INTRODUCTION: STAYING MOTIVATED
Yes, right now you’re feeling the buzz. You’ve just downloaded to this book: maybe you’re lying in bed flicking from page to page on your newly aquired Kindle. Maybe yesterday you started going out with an attractive Italian man or came back from a wonderful holiday in Greece or a literary character came to you in a dream and told you to learn Cantonese.
These feelings, however, will not last.
When it’s November and you’re wondering whether you really want to traipse out into the rain to your two-hour class or would prefer to stay in with a cup of tea and a good novel, you will need more than just the vague memory of a buzz way back a few months ago when the sun was shining and the living was easy.
Put this book down right now (or rather, click the button on your iPad that takes you to the notes function) and write down five reasons why you want to learn a language. You’ll probably be able to think of one or two quite easily. Push yourself and see if you can make it to five. What you come up with may well surprise you.
I did this a while back – the challenge was to come up with thirteen reasons why learning a language was a good thing, and I made it, though some, I admit, were tenuous. But don’t turn over the page just yet. This process is important – it helps you to see what’s important to you. It will help you, on that November evening, to remember why you are doing this: not why some woman you’ve never met thinks you should be doing this, but why you want to.
Later, when you make it out of bed and are in possession of Post-It notes, write them out (yes, with a pen), ready to be stuck onto your grammar book, your vocab book, or on the wall in the room where you will study. You might also want to write them out on the first page of the notebook you will be using, so that you can remind yourself of them when you sit down to a session that you may or may not be feeling inspired by.
Done? Okay, now you can look at mine. But then come back and read the rest of this chapter.
Most of you probably need no reminding of the importance of goals. And many of you will probably have heard of SMART goals. Goals give up something to aim for, and when we succeed, this motivates us to keep reaching for more goals. In the long run, this equates to progress.
“I want to improve my French” is a great goal. But how will you know when you have achieved it? Learning one word is technically an improvement. You probably don’t mean that, though. But then what exactly do you mean by it?
Some examples of specific goals might be:
- I will read through A la recherche du Temps Perdu (although see the section on being “realistic”).
- I will complete all the exercises in Colloquial French.
- I will strike up conversation with three strangers while I am on holiday.
Some of your goals will take a few weeks or months to accomplish. You might find it helpful to break these down into smaller steps, so that you can measure your progress and stay motivated as you tick them off the to-do list. For example, if you really do want to read Proust by the end of the year, you could work out how many pages you ought to be reading per day. This helps with motivation and keeps you on track. (And will probably convince you that you should perhaps start with something shorter than Proust.)
For all except the superhuman, there is nothing more discouraging that an unattainable goal. “I will speak Japanese fluently in six months” may well be one of those (unless you’re living in Japan, and spending several hours a day studying, and even then…). On the other hand, goals that are too easy to meet do not motivate us much, either. Choose something that will stretch your learning muscles just a little – even if it’s just acquiring one new word a day – and when you find that is becoming easy, up it a little.
Given your particular set of circumstances –time constraints, financial resources, family obligations – what is realistic? You might love the idea of spending four weeks on an intensive Spanish course in Mexico, but if your wife has just given birth to triplets, she may have other ideas.
Take a look at your calendar: when can you schedule in time for language learning? What (remembering to be specific and realistic) can you do yearly, monthly, weekly and daily to help you advance? And in what timeframe can you aim to meet the goals you have set out?
So there you have it – SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timetabled. Since you still have those Post-It notes to hand, why not write yours out now?
Yes, yes, I know: learning is its own reward. But on that dark November evening, I guarantee you that it will not feel like it. So put in place a gold star system for yourself (or, if you have as little self-control as I do, ask someone else to do it for you) – rewards along the way to keep you going: maybe a chocolate for each bite-sized goal like learning a verb, and a day trip to Paris for finishing the textbook. Something you can look at and think yes, I want that, so I’m going to do this.
ENJOY YOUR LANGUAGE LEARNING
Most of us are more likely to do something if it’s fun, so think about combining language learning with other things that interest you. For example, I feel slightly guilty about buying trashy gossip magazines – but if they’re in Spanish, well then, that’s not a trashy magazine. It’s a language learning tool! Ditto with TV or films, particularly those I’d be embarrassed to admit to watching: if I’m learning, I feel as if it’s allowed.
If you are living abroad, you have a big advantage when it comes to this: you can join clubs and meet people with whom you can practise your favourite hobby, whether that is cross-stitching, horse-riding, or cooking. You’ll be practising with native speakers and other learners, but in the context of something you genuinely want to do. And if you want to learn another new skill – playing an instrument, perhaps – and you have some basics in the language already, why not seek out local courses? There are even organisations that actively teach languages through activities such as playing board games or cooking.
I’ll be mentioning meetup.com again, but it’s a great place to find people with similar interests, and since it lists groups all over the world, it can be a great resource for expats, too.
Even if you are not abroad, you’ll be surprised at what you can find. I know of at least one book club in London which meets to discuss French books, even though they are all English speakers. A French language and culture group in Northern Virginia organises francophone events as diverse and interesting as Yoga classes and cheese and wine evenings. With all the social networking on the internet these days, it’s easier than ever to find like-minded people and interesting activities.
Language learning doesn’t have to be boring. In fact, it shouldn’t be.