Finding motivation in little things


The end is near!

The end of the year, that is. We’ve just finished the 47th week of the year, leaving us 5 weeks left. The end of the year is pretty much a completely arbitrary date choice that happened some time long ago, but I want to emphasize that we can create meaning out of this meaninglessness.

Learning a language can be a long process. There’s a lot you need to experience as you get more and more used to hearing it and understanding it. Sometimes the weight of the whole task can be a bit intimidating. Motivation is an essential key to staying on track and achieving your goals, language-related or otherwise. When we see an opportunity to make a little mental game, we should take it.

This is what the end of the year can offer us. I made a plan earlier this year to study 3 languages this year: German, Swedish, and Esperanto. At various times I worked more or less on each one, according to my needs and desires at the time. Now I feel the urge to have something “done” by the end of the year.

I don’t pretend to believe that I’ll ever be “done” with any of these languages. Languages are beautiful that way: there will always be more to learn. I am motivated, however, to try to make a “final push” to work hard for the rest of the year so as to increase my accomplishments. This is a little game that I can play with myself, to try and squeeze in a bit more work each day.

So, what I’ve done may not work for everyone, but it seems to help me. Here’s what I did. I want a way to reward myself for doing at least a little bit of work each day in my chosen subjects. I have 4 subjects: the 3 languages I mentioned, plus studying the deeply interesting strategy game called “Go” or “Weiqi”. The idea with my system is that the hardest part of studying is starting. I find many different ways to procrastinate, but if I manage to just start, then I rediscover my enjoyment of it and end up continuing for a longer period than I originally thought.

Therefore, with the key goal of starting each topic once per day, I make a set of boxes in a spreadsheet. Each box represents the work I’ve done on that topic in a certain time period (could be a day or a week, as you see fit). If I do any work at all on that topic in that time period, then I get to colour it in with a nice shade of blue. If I really succeed at doing a lot of work there, then I’ll elevate it up to green. No work gets me a “bad” colour like yellow or red…something noticeable.

The goal of the spreadsheet is to colour everything at least blue. In some ways, this is similar to Jerry Seinfeld’s method of “don’t break the chain”, wherein he tries to do a little bit of writing every single day and then he marks that day with a red X on the calendar, and tries to string together the longest chain of Xs possible.

Technically, I could “succeed” by these standards by just doing 2 minutes of each of my 4 subjects every day…a total of 8 minutes. But in practice, this never happens. I really like studying each of them, and I tend to get absorbed in it once I actually start, so it ends up being quite a significant amount of time.

The other thing that keeps me going is to come up with some numerical goals. This time around, I’ve picked both hours of work and (estimated) number of words read in books. I pick some number as my weekly goal, and try to make all my amounts from all topics add up to that number. For reading, I’ve decided that I want to try to read 100,000 words each week, and I want to get 40 hours of work done each week. This is because I’ve drastically lowered my paid work hours lately, so that I can devote more time to learning. I’m basically considering learning to be my new full-time job, so I picked 40 hours per week.

Other people in different situations might choose a different number, but the number itself doesn’t matter. It’s just another game to play. This gives me a concrete number to try and reach in order to colour some boxes in green. It’s like bonus points. Success is just measured by whether I got each box to at least blue, but I get bonus points for green 🙂

So, back on the end-of-year topic, this gives me some numbers for that game. I’m hoping to have 600,000 words read in this 6-week period (5 weeks of which are left), and 240 hours of time spent on these projects. This is actually a very substantial amount of work. In comparison with last year, when I was intensively working on German while working full time, I was lucky to get 250,000 words read in a month, so 400,000 in a month is a more accelerated pace.

Having a somewhat lofty (although still doable) goal like this is another way that I motivate myself. I’m really eager to have succeeded at doing all that, so that I’ll be better at my various skills. Although I’m eager for the results, I also have a short-term “next step” to follow at any particular time: Just do any amount of work, no matter how tiny, and then I’m allowed to colour a box blue. The amount of words I read and the hours that I spend are continuously added up in the spreadsheet, giving me a number that goes higher and higher (like experience points, for those who play D&D).

All of those incremental steps are what’s going to add up to my spectacular gains. One step at a time is all it takes.

How do I practice speaking on my own?


(This was a response to a question about how introverts can practice speaking a language. Not all language practice needs to happen in front of other people, if that makes you nervous.)

I’m increasingly starting to see a relationship between active language skills and playing strategy board games (like Go or Chess).

When playing Go or Chess, knowing the basic rules is not enough to play well. While you can calculate out a couple of moves, no one ever gets good just by learning those basic rules. What distinguishes the better players is that they automatically only consider the “good” moves, and can find a good move much faster.

In conversation, one can memorize all the grammar rules one wants, and perhaps you could calculate out a sentence based on grammar rules, but it’d be painfully slow. In the same sense as Chess and Go, the experts have a natural feeling for good sentences, and they just “come out” without thinking too much.

It’s my hypothesis that these are related to development of your brain with this new skill. You need to do some type of repeated deliberate practice to burn in some new pathways. In Go, you get good by solving practice problems, and imagining the stones in your head. Some people say you should just get better by playing more games, but that’s much slower progress for almost anyone. Doing targeted practice problems is superior, because you can find a bunch that aim for the same concept, and practice until you’re good at that concept, whereas it might only rarely be found in your games.

So, since I can, as a Go player, get much better at Go without playing any games with other people, merely by doing individual deliberate practice, how can we apply this to languages?

Firstly, let’s assume that you already have decent pronunciation (at least according to knowledge and production of all the sounds). If not, then do that first. Given that, I think step one is just reading out loud. You have some predefined content, so the bottleneck is not in coming up with material, and you just read it out and try to get it smooth. This will get you used to producing the language at a real speed. In all the languages I’ve studied, I experience a time period where I can pronounce everything very well if I’m doing it one or two words at a time, but for several sentences at regular speed, I get a lot worse. So, simple practice reading out loud.

Next, now that you can utter multiple sentences correctly when they’re already supplied, you want to work on your ability to produce those sentences. I think this relates well to the task in Go (and I suppose Chess) of having to practice imagining the next 3, 4, 5 moves in advance in your head. It’s hard at first, but improves with practice.

So one thing to start off with is to imagine some situation you might encounter, and then work out a bunch of things that you can say in that situation…which will probably take some time at first. Then, you can act out the situation while visualizing it in your head. Pretend it’s actually happening, and then try to give the response naturally, and imagine what the other person is saying next, etc. Basically, self role-playing and working through a number of scenarios so that you’ll be prepared when those scenarios come up.

This has the added effect of confidence, which is something I find quite important. When you actually get into one of these situations in real life, then you can quickly respond because of your practice. Given the confidence that comes from this familiarity with the situation, you can allow yourself to feel relaxed as the conversation proceeds, and hopefully you’ll be better able to draw on your passive vocabulary as things get more difficult.

Along with situational practice, I think one should also do structural practice, where you work on some sort of sentence pattern and try to substitute other things in. What immediately comes to mind for me is logical connectives. The conversations I prefer are the ones where we’re discussing something of interest to me, and I want to make a point about my opinion, or perhaps argue against someone else’s opinion (like, say, on a language forum ;).

Practicing logical connectives and explanations will be very helpful, no matter what the conversation topic is. There’s certain vocabulary necessary, and certain sentence forms, and they apply to almost anything, so you need to have them well-practiced so they come out fast and naturally. Then you can pause, if necessary, to search your passive vocab for whatever the difficult words might be, but the rest of the sentence will flow well.

So, in summary, come up with ways to practice on your own in such a way that you are pretending that this realistic scenario is happening, and you’re trying to make the words flow. You should research the words that are likely to happen in these scenarios and practice saying them genuinely, so as to build up your active abilities with them. Also, once is not enough. You need to do this many, many times in order to really burn it into your brain. If the strategy games are indeed a proper analogy, then thousands of practice runs will be necessary.

Oh, and one last thing, while I’m on the topic of games. I also find it much easier to practice a language when there are not as many expectations placed on me, and I’ve found that this is the case when playing board games! Play a game of Settlers of Catan or Agricola or something, and try playing the game entirely in your language. Describe what you’re doing (“I’m drawing two cards, and discarding one of them”). The speech required is very formulaic, and nobody expects you to say something deep and meaningful, or even to follow up anything you’ve said. You have fun playing the game, and it’s a low-pressure practice situation too 🙂

Some people seem to find it easier to try and gain this practice purely through going to bars or cafes and talking to real people, and a certain amount of that is necessary, but I firmly believe that a lot can be achieved by deliberate practice alone in the comfort of your own home. Once you’ve practiced and become a little bit better on your own, it won’t be such an issue to naturally talk to other people whenever you want.

dealing with variety


Home, sweet home. Berlin feels so comfortable and easy now. I’m back, after a brief trip over to Copenhagen. Although I had a good time there and in Malmö, I still want to work full-time on German. I have some great opportunities to study German intensively here with some expert instruction. What makes me hesitate is that I usually just focus on one topic, but right now I’m trying an experiment by juggling several.

I just unpacked a big stack of books that I brought back with me from Sweden and Denmark. I love books, and I sometimes seem to gather them faster than I can read them. Now that I have a solid place to stay for a while in Berlin, the books are already starting to pile up. Right now I have 2 novels, a comic book, and a book about beermaking in Esperanto; 5 novels in Swedish (plus various audiobooks and ebooks); 1 German novel, but soon to be more; also 3 novels in Danish (yes, I’ll be expanding to another language soon).

So how do I plan to deal with all of these while I’m “supposed” to be studying German here in Berlin? After some advice from one of my language-learning pals here in Berlin (thanks, Judith!), I’ve decided to try to moderate my excesses a bit, and try to do a little bit of many things. My normal pattern is to work intensively on only one thing until I burn out and get wanderlust, or sometimes I just flit from subject to subject with no focus at all. Now I’m going to try finding a nice middle ground.

German is still my primary task right now, but I’m allowing myself to also do some work on Swedish and Esperanto every week, in order to keep progressing in them. This gives me one thing where I’m quite good, and two where I’m sort of mediocre. They each feel different when I’m studying them because of my different skill levels.

To help me moderate the time I spend, I’ve created a new sort of spreadsheet to track my effort. Some of you may recall my previous spreadsheet style, which was to track my time and effort day by day, which was summarized in weekly and monthly totals. I’m changing that now, so that I only track weekly amounts.

The reason for this was that I used to want to fill in every box for every day, which indicated that I’d done something for every daily task and gave me a sense of progress….but now I don’t really have “daily” tasks anymore. I have a whole pile of tasks, and I may not feel like working on all of them in every day. The focus is now weeks, and on using any small bit of time effectively.

Each week will have a sort of laundry list of things I could do. I have certain goals for each week, but nothing is nailed down to a specific day. Instead, it provides me with a list of things that I am allowed to work on whenever I have time (which is often). For each language, I have three tasks: Reading, Listening, and New Anki Cards.

Reading is from my stack of books, which I’m eager to work through, and is tracked by the estimated number of words read (by multiplying the pages read times the estimated words per page for that particular book, to account for the differences between books). Generally I want to read as much as possible, but I also have some weekly goals that I hope not to go under. Some of this reading will also be done as “Listening-Reading” if I have the appropriate audiobook to simultaneously listen to.

Listening includes many activities. It could be watching a movie in that language, or listening actively to the radio, or doing some simultaneous Listening-Reading with an audiobook and a novel. Listening by itself is handy, since I can also do it while I wash dishes or buy groceries, etc.

Lastly, making new Anki cards refers to my favourite “Spaced Repetition System”, which shows me flashcards at calculated times in order to efficiently stimulate my long-term memory production. Whenever I take the time to look up a new word or phrase from one of my novels, I usually add it to my flashcard system as a full example sentence. The system will then show it to me at increasing intervals over time, in order to keep that new knowledge fresh in my mind until it sticks for the long-term. This way, I know I’m making certain progress in the language, and I don’t have to worry about reviewing what I’ve learned because the computer will automatically show me the right things at the right time.

Besides these three categories for each of my three languages, I also have some columns in my new spreadsheet for other non-linguistic activities. I want to improve my abilities in the strategy game called Go, or Wei qi depending on whether you use the Japanese or Chinese name for it. To that end, I want to do a certain number of practice problems each week. I’m also tracking a couple of fitness exercises such as pushups and crunches. These things don’t take that much time to do, and I’d like to do them on a consistent basis over time, so they’re getting tracked in the spreadsheet too.

Having all of these things in my list gives me the variety that I like. Any time I have the opportunity to work on something, I can choose from dozens of different activities, and if I get bored of one activity then I can easily switch to another. If I’m only choosing from this list, however, then I’m still targeting all of my current goals, and not getting sidetracked on other things. By looking at the weekly totals, I can help direct myself toward my weaker areas too, so that I don’t overconcentrate on one task.

Speaking of getting sidetracked, what about those Danish books I mentioned? I should have known that spending time in Copenhagen would leave me with an interest in Danish. There are several Esperanto events in Denmark scheduled for next year, so I wouldn’t mind starting on Danish in January maybe, so that I’m prepared.

This is also serving as extra motivation for Swedish though. I’m not allowing myself to start on Danish until I reach a sufficient level in Swedish. This is both an encouragement to keep improving my Swedish, and also a way of indirectly working on Danish. The two languages are very similar in the written form (and I could already read the Danish menus in Copenhagen restaurants, for example), so the better I am at Swedish, the faster I’ll be able to learn Danish once I eventually start. Therefore, the Danish books will sit quietly on my bookshelf until at least January, and they’ll serve as a steady reminder that there are many reasons for me to continue working on my Swedish goals.

So, that’s pretty much the current state of things for me. My spreadsheet has a row for each week of the remainder of the year, and the columns are the different tasks. When I do any part of a task in that week, then I put a number in the box and color the box blue. If I surpass the weekly goal for that task, then the box changes to green. The plan for the rest of the year is to color in the entire grid, hopefully in green, but blue would be enough.

I’ll be sure to post some updates about this in a few weeks.