Most of you are probably familiar with Stephen R. Covey’s best-selling book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change. I’ve listened to the audiobook a number of times and return to it whenever I am feeling overwhelmed, adrift, or caught up in “the thick of thin things”. Covey’s 7 habits are:

  • Habit 1: Be Proactive
  • Habit 2: Begin with the End in Mind
  • Habit 3: Put First Things First
  • Habit 4: Think Win-Win
  • Habit 5: Seek First to Understand, Then to be Understood
  • Habit 6: Synergize
  • Habit 7: Sharpen the Saw

Many of these actually apply quite well to language learning (especially when it comes to prioritizing and making time for study), but I’d like to tweak them a bit to make them more specific to what it takes to become a highly successful language learner, or rather, language speaker:

Habit 1: Be Proactive – Seek Out Chances to Practice

It’s far too easy—and for many, far more comfortable—to spend all your language study time alone with your nose in a book, headphones in your ears, or your eyes on a webpage. Such input activities are important, but they are only half (or perhaps even a smaller piece) of the puzzle. If you want to reach spoken fluency in a foreign language, you MUST actually speak with other human beings.

“But I have nobody to speak with. I don’t live where the language is spoken!” many will claim. But in today’s world of Skype, Google Voice, and FaceTime, this claim means that you are either a luddite or just putting off speaking out of fear. I get it. I still get scared. Using a new language can be extremely uncomfortable, especially in the early days when you barely know any words and have a hard time following even the most basic conversations. But you can’t skip the discomfort. The growing pains and mental stretch marks are an inevitable part of learning any new skill. You can, however, make the process a little less painful by:

  • Finding patient tutors or native speakers who are good at giving you a chance to practice without getting frustrated or bored.
  • Focusing on an extremely specific topic in each tutor session, and preparing a list of topical vocabulary and phrases beforehand.
  • Not taking yourself too seriously, not tying your self-worth to your foreign language ability, and remembering to have some fun!

Habit 2: Begin with Your End Fluency Goals in Mind

“…the most fundamental application of ‘begin with the end in mind’ is to begin today with the image, picture, or paradigm of the end of your life as your frame of reference or the criterion by which everything else is examined. Each part of your life— today’s behavior, tomorrow’s behavior, next week’s behavior, next month’s behavior— can be examined in the context of the whole, of what really matters most to you. By keeping that end clearly in mind, you can make certain that whatever you do on any particular day does not violate the criteria you have defined as supremely important, and that each day of your life contributes in a meaningful way to the vision you have of your life as a whole.”

To succeed in language learning you need to have a clear idea of what level you wish you attain, how you plan to get there, and why you are the language in the first place.

  • What? What level of spoken and written fluency are you shooting for? There is a big difference in the time and effort required to reach conversational fluency and native-like abilities.
  • How? What are you going to do each day to reach your target level of fluency? Speak with a tutor during your lunch break? Listen to podcasts on the bus? Review flashcards whenever you are waiting in line?
  • Why? Superficial reasons like “Chinese would look good on my résumé” or “It would be cool to speak Japanese” don’t cut it. You have to be hungry for it, and superficial, external motivations won’t feed the hunger.

Habit 3: Put Language Learning First

Waiting for convenient swaths of time to study your target language? Yah, probably not going to come. As things tend to go, you will probably get “bogged down in the thick of thin things” as Covey puts it, going days, weeks, or even months without making any progress.

Covey drives the point home in his famous “big rock” demonstration. He first reveals a large glass container, a metaphor for our life he tells us. He then pulls out a big bag of little pebbles and fills up the container nearly to the top: “This is analogous to all the small things that fill up our lives. Little by little they just accumulate.” Next to the bucket, he has laid out a number of big rocks, each labelled with an important element of a happy, healthy, productive life. He then asks a volunteer to try and add in as many of the rocks as possible into the nearly full container. The first rock she shoves in is titled Planning, Preparation, Prevention & Empowerment. She then works in a rock that says Relationships & Family. She manages to push in Employment and Major Projects by moving the gravel around. She struggles to fit in Service, Community & Church, even rolling up the sleeves on her suit jacket as she moves around the other rocks in a futile attempt to make more space. She picks up Sharpen the Saw but immediately puts it back on the table as there is obviously no room left for any more rocks. Covey quips:

“She just put down ‘Sharpen the Saw’. How many frequently do that? ‘I just don’t have time today to sharpen the saw.’ You ever been too busy driving to take time to get gas?”

Covey then takes survey of all the rocks still on the table. Urgent & Important and Vacation are among the many that don’t make it into the “Life Bucket”. He then gets down to the hat trick:

“I’ll tell you what you can do if you want to. You can work out of a different paradigm altogether.”

The volunteer then moves to a second empty glass container, opting this time to put in the big rocks first. Every last one fits in with room to spare. What’s more, she manages to pour in the entire amount of small pebbles, too! The lesson is clear. Schedule the most important things first (in our case, learning a language) lest they get crowded out by thousands of less critical tasks.

Habit 4: Make Language Exchanges & Conversations Win-Win

Whether you are paying for tutor sessions or using free language exchanges, always go into each session with the intent of making the conversation win-win. What can you learn from the other party? What can you teach them? What life experiences have they had that you haven’t, and vice-versa? What do you want to learn about their corner of the world? What questions do they have about yours? The win-win focus makes language exchanges far more enjoyable for both parties, gives you nearly endless topics to discuss, and may just lead to a new lifelong friend.

Habit 5: Develop Strong Listening and Speaking Skills

This habit applies equally well whether you are learning a foreign language or communicating in your native tongue.

More extroverted folks tend to have no problem flapping their lips on and on, but are often more focused on what they are going to say next than what their interlocutor is saying right now. If you struggle with this, make an effort to remain completely present whenever someone speaks, listening to the words they are saying, and paying careful attention to the emotions expressed by their tone, gestures, and body language. Not only will you be better able to communicate in turn, but others will find you infinitely more fun to talk to.

If your personality falls over on the introverted side of the spectrum, you probably have the opposite problem. You have no problem with listening but struggle to speak. As extroverts blab on, you remain silent, never expressing your ideas, and in the case of a foreign language, never giving yourself the essential speaking practice you need to improve. Don’t wait for a convenient pause in the conversation or a polite place to add your two cents. Just jump in with both feet and make your voice heard. It will be uncomfortable at first but it gets easier with practice.

Habit 6: Synergize with Foreign Cultures

“You can value the difference in other people. When someone disagrees with you , you can say, ‘Good! You see it differently.’ You don’t have to agree with them; you can simply affirm them. And you can seek to understand.” —Stephen R. Covey

One of the under-appreciated challenges of learning a foreign language is learning to understand and interact with a foreign culture. While many things are universal to humans (e.g. love and laughter), how we express love and what we laugh at differs significantly around the globe.

As your language journey gets underway, you just might find that the real challenge is not in learning new nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but in dealing with new modes of behavior, rules of conduct, and brands of morality that differ from your own. You will probably adopt some habits without even realizing it (e.g. bowing while talking on the phone in Japanese), while you will be consciously opposed to others (e.g. the treatment of women in many traditional societies).

Do your best to follow local customs as appropriate, but realize that you don’t have to buy into a culture wholesale to respect it. Keep an open mind and be willing to try new things, but remember that you can usually opt out of certain rituals if they are in violent opposition to your moral code or politely refuse certain foods if they are against your religion or lifestyle. Just be respectful about how you say no, and be willing to answer questions about why you do or do not do/eat certain things. This way both parties can learn something form the experience.

Habit 7: Keep Sharpening Your Language Saw

“Just as the education of nerve and sinew is vital to the excellent athlete and education of the mind is vital to the scholar, education of the conscience is vital to the truly proactive, highly effective person. Training and educating the conscience, however, requires even greater concentration, more balanced discipline, more consistently honest living. It requires regular feasting on inspiring literature, thinking noble thoughts and, above all, living in harmony with its still small voice.” —Stephen R. Covey

There is no finish line in language learning. There will always be more words to learn, ways to improve your speaking and writing skills, and ever more subtle cultural nuances to master. But don’t let this get you down. Look on holes in your linguistic and cultural knowledge as opportunities for personal growth. Never let yourself rest on your “language laurels”, striving instead to continue climbing the upward spiral of lifelong learning.

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