The hard work of loving language

Time to get started again!
Time to get started again!

What do you do when language-learning stalls?

I’m trying to get back to work–language work. Other than my brief Portuguese stint, I haven’t done much language-learning this summer. My heart calls out for more languages!

I’m not getting enough from just the feeling of loving languages. A feeling won’t help me get connected with others, won’t give me the rush of new words and sounds and ideas coming through my mouth. Love is an action, isn’t it?

Two obstacles stand in the way of taking the action. First, I’ve always had a tough time measuring progress in my solo language study. Immersion is helpful because I use my language whenever I can without needing to count. Classes are helpful because someone else sets the benchmarks. Studying on my own, though, forces me to keep myself accountable. Unfortunately, I don’t know exactly what to look for to measure my progress.

(Can I get some advice on how to set benchmarks on language-learning? What works for you?)

Second, committing to a language proves difficult for me. I started Farsi a couple years ago, I started Somali when I moved here, last winter I took some Oromo, and I began Portuguese this summer. My main philosophy with language is learn whatever you can now. This works best when you find yourself someplace, like Portugal. If you mainly learn on line, you can start anywhere.

Without accountability or commitment, I made no progress. Even worse, I noticed I’m forgetting my Farsi and Somali and Oromo because I’m not actively learning any of them.

I’m acting now to overcome these obstacles. I made a commitment to learn Somali now. It’s very practical in the Twin Cities, and I know that many readers of my blog are interested in Somali.

While I’m not good at accountability, I have to try. I found a textbook on line for Somali (one of two books readily available). It has 20 chapters, which are only 6-9 pages long. I decided to read through and learn the vocabulary at the rate of 2 chapters/week. I created a reading schedule for myself for which day I should be done with each chapter.

After that, I have a series of dialogues that I created with some Somali friends, all having to do with work and lunch. I will learn those, and I will try to write up some grammar notes that might be helpful for me and maybe even others. I also can get a hold of “the other” widely-available Somali textbook, Colloquial Somali.

Those media will keep me busy through the end of the year. In the meantime, I hope to run into some Somalis–either on accident or on purpose. I hope also to learn more regularly from some people around town or over Skype, probably by December.

As long as I’m working, I’ll make progress, and my love will bloom again.

How is your language-study going? Continuing to go strong? How do you keep it going?

Stalled in the doldrums? What happened? How do you restart?

Can I get some advice on how to set benchmarks on language-learning? What works for you?

Photo credit: Sebastian Mary / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0)

21 thoughts on “The hard work of loving language

  1. alice

    Sometimes I feel that serial language learning is a form of masochism. I was quite surprised to hear a truly talented hyperglot (16 and counting) say that time is the enemy in his quest to learn ever more languages. It just didn’t sound like fun to be living with that pressure.

    I think that when you’ve hit a plateau you should just enjoy the language you know, listen to music, relax, do something fun in the language, with the condition that you will make no effort, will not jot down words you don’t know etc. Just let it roll over you.

    One possible way to gauge progress is to write on a site like italki. Over time you will see your improvements. Another way is to notice how long you can spend with the language before getting tired. With my two best languages I can keep going in them for a good few hours at least, all day some times (talking, listening, reading etc) before getting tired. Spanish is my third foreign language, and I have to concentrate much more and get tired of it much more quickly. I’m good for fifteen minutes, but after thirty minutes, that’s it, I’ve shut down. So I guess your stamina in the language is also a key. Another indication is the topics that you can engage in: it starts out with small talk, but then there are more advanced subjects. Can you discuss politics, economics, law, science, etc, etc. Another sign.

    My languages three and four are Spanish and Italian. I’m learning them just for fun.I have no target. Spending time with them is the goal itself. If I listen to a song in Italian or have a conversation in Spanish, well that’s wonderful. That means that these beautiful languages are part of my life.

    Does this help at all?


    1. You make great points, thank you. Making sure to enjoy the time spent with the language, to have fun, to “let it roll over you” are great ways to be sure the languages bring joy and aren’t just pressure.

      I understand, however, the “time is the enemy” statement. Maybe it is a kind of masochism. For me, learning languages is like art. The painter paints to bring ideas into reality. You can’t control the flow of ideas, though. Sometimes the ideas come faster than you can paint, and the limitations of the physical world become painful.

      I used to spend more time learning languages than I used to, thanks to changes in lifestyle such as how much I traveled and how much free time I had. The desire to learn didn’t change, though. So I have to figure out how to learn as much as I can, and to accept the limits of my world.

      I want to take your advice, though, and be sure that I’m enjoying my languages. I don’t just want to be compulsive.

      Thank you!


      1. alice

        I’m glad you found that helpful. Do you mind me asking what motivates someone to constantly be learning new languages. And how does one maintain so many languages at a high level? I am “fluentish” in Hebrew and French but with room for improvement, and I want to be exposed to both cultures, which takes hours of reading and listening. I also want to to make time to maintain my native English (especially writing). There is such a thing as native language attrition, or becoming semi-lingual, which I’m trying to avoid. I’m just interested to know how you deal with these issues. Thanks.


      2. I don’t feel that I have to keep my languages up to a very high level. I don’t use them all the time, but study them for fun. If I were, say, interpreting at all any more, then I would be more concerned. “Fluentish” is fine for me, because when I really need to, I can activate one of my older languages.

        But if I wanted to keep up one of my languages at a higher level, given the situation I live in now, I would read like crazy. That gives me the opportunity to learn and review a ton of vocabulary and idioms in context. I also have the time to look stuff up–I can go at my own pace.

        Meeting with others can be helpful, too. I have not availed myself much of Skype, but I know that a lot of people keep up regular appointments over Skype to be sure they’re using their languages regularly. I tend to look for people around work who speak languages to give me opportunities to speak. That strategy helps me maintain.

        The two things that will maintain your level, in my opinion, are continual use and challenges. It’s like lifting weights. As soon as you stop lifting, your muscles will get smaller. Just make sure you’re doing a challenging amount on a regular basis and you’ll be fine.

        I hope this helps.


  2. For me, the most important thing is to keep scheduling Skype sessions with language partners or tutors. If I have speaking sessions scheduled, then I’ll keep working on the language. When I stop speaking, then everything else tends to fall away as well. That said, conversation has always been my main goal.


    1. That sounds right. I have not been steady with oral sessions, which makes the rest unsteady.

      I actually prefer live speaking sessions. The strange thing is I’ve looked for a Somali tutor here, and I can’t seem to find one. This is so surprising to me–with a population of 70,000+, why can’t I find one?

      So looking on line for a Skype tutor might be best.


  3. My usual way of creating accountability when studying on my own is to let lots of people know about my language goals. I try not to be too annoying about it, but I want to tell enough people that someone is going to ask me “Hey, how is your Lao coming along?” every once in a while.


  4. Rachel

    Is there a way of finding little tests or exercises online which are graded? If you’re not sure about how to self-measure your abilities, that might be a good way to go – although, you are learning the more obscure second languages, so I suppose you’re not likely to find, say, an equivalent of the official DELF website with A1-C2 exercises and practice exams…

    I think your problem with finding a Somali tutor is that people just don’t expect others to be learning Somali. Some languages are popular as second languages, like German, French, Spanish, and Mandarin. Others can be major community languages but never break the barrier into the world of learners. (I’m still puzzling over why Italian and German made it into our schools but Greek and Bosnian didn’t). Anyway, since people who don’t expect others to be interested in their languages won’t put their name out there as a tutor, you’ll probably have to be creative. Find a way to break into the Somali community and ask if they know of anyone who used to teach back in Somalia or who would be interested in helping you learn. It couldn’t hurt to try, anyway.

    I’ve been facing the same sort of problems recently (and caring a lot less!). Having finished up Year 12 of two of my languages last year, I’m now out on my own, mostly just not speaking them. With Spanish, I don’t really mind, and it’s probably better that I avoid Spanish for the moment as it gets mixed up with my French really easily and that’s not a good thing with final exams looming around the corner. With German, I’m more concerned, since I’ve barely spoken it except to myself (of course, I don’t know how poor my German is when I speak it to myself). On the rare occasions this year I’ve had opportunity to speak German, I’ve done decently, so I think I won’t lose it as quickly as I did French. I had a much more solid grounding in German, for one thing. Mostly I just miss the school, the other students, the teachers, the atmosphere, the opportunity to go along every Saturday and spend time with my friends speaking German… Okay, so everyone complained about it, but I think missing it is my problem more than not having opportunities to speak German.

    Amazingly, the one language that has actually improved over the last few months of Northern Hemisphere summer is the only one for which I’m enrolled in Northern Hemisphere lessons – I’ve had absolutely no contact with school or Gaelic teachers for the past few months, but I’ve been reading and writing a lot of Gaelic. This week I even convinced the people in at Scottish Radio to spend Gaelic Group actually speaking Gaelic (none are native speakers, and they’re all quite old and prefer just reading aloud from a book or doing an exercise, and ignoring the grammar). I was surprised at just how much we were able to say – even managed a pretty decent conversation!

    My father and I will be starting Russian evening classes in a few weeks – it’s a language he’s wanted to learn since before he came to Australia, and one that’s fairly near the top of my To-Learn list, and he somehow got it into his head that we need father-daughter bonding time, so it seemed a reasonable idea when we enrolled, but now I’ve read this, I’m worried Russian will go the way of Korean (our last father-daughter bonding language when I was 11) – I’ll learn a little bit, never use it, and eventually forget about it until I dust it off in a blog post in several years time.


  5. Rachel, I think you prove the point I’m making to Kent. When you had that community for German, you practiced your German a lot, and loved it.

    It’s also cool that your dad drags you to language classes for bonding time. Only a dad might find that cool though 🙂 I just may do that with my oldest for French–cool be damned! (She’s almost 14.)


  6. I agree that the accountability and benchmarking of formal classes are really useful! Though sometimes that means I don’t push myself enough, as long as I’m doing enough to get by in class… I struggle with setting myself goals, as well — I could say something like “take the B2 exam next winter” (and then register and pay the money for it!), but I find it tricky to then break things down into steps to get there. I suppose for me it would be making a list of concepts on the exam (probably by going through textbooks run at the same level) and then either taking classes or booking tutoring appointments to go through these things in order. I appreciate that with a language that is less popular, this might not be possible.

    As far as the doldrums, for me it’s helpful to find new things about the language that appeal to me: a band whose music really grabs me, or a TV show (are there any people doing vlogs in Somali? I’m into vlogs currently for their personal, informal nature), or even sometimes just a grammar quirk! (This language does thing X, how wacky and wonderful is that?!) Or maybe talking to someone else about why you’re interested in the language and the cool things you’ve learned about it so far? That might help remind you. And of course, conversation with native speakers can generate a lot of enthusiasm, especially if you have regular conversations with the same people and they notice your progress (and tell you, of course!).

    For me I get the intermediate learner’s doldrums — right now I’m letting my French languish a bit in favor of German, where it’s a lot easier for me to level up, alas.

    Good luck! 🙂


    1. The intermediate stage is tough in any language.

      Somali is tough because there are so few resources on-line. There are news programs, but unfortunately the sound quality is not often good, which makes it hard for me since I’m such a beginner.

      I’m still looking though!


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