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Staying Resourceful in Language Learning Posted by on Aug 26, 2015 in Archived Posts

Itchy Feet: Resourcefulness

Do any of the following sound like they might have come out of your mouth at one time or another?

“I know drilling grammar is important, but it’s just not fun…and life’s too short.”

“I can read street signs and menus, and understand when spoken to, but I can’t speak it. I just can’t find the words to put a sentence together.”

“I’d really like to learn this language, but it’s so time-intensive, and time is the one thing I simply do not have.”

“I’ve plateaued. For me to improve from this point, I’d have to go live in a country where it’s spoken natively. How in the world am I supposed to do that?”

Every single one of those fabulous excuses has come out of my mouth before, and they’ll probably cross my lips again. That’s how I know they’re so fabulous. They’ve successfully allowed me to spend my time and energy on what really matters: binge-watching the latest TV series (to get it out of the way, of course!). Sometimes language learning is hard work, and that’s a bummer, so why bother?

Well, the other day I came across the comic above, and it made me realize that there’s another way. We can be resourceful.

Humans are extremely resourceful creatures. We’ve learned to survive in nearly every corner of the globe, from blazing deserts to freezing tundras, and–who knows–may soon be colonizing other planets. That requires extraordinary resourcefulness. When we undergo a large, destabilizing change in our lives, we’re usually able to re-stabilize in a matter of months. We’re smart, we’re fast learners, and we can use our environment to better purpose our needs. And you don’t have to be a super-genius to have those abilities–you were born with them, baby. And the best part is, they’re not just for survival. You can choose to make use of them in your everyday life. You can use your own resourcefulness to learn languages.

The key is remembering what resourcefulness is: recognizing a challenge, seeing it from a new angle and devising unique means to meet that challenge.

Let’s apply it to the four fabulous excuses above.

You know you need to drill grammar to get better. You can’t just absorb the knowledge by living in the same room as your grammar book, you actually have to do the work. Step one, recognize the challenge: it’s soulless, tedious work. Step two, see it from a new angle: it wouldn’t be tedious if it were fun, right? Step three, devise the means to meet it: make a board game out of the declension tables or a card game out of verb conjugations. Play with friends or share it online. Or, reward yourself for time studying with a piece of chocolate every time you get something right. Make it different kinds of chocolate for different answers, so you’ll be using your tongue to help you remember.

Just how resourceful you can be is up to you, of course. You’re only limited by your problem-solving abilities, which if you’re human, are already pretty impressive. Let’s keep going.

The challenge: despite the fact that you can read signs and understand what people are saying to you, you “can’t find the words” to put a sentence together yourself. See it from a new angle: sounds like you do have the words, you just don’t have the nerve. You haven’t talked the walk. You probably haven’t even tried that hard! Do you realize how long it takes children to learn to speak? First they have to make the mistakes, you know. That’s the only way. Devise the means to deal with it: make a weekly chart with checkpoints to mark your progress. Start small, like “order in a restaurant,” or if you’re past that, “introduce myself to a stranger.” Maybe have a system to reward yourself at the end of the week if you passed one of these checkpoints every day. Or, team up with a friend also learning the language and go out together. Challenge each other to go further in a conversation with a local, and whoever can top it buys the other a round of drinks.

Games and rewards are certainly one way to be resourceful, but I’ll bet you can think of others. If you’re reading this, you’re already quite resourceful, did you know that? Let’s continue.

Challenge: ain’t got no time nohow to learn that there new language. New angle: really? No time whatsoever? Or just no will to make it work? Means: wear a colored bracelet twice a week to remind yourself to spend every free second on your new language. Use language software or apps or plain old flash cards on the subway, buy yourself a kid’s book in that language, and find a local restaurant from that culture that you can start to frequent. On the days you’re not wearing the bracelet, you don’t have to worry about it. Or, sit down and actually calculate out your week, and see how much time you spend doing stupid things. There’s nothing wrong with that…it just means you choose to spend your time differently. Would you like to change it?

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. Resourcefulness helps you dig up the willpower to find a way to accomplish your goals. Don’t let them just sit there empty; identify the challenge, look at it from a new angle, and devise the means to meet the challenge. Let’s move on to the final one.

Actually…why don’t you tell me some resourceful ways to deal with quote #4? What are some creative ways to manage plateauing in a learned language? Leave your thoughts in the comments. We’re just spitballing here, people. No wrong answers, just inspiration!

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.

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