“So, how’s your language learning going?”
It’s a simple enough question. So simple, in fact, that one would expect the answer to be equally so.
However, when I was asked the question the other day by a friend of mine, I was surprised to discover that no, in fact, the answer was not simple at all.
It’s odd. In a world where it’s so habitual to classify everything from life, work, and anything in between as “going well” or “going poorly”, I had fallen out of the habit of classifying my language learning in that way.
“My language learning isn’t ‘going good’ or ‘bad’, I thought to myself…”
“…it just goes.”
Somewhat surprised by my own answer, I’ve tried to dig deep and figure out why I don’t make judgements of quality on my language learning, when (like most people) I do for nearly everything else.
Is More Always Better?
Years ago, things used to be different. When I was learning languages in school, or just beginning my own independent studies, I would have definitely classified my learning anywhere on a scale of “going wonderfully” to “going terribly”.
The more I studied, the better I would judge my learning to be progressing.
If I studied less, I’d assume I was doing worse.
These are fair judgments, of course. Even common sense ones. After all, if your goal is to learn a language, then more study is always the better circumstance, right?
It would certainly seem so. But there is a dark side to that line of thought. If you convince yourself that “more study = good” and “less study = bad”, you’re putting yourself on an emotional rollercoaster as you may praise yourself for studying several hours one day, and then chastise yourself for accomplishing less on another.
That was certainly how it worked for me for a long time. Language learning took place in fits and starts, and my mood about the whole enterprise would change depending on how much I was actually getting done.
If you’re reading this blog, chances are it currently works the same way for you. When you’re motivated and doing lots of learning, you’re happy. Otherwise, your lack of learning has you down in the dumps.
Unless you like emotional rollercoasters, that’s no good. While we certainly want to view our language learning as a positive activity, we don’t need the extra baggage of “How much am I doing compared to yesterday/last month/two years ago?”
Looking back, I tried to pinpoint the time when the current quality or frequency of my language learning no longer held sway over my mood. When it became something that went neither well nor poorly, but just went.
And it all happened when I established my routine.
Finding Consistent Peace of Mind
I’ve written both here and elsewhere about how beginning a regular, daily study routine at the beginning of 2015 completely revolutionized my language learning.
Typically, I discuss the difference the routine made in terms of raw progress (more consistent study = more consistent gains). However, there is quite a lot to be said about the difference a routine can make in improving your mentality towards language learning.
Earlier, I said how simply believing that “more learning is always better” can wreck your mentality by forcing you to constantly compare how you’re currently doing with how things have gone at other times in the past. You’ll feel productive one week, and terrible the next, as the goal post of achievement moves back and forth around you.
A consistent daily learning routine can largely free you from these troubles.
Why? Because instead of always thinking that you should be doing “more, more, more,” routines set a nice, flat limit for you to achieve. A single goalpost that remains unaltered, day in, and day out.
Take my current routine, for example. For the past month or so, I’ve been studying German for ninety minutes a day, every day.
When I start my study session, I set a 90-minute timer on my phone. Between the timer being set and it finally going off, I have a number of activities I do to grow and test my German skills. I may not do the same activities every day, but whatever combination of activities I do, I keep doing them until that timer goes off, signaling that ninety minutes has passed.
Once my allotted time is up, I can completely walk away from German. I don’t feel any need or obligation to spend any more time with the language after that point. I don’t worry about how it went, or if my performance today was better than yesterday. I just finish what I’m doing, and walk away.
Until the next day, of course, when the process begins anew and I’ll learn for another ninety minutes.
Having a routine is so emotionally-freeing because it’s so predictable. When I wake up in the morning, I know that the day will not end before I’ve finished another hour-and-a-half session.
I could throw darts at a calendar, and no matter what day it lands on, I know in advance what will be done.
March 8th? 90 minutes. June 12th? 90 minutes. Christmas Eve? 90 minutes.
And as long as I’m sticking to that routine of 90 minutes a day, rain or shine, l don’t worry about “how it’s going”. I don’t care if I got only 40% of my Memrise cards correct, or even if I did exceptionally well during a conversation with a native speaker.
No matter whether each individual day or learning can be classed as “good” or “bad”, all I care about is that I put the time in.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is peace of mind.
If you, too, want such peace of mind (and I’m willing to bet you do), start building your daily routine. Pick a short amount of time to study each day (I recommend thirty minutes) and commit to it.
When you sit down to study, set a timer. When that timer rings, STOP. Seriously. Don’t do more. Just do what you set out to do. And then do it again tomorrow.
With a solid routine under your belt, you’ll be free from worries of how things are going, and, instead just be confident that yes, they’re going.
And they’ll keep going until you reach your goal.