Belief in your Abilities

A key part of learning a language better is to have confidence in your abilities.  I believe the bridge to that is to actually hold a “belief” in your abilities first.  A belief may not have any intrinsic evidence, but in your view, it is more likely to be true than not.  People “believe” silly things all the time, simply just to get through the day.  It may be worth your time to have some silly belief that you can indeed learn a language until the undeniable evidence exists.  This is self-delusion with a purpose.  You can also think of it as building trust in your own abilities, which necessarily takes time.

The first action step may be to accept social proof through friend validation or from authority.  Ask a good friend or even your mother for an honest assessment of your abilities.  Maybe your language partner from university or the lacrosse club.  It may not be 100 percent accurate or even partly true, but you can take that validation and run with it.  Just by virtue of the fact you spoke Japanese in your classroom or on the street, you are indeed a Japanese speaker.  Forget about your level right now and take that knowledge and act upon it.  Do what you would expect Japanese speakers to do.  Watch a short video in Japanese, briefly practice a new character or try a Skype call on a chat service like iTalki.  These small steps lead directly into the next phase.

If you take small steps, the next thing you know is that you have small achievements.  You may gain three straight days of learning new vocabulary.  Mark this on your calendar.  Celebrate these achievements.  Then keep going.  If you perform simple tasks on a consistent basis and you will gain endorsement from unexpected places, often at unexpected times.  Let’s say that you practiced your basic introductory and dialogue in Japanese for perhaps sixty days in a row.  The next time you have an opportunity, either planned or unplanned, you are going to rock it and it is all because you started with a belief that was based solely on a positive idea.  An endorsement at this point is necessarily external.  A teacher’s sincere compliment, or better yet earned grade, is something that will tell you that you are on the right track.

English for Speakers of Portuguese

As a teacher of English, I started to run into an interesting phenomenon.  A lot of my students were speakers of Portuguese.  I was curious about how this could be.  After all, Portuguese is one of the world’s premier languages.  Thanks or no thanks to colonization and trade, it is spoken everywhere from Brazil to Macau.  As Portugal’s world power fortunes waned from the 17th century onward, there was still a mass of Portuguese speakers in key places throughout the world.  It was not entirely clear to me how centuries of tradition and trade could lead to me assiduously teaching someone in Sao Paolo the English language.

One key reason was that English became the default language for business through the 19th and 20th century.   The British empire, followed by their protege the American empire.  Each of these capitalist societies promulgated their practices and methods throughout the world faster and more efficiently than the Portuguese.  It reached a crescendo in the 20th century because the United States effectively took the lead in world affairs after World War II.  Britain’s population remained just under 60 million for the last half of the twentieth century.  Additionally, their “subjects,” those in formerly colonized nations, did not take kindly to all aspects of British influence and power.  Contrast is the “soft power” of the United States as it spread its mastery of technology, finance, and entertainment worldwide.  English became the dominant language of business.

One of my students was literally a native Portuguese speaker who worked for an American publishing company.  We had several discussions to improve his use of technological terms.  It was all in preparation for a meeting with French employees of this same company.  The meeting was set in France.  No native speakers of English would be present.  Yet the default discussion language was to be English.  This could be for the ease of transcribing notes and communicating results to superiors, but I am not so sure.

There is no mistake that Portuguese, and yes, French as well, is a beautiful language with a rich cultural history.  It is extremely pleasant to speak, and one of the epitomes of human existence might be ordering a drink in Portuguese while relaxing a beach in Portugal.  However, I think for the time being and for many years to come it will be important for Portuguese speakers to learn good business English, and especially how to fluently talk about technology.

Spanish Adventures Part One

As a resident of North American, and yes, as a U.S. citizen, I was somewhat ashamed that I never learned Spanish.  During my youth, I took the standard Spanish class just to graduate from my small town Pennsylvania high school.  I am pretty sure I got a “B” and exactly zero people beyond my teacher, presumably, cared about my grade.  I didn’t really use any Spanish since that time.  Despite it becoming more and more prevalent in our culture, it did not seem important as I traveled a lot overseas and the places I traveled didn’t require Spanish.

Honestly, it seemed to me that doggedly pursuing Spanish would make me seem a little smug about my intellectual capabilities, especially for a Caucasian with no Spanish family ties.

However, I missed the point of learning languages, especially those found in my home nation.  It is not really to impress yourself or others, although that can be an effect.  It is to reach across cultural boundaries and tap into shared humanity.  It feels good to be kind, friendly and meet people on their terms.  It is to communicate with people and any pride you might feel from your achievements is going to get in the way of that pure pursuit.

A lot has changed since my youth.  The United States now has the most Spanish speakers in the world, after Mexico.  Spanish is the most studied foreign language in the U.S. with roughly six million students.  There is always going to be some tension as to whether Spanish could contest with English as an unofficial language of the U.S.  However, by and large, if you want to be a real U.S. citizen it seems like having some knowledge, even passive, of Spanish is a requirement.  After all, there are so many loanwords from Spanish to English to make all of us a little bit fluent in Spanish.

Spanish is more similar to English than other languages.  Therefore, it is commonly accepted that it could take as few as 480 hours of study to gain proficiency.  However, I always want to know what exactly proficiency is.  I think it is important to have a specific test or event that lets you know that you have achieved proficiency or fluency.

Please join me this year as I embark on my Spanish adventure.  The DELE is administered by the Cervantes Institute and measures Spanish proficiency.  My goal is to score a B2 on the DELE no later than November 2019.   B2 is usually considered sufficient for entry into a Spanish university and as much as I like to think a drive for C1 or C2 would be brave, I have some experience with those levels of fluency in other languages.  It would be extremely difficult.

Self Study and Efficiency: Why the Flow State is Best

Many students have wondered how they can best use their time while studying.  This can be thought of as efficiency; you want to use less energy to learn more in the least amount of time possible.  This is understandable since energy and focus are limited resources that need replenishment and time is a resource that can be marginally increased but ultimately not replenished.

My favorite state is that of “flow.”  I want to be able to enter a productive state where I am so blissed out by the work that time does not seem to be a factor.  I am engrossed in solving a problem that is just beyond my abilities.  I have an ideal state of energy times focus, which equals productivity.  This state is best utilized in conjunction with deliberate practice if you are learning a new skill such as coding or a foreign language.

There are tactics, techniques, and procedures that can help you get to flow quicker and stay there longer.  One of my favorites is to time everything so that I can avoid distractions.  Often I will use 25-minute blocks of time with a physical timer so that I can focus on one task and one task only.  Then I alternate 2-minute and 17-minute breaks between these 25-minute blocks.  I think it is important to say that I hold these blocks of time sacred, whereas if I find myself distracted from that one task I gently guide myself back.  If I have to use the internet related to my work at hand, I will be very specific about what I check then quickly return to my task.  This is all because I actually do get distracted very easily, and my own experience is that a more focused person is a more successful person.  I avoid loud music, although I have used many different genres in the past to get into a state of flow.  Honestly, my current favorite thing to do is play a video with logs burning in a fireplace.  I have no idea why this works for me at this point, but it does.

A question we all want to answer is how flow state applies best to language learning.  There are several ways.  It can be as straight forward as using Duolingo, Memrise or flash cards for immediate feedback and efficient tracking of what you have learned.  You will find yourself so absorbed in getting to the next level or pushing past the latest plateau that you can become driven and almost obsessed about doing so.  This can be thought of a state of “flow.”

If you are lucky enough to have a partner (treat them well) then you should probably discuss the approach with them for optimal results.  You don’t want them taking a break just as you are cresting on a certain subject.  Study at the same time every day.  There is always a physiological aspect to our learning, and at least your body can become accustomed to the routine.  Flow can be rather addictive, and your body will respond well knowing that it is going to get its “fix.”  Your brain will not always respond well if you are truly learning and progressing in your language.  This is normal.  The brain wants to avoid suffering, which is natural and not necessarily a weakness.  This can mean pulling the covers back over your head at 5 a.m. or finding a way to learn a really difficult word so that you don’t ever have to encounter that flash card again.  Flow helps you cope with such suffering by at least removing most cognitive realization that it really is suffering.  It feels pleasant and answers seem to come from outside of you as if you are receiving a sense of inspiration from beyond yourself.

Maybe you are curious as to where to go for more information.  There are courses that help you achieve this flow state.  I have never tried them, but if you are particularly prone to distraction or just love to analyze psychological phenomena like me, then maybe they could be a good idea.  Mihaly Csikzentmihalyi’s seminal work on the subject is a must.  Although, honestly, it is not an easy read and he has in fact given some talks on the same subject which may help you ease into the subject.

Good luck on your learning journey.  A final thought is that this state is not something that can switch on and off.  You have to transition from an unfocused state to one of deep focus.  This is not always an easy task.  You are “fumbling towards ecstasy” (an album by Sarah McLachlan) and some days will be easier to find this than others.  However, anything, with regular practice, becomes markedly easier.

Complex versus Complicated: What is the Difference?

Often people will talk about complexity and complicated things as if they are the same thing.  They are not, and the difference is important.  Once you understand the difference you can find many useful applications to your own thinking and actions.

‘Complex’ as an adjective describes complexity.  It can be defined as “having parts that go together in complicated ways.”  They key word is ‘parts.’  It may have several relatively simple components that fit together.  The system as a whole, that is to say how they interact and behave together, can be what it makes it complex.  Indeed, if you own an “apartment complex” then it consists of several units that may or may not require integrated heating, plumbing, and electrical service.  Each apartment on its own is relatively straightforward but taken as a whole it becomes complex.  One tenant may use all the hot water and that affects everyone else.  Another tenant may not pay his rent on time and that affects the management system that maintains and keeps the system healthy in the first place.  If a good manager understands all the components well, the apartment complex may still be complex but he can keep it functioning.

‘Complicated,’ in contrast, is hard to understand by definition.  The problem, activity or person is difficult to comprehend and/or deal with.  It is probably more accurate to describe that co-worker or adversary that you must handle as complicated.  If you truly understood the person, then it would probably not be considered complicated.  A personal situation can indeed be complicated and a complicated person is likely the reason why.

Perhaps something can be complex as well as complicated.  Not everyone is going to have a perfect understanding of a situation or system and this leads to people perceiving something as complicated.  My car is inherently complex.  I may think that it is complicated as well and bring it to my mechanic for even an oil change.