Maximizing the Utility of Language Learning Advice

One thing I’ve loved about effective language self-study is that it follows a similar skeletal structure as other activities we want to habituate. When losing weight, for example, I followed a process to define my why, set SMART goals, track my progress, and reward myself. These aspects are also important for learning a language through self-study. Filling out this structure with details for how to stay motivated, how to overcome getting off track, or what resources or programs to use is where we each personalize our journey to best suit our individual needs and preferences. Then as we take in useful advice and information specific to our language learning needs, we actively apply it to our language lives in order to continue refining our methods, habits, and mentality.

But what if we take this a step further and de-compartmentalize the advice and wisdom gained and apply them to other areas of our lives? I often find myself creating mental file cabinets for the various aspects of my life. I have a parenting file, a marriage file, a weight-loss & maintenance file, a career file, a language learning file, etc. If I read an article on parenting, I mentally put it away under “Parenting” and pull it out when interacting with my children. Listen to a language-learning podcast? Tuck it away in the “Language Learning” file to consider for that area. Past experiences with weight-loss are filed appropriately, and the communication advice my counselor gave me goes prominently in the “Marriage” folder. Everything is nice, neat, and organized, right?

But what happens when I pull out all these files, throw them in the air, and see where they land? Take the language learning advice and apply it to parenting. Consider how the parenting advice could help me communicate in my adult relationships. Losing weight? That positive energy and motivated determination can certainly bleed over into my language learning. Practicing the decompartmentalization of all the good advice and strategies for success and finding ways to apply them to other areas of my life has been a truly remarkable experience. When I read “How to Talk so Kids Will Listen, and Listen so Kids Will Talk,” for example, I applied some of the given advice to my marriage and saw immediate results. After all, at its core, this is a book about respectful and clear communication more than it is about parenting. Right now in my life I find myself consuming ideas and information regarding language learning more than any other topic. It would make sense that some of the information I take in could be applied to other areas of my life, right? Surprisingly, I’ve most prominently found this to be true in my parenting.

When my daughter started her first year at our local Italian primary school, I had no particular expectations. Admittedly, I thought it would be much like my time in a U.S. American kindergarten (first year at primary school in the States) 30 years earlier. I had Italian friends who had children in the same school and who were raised in the Italian school systems themselves, but it never occurred to me to have conversations with them about the differences between these two education systems. It took me many months, perhaps even an entire scholastic year, to start understanding how gravely I underestimated the leap from preschool to primary school here.

One example of this sticks out above all others. After the first couple months or so of school, every week my daughter would bring home a poem that the students had copied into their notebooks. I enjoyed reading them with her and trying to figure out vocabulary, but for months that was all we did with them. I don’t remember exactly what happened, but one day my daughter expressed to me her embarrassment that she was the only student in class who didn’t know the poem each week. Stunned, and with a growing nausea in my stomach, I came to the realization that she was supposed to be memorizing these poems every week to recite to the teacher. How I had missed that is beyond me, but I had failed my 6-year-old, and her confidence in school was already sinking.

That night, the night before that week’s poem was due, she memorized all that she could manage. It was probably only about one-third of the entire poem, but we were both so excited, and she was thrilled to go to school and proudly announce to the teacher that she did, in fact, have something to show this time. I wish I could say that this was the end of our struggle with memorizing poems, but in reality, it was only the beginning. The amount of homework sent home every week was overwhelming for us, and we spent a gross amount of time completing worksheets and reading assignments where I needed to translate a lot into English to ensure my assistance wasn’t misguided. Memorizing even two lines of a poem per day was often too much to manage for both of us. Most weeks she memorized a significant portion of the poem (usually the night or two before it was due), and every now and then she’d make it through the entire thing. But it was stressful, and she grew to resent this task more than any other assignment.

Weekly poem memorization continued to be her greatest nemesis into the second year of primary school. Halfway into the school year COVID hit, and she finished second grade at home with virtual classroom instruction. So was the end of poem recitation for that school year, a welcome reprieve. But, as third year started up, poems were back on the table, albeit fewer and further between. Homework in this third year became much more manageable overall. I hired an invaluable, encouraging tutor; my Italian had improved to such a level that I rarely had to waste time looking up words or concepts while helping her; and I had overcome my addiction to alcohol, which had stifled my ability to support my daughter in the ways she needed. Yet, our dark history with poems continued to loom, and I struggled to figure out how I could encourage my daughter and reverse the seeds of doubt already sewn.

Like thousands of others, during lockdown 2020 I began taking my language learning more seriously. Not only did I have time to improve my Italian and start picking up German and Polish, but I also started learning more about how to learn a language. During this time, I discovered The Fluent Show podcast, and I listened to it every chance I got. In episode 68, I learned of the book Fluent Forever by Gabriel Wyner, and I immediately bought it. From the very first page this book gave unique-to-me insights into how to improve the efficiency of my language learning. Included in a chapter on improving pronunciation was advice for overcoming long, complicated words, such as those terrifying German compounds like Höchstgeschwindigkeitsbegrenzung (speed limit, example from his book). Wyner’s brilliant recommendation is to start from the end of the word and work your way forward, one letter at a time, which is called back-chaining (v. Kindle location 1189). He explains that, in this way, we’re working on muscle memory (not brain power) to get us through to the end of the word. Working the end of the word every single time we add a letter, finishing the word becomes easier. By back-chaining, the brain is only needed at the beginning of the word, and then tongue muscle memory takes over to fluidly complete the task without mental strain. I tried it in the example given, and it worked first time ‘round!

Elated with this discovery, I quickly took the internet to find more long German words for practice, and this method worked every single time. Two days after this breakthrough, my daughter frantically remembered that she had a long poem to memorize for the next day. Frustrated, but ready to dig in, we began with our usual method of read, read, read, repeat, repeat, repeat, add the next line. Feeling her exasperation, and knowing that any negative emotions would hinder her ability to easily learn the poem, I remembered Wyner’s advice for mastering long words.

“Alex, I have an idea of how to make this easier,” I said.

“Anything, mom. Please!” she begged.

“Let’s start at the end and work our way to the beginning, one line at a time,” I said excitedly. The look on her face was not the reaction I’d hoped for. She was even more exasperated than before, feeling like I’d let her down by giving her a moment of hope that quickly fizzled out.

“Here, let me do it. I’ll prove it works!” I had no idea if it would really work, but I knew it was worth a shot. I read the last line of the poem out loud 4-5 times, then turned over the paper and said it without looking. Next, I moved on to the previous line and did the same, and then completed it by adding the previously-worked line. Continuing like this, I finished the stanza and had no problem rattling it off in less than a few short minutes. It was working! My daughter was so impressed that she grabbed the paper out of my hand and proceeded to memorize the entire poem in record time using this new method.

I was absolutely amazed! Back-chaining was really working, and I could tell each time her tongue muscle memory engaged, and she flew through the end of the poem with ease. She only had to rely on her brain for the first line or two of the poem, and after that, there was a distinct transition as the brain wound down and the tongue took over. We have used this method for every poem she’s had to recite since, and every single time it provides the same results – successful poem recitation without tears, fighting, or “I can’t do this.” Furthermore, one time, her teacher was absent on the Monday the students were expected to say their poems. They recited the poems for the substitute teacher, and for two days we moved on, not giving it another thought. Wednesday morning as we walked to school, my daughter yelled, “I forgot to practice the poem! We have to say it again today for the [main] teacher! I’m going to be so bad.” “Okay,” I said with a calm that surprised even me, “Let’s just see what you remember, and we’ll go from there.” She took a deep breath, and without hesitating on a single word, recited the entire poem with perfection. She walked the rest of the way to school with a new skip in her step, and I silently thanked Mr. Wyner for sharing his magnificent tip for working and trusting our muscle memory.

This was the first of many instances in which I’ve discovered that I can use what I gain in language learning to help, support, and guide my children. My language coach, Lindsay Williams, wisely guides language learners to remove the idea of “should” from our thinking. I should know these words. I should be able to understand this text. I should be able to express this idea. This mentality doesn’t serve us as language learners as it prevents us from advancing. Instead, observing what we struggle with in a moment, thinking about why we may be struggling, and working to overcome that obstacle is much more effective. As a parent, I’ve become so aware of how many times my daughter says “I should be able to…” especially with respect to school work. Using what I’ve learned from Lindsay, I’ve helped my daughter navigate away from should and start developing a growth mindset. At 8 years old, she now often stops herself when she lets a “should” slip and re-words it into something useful. Instead of, “We just learned this! I should know it!” I hear her say, “We learned this last week, but I don’t remember it because we haven’t reviewed it.” And we proceed (without tears!) to the review that will help her remember.

In the book Becoming Fluent by Richard Roberts and Robert Kruez, the authors explain the process our brains autonomously go through to remember things. The brain, it turns out, remembers what it deems important, such as not to touch a hot stove because you’ll get burned. There are numerous techniques for “tricking” the brain into remembering something. Studies have shown, for example, that activating the five senses helps move something (like, say, vocabulary words) into the long-term memory. Spaced repetition is another popular technique known to improve recall. This is incredibly useful information for language learners as one of the most frustrating traps we often fall into is trying to depend solely on rote memory by forcing vocabulary into our brains through flashcards, flashcards, and more flashcards.

Back to parenting. My daughter’s school follows a very rigid schedule of classes, where geography, history, and science are each only taught once a week for two hours. This is troublesome when new material is introduced, and the homework for that material isn’t due for another week. Then maybe there’s a quiz yet another week later. I recently felt my daughter’s frustration as she exclaimed, “I don’t remember any of this. The homework is going to take forever, and I’m never going to get it.” I took a quick breath to gather my thoughts, and said, “Hey, do you know how the brain works to remember things? Did you know it only remembers what it decides is important? You only learned this once, so of course you don’t remember it. That’s actually proof that your brain is doing its job.” I leaned in close and lowered my voice as if revealing a deep secret. “The trick is to tell your brain what’s important. When we go over this again, we’re saying, ‘Hey, brain, this is important! You have to remember it!’” She immediately perked up as she accepted my challenge to override her brain’s natural processes and learn-to-remember the relationship between chlorophyll and photosynthesis. After doing the book work, we went outside and talked about the details of this process as it applies to her favorite climbing tree. As she ascended the luscious persimmon tree, she walked me through the details of how the plant uses sunlight and chlorophyll to convert water and carbon dioxide into oxygen. Feeling the tree, seeing its green leaves, and smelling their earthy scent helped transform the information learned into a meaningful, sensory experience that may be retained easier.

There are many more examples of how language learning has helped me in my parenting and other areas of life, and I think I’ll come back to these in another post as I’m still working on unpacking and verbalizing the full impact of positive changes. I can say, however, with all the confidence in the world that the knowledge I’ve gained from the language learning community — the advice I’ve received from polyglots, language coaches, and others passionate about languages — isn’t confined to my language life. Cataloguing all this knowledge away into a mental language learning file would be limiting myself and my potential to be a more well-rounded individual. Thanks to language learning, I’m finally figuring out how to maximize the effect of knowledge gained by applying the most useful advice to every aspect of my life, not just the one in which it was presented to me.

Do you have similar stories of realizing the overlap between methods for improving various areas of your life? I would love to hear from you, so please comment below or send me a DM on Instagram (@love.joyandlanguages) to tell me what advice you’ve discovered that can go beyond its initial intended use to improve other areas of your multifaceted life.

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