For me, every year begins with two things: a look back on the year that just ended, and a look forward towards my language learning plans for the new year.
Today I want to talk a little bit about my initial plans for 2020, the things that I did right and wrong over the course of the year, and the big lessons I've learned from learning Greek, Hungarian, and Danish over the course of the year.
Let's get started!
First, let's talk about Greek.
Greek is a language that I have literally fallen in love with.
Personally, I like saying that Greek has an Italian heart, and a Spanish voice. I say this because Greek sounds a bit like Spanish, but Greek people act a lot like Italians.
In fact, these are just two of the many reasons why this language really resonates with me.
At the beginning of 2020, I told myself that I wanted to learn Greek every day, to pursue my goal of truly mastering this beautiful language. And though I haven’t mastered Greek quite yet, I certainly succeeded in my daily learning goals.
In 2020, I managed to spend time with Greek almost every single day, and even now I truly enjoy every single moment of it.
Over the course of the year, I made sure that every morning, after completing my morning routine, the first thing I did was watch one YouTube video in Greek. Normally, the video was taken from among my favorite channels, like Easy Greek, which features street interviews with Greek people, and Astronio, which is a very cool channel that offers visually stunning videos and super interesting content about astronomy.
No matter which video I watched, I made sure that it was about a topic that I personally found compelling, and motivating to watch. Luckily, I’ve found three or four Greek channels that are full of content that I truly enjoy, so I was (and still am) able to rotate between them.
As I engaged in this language learning habit over the course of the year, I started to notice something interesting. While at the beginning of the year I had to rely mostly on the subtitles in Greek to understand what was being said, as time went on, I was able to understand more and more of the authentic content without outside help.
And considering that, for the most part, these are channels that are intended mainly for native Greek speakers (and not learners, like me), that was extremely motivating.
So, what else did I do to learn Greek during the year?
Well, in addition to my YouTube listening practice, I also started listening to podcasts. On top of that, I met once a week with Daria, an excellent Greek tutor who I found on italki.
The conversations with Daria are important because they help me develop my language skills in a way that suits my interests. Before our weekly meeting, I make sure to choose the topic of conversation, and prepare a few different phrases and words that I want to try out. Then, during the session, I record everything so that afterwards, I can spend as much time as I need practicing the things that I learned from Daria during the conversation.
All of these things that I did to learn Greek during the year taught me the true value of being consistent. Since I was able to learn Greek at least a little bit every day, all of those daily improvements compounded to create a result that was better than I ever expected.
At the end of last year, I was completely surprised to look back at my first Greek journal entry for 2020 and find that back then, I was still listening to simple podcasts that, by now, I find completely trivial. It turns out that I made a lot of progress over the last calendar year, and that, quite frankly, is an incredible feeling:
What should you take away from this? If you can commit to consistently learning a language every day (or almost every day) for a long enough period of time, then the results will follow. This is the so-called compound effect in action, and if it worked for me with Greek, it can and will work for you as well, I promise!
Learning Greek in 2020 also taught me the value of focusing on systems, rather than goals. Most language learning goals deal with reaching a specific skill target at a specific time; however, this year, I focused instead on mastering my day.
They say that “a day is a life in miniature”, so to improve my Greek, I focused mainly on building the daily habits that would make success inevitable in the long run. With my YouTube, podcast, and language tutoring habits that I developed for Greek during the year, I truly believe I’ve succeeded in doing that.
Okay. Now, let’s talk about Hungarian.
Hungarian is another language that I really love learning. It’s quite exotic compared to the other European languages I know, so it’s really fascinating to dive into.
I’ve been learning Hungarian since late 2016, so for about five years now. Because of that, I have to confess that in 2020, Hungarian often took a back seat to Greek, which was newer and more exciting for me.
When you’ve built a strong, well-developed “core” in a language, putting a language aside in this way is usually not too harmful. For example, I can go months or even years without speaking some of my strongest languages, simply because I know them so well (that is, above a B1-B2 level) , and they don’t easily deteriorate.
The thing is, though, that I don’t know Hungarian that well yet. Although I’ve been learning it for years, I haven’t given it the time and attention necessary to make that push and get it above a B2.
That’s not to say that I’ve been completely ignoring the language, though. In fact, I still spend about thirty minutes a week speaking to each of my two Hungarian tutors, Petra and Anita. And while that combined one hour a week of speaking practice may sound like a lot for some of you, it really isn’t enough if you want to improve your skills in a serious way.
The truth is, if I want to get better at Hungarian, I need to practice speaking it more.
This leads me to my second issue with Hungarian in 2020, which is similar, but not quite the same—getting enough interesting comprehensible input.
Earlier, I spoke about how I had found a group of three or four Greek channels full of fascinating video content that I love listening to.
I haven’t found such channels for Hungarian yet. Perhaps worse, I know of a few that could suit my interests and learning needs, but they don’t come with Hungarian subtitles for me to use. My Hungarian skills are still at the point where target language subtitles are extremely helpful, so the complete lack of good subtitles on the Hungarian channels I’ve found has been really demotivating.
So, what lesson did I learn from this?
Well, when I couldn’t find interesting and comprehensible content that suited my level, I decided to scale things back; instead of pushing forward with content that would seriously grow my skills, I opted to learn from easier, shorter resources that were designed specifically for learners. Fortunately, my tutor Petra has a website devoted exclusively to comprehensible Hungarian content for learners, so I had a lot to choose from here.
By the way, if you’re learning Hungarian, I highly recommend her website, called Easy Hungarian.
This didn’t lead to surprising growth, as my Greek routine did, but it did allow me to stay in the game. Learning from that easier material for even a few minutes a day made sure that I still had some daily contact with Hungarian, and it also made sure that I didn’t give up.
Okay, let’s move on to my third language of 2020, which was Danish.
Danish is kind of the “middle child” of the group—It’s not as new and exciting as Greek, nor do I have as much experience with it as I do with Hungarian. In fact, I’ve only been learning Danish for about a year and a half now.
Of the three languages, my experiences with Danish were the most disappointing of last year.
I spend the first few months of 2020 learning with Assimil Danish, as part of my Bidirectional Translation routine that I follow for every new language I learn. That actually went well!
Once I finished Assimil Danish, I moved on to a YouTube routine similar to the one that I described earlier for Greek. This went well, too, and I didn’t have as many issues finding good videos with Danish subtitles as I do with Hungarian videos.
The problem with Danish came elsewhere. While in Greek I’ve got my tutor Daria, and in Hungarian I’ve got my tutors Petra and Anita, for Danish, I didn’t have a tutor.
I thought I was doing well with just Assimil and the YouTube videos, but I was sorely mistaken.
The truth is, one of the things I find most motivating as a language learner and a person is connecting with people. If I can use a language to chat with someone, look them in the eye, and laugh with them, then I am happy. If I can’t do this, or I’m not at a level where I can do this just yet, then I tend to struggle.
It happened to me once before, with Romanian, though I apparently didn’t learn my lesson the first time.
For Danish, what I needed in my life were actual Danish people, who I could talk to and connect with. I didn’t have that for most of the year, so I had a difficult time, and didn’t make much progress.
Today, I’m happy to say that I have a lovely Danish tutor by the name of Adil that I really enjoy having conversations with. We meet once a week, and our work together has really helped me start getting my Danish back on track.
So what’s the lesson learned with Danish?
If you are learning a language in order to do something specific with it, then don’t forget to do that thing. My main goal for every language I learn is to connect with people, so when I forget to actually get out there and connect with native speakers, my motivation drops and the language learning process becomes more difficult.
So if you want to speak, speak. If you want to read, read. Maybe not from the very beginning, but do it as soon as you feel ready. You could start with short texts on LingQ (affiliate), magazines, interlinear books (affiliate) or whatever floats your boat. It sounds obvious, but it’s an easy detail to overlook.
Learning 3 Languages at Once
Okay, that covers all three languages I learned in 2020, but before I go, I want to share one last lesson:
It’s about learning 3 languages at the same time, as I did last year.
Now, this is not something I usually do. Nor is it something I usually recommend. But for 2020, since I wanted to learn all three languages quite badly, I decided to give it a try anyway.
After everything I’ve said so far, I’m sure you have an idea how it went: not very well.
That’s not to say I did badly; I learned quite a lot of Greek, and did eventually get my Hungarian back on track. But Danish clearly suffered, so at some points during the year it felt less like I was learning three languages, and more like I was learning two—or even one! And that’s certainly not the result I was hoping for when last January began.
Will I ever learn three languages at the same time again?
Maybe, with a bit more planning, but probably not.
My life revolves around languages, and even then, juggling three languages can be an incredibly daunting task. For most people, I think two is the upper limit, and that’s only if you have lots of extra time.
In most cases, though, I think it’s best to stick to one language for a while, learn it well, and then move on. That’s what I usually do, and what you should probably do, too.
So, that’s it! That’s my recap of my language learning experiences for the year 2020.
Let me know what you think by leaving a note below in the comments! Additionally, feel free to share any of the interesting lessons you’ve learned in the last year as a result of your language learning!