Yesterday evening, I grabbed my headset and stepped outside under accompaniment of unit #8, Pimsleur Spanish V. I complete this ritual every night. Yesterday, it’s been the 128-th day. Experience has shown that trying to fall asleep without first completing a unit is like forgetting to brush the teeth. The feeling of incompleteness will haunt me until I ultimately get up and go do something about it.
You can call OCD. For me, it’s called “sticking to Spanish practice”.
Do I feel like listening to Pimsleur lessons every day? For God’s sake, no! So the burning question is how did I manage to stick to Pimsleur for 128 days and why on the Earth would I prefer it to smooth jazz, for example?
Charles Duhigg would certainly better suited to answer this question, but I will try nonetheless: I created a strong language learning habit. Listening to another Pimsleur lesson is the last thing I do before going to bed, and any attempt to skip a day brings along insomnia and nightmares. Fascinating, isn’t it?
I’m dramatizing, of course, but bear with with me. In this post, I’m going to delve into the details of how to build a habit for language learning — a habit that will transform your life as a language learner forever.
Motivation vs a language learning habit
You often hear that motivation and will power is what separates good language learners from those who give up after a week. However, if motivation was everything we need to achieve our most ambitious goals, we all would be polyglots, billionaires, and athletes.
The sad truth is that motivation is overrated.
Running on motivation and willpower can only take you that far. Each decision you take throughout a day sucks up your mental energy, drop by drop. After a certain threshold, decision fatigue sets in, leaving you unable to make good life choices.
That’s why after a rough day at work, the only thing you are able to do is to watch another episode of The Money Heist on Netflix. 8-10 hours of decision making left you absolutely no energy for reviewing your French vocabulary. But:
“Willpower isn’t just a skill. It’s a muscle, like the muscles in your arms or legs, and it gets tired as it works harder, so there’s less power left over for other things.”
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Motivation, in its default configuration, is short-lived and easily exhausted. Willpower can be trained, but our overloaded-with-information environment depletes it anyway by around 6pm.
So when you bet on motivation, you put yourself into a very dangerous position, where your success as a language learner solely depends on your ability to get through the day and save enough energy for a couple more willpower depleting acts such as learning ten Italian words, reading another chapter of Il nome della rosa or drafting a message to your HelloTalk pal.
However, once you turn each of these little acts into a set of mini language learning habits, you won’t have to rely on motivation any longer.
With habits, your language learning will be set on autopilot.
The power of habit: acts that require no thinking
Every day, a man named Eugene Pauly walked out of his house and went for a stroll around his block. He followed the same route from day to day and always returned to his threshold. With all this, Eugene wouldn’t be able to point out the house he lived in: he had no idea.
Eugene Pauly, also known as E.P., was one of the most famous patients in the history of neuroscience. When he was in his sixties, viral encephalitis chewed down a part of his brain tissue, nearly destroying his medial temporal lobe and leaving the man with both anterograde and retrograde amnesia.
Since then, E.P. lived in a 10-second world. He was unable to make new memories. He didn’t recall the old ones. About 8000 times a day, his brain would wipe down everything that had happened to him within last few seconds, and Eugene would wake up in a completely unfamiliar environment wondering how he happened to get there.
E.P. had trouble recalling his children. He would forget that he already had breakfast and repeat his trip to the kitchen sometimes up to three times a day. He didn’t recognize scientists working with him for years. Nevertheless, Eugene didn’t get lost even once during his daily walk around the neighbourhood.
How was it even possible?
Thanks to the power of habit.
How do habits work?
Joshua Foer, that time an ambitious journalist and later a US Memory Champion, met with E.P. as he tried to crack the secret code of human memory.
They went for a walk. Eugene led the way. In his book, Moonwalking this Einstein, Joshua recalls the stroll with the most forgetful man in the world:
“…we walk out the front door into the high afternoon sun and turn right – his decision, not mine. I ask EP why we’re not turning to the left instead.
“I’d just rather not go that way. This is just the way I go. I don’t know why,” he says.”
Joshua Foer, Moonwalking with Einstein
E.P. had its own habitual route, wired so deeply into his neural circuits, that even substantial memory loss could not break it.
Habits are nothing else but mental shortcuts. As the example of Eugene Pauly and many other patients with memory loss shows, a habit is far from being a fully-realized and thoughtful act. Completing a habitual ritual, whether it’s taking a daily stroll down the neighbourhood, having a cigarette after sex or watching an episode of The Game of Thrones during your daily commute doesn’t require neither thinking nor any special motivation.
Once a habit is planted into your brain, you automatically do the action, no matter good or bad, easy or hard, without wasting your mental energy.
What requires brain and motivation is deliberately rewriting this cognitive pattern in order to take advantage of our ability for forming mental shortcuts.
Anatomy of habit
Charles Duhigg, a New York Times journalist and bestselling author of The Power of Habit, a book that has more success-propelling power than an MBA program of your choice, explains the anatomy of habits with astounding clarity.
[There’s] a simple neurological loop at the core of every habit, a loop that consists of three parts: A cue, a routine and a reward.
Charles Duhigg, The Power of Habit
Building good habits (such as a language learning habit) and breaking bad ones (such as binge-watching Netflix) both include a meticulous analysis of each of these three parts.
Only once the habit is dissected into the cue-routine-reward process can the changes be introduced and new – positive – behaviour set on autopilot. Disrupt one element and the behavior breaks down. Change one part and you transform the whole neurological loop.
How to build a language learning habit?
If you are serious about language learning, you want to build the environment where you would be exposed to your target language if not 24/7 (that’s way too demanding) then at least a few hours a day. Every day.
The problem is that functioning in such an environment will necessarily be challenging, regardless of your proficiency level. Switching to reading in Spanish instead of English, giving up your beloved podcasts in favor of Italian ones and supplanting your favorite playlist by Pimsleur German IV lessons is quite a decision. This transition can go bad if you try to get through the change on motivation and willpower.
However, if you manage to introduce these changes as a set of new habits, your well-being and mental state would remain unharmed. What’s more, you will soon find enjoyment in daily exposure to another language – with all the positive consequences.
Here is how to go about it.
#1 Detecting a cue for a language learning habit
Already familiar to you Charles Duhigg underlines that the best cue is a simple, stable and powerful trigger that reminds you about the action you want to implement.
There are two types of cues. The first one is using an external reminder tied up to a specific time of the day. Setting a daily 2pm reminder to open Memrise on your phone would be one such example. The second one is implanting the desired action into an already established daily routine. An example of this type of cue would be opening your Memrise app right after you brushed your teeth in the morning.
The two shouldn’t necessarily contradict. In fact, external reminders are almost indispensable until the behavior becomes automatic. Push-up notifications can do the job quite well.
Nevertheless, reminders may and should vary, depending on what language learning habit you want to build.
When I was habituating myself to reading in Spanish I used to leave my Kobo open on Camus’s El Extranjero on my work desk. When I returned to the desk the next morning, the book was the first thing I saw. It reminded me of my decision. All I had to do afterwards was to press a power button and start reading.
#2 Scrutinizing routine of a language learning habit
Routine is the heart of any habit. It’s what you actually do once something in your environment triggered you to start the action.
Once you start, you quickly get the taste of it and gain momentum. The problem is that getting started does require motivation – for the first couple of weeks.
In his Atomic Habits, a highly motivational guide to building better life, James Clear emphasizes the importance of removing friction from the process. The less energy it takes to get into the routine the more likely you are to stick with your language learning habit. The opposite is also true:
“The greater the friction, the less likely the habit.”
James Clear, Atomic Habits
Rebuilding the routine can be a fun process full of exciting discoveries. Once, I found out that I could devote to Spanish extra 80 minutes a day! How?
Well, I had a habit of listening to music during my daily bike rides to work: 40 minutes one way and 40 minutes back. I knew my cue: the mere fact of getting out the front door with my Cannondale triggered me to put on my headphones. I was familiar with the routine: pressing a play button on the headset automatically turned on my Google Play Music. The playlist kept going for the whole duration of my ride. The reward wasn’t a mystery either: listening to at least something saved me from getting bored.
Turning my daily rides into a language learning habit required a single action. I simply set up my phone to open Podcast Addict instead of Play Music and automatically play my next Spanish podcast.
Nothing has really changed. I still get out with my bike, press a button on my headset and pedal hard for the next 40 minutes. But now I spend this time learning Spanish and getting an extra 1h 20min of authentic comprehensible input.
#3 Thinking of a reward of your language learning habit
We all seek gratification in one form or another, and the reward is what provides it to us. Rewards can be either short-term (immediate gratification) or long-term (delayed gratification).
Immediate gratification is what triggers you to watch “just one more episode” of White Collar so that you end up binge-watching Netflix until your eyes bleed. After all, we are not so different from that poor mouse from University of Geneva’s neurology lab that pressed a dopamine-shot-delivering button until it died of exhaustion.
Long-term, or delayed, gratification is something more complex. It’s a pleasure you derive from completing a large project or observing the progress you’ve made. An expectation of a long-term reward can keep you going despite the lack of immediate gratification. However, before the action becomes a habit, you will need some willpower to delay the reward.
To build a strong language learning habit, you want to use both types of rewards.
Take into account your need for immediate gratification when choosing books in foreign language. As I was building a habit of reading in Spanish, I deliberately chose page-flippers and international bestsellers. And if you have ever read Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code in English, I can reassure you that it remains to be a mind-blowing read even if you don’t understand 50% of it.
Another thing you can do is to track your progress in most literal of senses.
Log how many hours you spend listening to foreign language podcasts, how many pages you read or how many new words you learned. Check off days you devoted to language learning in your habit tracker. Just in a matter of weeks, you will have a full picture of the progress you’ve made and statistics of your ups and downs.
And, take my word for it, you won’t want to stop.
Simple language learning habits
Your routine will change as your language proficiency improves. But regardless of your current level what you want to do is to get used to learning and, later, using the language on a daily basis.
Here are three sample language learning habits you can start with today:
- Learning vocabulary
Every time you find yourself waiting (whether it is in a line in a grocery store, on a bus stop or in a class before a lecture), pull out your phone and open Memrise App. Now, instead of wasting time on Instagram or Facebook, you will learn 10 new words in your target language.
- Reading books
Try to do reading first thing in the morning. Shut down your morning alarm, wake yourself up and pick up a foreign language book you chose. Read it for just half an hour and log the number of pages you went through.
- Listening to Pimsleur
If you have a dog, great! Your daily walks with your fluffy friend can become your most intense language learning sessions. Just open your Pimsleur App every time you leave home with your dog and press play for the next unit. Once complete, check it off in a habit tracker.
Live your life in a foreign language
With habits you don’t just learn a language – you find a way to live it. You make it an integral part of your daily routine. And with time, using this language becomes a part of your identity.
Forget about enrolling in language classes. Building a language learning habit will always be a more effective way to get things done. In fact, a well-established learning habit is probably the only difference between successful language learners and those who “always wanted to learn Spanish”.
So stop putting off your dreams and introduce a small change today.
Image Credits: Photo by Raj Eiamworakul on Unsplash