A few weeks ago I realised that my Spanish learning had come to a grinding halt. Earlier in the year I was averaging around an hour a day of listening and studying over a period of several months, and seeing good progress as well. But my focus shifted elsewhere and I got caught up in other things in my life. This is a real shame, because I had been determined to learn Spanish fluently earlier in the year.
Dropping the ball
After a gap of several months in which I learned absolutely nada, guilt mounting week by week, I found myself in Madrid for three weeks. Not even the prospect of the upcoming trip was enough to break me out of my rut. “What’s the point in studying today when it will take me at least a few weeks of consistency to get back into it?” I asked myself. Shortly after arriving at the airport, it didn’t take long for me to regret not having prepared. The wheels of the plane were still touching the runway in London when the woman beside me began blasting me with Spanish and I cursed my rusty tongue.
We spent most of the flight in conversation, although it sometimes took considerable effort. Without an active internet connection, I couldn’t look up the words I needed, which resulted in a lot of hand gestures on both sides. With my rusty Spanish and her basic English, we just about got by. When I arrived in Spain, this sort of thing became a daily occurrence which I learned to love. That’s the cool thing about Spain compared to countries like the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany – a little of the local language goes a long way.
Are you going forwards or backwards?
Being forced to use the language every day did bring back my motivation to some degree, but I was too busy enjoying the trip to sit down and actively study. I cursed myself for being so lazy! If I’d have continued my study streak I would not only have avoided forgetting, but would have improved significantly as well. That’s the thing about language skills – they’re either improving or decaying; they never remain the same. You’re either moving forwards or backwards. Where you are and where you would have been drift apart at double speed.
Learning a language is a commitment requiring sustained motivation over a long period of time. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find your motivation shifts from object to object like a kite in the wind. Some people are blessed with laser focus, but mere mortals like me must manage with more modest motivation management methods. (Sorry – I noticed there were a lot of M’s and took it to its logical conclusion).
The process is now
Since it takes years to acquire a language, you need to start looking at the bigger picture when considering your goal. It’s somewhat of a paradox – it’s the minutes, hours and days of study that matter, but ultimately it doesn’t matter if you stop learning for a week, a month, even a whole year. Just dust yourself off and get back on your feet. Never use it as an excuse to stop. Accept imperfection. There’s no point worrying about the time you’ve wasted. Doing so is a kind of reverse sunk-cost fallacy – “I’ve already wasted three months of learning, so there’s no point starting again now. I’ve missed the boat!” This is utter nonsense! All you have is now. The past is the past; it’s no longer relevant. You can start or restart learning anytime you want. So what if it takes you a few weeks to get back into it? It’s the long-term goal that matters.
What’s more, I usually find that language learning starts to become fun again after a few hours. (Side note: I don’t know if it’s just me, but I usually find that any novel activity I engage in begins to seem especially interesting following a night of sleep. Anyone else experience this?) Once you actually start studying the language again, you’ll realise it’s not painful at all – it’s fun! It’s a wild experience to hear these cool sounds and see the images magically appear in your mind’s eye. If it’s painful and boring to you, then you’re probably using the wrong materials and should switch to something more interesting immediately. Life’s too short for boring things.
It is absolutely key that you focus on and enjoy the process. You can keep the long-term goal in mind, but it’s not actually necessary. What is absolutely critical is that you have fun, as that’s the only way you will maintain your learning in the long term. It’s much better to learn in a more fun way that’s less efficient, than to learn in the most efficient but boring way possible and then give up after a month.
One thing that’s completely revolutionised my language learning is keeping track of the exact number of minutes I spend doing which activities. In my article on how long it takes to learn German I arrived at the figure of 1,000 hours. I decided to put this theory to the test with Spanish, which is why I set myself the goal of spending exactly 60,000 minutes studying and then seeing what the results are. My only goal is racking up those minutes on my spreadsheet. If I learn Spanish then that will be a nice bonus. But it’s not my actual goal. I’m on 4,807 minutes as of today, January 2, 2020, or 8.01%.
This is what my Spanish spreadsheet currently looks like. It tracks the total and remaining minutes as well as a percentage and progress bar. At the top there’s also a breakdown which shows how much time you’ve spent on each category, so you can keep your learning balanced if you choose. It’s worked really well for me!
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As you can see, most of my learning consists of YouTube. This is because I’m also testing another hypothesis at the same time, namely whether it’s possible to learn a language through input alone without practising speaking. I figure if I get to the point where I can understand everything extremely well, the speaking will emerge naturally when it’s ready, much like it does in children. This is known as the comprehensible input hypothesis, and there’s plenty online if you want to find out more.
But anyway, that’s a topic for another post. The point here is that I am tracking every minute of study and focusing only on increasing the number of minutes. My only goal is getting that number to 60,000.
Tracking every minute has a powerful psychological effect, for me at least. It makes me focus on the process instead of the outcome, and makes the goal seem much more concrete. “Learn German” is such a vague goal and the result is so far off that it’s hard to get motivated. So if that’s your New Year’s resolution… I’ve got bad news for you. The beauty of tracking minutes is that you can see the result immediately – the percentage increases and the progress bar makes a little bit of progress. A much better goal would be something measurable – spend 60 minutes on German per day. If you keep that up all year you’ll rack up a cool 21,900 minutes… about 36.5% of my 1,000 hour benchmark for proficiency.
Anyway, those were a few thoughts about motivation I’ve had recently. I recommend you also check out the post on motivation that I wrote last year, and as always, you’re always welcome to contact me if you have any thoughts, comments or concerns.
I wish you the best of luck with your language learning in 2022.
Frohes Neues Jahr!