Tuesday, September 27, 2011
Just Keep Doing It
Most people are familiar with the motto “Just do it,” which was introduced by the Nike sports company in 1988. This slogan struck a chord with so many people because it is simple, but incredibly powerful. If followed, it could be a life-changing piece of advice.
There are many fields in which “Just do it” could be said to be an effective philosophy, and language learning is definitely one of them. However, I think that this motto can be made even more appropriate for language learners by changing it slightly, and that is what I want to discuss in this article.
There are basically three stages that successful language learners will go through:
1) Decide to do it.
2) Do it.
3) Keep doing it.
The first step on the road to eventual success is deciding to embark on the journey. All of us have limited time on this earth, and we constantly need to make decisions about how we are going to spend that time. These decisions have particular significance when they relate to an activity that requires us to invest a huge amount of time in the hope of reaching a desired goal at some point in the future. The decision to learn a foreign language is therefore not one that should be taken lightly. Partially learning a language (and then forgetting what you have learned) is a bit like partially building a house—you may learn some things through the experience, but there are probably lots of other ways in which that time could be better spent.
Once you have made the decision to do something, that is the point at which Nike’s advice comes into play. Many of us have a tendency to procrastinate, and all too often we end up never following through on the plans we make. This experience provides a strong argument for the “Just do it” approach.
I have been planning to learn French for several years now, and this April, I finally took the plunge and booked myself on a course of lessons. This felt like a major event in my life, but of course, it was only a tiny first step on the road to my final goal of being able to speak French. It was also, I suspect, not a particularly unusual step to take. I am sure that there are thousands of people who start language courses every day, so an inability to “Just do it” is not really what prevents people from learning foreign languages.
The really difficult part, of course, is the next stage: keep doing it. I have lost track of how many things I have started in my life and given up without making any real progress. One thing I can say without any doubt, however, is that the only things I have mastered are the things that I kept doing. I can also say that I have never failed to make progress in any of the things that I did keep doing. Indeed, the longer I kept doing them, the better I got. Pretty simple, right!
As most of you reading this will know, learning a language is an emotional roller-coaster ride. Even now, having lived in Japan and used the language every day for 15 years, I still have moments of despair when I realize how little I know. Of course, I also have days where I am extremely proud of my proficiency, and it is those moments that have kept me going. Recently, I decided to start studying the “kanji” again in an attempt to fill some embarrassing gaps in my knowledge. Kanji are Chinese characters, but the way they are used in the Japanese language makes them notoriously difficult to learn and remember. I have tried lots of ways of studying them in the past, and I have reached a reasonable level of proficiency, but I have always found myself getting bored and/or distracted after a few weeks of study. I never had any trouble “doing” the kanji, I just found it very difficult to “keep doing” them!
This summer, I discovered a wonderful app for my iPad that makes it much easier for me to study in a way that suits my learning style. As a result, I have been studying almost every day now for about three months, and the results have been amazing. As well as constantly noticing the kanji I have learned all around me (see my “New Car Phenomenon” post), I have even reached the point where I have found myself visualizing kanji subtitles in my head as people are talking. The point is that because I have “kept doing it,” my studies have gained a momentum that I have not experienced for many years. It is not a question of studying more than I did in the past or studying more intensively—it is simply a matter of keeping going, day after day, week after week, and month after month.
At the same time as recognizing the benefits of persistence, it is also important to remember what happens when you start something but fail to keep it up. Learning a language is a bit like trying to run the wrong way up a descending escalator. If you stop running, you do not stay where you are; the second you stop, the escalator begins to take you back to where you started. This means that a certain level of “keeping going” is required just to stay in the same place.
Learning a foreign language is a pursuit that requires a huge investment of time and effort, and there are a great many obstacles to be overcome, including intense feelings of embarrassment, confusion, and frustration. The good news, however, is that as long as you keep going, you will succeed. I don’t mean that you “might” succeed or that you will probably succeed—I mean that you will succeed. I think it is important for teachers to remind our students of this constantly.
I suspect that many people reading this will think “Well, that is just obvious!”, but there are many “obvious” things that we forget as we go through life, and I find it helpful to be reminded of some of them from time to time. Success in language learning is not about choosing a particular study method or using a particular set of materials, and neither is it a question of how hard you study at any given point in time. Success in language learning is simply a matter of keeping going.