Minding the Borderlands

Mark Koester (@markwkoester) on the art of travel and technology

Language Learning Is All About Persistance

Language learning is hard but not impossible. It’s also something can improve at doing.

For the last several years, I have been giving a speech about “Tips and Techniques for Language Learning.” It’s one of my favorite presentations I do. I’ve given it at a few universities and a few informal meeups. I like giving it because I really believe the message.

In the first part, I present the stories about my learning journey, learning French or Chinese. After, I go into some of the advice on best language learning techniques and how I approach learning a foreign language. The goal of the speech is make students (in recent years, Chinese students) more aware of the learning process and how to be a more effective as an independant language learner. All in all it’s a real-person example that you can learn outside of classes and paid teachers.

Even though I offer tons of advice about using flashcards, spaced repetition learning, and my favorite sites (ChinesePod) and apps (Anki), it all comes down to a simple message: Language Learning is all about Persistance. It’s about not giving up.

All of the best resources, books, videos and audio clips for learning this or that language are crap unless you commit to learning. If you don’t commit to making a habit out of your language learning, your learning will stutter and stall. You’ll end up with occassional bursts of learning, but tons of lapses.

You’ll fail in the epic challenge of learning a foreign tongue not because of bad intentions but because of poorly maintained habits.

Recently I’ve been working on improving my goal setting cycle in the hopes of becoming better at achieving my goals. While learning a language is definitely a goal in the true sense of the word, I generally think learning a language is more about creating a goal-driven habit such that learning occurs more in the odd moments of the day than in specifically set-aside periods.

It’s about persisting in your pursuit throughout the day than finding x-time of day to study.

Here are a collection of thoughts on what is language, how to better visualize this learning activity and finally the importance of passive persistence (=daily habits) in learning a language.

Learning A Foreign Language Is like Climbing a Mountain

Whether you are learning a relatively similiar langage (like French or German) or a completely unrelated language (like Chinese or Japanese), languages are big entities. Every language is filled with a nearly endless stream of words, concepts, phrases and culture. In its approach to presenting the world through a shared construction, each language is unique. Every language is a mountain.

It’s easy to become intimidated when you look at a foreign language in its grandeur. (I’m mean you Proust or Marquez!). Factually-speaking, there really is no limit to what you can learn in a language. Native speakers will always be able to feel out meaning in situations you can’t look up your dictionary.

Even worse, as a beginner, there really is a lot of stuff you need to learn to manage basic situation dialogue. Fluency seems impossible, when you can’t even do the most basic questions and commands, like buying and selling and asking directions.

Even though a foreign language is a mountain of a challenge, like a climber, you need to approach your journey as a series of steps foward.

Just keep going forward, because by going forward, you’ll be surprised by the distance you travel and perhaps someday unknowingly you’ll reach the peak without even quite realizing it.

What is Language? Information or Skill?

Without going into the philosophical “rabbit hole,” the question of “what is language?” is important when you think about learning.

I think that a lot of the trouble for language learners is that much of our academic lives don’t really give us the proper understanding and tools for what learning a language involves. We’re taught to digest info and spout it back on various tests.

Language is indeed a collection of information–nouns, verbs and other grammatical stuff–and meaning. And you can indeed approach language learning as a task for acquiring more and more information about a language.

I think the designation of a language as just information skews the learning process since language is also more than information; it’s a skill.

Like playing a sport or an instrument, speaking a foreign language is NOT vomiting back of information. It’s a performance of presentation. It’s an activity we come to master without consciously speaking as information, but speaking as free song.

Like any skills, developing language skills takes practice. You need to build physical skills in your tongue, mouth and throat to imitate sounds and to develop an ear to hear the nuances of a sounded meaning. You also need to build the mental skills such that using that foreign language is much less conscious and more of a performative art of doing.

So, what does this have to do with Persistance?

Like approaching any large task, you need determination to keep going forward. You need to persist in spite of the size of the task or the difficulty of its mastery.

Also, once you visualize language as a largely a skill-building process, the key is daily improvement.

Obviously you can’t learn a language in day, but you can learn a few new words and reinforce your previous learning. You can and should grow your knowledge and ability each and every day in that language.

I don’t tend to imagine language learning as something you need to set aside some special time to do. It’s obviously better if you can and do set aside that special, “study” time, but we have busy lives with a thousand things competiting for our attention.

So make language studies a habit for the inbetween momoments. Create some flashcards or use your smartphone and study some when you are waiting for the train or elevator or waiting for that meeteing or class to start. Learn and study when normally you’d just be waiting and daydreaming.

By effectively creating a learning habit, it becomes possible to pursue your language learning even when your daily life has a thousand of TODOs.

Learn smart. Be persistant. Learn everyday. Never give up.

SpeakerDeck: Tips and Techniques for Language Learning

Here are the presentation slides from the 2011 version, which I presented in Chengdu, China.

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