Well it has been a long, long time Chit-Chat followers (years in fact). And I am moving toward a more general blog on language learning. I hope you can join me there. I will also post Chinese-specific posts on Chit-Chat from time to time as well, so keep an eye out. You can find my new blog here:
And here is my second post – also useful for Mandarin Chinese learners:
Paralysis by Analysis
Something dawned on me one day while saying goodbye back-to-back with one our particularly fussy students (who was having trouble learning) and then saying goodbye to a completely unfussy student (who was making great strides in her learning). I turned to our school director and said: “Have you ever noticed how the people who fuss around the least with their learning are the ones who are the most successful at actually learning?” It got me thinking about the habits involved that lead to success with language learning and those that don’t. It’s not what you would expect. Doesn’t it seem like the people who are detail oriented, careful and meticulous would be the good learners? They are the ones, after all, crossing all their t’s and dotting all their i’s. So what’s the deal?
It could be that the successful learners just do it; they don’t fuss around worrying about if their teacher is the best, if their books have the latest pedagogical methods, or what exactly is going to happen next in their program. They just show up for class, and do some studying outside of class. It’s that simple. They are not more intelligent, they are not better educated, nor do they naturally have some kind of gift for learning languages. They come in every shape and size, age, ethnicity and share just one thing in common: They don’t fuss around. So what is the rub with those prone to such a thing?
“Paralysis by analysis” I think is the answer. Maybe some people are so caught up in the “how” of learning that they never roll up their sleeves and get down to the business of actually learning. Language learning can be scary, out-of-control business. Learning requires throwing oneself in and abandoning one’s ego, feeling like a stumbling toddler who lacks any of the cherub cuteness of an actual toddler. Learning foreign languages requires ceding control and trusting that the bumpy waters of learning eventually lead somewhere. It requires getting going and not overthinking the process. It doesn’t feel like it at some points, but you will get there, if you keep sailing ahead.
Take one of our students named Barbara. She is a retired woman in San Francisco who had never learned a foreign language in her life (other than a bit of high school French decades ago). She came to our school to learn Mandarin, just for the heck of it. She takes lessons just once a week, she studies consistently outside of class and tries to never, ever miss a class. So, guess what… three years later, she actually speaks Mandarin, and speaks quite well. She is a success story, from an unlikely demographic and someone with no pressing need to learn.
Now take Juliet, an educated young woman with a high powered job. She is married to a Russian man and has a strong desire and need to learn the language to communicate with his family. She did more than due diligence in vetting us as a school, asking to try two different teachers for her private lessons so she could pick the better of the two, ordering extra materials to be well geared up. But then there came the actual learning part. She cancelled many lessons since she hadn’t done her homework and she felt she wouldn’t “get the most” out of the lesson. She obsessed that the 3rd edition of the university textbook we were using wasn’t good enough because there was a 4th edition out there. She asked to switch teachers. There were many calls to the school to get advice and talk about her progress. But the thing is she never got down to the business of actually learning. Six months later she gave up convinced the conditions were not right for her to learn properly. She blamed the book; she blamed the teacher; she even blamed the husband.
Here is the thing: You can learn from any book, any teacher, any online program, anywhere and anytime. Yes, it’s great if any one or all of those are the “best” out there. But it won’t matter if you get in the way of yourself.
So you want to learn a language? Just do it. Pick a place (virtual is fine), choose a start date (sooner rather than later), attend your sessions religiously, and carve out a determined amount of time each week for studies. Don’t shoot for the stars (unless you have the money and time to become a full-time student in the country). Make a SMART plan: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time Bound.
What would this look like for language learning? Here is an example:
Specific: I want to learn Spanish
Measurable: I want to become conversational at an upper beginner level
Achievable: 6 months is enough time to reach that goal in a non-immersion environment
Relevant: I choose Spanish because I live in a Spanish speaking neighborhood in San Francisco
Time Bound: I am going to join an online language challenge to make sure I reach my goals in time
How about you? Have you found success with learning? If so, how did you do it? Are you instead stuck and frustrated? What do you think is getting in your way? Post your complaints or success stories. Both are useful.
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