoke to you and want to find out a little bit more about beating those distractions. The War of Art by Steven Pressfield is a tough little book, calling out every excuse and hurdle that we put into our own way. It is written from the point of view of a novelist, and I was reading it around the time I wrote the Vocab Cookbook, catching myself out as I slacked off "my work". Pressfield is a powerful author and really talks about the power of just getting on and doing the work. His spiritual view of the muse coming to give you some kind of divine kiss of inspiration isn't really my bag, but no matter if you're learning a language or starting a business or writing a book: You gotta do the work.

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