You can call it a brick-wall or a plateau, but if you work on a language long enough you may eventually hit it; a point where you simply aren’t making any progress. This has happened several times for me in the past in other languages, especially after sprinting into it in the initial stages and getting exhausted quickly. The motivation, speed and vast bounds in progress are not that hard to maintain as long as you keep your momentum… but an even a short break may lead to you losing that momentum!
However, sometimes a break is good! Being so focussed on such an intensive project, such as learning a language, can be tiring. After a break of a few weeks, when you get back into it, you can start afresh with the same initial dash that you had before. It depends on your own personality and learning style. Unfortunately, a long break when you have given yourself a very small time limit is not such a great idea!
My own brick wall
At my two-month point things were looking promising! My accent was pretty good, and I had several friends here in Prague with whom I only spoke in Czech. I’d go out for dinner and converse about everything from sharing my travel stories to even basic philosophical discussions, with the limitations I mentioned (the other person had to speak slowly, and I couldn’t follow a conversation between two people, for example). I honestly believed that I had a good chance of reaching my own definition of fluency within my 3-month deadline.
But even when I had written that 2-month progress report, I had already spent over a week speaking barely any Czech and my chances to practise and exposure to the language have gotten worse as August continued, and I haven’t been able to practise for weeks now. Unfortunately, external and internal factors have come together that will prevent me from reaching my fluent-in-3-months goal this time! I really am sorry because I know a lot of people wanted me to make it, to show the doubters that it can be done, to help motivate themselves to try it to and just out of pure curiosity to see if I could make it. Before those who were waiting to pounce on me with I-told-you-sos jump down my throat, note that I am by no means giving up!! I may have lost the battle, but I will win the war and prove that 3 months to fluency is possible. This was only the first of many experiments; all of which I’ll be documenting, as I continue to give general language learning (and other) tips ;).
Debugging the system
Thomas A. Edison was interviewed by a newspaper after 800 unsuccessful tries to make a working light bulb. “How does it feel to have failed 800 times?” the reporter asked. And Edison’s answer? “I haven’t failed 800 times. I haven’t failed once. What I have done, is I have succeeded in proving that those 800 ways won’t work. Once I eliminate all the ways that won’t work, I will find the one way that will.” Several years later, after thousands more “successful proofs” he managed to find a way that works, and thus illuminated the world.
I am not a linguist, so I don’t go about studying languages the way they would. I am an engineer and a scientist at heart. I believe that every problem or mission (learn a language, have a satisfactory career etc.) has a solution if you are imaginative enough, and one way to find a perfect means of reaching a target is debugging your current method; i.e. find what is preventing you from reaching the goal, eliminate the issue and try again, then repeat the process until you are successful. I used to do a lot of programming so I apply this metaphor to many problems, and learning a language is one of them. To me, it can be broken down into a series of steps that you take to reach the final target, and if you are analytical enough, many of life’s problems can be looked at like that. This was always an experiment to me, and I will analyse the process and repeat the experiment taking the appropriate corrections into account. When you eliminate whatever is causing the problem, then you will eventually reach your goal! Note that I plan to reach this goal very soon ;).
So to me, this summer was definitely not a failure. With your permission, I am going to claim that I learned how to speak pretty good Czech in just two months. This is something that I am quite proud of! I can tell you exactly why I was not able to get past that point and emphasise that I don’t intend on making the same mistakes for my next fluent-in-3-months project. These two reasons are what mainly held me back:
- A project like this requires time, and even though I have my ways of squeezing the most out of my time, something sucked way too much free time away from me in my last month; due to financial problems I ran into (as I mentioned in the post about my work), I have had to work 12-hours a day, 7 days a week for most of August. In the very little free time that I’ve had, I have been much less enthusiastic about a project that was seeming less and less likely of getting achieved.
- As much as I’d love to blame this entirely on my lack of free time due to work (which is technically an external factor, but is actually just due to my own stupidity with financial management), there is a much more important reason why I didn’t reach fluency, which was a mistake from the very beginning. I had no long-term goals with Czech. I was relying entirely on my mini-goals of short-term objectives (upcoming coffee date, learn all words related to a particular topic in an hour etc.) and my other motivation of using Czech as a stepping stone to Slavic languages; but I had no actual long-term plans with Czech itself. These short-term goals got me very far!! But I needed something bigger and more long-term to keep me motivated. My decision to learn Czech was extremely spontaneous (I moved to Prague about a week after I came up with this strange idea, never having been here before or even having any Czech friends), and my only medium-term goal was to reach fluency in “a” language in 3-months. Czech had no special meaning to me, and sadly even after a whole summer here, I still haven’t fallen in love with this language or its people, like I have with other languages and cultures.
There were other minor things (like my inefficient grammar study method, etc.) that I will take into consideration in future, but my set-backs have absolutely nothing to do with Czech’s inherent difficulties, and I still think the language itself is not as bad as people make it out to be.
I will eliminate each of the above set-backs and make sure they do not exist in the next attempt. My current intensive working period (not fun during the summer!!) has meant that I will luckily be out of debt soon, and I think I may have (finally) learned that bouncing between my credit card limit and €0 is not such a secure long-term option! I can easily be much more secure with my current job and I will attempt to manage my finances better in future so that I am never put in a situation like this again.
And as with the motivation; I will definitely think much longer about a 3-month investment in future! I have more personal and global reasons to learn other languages like Polish, Russian, Chinese etc. and starting the project with the goal to learn that particular language in 3 months, rather than learn “a” language in 3-months will be a major difference when I try this again. Every other language I’ve learned has been for a huge array of reasons, and it should not have been any different this summer. A language isn’t like a stamp that you can add to your collection; it has a history and culture and people associated with it, and particular reasons why it may be special to you. This is something that I ignored for the first time this summer, and I will not make the same mistake again!
I will continue to work intensively for the remainder of my time in Prague to really give myself some financial security, but I will finally have weekends off again from this Friday (can’t wait!!!) to try to focus on taking advantage of this beautiful city rather than just focussing on its language. I will continue to post my general language tips and other related observations on this site (I have a LOT of post ideas; this site was never to exist just for this summer!); I will summarise my best tips for learning Czech soon for example.
However, I already have another 3-month project lined up! It will already begin on September 21st!! Rather than being humbled by not reaching my goal of fluency this summer, I am actually setting the bar higher and aiming for something much harder!! The two main issues above won’t exist because I’ll have (at least temporarily) sorted out my finances thanks to all of this intensive work, and I am extremely passionate about my next mission and have been thinking about it for a long time! I will reveal that mission very soon ;).
In the mean time, I’m really sorry for those who I had promised to reach fluency in Czech!! As I said, I don’t consider this a failure, but I’m still disappointed because I had promised a lot of people that I would make it. Hopefully you can understand my reasons for needing to focus on sorting out my finances for the moment! Stick around, I’ll have a lot more interesting projects coming up soon ;).
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This article was written by Benny Lewis
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