Staying Focused When Learning a Language; Or, the Advantages of Knowing When You’re Bored

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I just finished reading a post the other day by fellow language learner Jana Fadness, entitled Go Ahead, Break Your Routine: Or, Why You Don’t Have to Finish that Textbook. She explains here how she often tends to have a hard time finishing things, not because she can’t finish them, but because she gets bored.

“Stability dulls my mind, but I thrive on spontaneity,” she says.

This was in the context of posting a “Russian Word of the Day” on her social networking sites in order to help her learn new words, and also to share with others what she had learned/was learning.

I understand this all too well. I once tried to follow a similar exercise in Chinese, but just couldn’t keep up with it.

Late in December 2011, I purchased a calendar with different words and phrases written in Chinese for each day of the year for 2012. It was great, and I had a fun time posting each day about the new phrases I was learning. I was even posting them up in a Mandarin language group on Facebook that I made and seemed to get a pretty good response in terms of members’ interest.

However, after a few weeks, it started to feel like a dull process, and more and more like I was reporting rather than learning. Towards the end, I was posting without even really taking a second look at what I was sharing. I soon stopped altogether.

I found that I had a difficult time concentrating on any one source when learning Chinese, be it a textbook, a podcast, a novel, or anything else. I’d read half a book here, a third of a book there, and sometimes only several pages of interesting information somewhere else.

I always felt dissatisfied with this process because I was only getting some of the information available from any one book or resource, always believing that I was missing out on huge opportunities to learn new things simply because I was unable to want to stay focused on things once they became boring (or, more likely, once I found something else to supplement my interests).

This is not to say that I could not focus. I’m very good at finishing what I start.

But when taking part in an open-ended activity like language learning, one that technically never has an end no matter how good you get, I think a different approach needs to be taken.

Being required to focus on one resource at a time and reading it all the way through is pointless. If you’re like me, you not only frustrate yourself by pushing yourself to “learn” more, but you also tend to learn and retain less because you stop taking information in once you start to feel frustrated.

It’s a vicious circle in which you waste a lot of time and energy. Language learning should be fun, and in order to make if fun for myself once again, I took several steps to reorient myself.

Since I find most all languages interesting (though particularly Chinese), I tend to “peek” at different ones from time to time while still concentrating on those I’m primarily focusing on. However, this sometimes also causes me to buy too many books in these supplemental languages, as well as the ones that I’m concentrating more heavily on.

Now, this isn’t a bad thing in itself. I like books and I especially love paging through language books simply for the joy of it. However, I’ve realized that there are only so many that you can read intensely at a time before you push yourself too thin and end up not really spending a good amount of time on any of them!

I therefore sold or gave away a lot of those books that “distracted” me. I still kept most of my Mandarin and French books, but my Russian, Arabic, Japanese, and Korean books needed to go. I wanted to focus my time on a smaller set of languages and this seemed like the better way to do it at the time (even some of the less useful Mandarin and French books went as well).

It wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in them anymore, but I just found that they were too distracting to my current goals of improving my French and Mandarin at the time.

Secondly, taking Jana’s advice from her blog post above, I decided to no longer feel bad (or even stressed out!) about not finishing a book.

These are references at best, so they should be treated as such. Real language learning comes from talking with real people.

I know this, but given my interest particularly in linguistics, grammar, and philology, I tend to like to sit by myself and pour over books with information about these things.

I’m not going to stop, but I eventually realized that I needed to also start speaking face to face with people more often. It helps (surprise, surprise!), and you learn more quickly this way.

I decided to just have fun with improving my languages. I know that I will get bored with one resource if I continue with it for too long, and so now I don’t.

As Jana put it in her article, “None of them [learning methods] are really bad, but none of them are really miraculous either. They’re all just means to an end, and too often it seems like people lose sight of the end and get all wrapped up in the means.”

So if you don’t feel like you’re having fun, just stop and try something else. You will still continue to learn.

Maybe you won’t learn what was coming in the next chapter of that Russian grammar book because you didn’t stick with it until you finished it, but you’re guaranteed to encounter that same grammar soon enough in another resource, when talking to a Russian speaker, or even when reading articles on the internet.

And in this last way, you’ll have to figure out for yourself how to use this particular piece of the language since there will be no textbook at all to explain it to you — something much more conducive to learning and making it stick.



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