The Crazy Thing About Consistency

There is more to learning a foreign language than just learning the language itself, or even the culture related to the language. When one tries to learn a language, especially outside of the classroom, they learn how to learn. Benny Lewis, known as the Irish Polyglot, has said that the hardest language that he has learned is Spanish, despite the fact that it is closer to English than some of the other languages that he has studied. Benny learned how to learn a language. He found what methods worked for him, because just being in the country wasn’t enough.

I read a lovely article yesterday about 24 polyglots’ tips for learning a language. Some of their tips were reoccurring, which I paid attention to since they have been successful in learning multiple languages. There is one tip that I saw often, and regularly see in YouTube videos and TED talks. I even wrote about this tip in one of my other blog posts: the importance of consistency.

Why is consistency so important that language learners everywhere talk about it?

I have been taking a hiatus from studying Korean to study Polish for the summer. I’ll admit that I haven’t been doing my best to keep up with Korean, only reviewing once in a while. Already, I have forgotten some words, even though I had gone over them fairly often. However, something weird has been happening.

In high school, I made a decision to teach myself Japanese and got very serious about it. Although I never made it to a conversational level, I studied very frequently and reviewed even more for an 8-month period. I didn’t know much Japanese beyond basic conjugation and vocabulary, but what I did know, I knew well. It has been years since I have studied Japanese, so I have forgotten a lot of what I learned, or so I thought. To this day, if I watch anime or hear people speaking Japanese, I will recognize some of the vocabulary that I learned. To my surprise, I can still remember how to produce some basic sentences on my own.

It turns out that my consistency with Japanese paid off so much that when I hear a word in English and try to think of it in Korean, Japanese will come to mind first. Japanese and Korean are two different languages with some similarities, but for some reason, my brain will think in Japanese before it will think in Korean, even though Korean should be more fresh in my mind. That is the power of consistency. If you form a good habit, it can last even years later when you feel like you are out of practice. Though there are days where you feel too unmotivated to study or you feel like certain words aren’t sticking, study anyway, because you may be surprised.

Tips for the Busy Language-Learner

When I talk to others about learning languages one of the excuses I hear the most for not learning a language is that the person does not have time to study a language. It is so easy to get overwhelmed by our busy schedules. When we become busy, we start to lose motivation to study another language because we feel that we need to dedicate an hour or more a day to studying. We start to view it as another homework assignment instead of something fun, such as going to a movie with friends. An easy solution to this problem is making studying a part of your daily routine. Just like you need to eat every day to live, shower to stay clean, and go to bed every night, you can add some light studying to your schedule. Soon enough, it will become automatic just like the other tasks you perform in your daily life.

One thing you should be doing daily is reviewing. If you don’t use your language, you lose it. Usually what I will do is review vocabulary in the language I am currently focusing on. This can be a little more time-consuming if you are focusing on more than one language at once. This will typically take up less than 15 minutes of your time. What I normally do is review words that I have learned via the app Memrise and go through a list that I made myself of commonly-used verbs to make sure that I do not forget them.

Listening to a podcast daily is also manageable. For one thing, most podcasts I have listened to have been half an hour at most. If you feel like you do not have half an hour to spare, try to listen to the podcast while exercising or doing a task that does not require much attention. That way, you can be productive and study your language at the same time.

Another suggestion I have is to try writing a couple of sentences. The most effective way to do this is by posting them to a website such as italki  where native speakers of the language you are studying can correct them. If you do not have time to make an account and post your sentences to a website, you can always keep a private journal where you write down some sentences about your day. You can write something simple such as, “Today is Tuesday. I went to class. I ate pizza,” or you can write a paragraph about what you did that day. Either way, it will get you to practice producing the language, even if your journal does not get corrected by a native speaker.

This suggestion will take the longest time out of the suggestions mentioned in this post but it will also be the most effective. If possible, try talking to someone once a week, preferably a native speaker. If you cannot find a native speaker to do a language exchange with, talk to somebody that is also studying the same language as you are and has a more advanced level. A language exchange typically lasts an hour where the people involved speak one language for half an hour and then switch to the other language for the last half hour. However, I have also been involved in language exchanges that were longer. One hour per week is not a whole lot of time to practice your language, so you probably will not progress very quickly. On the other hand, it is great to do in addition to light studying for the sake of keeping up your language.

These four recommendations do not take much time out of your day, as I have tried them all myself as a busy college student. This may not necessarily be the quickest path to language fluency but it will at least keep you on the path. Always be consistent in language-learning whether you decide to study lightly or you have the time to study for a larger amount of time. Whether you go slowly or quickly, you will still end up where you want to be.