From crash diets to language hacking, the world is becoming obsessed with quick fixes.
The idea of learning a language in next to no time is certainly appealing. Recently, I did a language challenge to learn as much German as possible in 90 days. And I have to say, I was thrilled with the results as I went from zero knowledge of German to being able to hold a basic conversation in 3 just months.
But then I let my intensive study patterns slide a bit and I started to forget German almost as quickly as I’d learned it. Which is perhaps not that surprising, given that I’ve had blocks of Parmesan cheese for longer than I studied German.
Quick to learn, quick to forget
The experience of forgetting a language in this way is new to me. Usually when I put a language aside for a few weeks or months, it’s still there when I pick it up again. Sure, it feels like I’m speaking with a sock in my mouth for the first few minutes, but it soon comes flooding back.
So why did my brain hang onto the other languages, while my German disappeared in a puff of smoke?
Because I didn’t cram the other languages. I studied them little and often, spread out over a longer time period. I let the words, sounds and sentence structures swim around my brain and settle in my memory in their own sweet time.
Slow learning builds long-term memories
Studies show that we remember information better when we learn it in short sessions spread out over several days compared to in the same amount of hours crammed together. This means that if we learn something over the space of a week, we’re much more likely to remember it if we study for an hour a day compared to seven hours squeezed in over the weekend.
Why? Because because sleep is really important for building long-term memories. Remember in school when you studied really hard for a few days to pass an exam, only to forget everything a few days later? When we cram, we don’t get enough sleeps between study sessions, which makes it harder for our brains to consolidate the information we learn.
By spreading our study sessions out, we give our brains plenty of opportunity to strengthen our long-term memories during sleep. That’s why learning languages little by little makes them easier to remember in the long run.
Don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed my 3 month German sprint and I got a lot out of it. But if we want lasting progress, sooner or later we have to get into the tortoise mentality and build study habits that are sustainable over longer periods of time.
Why people resist slow and steady
The main reason people fail to create sustainable learning habits is the level of effort and commitment required. On the whole, we humans struggle with slow and steady. We want results straight away and when we don’t get them we give up. Or we go at it as fast as we can and burn out before we’ve really got started. This explains why diets, exercise programmes and most attempts at language learning fizzle out after the first few weeks.
Be the tortoise: 6 ways to build lasting study habits
The good news is, it’s actually quite easy to build sustainable study habits, once you’ve got the right strategies in place. These six steps will help you harness the power of slow to build lasting study habits and get that language firmly lodged in your brain:
1. Focus on the small things: Emily Dickinson once said, “If you take care of the small things, the big things take care of themselves”. The ability to focus on the smaller picture is essential when taking on mammoth projects like language learning. When you break your learning into tiny units and put all your energy into getting that done, the bigger picture will take care of itself. For example, I’m focusing on getting 60 minutes of German study done per day. If I can manage that most days, I should be able to speak German pretty well after a year. But I’m not thinking about that too much yet – it would be overwhelming. I’m just focusing on getting my hour done, day after day, week after week. It’s the repetition that’s key here – you can choose any amount of time that fits in with your schedule. Even 10 minutes a day can add up to big results over time.
2. Don’t break the chain: You may have already heard of comedian Seinfeld’s popular productivity tip. To hone his comedy skills, he decided to write one joke per day and mark a big cross on the calendar for each day he did it. This simple technique works brilliantly for building long-term habits – once you’ve got a streak going, you get so much satisfaction from looking at that row of crosses that you’ll do anything not to break the chain. The method has become very popular over the last year or so and there is now a selection of fancy apps that help you record your crosses. I like Chains.cc as it allows you to share your progress with others, which gives you another reason to stay consistent (more on this in a moment). That said, a good old fashioned calendar does the trick just as well.
3. Go social: It’s easy to keep putting things off when we know no one’s watching. When you make your progress public, you become accountable to others, making you far more likely to keep showing up for your goals. Another advantage to sharing your progress with others is the level of community spirit and support you get from other learners. There are plenty of ways you can share your learning progress: you could start a blog or join a language learning community like this one. Or, if you’re using the chain method from the previous tip, join me on chains.cc: click the link to make sure I’m sticking to my German goals (Katie, German), then sign up to add your own.
Update: I’m now on a mission to learn French, so you’ll see my French chain there instead.
4. Let yourself off the hook: There’ll probably be times when you miss a day or two (or three or four). Whether it’s a deadline at work, visitors, or a holiday, sometimes life gets in the way. Feeling guilty about skipped study sessions is counterproductive: it creates tension and makes it more difficult to get started again. When you find yourself off track, let it go and get back on it.
5. Be lazy: During the weekend, my German study mostly consists of me sitting in my pyjamas watching German TV. Even during the week, if I don’t feel like taxing my grey matter, I’ll make myself a cup of tea and watch something light on YouTube. Forcing yourself to do heavier stuff like studying grammar or writing when you don’t feel like it doesn’t make for sustainable language learning – sooner or later you’ll burn out and give up.
6. Track your progress with videos: Learning a language is a bit like digging a tunnel: if you keep chipping away with your head down the whole time, you won’t see the results of your hard work. Making videos or recording audio of yourself speaking helps you step back and appreciate the accumulative effect of your study sessions. Watch the video from a few months ago and you’ll see that your pronunciation is better, your vocabulary is more advanced and your grammar is more precise. And you’ll want to keep it up so that you can see more progress a few months from now. Don’t worry if you’re camera shy, or the sound of your own voice makes you cringe a bit (mine certainly does!) these recordings can be for your eyes and ears only. Or, if you’re up for it, you can post your progress videos on YouTube to benefit from the accountability and support that goes along with sharing your language goals. I’ll be posting my German videos on my YouTube channel, and I’d love to see some of you over there too.
Now I’d like to hear from you. Have you ever learned a language and then forgotten it? Or are you trying to learn a language and struggling to stick with it? Which of the six tips can you start doing now to help you be more consistent in your language learning? Let us know in the comments below!