Part III of my abandoned book project on learning languages... Parts I and II here. Part I has context on why it was abandoned.
Getting Chosen by a Language
Now that I've explained the failings of traditional methods and equipped you with a greater awareness of the issues surrounding language learning, it's time to get started! I hope you're as excited as I am. This chapter is designed to help you begin applying the method immediately. This will be valuable whether you are already committed to a language or not. In fact, if you're already learning a language but find your motivation flagging you might consider doing this process with a new language. Besides being a fun exploration that might lead to some interesting outcomes, in all likelihood it will also help you realize how much progress you've made in the language you're feeling stuck in. You'll probably long to return to it with a renewed sense of motivation!
In covering this we'll be applying the first rule I mentioned in the introduction.
Rule #1: Find meaningful, personal motivations for learning, and use them to your advantage.
I want to talk a bit about a personal example to illustrate how this played out in my own life. When I look back on my journey to Spanish fluency, there were two initial motivating factors. The first was a stubborn desire to prove to myself that I could do it. The second, and probably more sustainable factor, was my fateful decision to study abroad. Once I committed to a month-long summer program in Viña del Mar, Chile, I felt compelled to learn as much Spanish as I could to make the trip worthwhile. When I procrastinated studying for my classes, I did things to improve my Spanish instead. This culminated during Finals Week, when instead of studying I spent all my free time watching the hundred or so episodes of a Chilean telenovela called "Martin Rivas: Adventures of a Dreamer". This paid off when I arrived in Chile, especially since it turned out my host-mom loved the show as well.
I'll point out that in this example, the motivation gradually shifted from external (the prospect and reward of a trip abroad) to internal (I found things I enjoyed doing in Spanish, like watching the telenovela). In fact, when I later become hopelessly addicted to the Spanish folk metal band Mago de Oz, I "learned" Spanish as a wonderful but unintended consequence of singing along, looking up lyrics, and straining to piece together the meaning of what they were saying. I wasn't doing it to learn Spanish but because I enjoyed it, creating a positive feedback loop. The more I understood, the more I enjoyed what I was doing and the more likely I was to continue the activity. All this creates a positive feedback loop where each small victory is like fuel in the tank we can burn to accelerate progress, because we're excited about continuing. When we get our feedback loop spinning fast enough it creates the momentum necessary to break out of the orbit of our native culture and language. I'll talk more about this threshold later, the point of no return, especially in reference to living abroad, in Chapter Eight.
I think about my sister, a perfect example of how the simple act of following what you love in a language can create a virtuous cycle, until the creation of a new self, well, takes on a life of its own. Growing up, she loved Japanese anime and manga. Sometime in high school, she began learning Japanese on her own because she loved these pop culture products so much. Soon she was listening non-stop to J-Pop, watching Japanese soaps while she sewed her own Japanese Gothic Lolita dress, and read Japanese comic books she ordered off Amazon. She's now been living in various parts of the greater Tokyo area for something like five years and is married to a wonderful Japanese man as of October 2015. I wish them many fat, happy children.
I don't regret learning Spanish at all as it's been a huge part of my life. However, looking back, I can see where the way would have been easier if I'd known what I know now and could follow my own advice as I've more or less done with subsequent languages. Hopefully it inspires anyone who is slogging through a language with traditional methods to find things they love about it, on their own, as I did in Spanish and as I describe in the rest of this chapter.
If you're learning a language, I encourage you in this chapter to think about why you're passionate about the language you want to learn and how you can use that to design your own success in that language. With French, for example, I have wonderful French friends that unknowingly instilled in me a desire to learn their tongue. I also would love to read French philosophers untranslated.
If you're not passionate about the language you're learning, you should take an afternoon to reflect on if it's wise for you to continue as you are. Perhaps it works out for you, as it did for me and Spanish. Perhaps not. Insofar as language and identity are intrinsically linked- which I'd say they are- learning a language to fluency means creating a new identity in that language. If you don't love something about the language or its corresponding culture, how will you ever let yourself become it?
If you decide to listen to utilitarian concerns and forge ahead, then that's that. But at least don't be utilitarian in your approach to learning the utilitarian language. You'll bore yourself to the brink of suicide. In this case it's even more important to find something you enjoy about the language.
This requires active, daily grooming and attention. Though I certainly wouldn't call it work! Searching for things you love about a language qualifies as play for me, but it is play we want to be mindful of. Think about it this way. Say I want to get a rocket hurtling through space to Planet France. Once it's in space and on its way, it only requires minimal fuel to keep it course corrected and to make tiny adjustments. I have inertia working in my favor. Before I can get momentum built up, however, I must do two things: Make sure the rocket is pointed in the right direction, which is what you'll be doing in this chapter, and then expend enough fuel to get the rocket off the pad and out of the orbit of Planet America. That is the focus of the next chapter. If you're sure about your choice of language, by all means, forge ahead. Otherwise this phase of the method is meant to be a fun, easy, low-commitment way to make sure you've chosen wisely and to start the habit-forming process we'll discuss in more detail next chapter. Particularly if you know little about the language or culture, a period of open exploration like this is crucial.
Our goal in this phase is to find things we love, or could love, about the language(s) we're considering. That sense will be our compass through the dark and unfamiliar waters to follow, across the open sea. Being realistic, if someone has chosen to learn a language for purely utilitarian ends, I doubt they will be convinced otherwise. For better or worse, we tend to be attached to our choice of adopted language- even if it's for the wrong reasons (notice how long people stay in abusive relationships, or consistently seek these relationships out?). Ultimately, choosing a language to adopt is a gut call, an emotional decision only you can make. Someone like myself can help guide you there but it's up to you to decide how to proceed. Choose wisely- it's easy to experiment, abandon, or switch now while the stakes are low and before sunk cost bias has set in. Still, if you find yourself saddled with a language chosen poorly, hopefully this process will aid you in finding things about it you do enjoy and that do motivate you.
With the wonders of the internet, it is easy and accessible, more so than ever before, to find native-level material, made for and by native speakers of the language. Products of their culture. While we're still flirting and before we decide we're serious about opening ourselves up to this new and exotic creature, it would behoove us to do some serious digging on the internet to taste what the language has left behind. What is its history? Will we get along with its parents and friends? Do we like the way it sings, the movies it makes, the stories it tells? The way it treats its fellows back home? I'm really stretching this relationship metaphor, but you probably get the point. It's not really a logical feeling, more an emotional one. What seduces us about this language? Will it continue to seduce me each day, even when the going gets tough and I want to disconnect from it, from our relationship? Make lots of little bets at this point. Experiment, try out new things, while the stakes are low, you're at home, and can simply delete media you don't like from your hard drive or donate them to a local Goodwill. Hell, be polylinguistic until you really fall in love with one. Because once you do you're going to be diving deep, deep into the rabbit hole with it. Even once the enamored language quester finds his paramour, he will continue in this stage, only amping up the volume. It's very possible to fill our lives with 16+ hours of native level input. Audiobooks, radio, television, music, podcasts, movies, recordings, youtube videos, literature, nonfiction... and this is what the young language lover needs at this stage, to drink in the very best of what he loves about his beloved, and forget what he doesn't like. He follows his heart.
You'll notice that throughout the book I've been referring to your target language as your adopted language. This is a powerful way to look at it. When you adopt a language, it is a big part of your life until it grows up! Another, perhaps even more powerful way to look at your language is as your adopting language. Something that calls to you, adopts you, and nurtures you until you grow up.
And now, remembering that beauty is our call to adventure, let's sally forth on our first forays into uncharted territory!
Exercises for your experiment
If you're still trying to decide if you want to learn a language, or have decided but haven't done anything yet, here's my recommendation. Do an experiment of sorts. Set a particular amount of time aside- a month say- where you're unattached to any outcome, can freely explore in the language, with the sole goal of finding what you love about the language. Within this period, you'll probably find it necessary to set aside a certain amount of time each day, say an hour, in which you can focus on actively pursuing your research. Don't skimp on this. I’ll reiterate that it's much easier to abandon or shift the focus of your project now. After six months or a year of dedicating yourself to a language, it will be much harder. Even if you're mentally attached to the idea of learning the language for that long, it can be hard to abandon when reality doesn't match up to expectations. It's called the sunk-cost bias. The more time, effort, and energy we pour into something, the more we try and justify its worth to ourselves. It's a matter of cognitive dissonance. If the choice was bad, and we abandoned it early, then there is no cognitive dissonance. But if the choice was bad, and we waited a year to realize it... why would a smart, on-point person like me spend a whole year doing something dumb? That must say something about me as a person. So our ego-protection mechanism breaks in and convinces us that it wasn't a bad choice and still isn't and we should continue to pour our precious life force into it. Never underestimate the human capacity to self-deceive.
Instead, I'm asking you to do something probably few people in the realm of pedagogy have ever done: to tune out everyone else's yapping voice except your own yapping voice, and to really listen to what your body is telling you. What feels alive, fun, and interesting in your exploration of a language and its accompanying culture? Tune into this feeling constantly. It will set you free.
Now get out a pen and paper, or its digital equivalent, and lets get started.
First, commit to a length of time to carry out this experiment. I'd recommend at least a month.
More specifically, within that period of time, how long each day will you spend investigating your potential adopted/adopting language?
Be honest and realistic with yourself. Better to commit to something regular that you know you can do, like thirty minutes a day, rather than have the whole thing fall off course because you've set yourself an impossible goal. Once you've decided, mark it in your calendar, block out the time each day with whatever system you use, tell your friends to get them to hold you accountable, sign up on an accountability website like stickk.com. Whatever it takes for you to follow through, do it. This is meant to be a fun, lighthearted exploration, but we're all busy people, and unless you make a conscious effort other things will get in the way, at least while you still lack the foundational habits in the method we'll cover next.
For each language you experiment with, consider each of the following. As a rule of thumb, the closer you get to the "real thing", the better. Watching a video of the news in your potential adopting language, by a news station from that culture, is more "real" and visceral than reading English news articles about the culture, even if you can’t yet understand anything. Talking to someone from that culture, whether online or in person, is better than reading a wikipedia article about the country. If you're connecting online with someone, the same rule goes- video is better than voice is better than text.
People: who do you know or who can you connect with that is a native speaker? You won't get along with everybody, but getting to know a half dozen or so native speakers can give you a good vibe onto the culture.
Who do you know who is from the culture you're investigating?
If you're in a fairly big city, are there cultural centers in your town you can explore?
Do you know someone who's traveled or lived abroad and can introduce you to friends of theirs from that place?
Take a look at websites like the following to connect with people from that culture online.
Pay a visit to your local bookstore or library. Skim some travel guides. What catches your eye? Do a keyword search on their database computer to see what other books pop up, and check those out too. For example, one thing that got me very excited about exploring Japan, where my sister lives, was reading Shogun by James Clavell.
Look up the travel blogs of travelers and expats who have some experience living there, as foreigners. What was their experience like? How do you think that reflects the culture of the place?
Think about your profession or craft and look up what famous universities or companies in your field are based there.
What are your hobbies and interests, and what is the scene like in those areas? Maybe you're a cyclist, for example. What's the cycling culture like there?
If you're a student, talk to the study abroad office at your university to see what exchange options are available. If none are, a quick google search can reveal third party, exchange program intermediaries. If you're not a student, you could look up any interesting work or volunteering programs set up in the country. For example, Romania makes it very easy for an American to get set up a company there, which basically involves paying a fee and filling out paperwork. Even if the company does no business, it includes a residence visa. Chile has a program where they pay entrepreneurs $50,000 to launch a startup there.
Culture: What aspects of their culture appeal to you? Maybe it's highbrow like history or philosophy or poetry, or maybe it's popular culture like comics or television or pop music.
Make a list of what you do for fun on a regular basis. What are the analogues for this culture? Find samples of them to try out!
Maybe it's something particular to the place like Argentinian Tango. What does that culture do that is unique? Do you feel intrigued by any of them?
It's a question of what you're interested in and where that intersects with the tangible "products" a given culture has produced! With the internet it's easy to download samples in lots of different things and see what you like. Don't make the mistake I always make, where I obsess about finding all the seasons of an entire show, for example. There's time for that later. This is also a point where I'd say go ahead and find samples of translated versions, to get a sense of if you like them. This is why it's important to set a specific time frame for this phase as well, so you know when to phase out these crutches after you've made your decision to pursue a language or not. Remember, as long as you are using a crutch, your muscles get weaker! This applies to metaphorical crutches in anything, including of course this method of language learning.
Sound/sexiness. How much do you actually like listening to the way a language sounds? This is an important one that shouldn't be underestimated! A sense of this will probably emerge over the course of your trial. A good rule of thumb is, if you can listen to the news in your language and it still sounds enthralling, then that's really good. If it inspires not-so-great feelings, well, that says something too.
Put it all together: What would you be doing NOW if you were already fluent and living in that country?
Can you get a taste of some of those things now? I think of my sister who, when she was learning Japanese while living in Oklahoma, still slept on a futon, cooked Japanese food, and ate with chopsticks.
Try to get as much exposure as possible to the language in the time frame allotted. Give the language its fair due, but pay close attention to how exploring it makes you feel. What aspects of it continue to entrall and attract you? What do you feel ambiguous or negatively about? Could you spend years of your life "living" in this language? If you struggled to even commit to exploring the language, is this the right time in your life to be learning one?
If you were ambitious and exploring multiple languages and still can't make a choice here is the chance to pull in extra criteria. And I really stress that it is nigh impossible to focus on more than one language at once. Trust me, I've tried. Several times. Most recently, I tried to learn Russian while continuing to learn French. Russian fell to the wayside after a couple of months. Apparently I'm not using my own advice, which is why I'm giving it to you. Narrow down your options by looking at things like, what would be the easiest to learn due to access to materials and native speakers? What would be the most useful in terms of travel, study, and work opportunities? Again, this is only if you're like me and want to learn everything but need a starting point!
...sees much and knows much