How to learn a language on a daily basis — even if you’re overbooked.

Seen in the streets of Beirut lately. I have no link with the institute mentionned but I couldn’t agree more with the statement !

In a previous post I explained how motivation, especially internal motivation, is the main ingredient to learn a language. Or anything really. But since I was talking about learning languages, I’ll stick to learning languages.

Having a motivation is the basis (I want to speak like her / I want to read that book in its original language / I want to do this calligraphy and understand what I write), but then, how do you translate this grand abstract thing into language learning as it is, the everyday act of getting confronted to something foreign in its particulars ?

The main answer is quite easy, but it means something so different from a person to another : it’s about remembering the dream, why we do what we do, that is, why learning weird words and trying to make up weird sentences everyday. I stress this : everyday. Remember the dream, the excitation, the motivation … Which means, really : have fun.

So the key words are : Have fun everyday.

Sounds easy … But it is not always so : it’s about balancing something that society defines as difficult (learning a foreign language) with having fun, which society defines most of the time as the antithesis of difficult.

I come from a place where meaningful work and achievement is done by being painful and/or boring. So it took me a while to understand that you could do valuable things by having fun at doing them, including learning difficult languages. A website dedicated to Japanese explains this in a thousand ways and I’ll always be grateful for it … This how I realized how much we still teach people that only hard and boring things are the valuable ones. But having fun in learning, it seems, can also be not only be as valuable in its results, but also more efficient !

Something learned like a kid playing and fooling around somehow sticks quicker and better. A bit the same way you learned your mother tongue in the first place. But if your idea of fun is doing grammar exercises by the dozen — and yes I do know people like that, and they’re very nice people too — then by all means do it !

And it is most important to do it every single day. Don’t skip a day under any circumstances. At worst, on the bad days, do it for 5 minutes and consider the job done. But if you’re really having fun, I suppose you’ll want to do it for more than 5 minutes anyway. On my Arabic language learning journey, it started with a self-teaching method that I enjoyed for the simple fact that I didn’t have a teacher, and I was left all alone, happy, in my room, free to progress as I could, at the pace I could. For me it was ideal. For other people a teacher’s presence will be essential.

A single book in my room, with all its pretty arabic letters, was enough to get me to do the language learning thing for about half an hour on average. I copied all the words several times each, for the fun of it, because the shape of the letters was beautiful. Some days I had more time, and it would be 1 or 2 hours, other days I wouldn’t go over 15 minutes. The main thing was to keep this a daily habit, so as to keep the memory busy with the new info all the time and avoiding forgetting half of it over the course of a week (which happens a lot with once-a-week classes — except if the nerd in you spread the homework over every day of the week).

And having fun : when you get bored of a piece (an article you’re trying to decipher, a show you’re watching), then stop it. You would stop reading a book in English if it was boring, or stop watching a TV series if you didn’t like it, right ? Same thinking for language learning : the material has to be enjoyable for you.

But then you shouldn’t mix real boredom and disinterest for something with the “oh well that’s too difficult, I should drop it” because language learning is hard, and it involves hard work … Having fun doesn’t mean the hard work disappears. It means it gets blended in the process, it becomes manageable and enjoyable. But not necessarily easy. And there will be harder days than others, because life happens.

For example, before Arabic, I learned English by reading the Lord of the Rings. A full joy, but seriously hard : during the first book I was reading the dictionary way more than the book itself. But your motivation and joy makes you go over the hard part and one day things ends up getting easier : by the third book, I barely needed the dictionary anymore. But if ever, for some unknown reason, I had stopped loving reading Tolkien (thanks to the universe that has never happened and I can’t fathom how it could), I would have stopped reading it. And tried another book in English that gave me the thrills. And so I read a page or two everyday, just to keep it going, waiting for the sweet breakthroughs that happen so randomly in the language-learning journeys : you spend weeks thinking you’re not making any progress at all and suddenly one day, out of the blue, you understand a whole new batch of words and things, as if a veil had been removed along the path. Next level up, news skills, and a new adventure !

So keep the learning process in small, enjoyable, and daily chunks. If you love a music group in particular whose lyrics are in your target language, then try to read a song, decipher it, translate it, use de dictionary to understand the words … If it takes you a week for a song to be understood, by 15 min a day, then it’s all good. Do it a bit everyday. Switch to something else. A bilingual book for kids with nice pictures. A novel you already know, but in the target language. A podcast on your way to work. Magazines. Websites that make you interact with other people in other languages such as italki or LingQ. Anything really, and it certainly doesn’t have to be picture-less textbooks. But it can !

Anyway, the order is : Have fun ! Everyday !

Whenever she has the time outside uni and personal life (and doesn’t binge-read and watch the internet on anything from geopolitics to spiritualities), Louise writes stuff about great books (IHHO) she read, like here and here. She also likes to draw things.