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!