Note: this post is primarily around the theme or language learning, but the principles laid out here can be applied to pretty much anything.
A lot of people ask about the “secret” behind learning so-and-so, or the secret behind success. They expect a detailed roadmap, step-by-step instructions, and essentially a recipe that can be copied and reproduced. If this is what you are looking for, please stop reading now.
Still here? OK. When it comes to language learning, just to serve as an example, it’s hard not to notice those outperformers who learn to speak a language from scratch in the space of a few months, or those hyperpolyglots who have learned over 10 languages, while others have been learning a language for over a decade without being able, yet, to have a normal, natural conversation with a native speaker.
I have been inspired and motivated by a lot of successful people in my life, and when it comes to language learning, it’s no exception. And after having observed several successful language learners over the past several years, I can tell with certainty that a common attribute that they share is that they like what they do.
In fact, if you look at how different polyglots and successful language learners approach the learning of a new language, you’ll find that they may widely differ in their approach. Some may prefer to read extensively, some may learn a lot of grammar, some may enroll in traditional classroom language classes, while others may just travel around and speak with natives spontaneously.
But if there is one thing that binds these language learners together, it is a love for what they do. Have you ever seen a polyglot that approached learning a language like homework? If we push this further, have you ever heard of a famous painter, writer, dancer, or performer, who only did his art as a means to an end (i.e. money)? Chances are that for the overwhelming majority of the time, the answer is no. They do what they do because they are driven and passionate. Those that do it as a means to an end are usually second-rate.
So what if you don’t really enjoy learning languages? In fact, you may have tried to convince yourself that you really do enjoy doing it, but somewhere inside of you, there is this little voice saying “if I really work hard now and bear all of this, I’ll be able to do or have X and Y in my future”. If you had the best job in the world, and all the money that you could dream of, would you still be learning languages? In my case, the answer is “all the more”.
“OK, but what if I just don’t like it,” you might add. Well, savoring the present moment is a thing you can practice. It’s a bit like meditation.
Liking what you do may sound simple to some of you, but enjoying the present is one of the hardest things one can achieve. Daniel Gilbert, in his interesting book entitled “Stumbling on Happiness,” mentions a Harvard psychology professor who, in the late 1960s, “took LSD, resigned his appointment (with some encouragement from the administration), went to India, met a guru, and returned to write a popular book called Be Here Now, whose central message was succinctly captured by the injunction of its title. The key to happiness, fulfillment, and enlightenment, the ex-professor argued, was to stop thinking so much about the future.” He adds:
"Now, why would anyone go all the way to India and spend his time, money, and brain cells just to learn how not to think about the future? Because, as anyone who has ever tried to learn meditation knows, not thinking about the future is much more challenging than being a psychology professor. Not to think about the future requires that we convince our frontal lobe not to do what it was designed to do, and like a heart that is told not to beat, it naturally resists this suggestion."
Have you ever heard of “The Present,” a slightly tacky, commercial bestseller book written by Spencer Johnson, the same author who brought “Who Moved My Cheese?” to the shelves of just about every library in the world? No wonder this 100-page book became an international bestseller with millions of copies sold. Because we all know we should focus more on the present, and that this would allow us to get more done and have a more fulfilling life.
As immensely popular blogger Leo Babauta has said, as part of an answer he made to one of Tynan’s posts, in the context of something as simple as washing the dishes:
"I don’t focus on how I’ll feel when the dishes are done and the sink is clean. To me, that’s a focus on the destination, which could be a few minutes in the future, hours, days or years. And I’ve found that kind of thinking doesn’t stop — you’re always focused on where you’re going, instead of where you are.
Instead, I prefer to focus on what I’m doing right now, and always believe that I’ve already arrived. Doing the dishes isn’t great because it’ll feel good when the kitchen is clean — it’s great because I love feeling the warm water, and suds, and enjoy the feeling of the work. I practice being mindful, and it’s a meditation. The same is true of any work I do."
OK, so how is this all related to being a successful language learner, you might ask? Well, I realized a few weeks ago that I had slowly started to see language learning as a kind of a “chore”. I think the meaning of this word is slightly too strong to express what I felt, but I basically did not enjoy learning languages as much as I once used to. This especially was the case for my study of Korean, since it’s such a hard language and my motivation to tackle it gradually decreased as time went by. I started focusing on the negative—what still had to be done before reaching my “destination” of fluency—rather than the progress I had made and all the positive that learning the language had brought to my life.
From this realization onwards, I really decided to focus on the present when tackling a language. Not only that, I also decided to focus on the joy that I was getting from learning languages, and on all the progress that I had made thus far. It’s still far from perfect, but I’m enjoying the process much more. And by focusing on the positive, I’ve regained some motivation.
So today, I want you to think—and really think about it seriously—about how much you enjoy learning languages, or whatever it is you are doing/learning/working on these days. Be honest with yourself. If you’ve found yourself in a similar situation as me, where you’re focusing on the negative, keeping your eyes on the “destination”, and gradually losing motivation, think about what I’ve just said and try to apply these simple tips to your study of languages. Leo Babauta has recently written a post on “how to savor life,” which I read after having written most of this article. He adds a good piece of advice for those who want to get into the habit of savoring the present and learning to like what you do:
"When you savor tea, or chocolate, or a handful of berries … you slow down. You pay close attention — the closer the attention, the more you’ll get out of the savoring. You don’t rush to the next thing, but stop and give some space to the activity. You aren’t worried about what you have to do later, you are fully enjoying the present.
This is savoring, and it takes practice. You can do it right now, wherever you are: pause and look around you and savor this very moment. Even if it doesn’t seem to be special, because let’s face it you’ve done what you’re doing a thousand times, savor it. Fully appreciate the gift you’ve been given."
Enjoy the present moment. Savor your ability to understand words in a different language. Read, listen, and speak about things that inspire and excite you in the foreign language you’re learning. Focus on the positive—your progress, all what you’ve learned, how much you have opened your horizons—and brush away the negative.
Remember, language learning is a journey, not a destination. The same applies to work and life. Enjoy the ride while it’s lasting.
The title of this post caught my eye in the sidebar of one of Tynan's post. On clicking, I saw it was about language learning. Great!
I cannot say I am particularly gifted when it comes to language acquisition, nor am I particularly disciplined. But I have managed to learn a little German, a lot of Spanish, and even more ancient Latin and Greek. In every case, it was passion that drove me.
With the German, it was the works of Goethe that kept me going through the hard parts. With Spanish, it was living in Mexico and listening to Spanish language music and enjoying the marvelous magic realism in Spanish lit. With ancient Greek, it was the powerful sound of Homer, and with Latin, it was that almost military grandness to the cadence. In every case, it was beauty that kept me going.
Though I tried to keep a regular schedule, I would find myself not wanting to stop some days and not being able to learn much others. I ended up going back to college to get a new degree in classical lit. and lang. because I kept faltering in my study of the ancient languages. This, I found, was because I had not really learned grammar--as in a conceptual understanding of how languages hang together--well enough.
One of my linguistics professors likes to say, "To know a language, any language, is to love it. Once you really dig in, you just find yourself going, 'Wow!'"
If I had one piece of advice to give to language learners, it would be that you have to have a star to reach for; that is, why, really, do you want to learn this language? That will get you through the hard parts, and the hard parts will come. This is just a part of it. Anytime I hear anyone say they have the "easy" way, I know they are full of it. It was not easy even as babies, you know? We have to work it.
Awesome post. It really mirrors a lot of what I have been writing lately, but from a unique angle. I really appreciate it.
The concept of the journey vs. the goal is crucial. The journey is where all of your time goes. Why pursue a goal if the journey itself is not fulfilling?
Honestly I see people who have succeeded and found massive success with different approaches. Some people set goals, schedules, hack the hell out of their mind by breaking up REM cycles or taking nootropics and treat learning a language or just about anything, as a sort of challenge, something they have to conquer to master. These people spend twice as long "sharpening the ax" but make 10x the progress. And the thing is, these people fucking love it. Its kind of how tynan describes it. They can't wait to see how much progress they've done, compare which learning methods were better than others. All the time they're extremely excited, full of verve and vigor, trying to find out what they can do better, how they can do more all so that they can complete their challenge
At the same time, I've seen people like Leo succeed massively. Even though these people are excited to live and create value, whether it be through learning or otherwise, These people aren't obsessed. They don't make schedules or devise complicated plans, they just go with the flow. of course these people also sharpen their ax, but they also sense that taking to long to sharpen the ax might prevent them for actually doing what they love or just enjoying the subtleties in everyday things. These people usually end up learning a bit slower, but do so more in a more relaxed, and easy-going way.
Personally, I think the meaning of living in the present has become diluted and vague, and frankly a bit overrated. Its kind of becoming the new happiness. In my opinion, living in the present isn't always the optimal strategy for long-term life fulfillment. Sometimes one has to step back, look at the board, and see if where the pieces are is where they want them to be.The key here comes the fact that decisions, the things that ultimately decide how amazing your life becomes relative to your beliefs can only be made in the present.
So even though sometimes the chess player has to stop and think of the future, in the end when he moves a piece, he is making a decision in the present.
I guess what I'm trying to say is living in the moment is not necessarily the best, or sometimes the most optimal way to go about things. Sometimes neither is liking what you do. I remember benny lewis said this in a post that you might be interested in (http://www.fluentin3months.com/means-to-an-end/) pretty much he outright says he dislikes learning languages, yet hes learned 8.
Personally I think happiness and liking what you do( in the present) are not always or do not always have to be interrelated. Furthermore, sometimes I think its the wrong strategy. by "hating" language learning but becoming in love with the idea of knowing and speaking Chinese you might be able to trick your mind into finding a way to reach your ultimate goal quicker; and you dont have to feel any less happy for it because you know you are doing it for something greater. Feeling happy is a choice ( I believe tynan has a very good post on this)
Of course this all depends how you go about it. everything is mental in this world and the mind can be programmed (subconsciously or consciously) in a variety of ways.
There's this new-age idea that we should all be completely in the present at all times, ignoring the past and the future. Some people go so far as to parrot phrases like "the present is the only thing that really exists", or "live every day like it's your last!". I disagree. I think that there's value in considering all three time periods, as long as they're looked at differently. The problem is that most people treat them in the same way.
Take the past. Most people look at the past as something that could somehow be changed if they wished hard enough. They don't actually believe that, but they act like it, saying things like, "If only I had _____". A better way to see the past is like a series of completed experiments. Everything, from before you were born until the moment you read the previous sentence is now set in stone and cannot be changed. The value we can get from this is to learn from our mistakes, failures, and pure observation.
It's possible to live in the past, to rehash things that happened and associate their greatness or tragedy with the present. We are the product of nothing but the past, but on the other hand the past is only a series of experiments. We aren't bound to make the same mistakes, and we aren't guaranteed the same successes, especially if we can't emotionally distance ourselves from what has happened, and rationally extract all of the available lessons from it.
Learning a new language can be on of the most difficult yet rewarding things one can do with their time. If done correctly, one will fail numerous times, be able to express themselves in unique ways and have easier access to a new culture. Currently Language-learning has been quite the rage, with services such as Rosetta Stone and Rocket languages selling like hotcakes and blogs such as fluentin3months having massive success. New services, such as duolingo and italki are changing the landscape of language learning business and making language learning ridiculously cheaper, and more accessible to everyone. I’ve undertaken learning 3 different languages, with varying success in each, but with each subsequent one being much easier to learn. I’ve tried to see how fast the human mind can learn a new language, especially ones that are radically different from ones native tongue. Currently I’ve learned a good amount of Japanese, Chinese and German, with my Japanese and German being significantly better than Chinese, but still not good enough to be able to have effortless conversations, which means I must keep pressing on.
I’ve found learning languages to be a very dynamic process. Each language has its own way of expressing itself, Some are very clear, cut and use short, direct words, as I have found to be the case with Chinese. Others are more vague, longwinded, or emphasize particular things, such as Japanese having a verb ending that signals the completion of something. Regardless, learning a new language will definitely bestow you with a new way of looking at the world. Here I want to share 4 things to keep in mind that have radically helped me when learning languages.
1. Spend sometime understanding the aspects of the language you are about to learn. Specifically try to focus on sentence structure and how meaning is added to the sentence. For example, German is very similar to English, it is subject-verb-object (sometimes its gets mumbled up, but for the most part it is), is preposition heavy and is written in the same scripture, which makes it significantly easier to learn than say Japanese or Chinese. But German is also high agglunative, which means it building meaning by joining words together. German also has an emphasis on cases and gender that is not present in English.
This might seem obvious, but it is very rarely done. Before you embark on the journey of learning a language and learning detailed grammar rules for a specific cases focus on things such as how nouns relate in the sentence, where conjugation happens, and how important is it. A good exercise is usually to get sentences with varying structure and translate them into your target language, something tim ferris suggests in the 4-hour-chef. Exercises like this allow you to find the pattern that will most likely hold true in 80%+ of all sentences. This is makes for a very solid foundation that would otherwise take weeks if one were just frantically reviewing, and learning step by step, instead focus on what the majority of sentences look like, dissect the key elements, and apply them.
2. Find and use a handful of excellent resources at a time; get involved in online communities. The most important thing to keep in mind when one is beginning to learn a language is to find high-quality resources. Find online communities for your target language by googling something like “learn german forum” and see what people are saying, which books their recommending etc. Another good way to find solid resources is to go on Amazon see which books in your target language have good reviews/sales. When I started learning my first foreign language, Japanese, I bought 4-5 books on Japanese, enrolled in two podcasts, had various decks in my flash card program, ranging from beginner to advanced, and used 4 different websites. This was a HORRIBLE idea. Not only was grammar, and vocabulary introduced at different times in each book, but managing progress was very hard, with notes in one book, flash cards, on my computer, and trying to juggle which activity I should do next.