Fear definitely holds people back from truly becoming their bilingual selves, and the fear consists of many things – embarrassment, using the wrong word or sentence and saying something offensive, not understanding whatever is said back, fear of being seen as a failure. While fear associated with language learning is definitely another blog post for another day, I want to focus on the one phrase that will help break through some of those fears:
Do a little bit each day.
This phrase represents the mindset shift that needs to happen for true language learning to take place. We tend to look at language as a chore, a task, a goal… we rarely look at it as a habit. Building a habit and routine around learning a language is going to be key to truly becoming comfortable with it, and eventually mastering the language. (Key note – mastering a language takes monumental time and energy; while it is an attainable goal, it’s more of a slow burn that will take years).
With language, practice needs to be constant and consistent. Learning a language in school eases this, as you are expected to speak, read, and write in your target language almost every day.
Homework reiterates what you’ve practiced in class. Skipping a day will show – and many adults who are trying to learn a language may skip two, three, or seven days at a time. Your brain cannot retain key grammar rules and niche vocabulary words without this constant/consistent practice time, yet life tends to get in the way. There’s a huge project at work and you’ll be working late. You oversleep and can’t practice during your usual morning routine.
Learning a language is hard. It seems like a monumental task – there are the different types of language, and simply learning a vocabulary word a day can be overwhelming (is it used in one country or another? How common is this word? What’s the pronunciation again? Are there different spellings depending on the target country?) Learning takes brainpower, and requires a certain amount of skill and effort – it’s not something you can necessarily do on autopilot. This is where creating a habit and routine around language comes in.
Establishing the habit is the tough part, and the more it disrupts your daily routine, the harder it is to establish. Waking up early to practice a language will be more difficult than listening to a podcast, music, or auditory lessons in your target language during your commute. For example, I started to learn Portuguese when I had an hour+ commute… it was easy to focus, simple to add into my routine, and I wasn’t too embarrassed of mouthing “Bom dia” over and over again.
Below are some key tips for establishing a language habit:
- Build on small steps – Rome nor vocabulary word banks were not built in a day. If you have 5 extra minutes, play a game, listen to a sport or music, or follow along during a lyric video. Use these “micro-moments” to your advantage.
- Figure out what works for you. How is your commute? What’s your daily routine? Learning is done best when your chronotype (morning bird vs. night owl) is at its peak performance. Not everyone is the same; we all have differing routines and priorities. Figure out what truly works for you – not your family or your spouse – and pepper in as much time as you’re willing to commit.
- Focus on input and output. Input is what you take in from your target language– the telenovela or show you’ve started to watch, the music or audio you listen to, or the blogs or books you read in your target language. Output is what you say, think, or create in your target language. For true practice, you should balance both.
- Clearly list out your “Why”. Learning survival Welsh for a weekend trip, or Japanese for a job abroad requires two different levels of effort. What’s your goal, and how do you see yourself using this target language? Obviously, the bigger the goal; the bigger the overwhelm, so start as small as you want, and slowly scale up.
The fear of saying the wrong thing or embarrassing yourself will always be there – language is full of nuance, and cultural backstories most books can’t teach you. Once you’ve established a language habit, you’re on the right track to enjoy new cultures, new countries and create new stories.