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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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