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What's the hardest part about learning a language?
Lots of things come to mind, I'm sure. You might mention grammar, or pronunciation, or even having to practice speaking with natives.
You're right, to a point. Many of these things are quite difficult, and almost every language learner has struggled with them, at one time or another.
However, I don't believe any of them are the hardest part about learning a language, not by a long shot.
In my opinion, the hardest part about language learning actually has nothing to do with language at all.
Instead, it has to do with staying focused.
To learn a language well in the age of the Internet, social media, and endless smartphone notifications, you need to know how to minimize distractions around your learning as efficiently as possible.
You see, almost everyone wants to learn a language, but very few manage to find the time necessary to actually do it.
And often, even if they do have the necessary time to learn, that time is filled with endless distractions and interruptions that make it impossible to get any real learning done.
The following are five methods that can help you do just that.
1. Find a Quiet Place to Sit and Learn
Your learning location should be as distraction-free as possible. A good learning location, then, is a place that is:
Ideally, this will be a location that you can use every single day. When you learn in the same space every time, your brain will learn to "tune it out", which will help increase your focus.
Your perfect learning location will probably be unique to you. I'd recommend starting with your room, or office. However, if family, roommates, or household responsibilities continually interrupt your study time, start to look for other places to learn in. Try a quiet public space, like a coffee shop, or the local library. If you live in a more densely-populated area, you can even search for low-cost "coworking spaces", which you can rent out by the hour.
2. Manage Your Smartphone (and Other Devices)
Just because you manage to find a distraction-free place to learn, doesn't mean that these places will remain distraction-free once you get there. Sometimes, the worst interruptions are the ones you bring with you.
Nowadays, we carry with us a whole host of technological devices which constantly beep, vibrate, and chime to get our attention. These devices most often include smartphones, laptop computers, smart watches, and more.
When your daily study time rolls around, the best thing to do is distance yourself from these devices entirely. If you're out, leave them at home. If you're at home, leave them in a different room, with the door closed. This way, they have the least chance of distracting you.
I know from experience, however, that this is not always possible. Sometimes, you need to have your phone with you, for safety reasons. Other times, you're using a potentially-distracting device (like a laptop or e-reader) to actually do your learning.
In the situations where the presence of distracting technology is unavoidable, it pays to be proactive. Many devices nowadays have a setting that silences notifications, either completely or for a specific length of time. Learn how to silence notifications on your devices, and do this before you sit down to learn. Without notifications constantly breaking your focus, you'll ultimately have a more peaceful and productive learning session.
Lastly, if the use of distracting devices can be avoided, I recommend working with physical, paper-based materials, rather than digital ones. Though physical books and printouts are often less portable than digital apps and programs, they have none of the distracting drawbacks. Additionally, learning from physical materials can have surprising benefits that boost your ability to learn and memorize new information.
3. Schedule Your Break Periods First
So you're in your daily learning space. Your phone is off, and your computer is across the room. You're ready to learn, but you're cut off from your usual stream of phone calls, emails, and other notifications. You feel uncomfortable, and start to wonder:
You may even be pestered by less-intense thoughts, such as when you'll next be able to check the latest sports scores, or your social media news feed. Suddenly, your study time becomes filled not with thoughts about learning, but thoughts about all the things you'll do when you're not learning. Not great for your focus, I can assure you.
To address this problem, I recommend going with a counterintuitive solution: before you start studying, know when you'll take a break.
Scheduling breaks first allows you to ease your worrying mind. If you're constantly concerned about all of the urgent phone calls you must be missing, you'll be a bit less stressed when you know that a short break is no more than fifteen or twenty minutes away. By dedicating specific breaks for those enticing distractions, they'll be much less distracting when you're actually supposed to be learning.
4. Separate Language Learning Time into Focused Blocks
With your break times clearly scheduled, the remainder of your learning session needs to go towards actual learning. This is the time you'll have to keep your head down, and stay focused on the task at hand.
But how long should you stay focused for, exactly?
It's a serious question, without any one-size-fits-all answer. Your optimal attention span is unique to you, and you'll have to work within its constraints. Fortunately, if you schedule your break times in advance of your learning time, your attention span will be a little longer than usual, but not by an excessive amount.
I recommend dividing your learning sessions into focused periods of anywhere from ten to twenty-five minutes long. Within those learning periods, do everything you can to stay on task until the time is up.
Conceptually, you can treat each learning period like a sprint, where you devote your mental energy solely to the tasks of learning and staying focused, and nothing else. Once the sprint is over, you can take one of the breaks that you scheduled in the last step, in order to relax and regain the mental energy you lost.
To give a little more structure to this time-blocking strategy, you may wish to employ the Pomodoro Technique, whereby you rotate between learning time and break time at set intervals. This will allow you to practice both this step and the last step in tandem, and streamline your routine.
To start, rotate between 25 minutes of learning time and five minutes of break time. If you get bored with that routine, and want something more intense, you can try 45-minute blocks of learning time, followed by 15 minutes of break time.
The most important thing is to work with your own attention span. If you find yourself getting distracted before your sprint time is over, try to shorten each block of learning time accordingly.
5. Know Your Task Before You Begin
Picture this: you sit down to do your day's learning. You have a limited amount of time available, divided into break time and learning time. You're all ready to go, but you realize that you've got a lot of potential activities you could choose from.
Maybe you could complete a section in your workbook? Or watch a video from your favorite target-language YouTuber? Or chat with a native on HelloTalk?
Soon, your learning session turns into an unfocused mental debate. The mere question of "what do I do now?" has distracted you, clouded your thinking, and kept you from getting started on anything at all.
This is a common occurrence, either when you're starting a learning session or moving from one activity to the next.
So far, we've only discussed how to protect yourself from external distractions. The situation I've described above is different. It's an internal distraction, that comes from your own thought processes.
Fortunately, there is an easy antidote to the "what do I do now?" problem—planning!
On any given day, before you sit down to learn, make sure you've decided exactly what learning activities you'll engage in for that session. For extra protection, you can even prepare "backup activities" that you can turn to in case you finish your main task ahead of schedule.
When should you do this kind of planning?
Any time before the session will do. However, if you want to plan most effectively, I'd recommend scheduling all of your learning tasks one week in advance. Luca, for example, often does this during his Sunday "weekly review" sessions. With a birds-eye view of the coming week, Luca is best able to plan a wide range of activities that help grow all of his skills in tandem.
Start Eliminating Distractions, One Step at a Time
Today, I've given you five steps to follow that will help you minimize distractions and get more language learning done, every day.
If you employ these steps, you'll get more value out of your language learning time. Not only that, but you'll have more learning time in general, as less of it will be eaten away by unnecessary interruptions.
Though these steps are most useful when done together, don't feel like you have to start them all today.
Just focus on the first one. Find a peaceful, quiet, place to learn, far from anyone or anything that may pull your attention away.
After learning in that space for a while, see how you feel. I'm sure you'll find that your language learning practice has become more calm, focused, and enjoyable as a result.
Take the Distraction-Free Challenge
If you're up for it, I've got a challenge for you.
We'll call it the Distraction-Free Challenge.
For 30 days, starting from Friday, July 12 2019 and ending on Sunday, August 11 2019, challenge yourself to implement these suggestions into your daily language learning.
The first LucaLampariello.com reader to complete the challenge will win one personalized language coaching lesson with Luca Lampariello, valued at €100.
To complete the challenge, you must:
- Keep a daily log of your language learning schedule and tasks on a public Google Doc.
- Record the date, how long you learned for
that day, what learning activities you completed, and what steps you took to avoid distractions.
- Record the date, how long you learned for that day, what learning activities you completed, and what steps you took to avoid distractions.
- At the end of the thirty days, send us a message on our Contact Me page, and include the link to your public learning log in the message body.
Here's an example of what one daily log entry could look like:
"August 1, 2019 - Session length: 30 minutes. I spent the half hour listening and reading a French news article from Le Monde. While reading, I also took notes, and wrote down any unfamiliar words. To minimize distractions today, I read and wrote notes on a paper printout of the article, and kept my phone in "Do Not Disturb" mode. When I did use my phone, it was only to play back the recorded audio of the article."
Are you ready for the challenge? Give it a try for one month, and you'll soon see the benefits of a more focused language learning practice.
Final log submissions will be due on Tuesday, August 13 at 6am Central European Time.
Written by Kevin Morehouse
Kevin Morehouse is a language coach and teacher who is on a journey to make the world a more multilingual place. A member of the LucaLampariello.com team since its inception, Kevin's principal role is that of writer, editor, and content developer. He is currently learning Korean, his primary language focus since mid-2017.