Adapting to setbacks: learn to roll with the punches

I believe that sometimes, to the linguistically uninclined, language learners must seem a somewhat superhuman bunch… or at least, one that has plenty of spare time to put into languages. From what I got to see last week, nothing could be further from the truth; people who love languages are still, by definition, people, and as such we work, go to school, have friends, and are susceptible to illness and stress. Some of us who write about this even make language learning seem somewhat glamorous, don’t you think? Learn a language, travel from country to country, make friends, rinse and repeat. The most headstrong among us are known for prioritizing their language learning routines to a point where it really becomes part of our daily reality.

When I started this blog, this was my mentality. While I made space for mistakes (knowing it to be a stepping stone to eventual fluency), I knew no space for rest and refused quite stubbornly to allow for the unforeseen. What does this mean? Quite simply, I would beat myself up over lost study hours if something happened that kept me from studying, even if I couldn’t have seen it coming. However, the blog has helped me grow as a language learner: through conversation with my readers and reflection, I’ve come to realize this kind of behavior only took the joy away from learning languages and made me NOT look forward to the next session. It was negative reinforcement like you have no idea. In a nutshell, I’ve discovered there’s a very thin line between holding yourself responsible for your own learning and obsessing over your language routine; toeing this line is nothing if not an art.

Public accountability goes both ways

So how many times have you heard about how important it is to stand up and say “I will learn this language by next year”? Stand proud and say it loud. Record yourself and upload it to Youtube, even! There are whole language learning dynamics and contests built around this incredibly positive way of community-driven learning. I, for one, am a fan of this. There’s nothing quite as motivational as standing up and claiming responsibility for your own learning–and if people bear witness to this, well, no direction left to go but forward, right?

What happens when life has other plans, though? Do you shrink down and hope nobody notices you couldn’t achieve what you set out to do? Nuh-huh. You modify the route, but not the destination.

Not that long ago I mentioned I would be taking part in the Italki challenge in order to improve my spoken Mandarin. However, after returning from NYC, I came face to face with a set of circumstances (which I don’t wish to disclose right now, but are health related) that have made it necessary for me to re-evaluate my current routine. I realized that studying as much as I’d need to in order to feel satisfied with myself, in addition to taking the six hours needed to finish the challenge, is an unrealistic goal for me right now. However, rather than allow this unexpected turn in events to hurt my motivation and cut my Mandarin mission short, I’ve decided to scale my project down to a goal that is manageable right now. Yes, this means I won’t be able to participate in the challenge this time, but hey–there will be other challenges. 🙂

I’ve decided to ride the wave instead of letting it bruise me black and blue, so I re-set my former, much vaguer goal (“to speak enough Mandarin by 2016 that I can hold a conversation”) to something with which I’ll feel satisfied but that won’t have me burning the candle from both extremes: I want to be able to ask for Chinese film recommendations by the end of this year. This goal is achievable because…

  • It requires a very particular set of vocabulary that I am interested in, which I can learn and use in context.
  • It doesn’t require lengthy exchanges (I am not asking for discussion on these films, I’m asking for suggestions).
  • It gives me the chance to use simple, question-based sentence construction. “What is the title? Who is the hero? What kind of film is this?”
  • It will let me listen to descriptive sentences (which I intend to record), which will in turn help me learn more advanced grammar.
  • Everybody likes films! (Don’t they?)

My first step towards this is a mini-goal that I intend to fulfill by the second week of November: in order to be able to actually ASK for recommendations (a skill that you could actually call “interviewing”, I guess), I plan to go through the “25 Top Chinese Questions You Need to Know” in Chinese Class 101, the course I’m currently using to learn Mandarin. Only after that I’m planning to go on to learn film-related vocabulary.

Depending on how the current circumstances develop, I may adjust this goal up or down, but it sounds decent to me as of now.

Three lessons on adaptability

This is not the first time I stumble my proverbial toe on difficulties on the language learning road. This is, however, the first time I feel ready to roll with the punch and turn a potentially frustrating situation into more fuel for my language mission. I’d like to share how I’ve learned to do this conversion:

Create short term goals.

If there’s something I’ve come to understand as a language learner, it’s that there’s a huge difference between day-dreaming out loud, and stating a feasible goal. It’s very nice to say “I want to speak Chinese someday“, but this statement may be closer to saying “I want to travel, but I’m not sure if I want to take a train, a boat or an airplane” than to really stating a goal. You can stare at the finish line all you want, but how do you plan to get to actually get to it, and when? This is the stage of language learning that, to some degree, requires planning, but planning too far ahead can also be counter-productive.

If you’re going to plan your way through a language, create feasible goals every couple weeks to a month, and don’t forget to keep track of them. Also, don’t just write your goals down on a post-it and forget about it: make a daily reminder if you must!

Allow for flexibility.

You’re in control of your own learning: that much is true. Life, though, happens, and when it does, it usually doesn’t give you any advance notice.

The best thing you can do in order to keep yourself from getting knocked off the rails of your language learning process is be admit and embrace this fact: there’s a limit to the factors you can control. You can decide how many hours you want to study everyday, you can decide what tools to use, you can decide to participate in challenges, take a course, even travel to learn a language. What you don’t control is external factors: accidents, family, the weather, services provided by third parties (such as the internet and its unfortunate tendencies to go out in crucial moments), and whatnot.

Being flexible means letting go of what you can’t control (and by this, I mean not to fret over something you can’t do anything about), while at the same time carrying the awareness that you can either change lanes if you want to keep moving, or stop for a moment if the situation calls for stopping. Learn to take a fall in such a way that you can keep moving afterwards: if there’s a skill you’ll treasure as a language learner, it’s this one!

Just a little is good enough.

As I said before, sometimes circumstances aren’t in your favor. When language learning is going well and you’ve finally reached that “switch point” in which speaking in that new language comes easier to you, you’ll feel unstoppable. However, at times you’ll be required to stop right on your tracks and attend to other business, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if this affects your routine. Just as in nature, language learning has its tides and its ebbs, and discovering to make the most of them will give a new dimension to your learning process.

  • Kerstin ,

    Thanks for this article, I completely agree on what you stated about beating yourself up. It’s SO EASY to get stressed out in this world of demands and jobs and “living your passion” and “finding your purpose” and never taking a break. My own attitude to productivity is that I want to combine discipline with a healthy approach to what can be done. But sadly, the other side of the coin is that language learning structure can suffer a little. It’s baby steps, and like you say, small goals to the rescue!

    • Sis Lagomarsino ,

      Hi Kerstin!
      I think yours is a good approach–after all, there is a limit to our strenght and mental energy, and beating ourselves up does nothing to raise that limit nor fix anything.

      My own approach is that the discipline and time management required to learn a language depend 100% on me, but that if a moment comes language learning starts being a burden and stops being fun, that’s when I have to rein things in and take a breather. It’s this way of thinking that taught me to enjoy “slow learning”, but I think it’s somewhat of a rarity in a word where people want everything and they want it NOW.

      • Kerstin ,

        I’m so SO on board with slow learning!