IWTYAL 183: Don’t let other people’s agendas control your learning

In this episode, I react to a comment in my Facebook community about feeling overwhelmed.

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Full Transcript:

Olly: Good morning, everybody. Welcome back to the I Will Teach You a Language podcast, hope you’re doing well, wherever you are. Recently, we had our first Languages of London Meetup, in London funnily enough. It’s — I think I mentioned this before, I wanted to — I live in London, right — and I wanted to create more stuff for language learners in. So, I’ve started this — I don’t know, what is it? Organisation, maybe?

And, we are trying to — we’ve got a bunch of really cool people involved, language fans here locally, and we’re trying to — well, we’re not trying, we are creating a community for people that like languages. And we’re going to be putting on lots of different events, and meetups, and taster sessions, and hopefully even maybe language festivals and conferences in the future.

So, we had our first meetup the other week, the other day, depending on when you’re listening to this. And we had lots of people come in. We must have had, like, 50 or 60 people come, and it was a really great vibe, and really exciting, because it was the first one. And so, lots more great stuff to come.

So, if you live in the UK, or you visit the UK from time to time, and you’d like to follow the group and get notifications about other events that we have, then go to languagesoflondon.com, that is the address, languagesoflondon.com, and — I don’t know if you can sign up to the email list yet. I’m not sure what the status is. But, in any event, there you’ll find links to go to the meetup group and the Facebook group, and all that. So, you can definitely follow along.

I would like to thank the wonderful sponsors of the show, a company without which I would really struggle to get practice in the various languages that I try to practise: italki. They are a marketplace for teachers all over the world, often with very affordable prices. And, if you’d like to get a free lesson, you can go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/freelesson.

Today, I want to give my thoughts and reactions to a post that came up in the Fluency Mastermind group, which is my Facebook group for you guys. You should join. Go to Facebook and search for ‘Olly Richards’ Fluency Mastermind’, and join us. And, there’s a question that came up from Tricia, I won’t give her surname. I haven’t asked her this actually, but I hope she doesn’t mind me addressing this, because it was a public post after all. And, I feel that it really strikes a tone and touches on a subject that many people experience. And, I think in many ways there is a very, very simple solution. But, it doesn’t always seem like it when you’re trapped on the inside. So, I’m going to read Tricia’s post, or part of it, just to set the scene.

She says, “Thank you, everyone, for being here and sharing. It really helps me to keep going. Sorry this is a long post, but I need to share, or ‘vent’ maybe is a better word. Can anyone relate to my frustrations this week? I was also sick, so that didn’t help.

1): language partners who want to text back and forth on WhatsApp, in English mostly, my native language, all day long, even when I’m at work, or sick, or should be sleeping, texting me things like, ‘did you eat breakfast?’, or, ‘send me a picture of the cake cutting from your daughter’s birthday party’. These are very, very nice people, but it’s too much, and doesn’t help me learn my target language. I feel like I should have to set up parameters for contact from the beginning.

2): I don’t know enough for a conversation, so maybe I should only use paid teachers until I do. I think dialogue exercises, and most language partners aren’t interested in doing language exercises. So far, they’ve all been at a higher level of English than I am in my target language, and they just want to have real conversations.

3): I had a lesson today with a teacher whose philosophy about teaching is the exact opposite from mine. She wants to teach me as if I’m a native child in her country surrounded by the language. She wants me to memorise spoken sentences. I need to understand how words and sentences are put together. Her approach is immersion, and mine is grammatical. I know how many people agree with her, but that’s not for me, especially with Tamil where words are very long. Writing and reading are very important to me and I adore grammar.”

Okay. There is a fourth one as well, but I think that’s not so related. Now, if you’re listening to this, and Tricia, maybe you’re listening to this and you listen back to your own post, and I would just like you to think for a second what strikes you about this. Because, for me it’s very, very clear. You know, I — there’s a thing that’s commonly said about email, for people that have a lot of email, which is this: email is simply other people’s agenda.

All right? Whenever you check your email, and many of us check our emails multiple times a day, what you’re doing is letting other people control your day. It’s stuff that other people want from you. Now, if you just use your email for friends maybe that’s not the case, but certainly, if you use your email for work then you’ll know what I mean.

And, you know, my — what I was kind of screaming in my head as I was reading this, Tricia, is that you are letting other people determine your entire language learning agenda. And I think, what’s interesting is that all of the things that you are doing are potentially very, very good, and very, very helpful.

But, the way that they are materialising is not. And so, at the heart of this is a question of you dictating what you do, and you being in control of your learning. So, what I’d like to do is go through these three points, and just give some comments on what I see is going on, and potentially a few solutions. Because, I think each one of these is something that you would relate to in your own learning.

So, 1): language partners who want to text back and forth on WhatsApp. Now, I know there’s lots of WhatsApp language groups. I’ve been in language groups on WeChat, which is a Chinese-based group. And, there’s also HelloTalk, and a few other things. I think many of you will have done that, as well. And, I don’t do it anymore for the most part.

And, the reason is because it’s just unfiltered, uncontrolled, notifications all day long, and everyone kind of out for themselves usually, and — but you know, at some point you’ve agreed to join this text-chat thing, either with one person, or in a group, and you feel like you have — you know, if you were a nice person you’d feel an obligation to reciprocate, right? And to pay attention and be gracious to others.

The problem is that not everybody’s like that. You know, this particular example, Tricia, you said you’ve got people who want to text back and forth in English all day long, asking you really mundane questions, and I think the reality is you’ve probably got a lot of people around the world who are looking for ways to — like, extremely motivated, dedicated, want to learn English. And that’s fantastic. And WhatsApp is worldwide now, you know. You can be — it doesn’t matter what corner of the earth you’re in you can get free English practice.

And some people are so committed that they will use this, and they’ll exploit it, and potentially also exploit you. And, the thing is that you, you know, you’re obviously a very considerate person, and you want to reply to people. I mean, I behave in a similar way. If I’m chatting to somebody, whether it’s somebody on WhatsApp, or someone who kind of messages me out of the blue on Facebook and asks me a total random question, I feel torn inside if I don’t reply. And it’s a really vicious circle, because you end up more kind of preoccupied with behaving well socially than you do actually practising the language, which is the reason you were there in the first place. Right?

And this is the thing about these kind of communal language practice activities. You cannot escape the fact that you’re interacting with other people, and you need to have certain social graces. And language learning usually in these contexts, for me at least, ends up slipping into the background, and you end up spending a lot of time getting very distracted, and not really practising your target language.

There are exceptions. You know, I have had people that I’ve kind of texted back and forth with, who’ve been super accommodating and really helped me. But, that’s not happening here, in this case. And, if you find that, then great. But, the first thing that I would do in this case, Tricia, is just simply delete the app, or get out of the conversation, whatever it is. If you need to make your excuses, say, “Sorry. I’m really busy. I can’t do this anymore. Best of luck with your English,” and just leave. I don’t see any real benefit to continuing this kind of interaction.

Now, it can be difficult to do that, because you think, “Well, you know, I might learn the odd word. There is a benefit to it.” But, there’s a difference between having someone that gives you a marginal benefit, and then spending that same time doing something that is extremely focused and productive in your language learning.

And, you know, one of the things that I’ve been thinking about recently that was actually spawned by a book called Deep Work by Cal Newport, which is really great, is that there is a lot to be said for rejecting anything in your life or language learning that gives you a marginal benefit, because that still sucks up your time and attention. So, get rid of anything that is not — that you don’t say, “Yes. This is really, really awesome. This is really, really helping me.” So, that’s the first one.

2): Talking about you don’t know enough for conversation, so maybe you should use paid teachers, my language partners are at a higher language level than me. It’s kind of the same problem there. Now, on the podcast I often talk about how great it is to have language partners, whether they be online or face-to-face, or whatever, because they can give you lots of conversation practice. They can, you know, help you grow your confidence, and be very mutually beneficial. They can. But, often they don’t.

I’ve said this many times before, with language partners I often have to try, you know, five, six, seven, eight people in order to find one person that really gels with me. I wrote a post recently called ‘The worst language exchange ever’, and that is a prime example of how terrible language exchanges can be.

So, Tricia, you may find somebody. And if you keep going you will find somebody eventually who’s great as a conversation partner. But, until that time, knock it on the head. There is no sense in you getting frustrated. And language exchanges that don’t go well can lead to immense frustration. And again, the kind of dialogue in your head is, “Well, there is some benefit here. I can learn, so I shouldn’t stop it.”

But, my argument here is that you should stop it. Anything that doesn’t give you a clear benefit, that’s clearly productive, knock it on the head. So, get rid of your WhatsApp groups, stop these conversation exchanges which are only frustrating you and not being productive.

3): You had a lesson with a teacher who has a totally different philosophy about teaching than mine. Now again, I think you can probably see where I’m going with this. You’re letting other people dictate where you are, what you’re doing. Right? You’re letting other people decide what you do. And, with this teacher, she may be a great teacher, she’s not for you, though. And you’re very clear about this in your message. You say, “I need to do this. Her approach is that. I know it’s a good approach, but it’s not for me.” You’re being so clear about this. So, knock it on the head.

Now, you may reply at this stage, “Well, I can’t stop doing everything. How am I going to practise my language?” You can do an awful lot of stuff on your own. All right? And, in a situation like this, you probably should do a lot of stuff on your own. Okay? And, you said somewhere before, like, you don’t know quite enough for a conversation yet. That tells me you’re still in the very early stages of learning the language. And, especially at the early stages of learning a language, there is an awful lot that you can do just by yourself. You know, you can spend time listening and reading. In the last episode I talked about my Conversations project, and specifically because that — you know, there’s so much you can do just listening and reading by yourself, learning more vocabulary.

But, whatever it may be, my contention is that with you just sitting down by yourself for an hour of focused study time, doing what you want to do, you are going to make progress in leaps and bounds beyond what you’re getting from these kind of random encounters and unproductive sessions with other people.

Now, obviously, like, in terms of how to study by yourself, this is what we talk about on the podcast, independent learning, but I won’t get into that here. But, I just thought it was very, very interesting looking at all these different things that you’ve mentioned, and the complaints, and the frustrations you’ve got. You need to trust your instincts with language learning. I’ve always felt that when I trust my instincts I listen to what the voice in my head telling me, “This is productive.” Like, “This may be hard work, but it’s working.”

Like, whenever I have that feeling, I don’t fall down on that, and I keep doing that. Don’t fight losing battles. For a start, there aren’t enough hours in the day. But secondly, for every little WhatsApp message you reply to you’re distracting yourself. You’re depriving yourself of attention and focus for whatever else you’re doing in your life, or in your language learning. Probably in your life. And if you’re working, and you’re responding to these random WhatsApp messages about, you know, what did you have for breakfast, this is not adding value to your life.

And so, if you remember you can learn a lot of stuff by yourself, then I would recommend that you have this approach where you stop doing every — literally, go cold turkey, stop doing everything. And then, slowly start adding in one thing at a time, and ask yourself, “Is this adding value? Is this helping me improve?” And, if that means that you study by yourself, that’s fine. You don’t need to be out there talking to people all day long. It can help, but only in the right circumstances, and especially — and this is important, if you’re still at the beginner stage I think you’ve got a lot more to learn, a lot more to gain, by making sure that you’re studying well by yourself, growing your vocabulary, improving your comprehension of the language. Because then, once you’ve got all of that you can then go out and be a more confident speaker, and get more out of your time spent speaking the language.

So, I hope that was interesting, useful, maybe gives you something to reflect on. If you would like to ask me a question for the podcast, you can. Please go to iwillteachyoualanguage.com/ask.

Now, at the end of every episode I like to leave you with a resource of some kind from the topic of the show. And, what we’ve been talking about today is streamlining, focus, it’s trying to reduce overwhelming options. And so, there’s an article that I wrote, and I think it’s one of my favourite articles I’ve ever written, and it’s all about how to use an approach that I call ‘The One Thing’. So, simply focusing on one thing in your language learning, with the intended effect of reducing overwhelm, and making progress by going deep on one particular study part. I’ll put a link to that in the show notes. Definitely read that if you’re feeling a bit overwhelmed in your language learning.

The link for that will be iwillteachyoualanguage.com/episode183. Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you in the next episode of the podcast.

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