🧠 Master Your Mind

My tip this week for foundation one—Master Your Mind—is to realize that mastering a language is more about psychology than ability.

When I tell someone that I speak Japanese and Mandarin Chinese, I almost always hear some version of the following response:

“Wow, I’ve heard those are the two most difficult languages in the world! You must be really smart!”

While I know that their heart is in the right place, I find this comment frustrating for two reasons:

  • Number 1, there is no such thing as an inherently “hard” language. Sure, Japanese and Mandarin are quite different from English, but that doesn’t mean they are inherently difficult.
  • Number 2, you don’t need to be “smart” or “gifted” to learn a language: Every human (with rare exceptions) acquires their first language by getting enough exposure and practice. The same is true for learning foreign languages as an adult. It’s about sufficient exposure and practice, not genius or intellect.

Does learning a language take a lot of time and effort?

Does it take a positive attitude?
You bet.

Does it take special skills, lucky genetics, or advanced cognitive abilities?

It simply takes the willingness, patience, persistence, courage, and discipline to “bugger on” as Winston Churchill would say.

And speaking of Churchill, he once said:

“Continuous effort―not strength or intelligence―is the key to unlocking our potential.”

Or as polyglot and LingQ founder Steve Kaufmann puts it:

“In language learning, it is attitude, not aptitude, that determines success.”

⏱ Master Your Day

My tip this week for foundation two—Master Your Day—is to make language learning your primary focus.

As Mykel Hawke puts it in his book The Quick and Dirty Guide to Learning Languages Fast:

“Start every day with the language to be learned as your first thought, your priority, your mission.”

So why does prioritization matter so much? I would have a small fortune if I had ¥100 for every time somebody told me:

”I’d love to learn a language but I just don’t have the time!”

And I get it. People are busy and have a lot of different responsibilities competing for their time. I struggle with the same challenge.

But an honest look behind this statement shows it’s a convenient fiction, not a hard fact. The true problem is not a lack of time but a lack of focus. “I don’t have time for X activity” really means “X is not the most important thing in my life and I am not willing to prioritize it over other activities.” And that is totally okay! As much as I love languages, I know that they are not the most important thing in the world, and that many people would rather do something else with their precious time. All I am saying is that we shouldn’t lie to ourselves. So try asking yourself these four questions:

  • How much do I really want to learn a language?
  • Am I willing to sacrifice other activities to learn this language?
  • Do I have the discipline to prioritize the language in my life?
  • Will I pursue what I want most over what I want now?​

📍Master Your Environment

My tip this week for foundation three—Master Your Mind—is to decide not to decide by making your target language the default.

Every time you make a decision, you use up fuel in your willpower tank. And the lower your tank gets, the harder it becomes to make the right choices.

As the day wears on, you will start choosing whatever is easier and more comfortable (especially on days you are tired, stressed, or unmotivated).

Think about it: when you plop down on the couch after a long day of work, which of the following sounds like the easier, likelier choice:

  • Option 1: Watching an episode of Squid Game with Korean subtitles and saving new words and phrases using the Language Reactor extension for Chrome.
  • Option 2: Watching an American TV series or Squid Game dubbed or subtitled in English?

Clearly Option 1 takes a lot more work and discipline. Which means that Option 2 will likely win out most of the time unless you are an extremely disciplined person.

So what to do?

Instead of having to constantly choose between immersing yourself in a foreign language or consuming content in your native tongue, make your target language the default!

In other words, remove choice altogether.

As author Gretchen Rubin puts it in her book Better Than Before:

“Decide not to decide . . . Habits make change possible by freeing us from decision making and from using self-control.”

Do everything you can to remove English content (or whatever your native language is) from your environment. Or at the very least, make your target language the easy, obvious option. For example:

  • Like I talked about in last week’s episode, change your device languages so you get target language input by default every time you use your phone, computer, TV, etc.
  • Only include foreign language shows and movies in your “watch next” queues on Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, etc. In the same way, only have target language DVDs in view by the TV (if you still use DVDs).
  • Similarly, make sure that all reading material in your environment (such as books on your nightstand or saved articles in Instapaper) are in your target language. Include only bookmarks to foreign language sites in your browser “favorites bar” so that foreign language input is always just one click away. Hide the rest in folders.

The more obvious, automatic, and ubiquitous you make the language, the easier it will be to stick to your habits and the sooner you will reach your fluency goals.

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