What dieting taught me about language learning

Let me start today's post with a confession: I'm not a skinny girl. I have a history of being unhealthy behind me, and am forever battling the waistline. It just won't stay where it's supposed to be! All the nice food is fattening, extreme measures are short-lived and finding the healthy approach just seems too boring.

Like the majority of people in the Western world, I long for the miracle cure. Isn't there a potion to make me slim for life yet? With all this technology out there?!

The Hows of Language Learning

Okay, let me explain why I am suddenly writing about excess pounds. It struck me today, in a conversation with a friend, that this quest for one true solution is very much what we language learners do. All learning is difficult, requires discipline and makes you tired. It's boring at times, and the end goal appears to be ever further away. 

Benny Lewis, author of Fluent in 3 Months, recently produced a humorous take on the quest for a miracle method when he promoted Language Ninja. It made me laugh, a parody of all those language learning wizards out there who claim they can just infuse our mind with fluency.

Well, I have some non-news for all of us: Like dieting, languages aren't easy. They're rewarding and empowering (more than a diet ever could be), and worth the hassle. But that doesn't change the truth - it takes some discipline and commitment. I want to share the Hows of Language Learning - not miracle cures, just some sensible advice to consider.

What's the best way to learn a language?

 Persistence illustrated by  robmania

Persistence illustrated by robmania

  1. Do it your way
    Just like Atkins or Herbalife can't be right for every human, you will struggle to find the one single language learning method that works. I often see people ask "What's the best way to learn a language", and my response is this: Change the question.

    Find out about the many ways there are. List at least five that you can think of, like taking a class or asking your Polish neighbour for a word a day. Then think about your personality - are you an extrovert? Visually stimulated? Music lover? Find the method that integrates your preferences for the most efficient way of learning.

    There are also learning preferences, which are important to explore. This test and this great lingualia article will help you figure out more.
  2. Learn to love it
    If you cannot beat them, you have to join them. Stop looking at a far-off result. It is my belief that you cannot become fluent in less than a year, so I'd rather advise language learners to start enjoying the journey you're taking there.

    Instead of working towards that fuzzy idea of "fluency", try reaching smaller milestones. Enjoy the glow of actually achieving goals, and have it rightfully boost your confidence. It doesn't matter how small they are, they could be "remember 10 types of German sausage" or "recite the conjugation for être in under 30 seconds".

  3. Practice persistence
    Another parallel from the world of dieting..healthy living, staying fit and keeping the pounds off requires ongoing commitment. That's why it's so annoying, but it ultimately works. Forget the miracle shakes and cabbage soup weeks - they'll never work in the long run.

    Learning little and often is better than having weekly 5 hour sessions. Your brain is stimulated by repetition and working in these smaller doses will often allow you to make improvements and adjustments so much more effectively. If you attend regular classes, make sure you look at your notes at least once a week - not on class day.

    If you are self-taught, this is also important. You can vary your input, vary the exercises and generally have a bit more flexibility. But one word of warning: Don't get complacent. You should follow some kind of plan, make sure you progress and repeat the same things only so many times. It doesn't matter if you can't remember 100% of lesson 4, move on anyway and trust that progress builds on previous knowledge.

This post is inspired by two fab ladies: For one, my friend K, a postgraduate student who I've been fortunate to share a long stretch of my life path with. And for another part, Sonya Lyubomirsky, author of a book called "The How of Happiness" (before you ask: there is no one How, there are 6 billion individual ones).

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