Why my language goal sucks

What’s my language goal again? I just listened to an episode from the Creative Language Learning podcast about why my language learning goal sucks, and you do have a point, Kerstin. “Get fluent” doesn’t really mean anything, and “study for X minutes a day” doesn’t say anything about how effectively that time is being spent. Even “spend X minutes doing Y” isn’t really specific enough, because it doesn’t explain why you’re doing Y for so long. What are you trying to accomplish by doing Y? What if you accomplish that in half the time you expect?

I wish Kerstin would give some examples of good language goals. The best I can figure from the podcast is that they would be something like “read a newspaper article in French” or “have a three-minute conversation with a German speaker in a month.”

But I’m having a hard time making any specific language goals for myself. If you pointed a knife at my throat I would say my goal is to “acquire” 12 languages in a year, or better yet to get on the road to acquisition of 12 languages. Which means what, exactly? That I make a best effort attempt at exposing myself daily to enough comprehensible input in all these languages, spread out over time, that my brain learns all these languages.

Like magic. It’s not really that simple, is it? But that’s my current understanding of how language acquisition works. Maybe I need to ask some more experienced leaners what’s missing from my plan.

Wednesday is also Taiwanese national personal self-reflection day. I would like to start by congratulating myself for something. I have finished all of my Anki reps for the 10,000 sentence German deck every day since I started it about a month ago. And I’ve done my French reps every day for the past three days. Pat yourself on the back there, Isaac.

Now for the reflection. I have noticed my motivation flagging. I can think of three reasons:

First, I still wonder if this method is really helping. The sentences are out of context. The back of the card has an English translation, so I might be learning to translate from German or French into English in my head.

Second, now that the novelty has worn off, the repetitions are starting to get boring. If I believed they were really useful, I could probably push myself to do the reps and even like them, like how I learned to like natto over the past couple months after learning it was the key to immortality. But the doubts about usefulness plus boringness is a combination of deadliness.

Third, I wonder if it’s taking the place of more useful things, specifically listening to comprehensible input like podcasts. One nice thing about Anki is it’s easy to quantify your progress. You do your reps for the day, and you feel like you’ve accomplished something. This makes even the most boring deck bearable for a while. The downside is it’s easy for me to just finish my Anki reps and then let myself off the hook. So far I have been doing a fair bit of shadowing and listening, but I can tell on some days it’s really more of an afterthought.

What to do about this? Maybe making my other listening goals for each day more specific would help.

For instance, I’ll:

  • Listen to an episode of Francais Authentique five times.
  • Shadow dialogues or monologues from slow German for 15 minutes.
  • Shadow a piece of some French podcast — whose meaning I’ve looked up — for 15 minutes.
  • Listen to an episode of Der Explikator or Slow German five times.

I’ll try doing these four things every day for a week (weekends included) and see how it goes. Is this what you had in mind, Kerstin?

Another thing Kerstin says, that I’ve heard from enough people it must be true, is to make your goals small. It’s better to have a small goal and get the positive reinforcement and motivation boost of accomplishment than to have an ambitious goal, fall short of it, and be devastated.

Why the hell am I trying to learn 12 languages? That seems like the antithesis of this idea. I’m never going to actually learn 12 languages in a year (well, a year and five months if you consider that I’ll only start the last language in the twelfth month and it takes six months to start to be able to speak fluently).

It’s hard enough to keep up anything for a whole year, let alone something that will eventually take up at least three hours a day (six languages at a time, half an hour each), plus the time spent setting up the next language.

I chose this goal partly because it’s audacious enough to be inspiring and motivating. I know it’s not a realistic goal, but I would rather be able to say I tried learning 12 languages and failed than to say I spent a year learning just one language and, hey, did a good job. Is having a goal you know is doomed from the start an evasion of responsibility?

The most hopeful interpretation of all these admittedly reasonable doubts I can come up with is that my understanding of language learning is still very much incomplete, and my goals will necessarily undergo further revision. Maybe someday I’ll have a goal that I actually think is realistic and can feel excited about.

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