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You just spent a few hours studying your target language, and you're feeling great. You're feeling like you can do this. You've got a routine planned. You've got it all mapped out.
But a day goes by. Then two days. And you haven't gotten back to your language practice.
Before you know it, you start beating yourself up. Guilt sets in.
After three or four days, your language learner’s guilt is in full swing, and you feel so bad about it that you actually start avoiding language learning the same way you'd avoid a friend whose text you never answered or whose birthday you forgot.
You've halted your language progress not because you're genuinely too busy. You feel guilty about breaking the promise to yourself that this time you wouldn’t give up. You’ve only got to think about the learning you should have done, and shame hangs over you like a murky cloud.
It’s so much easier to pretend like the problem isn’t there than it is to figure out a way to solve it for the long term.
But you can solve this problem by recognizing the top 3 mind traps that will paralyse your language learning progress.
Mindtrap #1: You think the key to success is creating a bulletproof learning schedule.
In language learning, it’s great to create a schedule to organize your time. But in planning out a schedule, you have to simultaneously know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you will at some point get off track and be behind on your plans.
I’m going to let you in on a secret.
Many, many people who start with the plan to learn a new language never achieve their goal.
And do you want to know why?
It’s not because they’re too busy. And it’s not because they’re not smart enough.
It’s because at some point, they stopped regularly practising their language and then they never started it up again.
This may seem like a sad fact, but if you think about that for a moment, it actually reveals a pretty empowering truth.
Even the best laid plans sometimes just don’t work out. And most of the time language-learning schedules are more optimistic than they are realistic.
If you want to be the exception to this fate, if you want to succeed in learning Spanish, German, Chinese, whichever. You don’t need to be the person who never breaks your schedule. You just need to not be the person who never picks it up again.
And that’s it.
You don’t have to avoid getting off track – that’s the beauty here. In fact, you should expect to get off track. More than once. It may even be a regular thing, and that’s okay.
All language learners get off schedule. All language learners skip a day or three or sometimes thirteen. I’ve done it more times than I can count. This absolutely does not have to be the end. The trick is to not let the guilt make you feel like things are over. It isn’t over until you stop. And you get to decide when that happens.
So go ahead and pick up that Teach Yourself book you hid behind the couch because it was staring at you. And send a new session request to the italki teacher you cancelled on two sessions in a row. Just suck up your pride and do it. It’s time to get back on track.
Mindtrap #2: You try to fix a broken routine by “making up” for lost time
“How can I make up for that lost time?” Is this your first response when you’re behind on the best laid language plans, or when you’ve missed your last few language classes?
This is dangerous territory.
If you’re only behind by an hour or two, then sure, this kind of thinking is no problem, and you should share with me your secrets, you wizard!
But if you’re mortal, it’s much more likely that you started off your project thinking you could pack way more hours of study time into a day – every day – than turned out to actually be realistic. I remember my own first attempt to learn Spanish, and how it began with me thinking that if I read a certain amount of pages of el señor de los anillos in Spanish each day, then I’d be fluent in no time.
Here’s how this sort of dangerous and faulty logic starts to ruin your progress. You think to yourself,
“I'm supposed to be studying 6 hours a day, and I missed all of last week, which makes me 42 hours behind… so I guess I can make it up if I add in 2 hours a day for the next 3 weeks…”
It doesn’t take Alan Turing to see how things can get bad from there…
Don’t try to “fix” a set of already-difficult-to-meet goals by adding to the list!
The problem with this thought process is that the entire time you’re trying to “make up for lost time”, you feel like an utter failure. You’re behind. And every day you’re counting exactly how many hours behind you are. And until you (somehow, magically) do make up those hours, you’ll feel behind, and you’ll feel like your failure, and that’s just no fun at all. Is that how you want to feel when you look ahead at your language-learning calendar?
So don’t think about all the hours you were supposed to have studied but didn't. Mathematical masochism helps no one.
Instead, just get back into the rhythm of the schedule you originally set yourself. And if that proves too difficult, you might be falling into the next mindtrap…
Mindtrap #3: You don’t value “study minutes” as much as you do “study hours”
Back when I first started language learning, I counted my study time in hours. The more hours I could do in a day, the better. I got a lot done. But I also wasted a lot of time. When I only had a few minutes to spare, I wasted them surfing online, watching TV or refreshing my email inbox for the seventh time instead of investing them into my language project.
You’ve probably heard the phrase: “Look after the pennies, and the dollars will look after themselves.” The same is true of language learning.
If you’re suffering from guilt or stress about how behind you are on your study hours, then maybe you should stop counting how many hours you’re practising for a few days, and instead see how many more minutes you can squeeze into a day.
Perhaps you literally have only ten minutes each day to devote to language learning. Use them. If you use them you will get somewhere, especially if you’re using them every single day.
Even if you’d ideally like to spend two or more hours a day studying, don’t be tempted not to study today because you “only have 15 minutes” when you planned to study for an hour. Use those minutes anyway, and you will be surprised how fulfilled you’ll feel afterward.
There’s a lot you can do in just 15 minutes. A lot of really good podcasts are designed to have lessons that only last a few minutes long. You can rack up a heck of a lot of points on memrise in that time as well.
What you decide to do matters less than just doing something. Study minutes are excellent for keeping up your momentum and building a positive mentality around your language learning project. And it’s hard to overstate just how important those two factors are to long-term success.
So respect how much your minutes are worth. And use them.
How to Get Over It and Move Forward With Your Learning
This is your new mantra: Start as you mean to go on.
Practice your language today the way you hope you’ll practice it tomorrow.
Put in the hours today that you plan to put in tomorrow.
I love this mantra because it focuses completely on today and tomorrow. It doesn’t give a crap about what happened yesterday.
Way too often, we have grand ideas for ourselves that we set aside for a future version of ourselves to live out.
Living this mantra, you’ll start crafting your actions today based on how you’d like to do things tomorrow. You’ll stop stressing about how you should have done things yesterday (but didn’t). Then suddenly – BOOM! – all the baggage and guilt from being “behind” is gone. All that remains is optimism about what’s to come.
You’ll avoid the trap of waiting until “mañana” to get back to your language learning.
Remind yourself, every day, to start today the way you mean to continue your progress tomorrow. It will really help.
As someone whose language learning goals have been on public display for years, with millions of people watching and waiting to see what happens, I know a thing or two about language learner’s guilt.
And I promise you that breaking your routine will never result in failure. You should expect for things to go wrong with your plans. All you have to do is make sure that at some point, you keep going.
- Start as you mean to go on
- Pick up your language learning again, even if you’ve dropped it for a few days (or weeks, or months, or years)
- Avoid the temptation to make up for lost time
- Look after the minutes, and the hours will look after themselves