What I wish I knew about language learning 10 years ago

olly sphynx pyramidWhen I was 20, I thought that the passing of time didn't apply to me.

I didn't really think I'd get old. The future was hypothetical.

As it turns out, I was wrong. Quite a few years have insisted on passing in spite of my protests.

One of the things I now know is that time will pass…however much I'd rather it didn't.

But it seems to me that, as a language learner, this is in fact a very good thing.

Smart investments

I once went through a phase of reading a lot about investing.

One of the things I learnt was that the single biggest mistake made by people investing for their retirement is simply not starting early enough, thereby missing out on the huge gains to be had from compound interest.

Compounding, in a quote often (but falsely) attributed to Einstein, is “The most powerful force in the universe.”

I believe that compounding applies to skill acquisition too, and therefore to language learning.

Not in the form of knowledge, but rather in the form of aptitude. The longer you do it for, the disproportionally better you get, such that you can eventually do much more with a new piece of knowledge than you could with that same piece of knowledge as a beginner.

In essence, I'm a much better language learner now than I was when I was 19, by many orders of magnitude.

For example, when faced with a complex grammatical rule these days, I have a wide-enough perspective to not get hung up on needing to understand it right now. I have learnt to accept new, unfamiliar things for what they are, thereby enabling me to keep going and keep learning in spite of what I don't know.

It is an inevitability that we will get old and the months and years will pass.

I don't put my relative success in language learning down to any particular ability or talent, rather a particular kind of stubbornness that means I simply keep at it over long enough a period of time that I can't help but be successful.

And so it goes.

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You are what you do

It is the things that you do everyday that define who you are. You have heard the adage that you are what you eat. But there's more.

I think you are what you do. Happiness (like greatness) is not something you are, happiness is something you do…everyday.

It's what defines you.

Languages are, honestly, no different.

Learning languages is no circus trick, it is the essence of identity. Do you want to be a successful language learner? You need to do it.

Use your language everyday and make it part of your life.

How to be a successful language learner

So, speaking of you, if there was one thing I would have you do to guarantee success in language learning over the long run, it is this:

To do and to work and to move forward, day after day, regardless of the right method, right materials, or right whatever. Regardless of whether you feel like it, whether you're tired or whether inspiration happens to have struck. Regardless of whether you are sitting in the right cafe, or in your favourite room at home.

Success cares very little for such platitudes.

It's simple…but it's not easy.

If you fail to ever become fluent in your target language, you will most likely do so because you can't keep up your learning consistently, on a day-to-day basis, over long enough a period of time.

And, consequently, the single biggest thing you can do to garner such motivation to keep going is to make sure you are learning your language for all the right reasons, and not as a fad or a party trick.

Only if you have a true desire to learn will you have the strength to continue for long enough to see success.

[Tweet “In language learning, time will do much of the hard work for you.”]

Age is an advantage

I often hear the question: Can one be too old to learn a language?

It seems to me that this is a case of age being a genuine advantage. It's very difficult for a 20-year-old to think ahead with a horizon of 10 years, to have a notion of what Time can bring to bear. Certainly, when I was 20, I wanted everything right now.

You don't need 10 years to learn a language. You can do it in much less.

But those of us who are perhaps not quite so young as we used to be can use this sense of perspective to remember that time will pass regardless. All we then have to do to find the success in language learning that we crave, is to put aside our day-to-day whims, knuckle down, do the work consistently and let time do the rest for us.

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