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People are motivated to learn languages for different reasons.
It might be because you’ve moved abroad and wish to understand the native tongue of the people who call that place home. Perhaps it’s for a work-related purpose. Other times, it stems from an interest or appreciation of a certain country and their culture.
Whatever the reasons, you’ve decided you want to start learning a language and that the best time to start is now.
The next question is… where do you begin?
I can understand how anyone starting out could view achieving fluency as an insurmountable task. Learning a language is a massive undertaking and it can often be very difficult to figure out the right place to begin.
Here’s the place to start…
Integrate Language Learning into Your Life
I believe there are two important points to consider when you approach language learning.
- You have to make sure you are doing it for the right reasons. Not for personal glory, or to make it a numbers game about how many languages you can speak. These are hardly going to motivate you in the long run. Rather, you should be striving for fluency because you are passionate about the country and culture. Learning languages takes a lot of time and involvement. Without passion for your chosen language, it can be difficult to find the motivation required to work towards your goal.
- You need to make it an absolute priority. If you dedicate yourself to the one task and give it your all, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t succeed!
The key to staying on task is to make language learning a habit. To do this, we need to implement a new set of routines in our everyday lives, in order to make this habit stick.
How Do Habits Get Formed?
There is some dispute over the length of time it takes to form a habit.
The “21-Days” theory was originally coined by a plastic surgeon in the 1950s known as Maxwell Maltz. Maltz noticed that his amputee patients would take around 21 days to adjust to their prosthetic limbs.
He himself realised it generally took him around the same amount of time to form a new habit. So, in the 1960s he published a book called Psycho-Cybernetics. The book became bestseller and his theory spread like wildfire, particularly adored by self help gurus world over.
The problem with this situation was that Maltz had coined this idea merely from observing what was happening to those around him. He was sure to note that 21 days was the minimum amount of time before a new habit would form. This theory was picked upon and wildly circulated, without any scientific study to back it up.
Decades later Phillippa Lally, a health psychology researcher at University College London, published a paper that was the result of a twelve week long study. She examined the behavioural patterns of 96 people over the three-month period. Her results led her to conclude that it takes 66 days for behaviour to become ingrained, with people taking anywhere from 18 to 254 days to form a new habit.
From Lally’s study, we can conclude that the amount of time it takes for behaviours to become ingrained depends entirely on the individual. Which is why you should establish a routine before anything else when you’re working towards achieving fluency in a language.
Why Forming Routine is Important For Language Learning
You’ve made the decision to undertake a task that will command a huge amount of your time and concentration.
To succeed, you need the desire to study to become automatic, without having to have constant fights with your mind over the mental activity you require to get the task done.
The first time I started speaking when learning a language, my brain couldn’t handle it. I felt completely mentally exhausted at the end of each day, like someone had ripped my mind out of my head and trampled it all over the ground.
I persisted and over time, it got easier and easier. Now when I embark upon a new mission, I don’t even think twice about how I approach my study. I know the key is to start speaking and thinking in my new language and everything will just fall into place from there.
Create some routines, make it a habit and there is no reason why you shouldn’t succeed in your mission too.
Let’s have a look at some routines you can take, to integrate language learning into your everyday life.
1. Break Tasks Down Into Achievable Chunks
When you start learning a language, it can often feel as though you are standing at the base of a gigantic mountain. You want to climb to the top, but you have no idea where to take the first step.
The key here is to break the task down into smaller, achievable goals. Don’t say “I want to be fluent in x language some day.” That kind of vague thinking will get you nowhere.
I suggest sitting down with a pen and paper and creating some achievable objectives. Give yourself a set time frame for wanting to attain fluency and make note of what you wish to have accomplished by specific dates along the way.
While I may have a fluency goal myself in many projects, what I am actually doing is keeping end-of-month goals in mind first.
2. Set Challenges to Inspire Yourself
After you’ve broken tasks down, create mini goals along the way that you can work towards in your path towards achieving fluency. These can be as big or small as you wish. For example, give yourself five days to memorise the alphabet, add ten new words to your vocabulary list every day or learn three irregular verbs a week. From there, you can set larger “mini-missions” – such as having a Skype session with a native speaker completely in your chosen language two weeks in.
Over time you can increase the level of your mini-goals. Try broadening your topics of conversation to cover more advanced subjects or challenge yourself to learn how to rap in your chosen language. At the very worst it will help improve your speaking skills. At best, you might discover a talent you never knew you had before!
Aim to have fun, in order to motivate yourself to meet your objectives. As you tick each mini-mission off your list, you’ll find yourself edging closer and closer to achieving your overall language goal.
3. Keep Yourself Accountable: Make Your Missions Public
One of the best ways to encourage progress is to tell others about your objectives. Making your mission public will also make it real. There will be more at stake and you won’t want to fail.
I recommend that all new language learners start a blog, announce their goal on our forums, or join a support group based on intensive language learning. Outline your mission in your first post and set an end date for achieving your goal. Then put aside a time every week – say every Monday, Wednesday and Friday night, to update everyone about your progress.
This public log will act as a handy reference in monitoring your progress. You can write about what is working, what isn’t and where you think your strengths and weaknesses lie.
If this kind of public (b)logging doesn’t interest you, consider emailing friends and family members to tell them about your progress. Or send weekly updates to a close co-worker. It doesn’t matter which method you take – just get it out there and make yourself accountable.
4. Focus on One Task at a Time
One reason I hear of many would-be language learners failing is because they don’t prioritise correctly. They try to do too much at once, become overwhelmed, then give up.
This is why I have only ever tried learning one language at a time. I don’t move onto a new language until I am sure I have reached a level in my current mission that I am comfortable with.
I like to use my friend Scott as an example. He has undertaken many missions of his own, such as his MIT Challenge, where he attempted to learn MIT’s four-year computer science curriculum without taking a single class. Sounds crazy, but he made it!
From late 2013, Scott and his friend Vat spent a year travelling without using English and managed to reach conversational level in four different languages over the course of twelve months.
Scott’s secret to success is simple. He’s not some sort of super being with magical tricks up his sleeve. He achieves because he is dedicated. Scott strives to keep his commitments minimal, so that he doesn’t burn out by focusing on too many projects at the one time.
When attempting to implement a new routine into your life, focus solely on the task at hand. Don’t begin learning a language amidst training for a marathon, learning how to meditate and finally starting work on that novel you’ve always dreamed of writing.
Focus your attention solely on the one task and you will begin to experience greater levels of success. The novel can wait!
5. Don’t Underestimate the Importance of Sleep
Sleep is something that is highly undervalued in today’s society.
Naps have been shown to increase productivity. I am a huge advocate of siestas, as I discovered that a twenty minute afternoon nap gave me ample energy to power on through the day (and sometimes night!). I’d wake up energised and ready to tackle my projects. I have found I also need less sleep each night overall, giving me an extra few hours during the week that I can put towards work.
Don’t dismiss the importance of regular R&R. Sleep is the cornerstone of good health, on which you can build upon everything you wish to achieve in your everyday life.
As you can see, learning a language is not the impossible task many make it out to be. If you establish a key set of rituals that allow you to prioritise your learning and take care of your health, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t succeed in your mission.