One of the most popular topics in language learning nowadays is not simply "how to learn French" or "how to learn Mandarin Chinese", but "how to learn how to learn."
This is because, as the logic goes, if you know how learning works in general, you can apply those principles to any language, topic, or skill under the sun, as opposed to being limited to only certain topics.
And this is sound reasoning. Much of what I teach here, to both my coaching clients and readers like you, has to do with just that—the general skill of learning, rather than specific, limited sub-skills.
But one part of that whole process I often see neglected is what you do before you sit down to learn. And that's a problem, since the effectiveness of any learning session is often very dependent on things that have nothing to do with learning at all, like whether or not your smartphone interrupts you mid-session.
Today, I would like to share three steps that will help you prepare yourself for a successful learning session, so that when you learn, you can do it in the most focused and effective way possible.
Step 1: Create "Habit Cues" that Prompt You to Learn
Language learning should be a daily habit. In the majority of cases, habits are triggered by habit cues—something in your environment that motivates you to actually engage in the habit itself. Good habit cues can be objects, sounds, smells, and even the time of day.
1.The first and most important habit cue that you should create is a time cue.
My personal time cue is my wakeup time. Every morning, the first thing I do after I wake up is sit down for a language session.
Since I begin every day with language learning, It's nearly impossible for me to forget it. My brain knows automatically: once my eyes open in the morning, it's time to learn!
Ideally, you should organize your schedule so that you sit down at the same time every day to learn. It doesn't have to be the morning, necessarily.
2. The second habit cue is a series of cues related to the way you organize your learning environment.
In order to motivate yourself to learn every day, your surroundings must be structured in a way that makes learning as quick and effortless as possible.
The simplest way to create environmental habit cues is to keep your learning materials close at hand. Whether you learn with a book, a smartphone app, flashcards, or even your computer, those resources should be kept in visible, easy-to-reach locations.
Personally, I like to learn at my desk, usually with the help of my computer, a notebook, a pencil, and some loose paper.
Instead of keeping these things scattered across my apartment, I make sure that they are always located on my desk, where I see them immediately after waking up in the morning. In this way, these items serve as reminders to sit down and learn for the day.
Step 2: Reduce Distractions to Stay Focused
Focus is a precious resource for learning. However, it is hard to get focused, and even harder to stay focused once we're there.
Any little thing, from a text notification to a TV on in the background, can threaten to take our attention away from our learning, and make the whole process less effective as a whole.
The next step towards preparing for a successful language learning session is to further organize your environment so that it promotes uninterrupted focus and minimizes pesky distractions.
1. Deal With Your Phone
When limiting distractions, the best place to start is with your phone. To keep text notifications and phone calls from pulling you away from your learning, I recommend setting your phone to Airplane Mode before sitting down.
And if you find yourself still tempted to look at your phone after that, you can even try keeping your phone in another room.
2. Keep Your Learning Environment Clean
Another way to stay focused while learning is to reduce and eliminate clutter in the space where you are learning.
During a learning session, it is quite natural for your mind to wander. You'll be mentally wrestling with a confusing sentence or difficult grammar concept, and suddenly something will catch your eye. It could be a book you want to read, maybe a bill that needs paying, or maybe even some old belongings you need to donate, or throw out.
Suddenly, you're stuck thinking of those things, and have forgotten all about what you were actually supposed to be doing—learning!
If your learning environment is overcluttered—that is, full of things that have nothing at all to do with your learning—it can become quite easy to lose focus, and daydream unproductively.
To avoid this, I recommend keeping your learning location as clean and neat as you can.
That means keeping your desk clean and clear of non-learning items. It can also mean making your bed, folding your laundry, and vacuuming your floor before you learn, so that your not distracted by those things while you learn.
Step 3: Get into the Right Position
The next and last step you should take before beginning a daily session is positioning your body in a way that promotes learning.
Depending on your point of view, this may seem obvious, or even unnecessary, but hear me out:
Focus is a state of mind. And just like any state of mind, it's affected by your physical condition. If your tired, hungry, sad, or stressed, you will have a much harder time getting your daily learning done.
So before you sit down, take note of how you feel.
Next, when you sit down to learn, you want to literally sit yourself in a chair, using proper posture. This will keep you alert, and reduce any risk of falling asleep, especially when compared to studying while lying down.
Finally, when seated, position both yourself and your study materials in a way that will be convenient and comfortable for completing your learning activities.
Nowadays, for example, I am applying my very own Bidirectional Translation technique to Assimil's Danish course materials.
These materials consist of a book and audio files, meaning I need to have both the course book and my computer available to me as I learn.
To keep the learning process smooth and comfortable, I place my computer on my left hand side, and my coursebook and notes on the right hand side.
This allows me to pause and play the audio or video with my left, non-dominant hand, while continuing to write and take notes with my right (dominant) hand.
The right position for you will depend on your learning activities and personal preferences, so feel free to experiment. The ultimate goal is to sit and learn using a posture that both keeps you focused and effective at what you're doing, so feel free to experiment.
Time to Get Ready for Some Language Learning
In the age where self-directed learning has become more and more common, many people discuss and debate the importance of "learning how to learn."
While learning how to learn is extremely important in any discipline, I believe it is just as important to know how to prepare yourself for every language learning session, because even if you know how to learn, that does not guarantee that you learn effectively in practice.
As you've likely noticed, the steps I've shared above are not meant to be practiced in isolation. Instead, they are meant to be incorporated into your lifestyle so that you can learn at maximum effectiveness, every day.