In years gone by, when I first started learning languages…
In the “olden days” you might call it…
I used to have an impressively studious way of learning languages.
I would buy a textbook, sit in my room, and just work my way through the book!
Seems very old-fashioned when I think about it. And for many years, whenever I learnt a new language, I would do pretty much the same thing.
- Buy book
- Sit in room
- Study book
Worked really well for me!
But then, at some point, things started getting pretty wild…
Something called the Internet became a “thing”.
The iPod came out.
Then something called Netflix… with TV and movies in different languages on demand…
It’s enough to blow your mind, ladies and gentlemen.
But of course, there was more!
The iPhone was released!
Or to be more accurate, I finally caved in on a 5-year battle to NOT buy the same phone everyone else was buying… (so I was a bit late to the party)
Anyway, before I knew it, the textbooks were in the bin, old habits out the window, and my shiny new language learning routine seemed to consist of sitting on a train, playing with apps on my phone.
Now, at the time, this was hugely exciting – a real revolution!
The idea of sitting at my desk with a book – a , ladies and gentlemen – started to seem like an inefficient, out-dated —- prehistoric way to learn languages…
After all, we had the Internet now!
So why get out of bed an hour early, when I can study languages throughout the day, with the help of the computer in my pocket?
More Options Doesn't Always Mean Better Results
As you might imagine from my mildly sarcastic tone, all this increase in “possibilities and options” wasn’t necessarily being matched by in my language learning.
Because it’s easy to forget in all the hype over new technology, that we do actually want all this stuff to help us our languages better.
(Small point I know… but… I’m a bit fussy that way!)
The truth was that, for me, the more I had in my pocket, less I seemed to make in my languages…
And in my opinion, this has something – or a lot – to do with the unavoidable distraction that comes with your smartphone.
See, it’s not that there’s anything wrong with learning languages with apps or any other kind of modern technology — there’s some great stuff out there.
Trouble is, the way that we tend to use modern technology is to fit our learning into ever decreasing chunks of free time during our day.
- Waiting for the bus
- Before a meeting
- Even while driving
But of course just because something is possible, it doesn’t mean it’s a good thing.
So I started to observe my own behaviour during the day.
While it’s true that I had suddenly found all this extra time for learning in my day – 5 minutes here, 20 minutes there – I quickly realised that what happened in that time looked very different to the olden days, studying quietly in my room with the door closed.
Yes – I had 15 minutes for reading on the train, but I spent half the time distracted by the football results that I was pretending not to read on the back of the newspaper of the guy sitting opposite.
Yes – I had 10 minutes to do flashcards while walking to work, but the danger of tripping over a dog or falling into the canal meant that very little of that time was spent actually “studying”.
There came a point where I said to myself… I may be studying for hours a day, but it’s not adding up to anything!
I Went “Full Nuclear” On Technology
According to Gloria Mark, who studies digital distraction at the University of California, Irvine, it takes an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds, to return to the original task after an interruption.
23 minutes and 15 seconds.
Hear that, and then think about the number of distractions on your average train journey… and how much time that must cost you.
So, I decided to go full nuclear on the technology and went back to sitting down at my desk, with the door closed.
Things immediately started improving.
You see, learning a language is not a question of accumulating more and more knowledge.
There are dots to join up. There are connections to be made. There are epiphanies and aha moments to be had.
You can’t predict when, or how, these are going to happen.
But one thing’s for sure… they don’t come when you’re distracted.
They don’t come when you have half an eye on the clock, or when your mind is racing with all the tasks of the day.
There’s a strong relationship between depth-of-focus and learning.
- The deeper you go into a book…
- The more times you go over a difficult passage of audio in an effort to understand it…
- The more you examine the strange word order of a sentence, look up the radicals of a Chinese character, or practise pronouncing a difficult word…
- The more time and focus you bring into whatever you’re doing…
- The more relaxed you feel…
The less distracted you’ll be, and the more opportunities you create to actually form connections in your brain and learn something.
Now, I’m not saying your dead time…
And, yes, something is always better than nothing…
But the beauty of having some dedicated, focused time as part of your daily language routine is that, when it comes to using your dead time throughout the day for language learning, that dead time will suddenly start to become much more effective…
Because rather than relying on your dead time for your learning, you can instead start to use that time to revisit, practise and reinforce what you’ve already learned in other, more focused time.
So, if you’re not seeing the progress you want in your languages, do yourself a favour…
Sit down at your desk, close the door… and enjoy what happens.
Oh… and turn off the damn phone 🙂
Now, what do you think?
Am I on the mark with my anti-smartphone hate-speech, or am I just getting old and a little bit behind the times?
You know what to do… Let me know in a comment below. Just… go easy on me 🙂