On 3 May 2021, thanks to the brilliant idea from language enthusiast, teacher, and coach, Lindsay Williams from Lindsay Does Languages, I participated in a language marathon. What I really love about this idea is that Lindsay, true to her teaching and coaching style, encouraged language learners of all skill levels to personalize their own language marathon. Focus on what you want. Do what you want. Just carve out some time for focusing on languages. How could I resist?!

The unofficial language marathon date was a Monday, so I had about 5 hours kid-free in the morning, and my plan went like this:

My Language Marathon Plan
(Ignore the “March” date. I clearly had no idea what month it was.)

With a solid plan in place, I woke up that Monday ready to execute. I set an interval timer online, laid out my books and pens, and prepared food and snacks for the morning. Like a running marathon, I was mentally prepared for a long stretch of language fun. So, how did it go? Overall, I had a truly excellent time participating in this event, and I walked away with some really good thoughts about my capabilities and how I study. So here are my take-aways:

The motivation sandwich (which I so creatively named just now) is not a superfood, energy-building pre-race snack. Rather, it’s the unintentional way in which I planned to execute the four language skills — reading, writing, speaking, and listening. I consciously planned my marathon to include all four skills. However, the order in which I planned them was not deliberate, yet it turned out to be a motivating factor for staying the course. Reading and listening (i.e. input) are my strongest skills in both of my target languages, and purely by luck, I sandwiched my weaker skills between these. By starting my marathon with reading, I was able to initiate the day with an enjoyable, non-frustrating task. The texts I chose were the perfect combination of understandable + challenging, and I walked away from the first hour with a strong drive to keep going.

Sandwiched in next were writing and speaking (i.e. output), my weaker skills. Setting a 25-minute time limit was really beneficial here. Instead of working too hard for too long on a text or monologue, which really bleeds my energy, I focused on one sentence at a time, allowing for English words where needed. I stalled a bit with my German writing, realizing I didn’t know how to say the things that were on my mind. But, just like when one stumbles in a running marathon, I gathered my thoughts, took a deep breath, and kept going but at a slower pace until I regained energy. Instead of charging ahead with a nice, flowing paragraph, I instead wrote choppy, unconnected bullet point sentences, each focusing on the grammar point I wanted to practice. And guess what? I wrote 11 sentences, several incorporating multiple grammar constructs! What success! Setting that 25-minute timer forced me to make a quick decision about how to restructure my writing time, and I never gave up.

Language Marathon German Writing Activity
Focus: Das Perfekt
Top section – free writing; Bottom section – corrections made later

But, just like any marathon, I started to lose steam around the third leg of the race. Speaking is difficult, making it easy to become demotivated when you realize you’re making lost of mistakes or struggling to find the words you want. I planned to speak about what I had read and written, which was helpful, but I could still feel my motivation draining. Luckily, I had saved listening for the final stretch, and I already had German and Italian Podcasts queued and ready to go. My original plan for Italian listening was to watch an episode of Luna Nera, an Italian Netflix series I recently fell in love with, but I decided that would take more focus than I was willing to give. With subtitles in Italian I can follow along well, but I knew I wouldn’t fully enjoy it in this moment. It was an easy decision to switch to Simone Pol’s Simple Italian Podcast and listen while working on a Van Gogh puzzle at the same time. This and Slow German mit Annik Rubens are excellent listening exercises for my level in each language, allowing me to actively listen while performing other, non-intensive tasks. Listening was the only skill in which I focused on German first. For reading, writing, and speaking, I wanted to keep my motivation up by working my stronger language first. For listening, though, I wanted to end with my stronger language, kind of like that last push of energy before the finish line. This, it turns out, worked exactly as planned, and I ended my language marathon feeling really good about my efforts and abilities.

Something else worth noting about my plan was the use of breaks. I don’t think it’s necessary to discuss the benefits of taking a breaks here, but I would like to mention the importance of respecting break time. During my language marathon I used a pseudo-pomodoro method with 25-minute tasks, 5-minute break in between languages, and 10-minute breaks after each skill. I, of course, used these breaks to go to the bathroom, stretch my legs, get a snack, etc. But most importantly, I used them as breaks — as in no target language tasks at all. I didn’t allow myself to think about what I had done or was about to do. I didn’t listen to music in my target languages or speak to myself in Italian or German. I completely paused the languages.

I think it’s important to highlight this thing that may be so obvious to others because as someone who comes from a society that values productivity over most everything else, I often find it hard to force myself to respect the break. Filling every minute of every day with something to do, whether it’s studying, house work, or leisure reading, has become a norm. Would 10 minutes of listening to Namika or doing some Duolingo lessons boost my language productivity? Probably not. Would they use up valuable brain energy that could be saved for the next leg of my marathon? Definitely. Respecting the break really can be the difference between staying motivated for hours and burning out before reaching the day’s goal. This is something that I did successfully for my language marathon, and I realized that I must be more intentional with it in my daily self-study routine.

When deciding to do this language marathon I didn’t expect to get anything out of it besides some really good, focused language time. Intentionally setting aside time to read and write (two things I don’t do as often as I’d like) was particularly exciting, and I knew I would be proud of myself for creating space to do these. What I didn’t anticipate, however, is walking away with the realization that I’m not doing as much I could be doing.

This isn’t to say that I don’t push myself hard and dedicate a lot of solid time to language learning. I do. But what really stood out to me was that I spent 25 minutes reading Italian, for example, which was two chapters in Storia di una lumaca che soprì l’importanza delle lentezza. There are only 11 chapters in the book, yet I’ve been working my way through it for over a month. Why? Part of it, I think, goes back to the cycle of perfectionism. Deep down there’s a part of me that holds tight to an all-or-nothing mindset. If I can’t read a whole chapter in one sitting, then I might as well not even begin. Yet, I realized after this marathon, that I’ve never really paid attention to how little time it takes me to get through a chapter. I’ve told myself I don’t have enough time, but in reality, I now know that I can read one chapter in about 10-15 minutes. This is completely doable on a near-daily basis, or at least as often as I want. In fact, I can just set a timer and go. If I hold myself accountable to reading for those 15 minutes (or longer if desired), then I will no longer be able to tell myself that I don’t have time.

Another aspect of realizing I don’t do as much as I could is in planning. While I don’t want to spend every morning with a rigid schedule of language learning activities, having more structure in my self-study would serve me well. As long as I remain flexible and give myself grace with fluctuating desires and motivation, I have no excuse for not planning my study-time activities a day ahead. As I said above, I haven’t written in my target languages as much as I’d like to lately. Part of this has to do with being busier than usual planning our move to Germany. But another part is definitely because I haven’t been intentional with my writing schedule. I’ve allowed writing to become a big ordeal that, again, has to be done all-or-nothing. I have to have a prompt. I have to make it flow. I have to write a whole page. I have to have time to edit. No wonder I haven’t felt like facing this task! The language marathon further proved that I can, indeed, do more writing if only I make space for it in my life. Putting a 15- to 20-minute block of time in my calendar for writing once a week is doable. I can do it, and it doesn’t have to be a major event. Just picking a topic or grammar point to focus on is enough. If it flows, great. If not, great. All results are successes.

In the end, my language marathon was a huge success. I had so much fun, I jammed a lot of skills into a single day, and I faced some truths about what I can do to improve the quality of my time spent learning languages. I think I’ll plan more marathons like this throughout the year, as well. When I get too comfortable in my daily routine, I become easily distracted and subconsciously make excuses for myself. I lose focus of how I’m actually spending my time. This exercise was the perfect reset. Learning with intention is, for me, the piece I was missing in my language journey for so many years, and this language marathon reminded me that when I study with intention, when I put pen to paper and plan what I want to do, I always win.

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