I’m learning more in languages since I’ve decided to let go of mastery and do small things every day.
It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. Life has brought some major challenges, though nothing insurmountable. In the face of it all, I’ve decided not to take language learning so seriously. I’m treating languages it like the hobby it is and choosing doing something every day over mastery. As a result, I’m learning a lot and having more fun doing it.
PANDEMIC LESSON: DO SOMETHING EVERY DAY
It’s been three years since the pandemic first started. When the pandemic first began, I gravitated towards easy to make comfort foods like macaroni and cheese. I had been overweight for a while but I was starting to feel it as inflammation in my fingers and feet, back pain and other signs of physical discomfort. On the news, I read that obesity would making getting COVID riskier. I knew it was time to do something about my weight.
I invested in Noom, a weight loss app that emphasizes noting what you eat, roughly sticking to a calorie budget and learning a little bit each day about nutrition and more importantly, cognitive behavior therapy. In my limited understanding, CBT involves slowly introducing new positive behaviors and reframing strategies. I gradually began to walk more extra steps every day. I slowly began to exercise a little every day, even if it was only five minutes. I learned a little more about food choices and made better decisions. From May to December of 2020, I went from 200 to 155 pounds. The power of doing something added up.
MY CURRENT LANGUAGE SET UP: GIVING UP AND DOING SOMETHING
Deciding to take small consistent steps and be less anxious about results has also become a pivotal part of my language learning. There are a lot of challenges in my life right now and in many ways I’ve given up on Japanese fluency. Instead, I’ve decided to just do something every day, including learning other languages. It’s kind of been liberating to give up on results. In some ways, I feel like I’m just keeping the languages in play until I have more time to visit the countries or spend more time immersing myself in the culture.
Keeping the Tabs Open
We have an ancient desktop in the main living room that is relatively unused. I keep several language learning tabs open and just proceed through them every morning. Keeping the tabs open means I don’t have to think about the next steps. I commit to doing the minimum to maintain my streak. I’m not sure how much I am learning. I do know that my comprehension skills are improving in German, Japanese, and Spanish.
Japanese is still one of my main focuses. My wife is Japanese. My kids are bilingual. I hope to travel there more often. I subscribed to this learning tool many years ago and took advantage of purchasing a life membership for a low price when it changed management. It’s a pretty plain site, devoted mostly to sentences in isolation but it has pretty high level vocabulary of 6000 words that I would like to know. It’s also a way to maintain momentum. I really haven’t noticed a major learning difference but I also don’t spend more than five minutes a day on this every day.
This website teaches reviews kanji, vocabulary, Japanese grammar, and uses every day Japanese speech. The units are broken down into bite-size pieces. As long as I clear at least 5 flashcards, NativShark considers my study progress done for the day. Unless I am intensively studying Japanese that week, I study five to 10 flash cards. You are required to clear flashcards of learned material before you learn new material. There is a quick grammar review using more informal and natural speech, a short kanji study, quick vocabulary unit and then a quick natural sounding dialogue to cap it all off. When it’s not a Japanese study week, I try to clear the vocabulary deck and then study one of the quick units.
I love the graphics and feel of the website and that it isn’t overwhelming while providing a lot of natural-sounding Japanese. The kanji unit is pretty but maybe too pretty. Having a picture of that evokes the meaning of the kanji might be too much of a crutch. Still, NativShark is a fun and different way to do a little bit in Japanese.
I study just a little bit of Japanese everyday but on different weeks I also study German, Japanese and Arabic. I use the following websites to study other languages besides Japanese.
My local library system, the New York Public Library, pays for access to Mango Languages. Mango includes 70 languages with a progressive flashcard system that teaches the language from the ground up. There are no visuals. There is limited review of previously learned material. There is very little “gamification” in terms of visuals, streak counts, statistics et cetera. However, in a way I like how it provides a ground up, gradual introduction to the language. I switch every week between Arabic, Japanese, German, and Spanish. I did one lesson of Chinese but I would like to get a year of Arabic in before I take on a new language. I’ve decided to add one language a year while it is still fun.
Though I’ve had this service for a while, I have only recently warmed up to it and started to enjoy it. FluentU has a wide variety of video snippets at different levels for 9 different languages. You can watch a video with subtitles in the target language and English or just in the target language. After you watch the video, you have the option of going into quiz mode to learn the vocabulary. What’s interesting is that you are also offered the possibility of looking at other sentences (and even) sometimes short videos, that show the vocabulary you are learning in different contexts. After you finish a quiz session, the progress bar turns green when you have learned most of the vocabulary in the video but starts to turn orange as the app predicts your memory decays. Every other month, I switch between watching new videos in my target language and reviewing the most “decayed” videos the next month. There’s no Arabic, so on the weeks I am studying Arabic, I just do vocabulary flashcards for each of these languages. The vocabulary also have visuals and sometimes related videos. As I am learning more in each language (German, Japanese, and Spanish), the process has become more fun.
Duolingo is the app that I originally used the most because of the gamification aspect of it. I like the graphics, the learning path, and the bar graphs and reminders that encourage ongoing streaks of learning. I normally do only one or two lessons, one in Arabic and then the other in the language that I am studying for the week. Since Arabic is the new language for the year, I want to maintain daily activity. I am slowly recognizing more in the writing system. At this snail’s pace, will I be anywhere close to fluency? I highly doubt it. However, it’s been fun to recognize parts of Arabic words on tote bags, store or masjid signs in New York City.
I have a streak of 1,238 days as of this day but mostly because Duolingo makes it easy to earn points to get streak freezes. I really don’t know how effective it is but it has become a daily habit. Reading and listening has become much easier in each of the languages but I don’t know if it is because of Duolingo or any of the other apps or the accumulation of trying to find more content that I enjoy.
This is the last and newest tab that I open each morning. LingQ focuses on words in interesting contexts. You read (and/or listen) to pre-loaded songs, articles or stories or import on your own. Initially all words are blue. As you come across words you don’t understand, you can click on them and choose a meaning. The word or phrase then turns yellow. This is a LingQ. These words can then be turned into flashcards or just studied again in a different context.
My current LingQ statistics in German, Spanish, and Arabic
LingQ encourages you to listen, read, and study vocabulary in the context of material that is interesting to you. Additionally, you can create playlists that will read or play the articles, podcasts, songs that you’ve gathered for future immersion. The LingQ app on my phone makes it easy to do that while I’m walking about the city. The LingQ also gamifies language learning through several visuals and streak motivation tools. A little bit every day is key and I can usually reach the minimal 50 points by listening to a playlist and doing some light reading in every language that I am currently actively studying (Arabic, German, Japanese, and Spanish).
It took me a while to try this method. I had tried an earlier vision many years ago and I didn’t quite get it. But I’ve been listening to LingQ’s founder, Steve Kaufman, speak on Youtube about language acquisition and I finally decided to pay and join. The website and app make it easy to continue studying old material or pick up new material.
By listening to the playlists and some active reading every day, it is usually not hard to get 50 points every day in each language on LingQ. I try to choose interesting material to read and listen to and focus on getting new material for the language of focus every week and usually exceed the 50 point goal.
Steve Kaufman focuses on the idea of doing something of interest in the language each day. Progress may not be immediately obvious, but it is happening. Like I said before, there is a lot happening in my life these days. In a way, language learning has become more like a hobby like playing video games. I feel the progress in Spanish and German. Japanese is still difficult but more approachable. Arabic is new and I probably only really remember 5 words. However, I’m starting to recognize small portions of the writing system.
Letting Go and Getting Small
I’m doing other fun language learning activities because I’m letting go of results. I’ve been watching Stranger Things (for the first time) in Spanish, German, and Japanese. I watch them all with Spanish subtitles, the language I know 2nd best after English.
I just started listening and reading Atomic Habits by James Clear in Spanish. (This week is Spanish week) I’ve read it before in English and I mostly understand about 70% percent of what I am reading. One thing that was clear was how James Clear emphasized that systems or habits are better than goals. Systems or atomic habits (small but persistent actions) create winnable games, while goals can lead to frustration and self blame. This is yet another important reminder that sometimes it is important to forget mastery and just do something.
Forget mastery and do something. This isn’t necessarily I recommend for everyone. You may want to be more intentional and strategic in your language learning, especially if you need to learn it for a particular reason. My reason right now is to enjoy the process and continue to learn and to have a fluid and manageable way to study every day in the midst of a hectic life. I’m letting go, doing a little every day and learning more in the process.