The idea of efficiency in language learning stops me from actually doing anything

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There is an ideology of efficiency in language learning that reflects impatience among learners to “have” the languages they engage with. That ideology is produced in different ways and plays out differently in different people. For efficient learners it must be reassuring, they are on the right track. I know some people who enjoy the sense of process, even when it is difficult. For me, and I imagine for many people, the obligation to be efficient feels at best like pressure and at worst like failure. These aren’t the feelings that keep me going. This blog is named language snacks not because that implies the efficiency of squeezing work in round the edges, but because it implies the indulgence of a treat. (The valorisation of efficiency isn’t unique to the study of languages, and I have far greater issues with it than simply the off-putting pressure it places on learners, but languages are what we’re here for!)

A drive for efficiency is closely tied to the idea that learning languages is work, but without the pressure to succeed in numerical terms (words learnt, time taken, tests passed), learning doesn’t inherently resemble work.  I won’t pretend that learning doesn’t require effort of one form or another; but the notion of work is tied to metrics of success created in whole or in part by a conflation of efficiency with goodness. (I acknowledge that for many learning is a necessity, adding different dimensions to the notion of work. I am not addressing them directly with this discussion.) There are positive-seeming sides to this – I love a sense of achievement as much as the next person. But I don’t think that a culture in which you need to achieve (by whoever’s standards) to be valuable is something to really aim for. That is a competition many lose and, as a result, too many simply don’t enter.

I would like to slightly change the discourse surrounding efficiency in language learning. You could be forgiven for reading posts on this blog and believing that I think that efficiency has no value. That isn’t quite true, but I see its value as subsidiary to the overall importance of motivation. Efficiency as problem-solving, making engaging with another language a more enjoyable and smooth experience, can be positive. Steve Kauffman talks about the inefficiency of using a dictionary to look up every word that you need while reading. He promotes instead the efficiency of LingQ‘s instant translation and text-to-speech functionality. I am inclined to agree, not because this increases the speed of language learning, but because that kind of efficiency allows a person to remain motivated and really love what they are doing. With this sense of the word, competition and shame fall away.

For some people active study with a regimented approach is what they need – they know that tasks are achievable if they break them down and they trust that they can do it. There is nothing wrong with this until it becomes an ideology that feels like a necessity for other learners. I have said before on this blog that I need to continuously trick myself into learning. I love it, but when it starts to feel like work I don’t do it. That means that sitting down for two hours with the intention of efficient learning – whatever image that may conjure to you, to me it looks like a plan of any variety – is not the way to keep me motivated. I will happily spend longer than that learning, but on different terms. Language advice, whoever gives it and however many languages they speak, needs to be taken in accordance with your own needs. The idea of efficiency, espoused by those for whom it is the preferred mode, adds nothing but stress for those for whom it isn’t.

No learner should feel less adequate because they slow down and enjoy the scenery. In my own learning life, allowing myself to go slow and have fun is the key to moving at all. I wouldn’t start learning new languages if I thought I had to commit, because I would expect to let myself down. That sort of feeling is no good! If that is true for you as well, I hope that this blog is a source of reassurance that you are doing nothing wrong by dabbling, or learning at a pace you enjoy, or learning with stops and starts. And if it isn’t, that is fantastic! I hope you understand that your priorities aren’t applicable to everyone, even to those of us with similar looking goals.

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Oh no there are so many languages where should I start???

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There really are a lot of languages, and if you don’t have an obvious reason to be learning one it can be difficult to know where to start. Sometimes I want to start everything at once. Sometimes I spend a week putting off actual work learning the basics of everything at once (Swahili, Persian, Malay, Tamil, etc.). So what follows are some more or less arbitrary reasons to learn a language:

  1. Because you heard someone speak it and needed to know more. I am constantly trying to decode the patterns around me and sometimes it requires a follow up.
  2. Because a lot of people speak it – the first language I started learning (when language learning was no longer obligatory) was Hindi. I chose it for two reasons. It was one of the most common languages in the world, and…
  3. Because it has a different alphabet. The fun of suddenly being able to turn weird shapes into weird sounds is a real treat.
  4. Because you spotted a course for it and figured yeah, why not? (I bought this and this entirely on a whim.)
  5. Because nobody you know is learning it and it’s easier to show off that way. It’s not great for practice but sometimes you need your people to be vaguely supportive but ultimately ignorant just to get started – you can find actual speakers later!
  6. Because someone you know speaks or is learning it and you want to hang out. (Side note: go in with low expectations of your conversation partner. Don’t learn for them, learn for you with their conversation as a bonus!)

Do these sound like silly reasons to learn a language? I’m not sure there is a silly reason to learn. If you are drawn to a particular language for a reason – you love Hindi movies or are interested in Russian politics – then great! If not, picking anything will quickly give you reasons to have an interest. I started learning Russian and then discovered a community of people to speak it with. I started learning Persian and then discovered Iranian films and music. If you need to get kick started there is no shame in watching or reading something you know well in English in your target language – once you have the basics you will quickly find new people or media to love. The more context you gain the more you will find to keep you going, as long as you are letting yourself have fun. (But don’t beat yourself up if you withdraw! It’s all good, don’t worry about it. On to the next one.)

Some people start learning a language because they really love the idea of a particular culture. I’m not going to blindly support cultural fetishism, but for people with a real willingness to listen learning any language will help to nurture in you an idea of its speakers as complex people and communities, rather than collections of cultural tropes.

There is a real sense of discipline and utilitarianism in the conversations around language learning that runs against the grain for a lot of us who are learning because we love learning, and because we get the feeling it helps us understand our worlds and other people’s worlds with a little more nuance. I don’t think it matters all that much where your openness and enthusiasm come from. Just let yourself move in the directions that feel good or important to you and you are more likely to keep it up.


It’s way more fun to be bad at a language than not to speak it at all

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The title of this post means two things. It means that if you you don’t think you have time for learning a language, you are imagining that you have to have finished a language for it to be rewarding, and underestimating all of the enjoyment that come from understanding even small bits and pieces. And it means that if treating language learning too much like study is stopping you from learning it at all, then you can and should let yourself reduce efficiency and increase the frequency of those rewarding experiences. It is a post for people like me, who sometimes need to trick themselves into learning and who suspect that it doesn’t need to be work.

People often wonder if they have time to learn a language. Then they read that it takes thousands of hours and decide it’s too much work. But there is so much fun in languages even at the earliest stages – just the transition from hearing nonsense to hearing separable words is exciting. Starting to understand feels like a massive change in the way you experience the world around you, often full of small instances of your target language. I am perfectly happy to put a lot of time into learning – but into a single language? I’m not so sure. Why speak one well when I can speak five poorly? Each new language opens up new ways of being and I’d rather get a glimpse than not. As long as you are enjoying yourself and engaging with ideas that excite you, fluency doesn’t need to be the goal – especially with translation software to help you along the way.

Once you stop learning to prove something you can start to have fun. That doesn’t mean gamifying your language learning with sites like duolingo. I find that quickly feels hollow and is only really a good alternative to other games. For my own enjoyment, and I accept that you may not work like me, high input is the name of the game. I want to be reading, watching TV (try this Russian Sherlock Holmes series), listening, enjoying, even before I really understand. I find the best tool for that is LingQ or its opensource equivalent Learning With Texts, which allows even a beginner to absorb complex content – it isn’t what they recommend, but as someone who learnt the Russian alphabet by reading Гордость и предубеждение (Pride and Prejudice) on lingq it is certainly my recommendation. My scores on the site betray some inefficiency in my method, but also far more persistence and enjoyment than I would have achieved sitting down with a course or repeating a small set of vocabulary and grammatical points until I had learnt them. Not only is that frustrating at times, but it also doesn’t really give me a feeling of understanding a language. I love to dive in at the deep end, and even with the huge blind spots my unsystematic approach leaves me I understand much more as a result. Then if I need to know something basic – or, better, if I am excited about something (what are all these verbs ending in “сь” or “ся”???) – I just look it up! Because I want to! Because it is fun! Because I am invested in understanding what I am reading or hearing.

The question of whether or not you have time to learn a language only makes sense if you think you can’t use and enjoy a language until you have finished it. That is unless you are so truly overwhelmed by other obligations that you have no spare time to have fun in another language, in which case why are you wasting your precious free moments with me! But you don’t need to be a completionist! Just do what’s fun, for most people it really doesn’t need to be work.

As a final note, I will add that my own personal version of this approach to learning languages has proved far more immediately successful for languages with good text-to-speech resources available. There are so many Persian films and writings available freely on the internet, but without Google translate helpfully reading aloud to me I have struggled to get off the ground with reading. I will have to do some more studious groundwork to get to the point at which I can really dig in and enjoy myself, but I trust that it is worth it because every language I have studied before has been. I am confident that, with the right approach for you, forgiving yourself any inefficiencies necessary to your enjoyment, your next language will be worth it for you as well.

If you are interested in learning Russian and want a book as a guide, here is an affiliate link to the book I use! 

Bumping into languages

I have never been the world’s most methodical learner, and the drive to finish a language as soon as possible has tended to me to seem not only suspicious but also a little too much like hard work. If, like me, you like to hang out with languages for fun, rather than diligently mark off goal posts, then you are welcome to hang out with me too for a while!