If an adult fails to learn a foreign language (and most do), most of us assume the learner did’t study hard enough or simply isn’t good at languages. The real problem is not usually a lack of talent or effort but using the wrong methods, choosing the wrong materials, and having self-defeating beliefs. Read on to see how to choose effective methods, fun materials, and empowering attitudes.
To do lists seem like a good idea in theory, but they have a major disadvantage: there are infinite potential to do items. Instead, Tim Ferriss, best-selling author of The 4-Hour Workweek (and a speaker of 6 languages), recommends “not to do lists” instead since they define a limited number of unhelpful behaviors to avoid. This idea applies perfectly to language learning, where most learners waste a lot of time on ineffective methods and bad materials. Read on to see my list of NOT to do items for successful language learners.
I almost didn’t write this blog post. Why? Because I am currently driving with my wife back up to Seattle from LA and only have about 30 minutes available to write. My inner perfectionist almost talked me out of posting anything at all, arguing that it’s better to do nothing than do something less than perfect. Fortunately, I’ve learned to resist the siren call of such irrational perfectionism (and you can, too!) thanks to what I learned reading “Better Than Before” by Gretchen Rubin.
As a teacher, blogger, and coach in language learning, I’ve heard just about every excuse there is for why one can’t learn a foreign language. Here are the most common, limiting, and ultimately untrue beliefs: 1) “Learning languages is really difficult, especially non-Romance languages like Japanese.” 2) “I don’t have enough time, money, or language ability to learn a language.” 3) “I don’t live where the language is spoken.” 4) “I’m too old to learn a language.” While learning to speak a new tongue might be easier or more convenient for some people (e.g. those who have hours of free time available each day, deep financial resources, the freedom to travel frequently or move abroad, etc.), it is imperative to understand that anyone can learn a language well if they: 1) Prioritize language learning in their lives. 2) Do the right things consistently (heaps of listening and reading input and heaps of active speaking and writing output). 3) Change their beliefs about language learning.
Chad Fowler’s “Harajuku Moment”: How Honest Self-Reflection and a Strong Enough “Why” Create Lasting Motivation
To succeed in any long-term endeavor, may it be learning a language or transforming your body, you need to have a strong enough “why.” “I kinda want to learn Japanese” or “It would be nice to lose 20 pounds of body fat” won’t cut it. Your objective must be a “need,” not a “want.” This concept is illustrated beautifully in a section of The 4-Hour Body by Tim Ferriss titled “The Harajuku Moment.” Tim shares the inspring story of Chad Fowler―a CTO, programmer, author, and co-organizer of the RubyConf and RailsConf conferences―who lost over 70 pounds in less than a year! While his specific story is health related, you can apply the exact same wisdom to language learning.
Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder is the first book I’ve read by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, but it will certainly not be the last. The book is actually the fourth in a four-volume series on uncertainty the author calls “Incerto”, which also includes the previous works Fooled by Randomness (2001), The Black Swan (2007–2010), and The Bed of Procrustes (2010). Taleb sums up the basic premise of the book as follows: “Some things benefit from shocks; they thrive and grow when exposed to volatility, randomness, disorder, and stressors and love adventure, risk, and uncertainty.” This is definitely true of language acquisition. The safe, predictable, highly structured nature of classroom-based academic language study does not prepare one for the messy interactions that one will encounter in the real world. To reach fluency in a foreign language, one needs randomness, not a lesson plan. Read on for a few of the best language learning lessons from Antifragile.