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.



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.

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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  • Brad Stokes

    Thanks Olly, my fiance and I had a big chat about my progress. Evelyn speaks Spanish perfectly as she is from Chile. Her words to me were, “I beg you not to do the [DELE] test, you test well and I don’t want you to get a false sense of confidence. When you are ready I will talk to you in nothing but Spanish, but you aren’t there yet. Keep doing what you are doing and you will get there, but it doesn’t need to be tomorrow. What you are doing is working, but you don’t need to force it. We have time.”

    I think that is the thing really. We all want to be there tomorrow. I know I am progressing, but being the very goal oriented person I can be I want those magic lines that don’t actually exist. I so desperately want to be able to communicate and _understand_ that I can’t get there quick enough. I am doing the right things, I am doing something everyday, but God I need patience. I know I can’t do more than I am doing and I know that the things I am doing are right for me. I’m reading everyday, I practice speaking 3+ times a week for an hour and the amount of exposure to stimulus through radio/YouTube is in the 20-30 hour mark whilst I work and deliberate engagement through flash cards is 30-40 minutes a day from both English to Spanish and Spanish to English in full sentence cards. I also have been doing my audio tapes in the car since I’m not catching the bus at the moment (mind you these aren’t even a little challenging)

    I have made amazing leap forwards. I just need to tell this heart of mine what the head already knows, “Tomorrow never comes, today do what you need to and when you least expect it all the jigsaw pieces are going to fit together. Relax…”

    I know I have time, but sometimes hearing an outside friendly voice say the same helps, maybe one day I’ll figure it out, but the fire in my belly to learn me going… hmm…

    • That’s awesome, Brad, and you’re doing so much! You’re going to need that fire to keep up such an intense schedule! 🙂

      I’ve found that when I’ve been doing as much as you are at the moment, taking a few weeks off language learning can end up being your biggest step forward, as your brain has a chance to catch up whilst you rest!

    • Adam Egger

      How do you practice speaking Brad?

      • Brad Stokes

        Hi Adam, through online Skype lessons organised through iTalki. I generally take an hour long lunch. so at least 2 times a week, normally 3 and sometimes 4 I speak with a native speaker for an hour.

        I stopped needing my English some time ago, these days I try to describe a concept or thing before falling back to “¿Cómo se llama xyz?” More or less that works well. It’s a matter of small incremental gains.

        I’ve noticed recently that my sessions are turning into conversations where I listen as often as I speak. I’m really enjoying that process as there is so many interesting things to discover in the world.

        We did an experiment in my house a week or two ago, where I only spoke only in Spanish. I noticed two things. I lacked those intimate little phrases and expressions that we use all the time, phrases to show sympathy or understanding or just the little exclamations such as “damn!” for instance. The other thing I noticed that it is so very hard to switch language patterns with a person you speak to regularly. I found that the little translating man in my head that I haven’t heard for at least 6 months came back with force for the period. I found myself once again thinking in English and translating to Spanish.

        It was interesting and educational. Next on my list is in the new year, I’m going to be trying to find local partners to shout a coffee. I need face to face time. I’m completely comfortable through Skype. Now I need to move my ability offline and remove the novelty of face to face speech.

        Sorry for the long rant. Hope this helps you (somehow).


        (and yes I’m having an enforced break over Christmas for 2 weeks. Only some reading and my flashcards. Just to give myself time to catch up)

  • ceciliahslee

    C’est perspicace. Ce que vous avez dit n’appliquer que le cas d’apprentissage de langues mais aussi à étude général de toutes choses. J’ai 21ans maintenant. Il n’y a pas si longtemps, je m’ai réfléchi sur mon attitude et je m’ai détesté mon envie d’apprendre ou réussir trop rapidement, et ce devienne une objectif inaccessible qui m’empêcherais à continuer. Et vous avez raison, le temps nous fera succès pourvu que nous nous persistions.

    • Merci, Cecilia, et je n’ai aucun doute que vous allez réussir dans cette entreprise! 🙂

    • Nina

      I shared this article on Facebook some time ago with captions “this can be applied also to learning in general” 🙂