Sunday, January 01, 2012

Why learning a language is like losing weight

I've studied over ten languages in my life. Some I've been serious about, others I haven't. Some I've tried to teach myself, others I've learned with the help of others. And, some have stuck really well and others haven't stuck at all. I'm pretty satisfied with my return on investment. Of course I wish I could speak more languages and were better at the ones I do speak, but given the relatively small fraction of time I spend on it, I'm confident I'll reach my goals eventually. My progress is steady and my determination is unwavering.

I wish I could say the same about my weight, or my health in general. After college, with the stress and depression induced by a demanding doctoral program, my weight started climbing for the first time in my life and has continued to rise slowly over the last fifteen years. After the birth of my first child, I joined Weight Watchers and with a lot of effort took off twenty-five pounds, returning to a healthy weight. But I gained it back and I've had it for the last seven years. Of course I'd like to be thinner and healthier, but because it's not a high enough priority, I haven't gone about it very intelligently. And that's the ultimate problem.

I've spoken to dozens of people who tell me they'd like to learn another language, but it's just so hard. Or they learned one in high school or college, but can't speak it anymore. Or they buy self-study CDs or software with grand intentions and hopes, but they don't make enough progress and eventually give up. These lamentations parallel my own struggles with weight loss. I don't have time to cook or exercise. I did lose the weight, but couldn't keep it off. I signed up for a gym membership, but I quit going.

Yes, it's true that some people have a talent for languages, just as some people naturally have a higher metabolism. But we're only kidding ourselves when we point to some genetic capability or incapability as the reason we can or can't achieve our goals. Here are the ways in which I think learning a language is like losing weight, and how everyone can do both.

You know how to do it, really. There are billions of dollars spent every year on products that claim to make weight loss and language learning fast, easy, and painless. But they're all variations on the same theme. To lose weight, diet and exercise. To learn a language, study and practice. There aren't any shortcuts.

Doing it with other people increases your chance of success. I understand why self-study is attractive. It's flexible and you don't have to make embarrassing mistakes in front of others. But just as having an exercise buddy or regular fitness class keeps you on track, having a diet support group helps you celebrate your progress, and hiring a personal trainer lets you use your time most efficiently, language learning works better in community. Even more so than weight loss, because language is so inherently relational. So hire a tutor, take a class, or join a conversation group. You'll get farther and stay interested much longer than with a CD or software program.

Cramming doesn't work. Just like crash dieting doesn't work, you can't rush language learning. It only happens with steady discipline and focus. Intensive study can speed up the process, but the learning will stick better if it's done more slowly over an extended period of time. A former violin teacher once told me that how often I practiced was more important than how long I practiced. I find this to be true; ten minutes every day is more effective than an hour and a half once a week. But an hour and a half once a week is better than three hours twice a week. I commit to seeing my Mandarin tutor weekly even though I'm not always fully prepared, because it compels me to study hard at least one day (the day before my lesson!) every week.

Surround yourself with practitioners; maintaining your accomplishment requires a lifestyle change. Over a decade ago, my husband and I joined a gym together, figuring we'd encourage each other to work out. More often, though, one of us ended up convincing the other to skip the gym in favor of a more sedentary activity. When I first moved to Boston two years ago, I lived for a few months with friends for whom a healthy lifestyle was natural; they even hired a babysitter in the early morning so they could run together. I ate mostly vegetarian meals with them, and without a car, I walked everywhere. The weight melted off effortlessly. When I moved out, my old habits returned along with the weight.

I studied German for six years and Spanish for less than two, but my Spanish is close to fluent whereas my German is just functional. It's partly because Spanish is an easier language for native English speakers, but mostly because I create as many opportunities to practice my Spanish as possible. My work in immigrant justice is doubly fulfilling because it has become an integral part of my life in which I have to use my language skills. I don't have to find "extra" time to practice my Spanish. Likewise, my work commute by public transportation requires me to do a certain amount of walking each day, but I'm hoping to raise my activity level even more by starting to bike to work when the weather warms up.

Mastering a language is hard. So is losing weight. This year, I'm hoping to use some of the techniques and self-knowledge I've applied so well to my language studies to bring myself down to a healthier weight. Which means I'm off to do some Mandarin homework--after I get myself an orange for a snack. Happy New Year!

17 comments:

Mahmoud Gamal said...

Hi,

I am starting a new online Arabic teaching school and greatly enjoyed reading your blog and comments. I am looking for someone who might be willing to do a language exchange - learn Arabic for free, with my school, in exchange for writing blogs about it. Please let me know if there's any interest at gamal@muslim-academy.com.

Anonymous said...

Read your post, and I feel the pain. Struggled with weight all my life. Today almost 3 months after starting my new year resolution diet (I NEVER do new year resolution anythings, this is a first). I'm about 16lbs lighter without really any hardship. I still eat crap and enjoy chocolate etc. I've also done (and failed at) WW and Atkins and Wariors and and etc. Google for Hackers Diet, it's not a fad but you do a couple of things that WW will tell you not to (like weigh every day) and the reasons for it. I have a sedentary job, I don't like excercise, and this works for me. Good luck, and thanks for writing an interesting blog.

huda said...

now i start to study english and arabic language ,, iam javanese people

Richard Sandberg said...

Never found such informative articlesget more info

Sir Thom said...

I see the greatest contents on your blog and I absolutely love reading them.our website

Justin Gaberial said...

This is very essential blog; it helped me a lot whatever you have provided.
lowest price

robin hood said...

I'm dotty for your best article writings and contents auspiciously.purchase african mango

Dolph ziggler said...

The blog is good enough I again n again read this.my diet

graham goch said...

The complete blogs are really inconceivable and definitely everyone will share this information.
garcinia cambogia extract

Sir Thom said...

Your articles and blogs are inspirational.visit gastric band video

Dolph ziggler said...

This is an informative blog by which I have got that info which I really wanted to get.liposuction in london

robin hood said...

This article has some vast and valuable information about this subject.
weight loss supplements for women

sir kodak said...

I went over this website and I conceive you've got a large number of splendid information,best weight loss foods

Zachary Rizzuto said...

I'm also visiting this site regularly, this web site is really nice and the users are genuinely sharing good thoughts.chipotle nutrition

Zachary Rizzuto said...

Great details here, better yet to discover out your blog which is fantastic. Nicely done!!!garcinia cambogia side effects

Sir David said...

Great details here, better yet to discover out your blog which is fantastic. Nicely done!!!
Peter Johnson

Micheal Clark said...

Hi, having read this awesome written piece I’m also pleased to fairly share my familiarity here with colleagues.Garcinia Cambogia