Language in Bloom

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How Flexibility Can Keep You from Learning a Language

In many cases, I’m a fan of flexibility. I love having information and resources at my fingertips, and I love being able to work tasks into my ever-changing schedule when it’s convenient for me. I try to be as flexible as possible with my students, too, but when it comes to learning a new language,
How so?
With language learning, you need some kind of structure, methods that you stick with for a length of time, an accountability system, a system to assess your progress, and the personal commitment to maintaining the kinds of habits needed to stay on track. When you are too flexible with these requirements, you sacrifice consistent progress.
For many potential language learners, the reverence of flexibility above all else means significant sacrifices to language acquisition. This is a crying shame—with such limited free time, any activity that a language learner dedicates to studying and acquiring communication skills should be as worthwhile as possible.
I’ve always known this, deep down, but in my early days as a language school owner, I focused too much on touting language classes as something that “anyone could fit into their schedule, as irregular as it may be.” This might be the case for certain self-study programs, but that’s certainly not the case for group classes. In providing too many options, and being overly lenient about missed classes and other policies that I erroneously believed were too strict to be helpful, the extreme flexibility of my scheduling structure ended up being an organizational and pedagogical disaster.
Besides changing my school’s policies, my experience has also reinforced what I’m explaining here now: too much flexibility gives the false impression that you can acquire a new language by simply adding hours of class or practice time. That forty hours of classes (of several different schools, instructors, etc.) over four years is the same as forty hours in one year with a consistent and methodical plan of study.
So, how do you keep the lure of flexibility from distracting you from your language goals?
First and foremost, you need to take stock of what your goals are. Not vague goals like “fluency” or “competency”. Figure out what specific communicative goals you want to achieve. Then figure out a plan to achieve them. If your study activities or classes are not helping you achieve those goals, first assess if you can adjust your approach to those activities in order to make them more applicable. If not, then you need to replace those activities with ones that support your objectives.
With respect to classes, it’s important to note whether up until now you’ve just been a passive participant in the class. Do you simply show up and do only what is asked of you, or do you apply what you learn to achieving your personal communicative goals? Do you go above and beyond in class to participate and try new things? Group classes are a rare opportunity to try out new language structures and concepts in a safe space, where you can get real-time feedback, as well as hear examples from an expert and other language learners. If you’ve not been making the most of a language class, whether it’s a group setting or a private class, consider the steps you can take, as an autonomous language learner, to really take advantage of that time.
As for your own practice or a self-guided study of a language, it’s all too easy to fall into a rut, only performing tasks that fit that you can complete on the run, or without really dedicating time to the process of learning. This is where a consistent schedule comes in handy; you don’t necessarily  have to dedicate time every day to studying, but aim for a considerable chunk of time per week to spread out as needed. Make sure you’re setting actionable goals and have ways to assess your progress, so you know whether you’re on the right track.
You don’t have to be hard on yourself if you don’t accomplish everything you want. We’re all human, and we tend to overestimate the amount of time we have in a day and the amount of tasks we can accomplish in that time. My warning about flexibility in no way advocates severe self-punishment or negative thoughts; I’m simply advocating for individualized language learning systems that actually lead to progress and language learning success, and not simply wasted time.
Written by

Tammy Bjelland
Language lover, teacher & coach.

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  1. […] NOTE: I recently read this excellent article by Tammy Bjelland over at Language In Bloom. In it, she comments on the dangers of flexibility when […]