For Beginning Language Learners, Eschew Efficiency, Invest in Interests

For the past two years, I’ve kindled an interest in learning languages. However, I haven’t really learned too much in depth; In these two years alone, I’ve flitted around 10+ different languages. Obviously, this amount of flip flopping doesn’t lend itself well to fluency in any one language. However, despite this lack of consistency, I’d say I’ve learned more in these past two years than the rest of my time spent studying languages combined (Excepting my native English, of course). What was the differentiator between then and now? For me, it’s been 1:1 online classes with tutors, typically from the language’s country of origin.

To draw a comparison, I have to go into my previous forays into language learning: in high school, I took four years of Japanese. To this day, Japanese is still one of my worst languages, to the point where I wouldn’t even say I can speak Japanese. I also took a introductory course in Mandarin Chinese on three separate occasions – twice studying in traditional characters, and once in simplified. I’ve also tried books, like Defrancis series of readers on Chinese, as well as Madrigal’s Magic Key to Spanish. I’ve tried a bunch of self study resources as well – Duolingo, Rosetta Stone, Pimsleur, Michel Thomas, Chinesepod, Assimil, Skritter, and so forth. I’ve pretty much dropped all of these after trying them out for a couple weeks (Excepting the group classes). However, in these past two years, I’ve taken over 900 online 1:1 language classes with no sign of stopping anytime soon. So why can I commit to these language classes, when I’ve dropped everything else? As simple as this sounds, it’s because I actually like attending my language classes.

Consider your habits, and try to think of the ones you developed the most effortlessly. For me, the most effortless habits I’ve picked up were all video games. Think of something like League of Legends – I’ve never thought to myself, “hmm, I should schedule in some time every Saturday to play LoL.” I simply tried it out, liked it, and just kept playing it until it became an ingrained habit. This isn’t the only way to develop a habit, of course – you can look at random habits in your life, like how you only brush your teeth using your dominant hand – it isn’t something that started because you were thinking, “man, feels so good to brush my teeth using only my right hand, might as well keep doing this forever”. Clearly, there are lots of ways to build up habits. However, what worked for me best in the context of language learning, and what I’m suggesting to you (if you struggle to keep a language learning habit but want to learn), is to tie your language learning to something you like doing, instead of it being a stand alone objective. Then over time, it’ll become engrained and you can wean it off that initial support structure if necessary.

So how do you tie language learning to other stuff? Here’s a couple of concrete examples: I had a tutor tell me they originally developed an interest in learning English because they would play RPGs as a kid and the default language was English. They would use a dictionary to look up words and understand more, even if their understanding was still limited. There’s also countless examples of people learning Japanese due to anime and Korean due to Kpop and Korean I’ve also read reports about people learning different languages because they joined some gaming guild or other communities involving their hobbies where the lingua fraca was not their native language, and as a result they acquired an interest in the language over time. For me, I take a particular interest in other cultures, their traditions, and all of the pointless minutiae. For me, taking 1:1 hour long classes online with people from different countries gave me a vehicle to explore that interest – ostensibly, the purpose of the class was to learn a language, but I would have been just as satisfied spending the hour grilling them about these random cultural insights as well as questions about their lives. Indeed, when I find myself getting bored in class and losing attention, I will occasionally ask my tutor a question in my target language, trying to frame the question in a way that uses whatever little of the language I know. If I don’t know certain words, I’ll just replace it with English. If I’m completely stumped on how to ask the question in my target language, I’ll just revert to English entirely. Typically, when I ask these questions, the tutor will respond in the target language, but they’ll dumb down the response to a level that I should in theory be able to comprehend. Is it an efficient way to learn languages? Probably not. but it’s probably my biggest driver in attending my language classes. If my lessons consisted solely of my tutors working through some textbook and its accompanying exercises, I would’ve quit taking classes a long time ago. In fact, when I evaluate which classes I like attending the most, it’s inevitably with the tutors who I feel as if our lessons are two friends or acquaintances just shooting the breeze, instead of a teacher student relationship with a formal curriculum that we strictly follow.

To sum, for people who are interested in learning a language, but have failed to make it stick, I say, look at your own interests, and find activities involving those interests in that language. Try them out and see what you like going back to. Now just keep doing that thing. Eventually, it’ll become a habit, and from there, you can use supplementary resources (like language classes, 1:1 tutoring, apps, books, online courses, etc) to reinforce that main interest. At a certain point, your options for studying will open up and you won’t even need to rely on that initial activity to keep your language learning going. For example, I took Spanish lessons for about a year and a half to two years. Now, I don’t even take lessons in Spanish – I just watch travel vlogs from people like Luisita Comunica, Alex Tienda, and Dos Locos De Viaje. I still don’t understand their videos 100%, but I can generally get the gist, and I’m still learning new words as well as getting a better ear for Spanish. Anyways, try it out.

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