Why Language Learning Under Pressure Is A Good Thing

Until last month, all of my travels had been to places where I already spoke the language. But when I went to Poland last month, in spite of the fact that I had learned a lot of Polish in a very short amount of time, I was not fluent and there was a lot I didn't know. (There still is.)

Learning in the country

This was an interesting new experience for me, because for the first time, I was able to experience what it is like to learn a language while in the country where it is spoken. People often say that the best way to learn a language is to learn it where it is spoken. Some even say that's the only way.

I didn't move to Poland. I was only there for two weeks, but it was long enough for me to get a sense of how learning in the country is different from learning at home. And it gave me an opportunity to see things a different way.

There are a lot of things that are easier in the country. Everywhere you go, people speak the language. When you turn on the TV in Poland, all the programs are in Polish. When you go to the store, all the product labels are Polish. In the book store and in the pub, everything you see is Polish. Restaurant menus, street signs, bus schedules, newspapers... you get the idea.

When you're in the country, you don't have to look very far to find something to learn. And if you're lazy, that might sound like a pretty good idea. But then again, if you're lazy, you probably aren't going to do the work to learn anyway, are you?

It's not necessary...

All of these things can be done at home. I know this because I've done this. When I learned Spanish, I surrounded myself with Spanish. I watched only Spanish television channels and Spanish movies. I read Spanish books and newspapers. I listened to Spanish music. I ate at Mexican restaurants, and went to Mexican bars, and talked to South American bartenders.

When I learned Russian, I read Russian books and Russian web sites. I joined Russian social networks. I listened to Russian music and watched Russian movies and subscribed to the Russian newscast online. I changed my computer and my iPod to Russian, and I hung out with Russians and Skyped with Russians.

None of those things that I found easy in Poland are impossible at home. They can be done, no matter where you are. You may have to do more work to download music, or to subscribe to a video stream. You may have to search more to find books and printed materials, but you can find them.

There is an exception

There was, however, one thing I experienced in Poland that isn't so easy to simulate at home... There was a sense of urgency.

When you're in the country and you need to eat, there is an urgency to get food — whether you know the words or not, you will open your mouth and speak, or else you will go hungry.

If you need a train ticket, you will go to that window and talk to that cashier, whether you're comfortable or not. There is no waiting until you feel more confident. You just do it.

And every time you do it, you realize that it wasn't so scary and it wan't so hard...

Create urgency!

One of the hardest aspects of learning a language at home is that of actually using it — of opening your mouth and saying the words. It's easy to just keep studying and thinking you're getting it, while never actually being forced to use what you've learned. But if you do that, you'll find a surprise when the time comes that you need to speak!

So give yourself a little stress. Create a bit of urgency. Put yourself into situtations where you need to use the language you're learning. If you're learning Spanish, go to the hispanic neighborhood to buy groceries. Here in Chicago, I like to do my grocery shopping at Polish stores. And now I do it more confidently!

Change your language settings on Google. Sure, the search may remain easy for you, but just wait until you experience the surprise in the language menu on Google Translate! And while you're changing settings, change them on your phone, and your computer, and on Facebook. If you want to use those things, you have to do them in your target language!

Go to a restaurant in that foreign part of town. Greet your waitress in her language. When you use the cash machine at the bank, choose to use it in your foreign language... there's no sense of urgency greater than the one that involves your money!

Do things that require you to use your language skills under pressure. There's no better way to learn.

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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Well said - I always tell people that they can indeed learn anywhere, but they will ultimately learn slower than those in-country because this urgent aspect is missing. It's a huge drive in helping me to advance so quickly, and something never appreciated by people who feel taking your time has some romantic superiority to it.

  • "If you don't do something outside your comfort level every day, you're wrong."Can't remember who said that (or something like that), seems appropriate though.Cheers,

  • @irishpolyglot:disqus  Interesting who are these "people who feel taking your time has some romantic superiority to it" (in this context) I don't think I have met them perhaps you have a link or two you could share.Ultimately as you have said yourself, time spent on task is a key element. I know for example that I learned significantly more Thai than you did in eight weeks whilst you were in Thailand and I wasn't living there (based on what you posted). I also know that I could have learned more Thai if I wasn't working, and more if in the country, but it was a hobby.  Again time spent on task.More significantly you value positivity so why give people who are learning remotely a negative message, at least Randy is suggesting that you can create urgency where ever you are.I have noticed that your positive side usually sides with your own situation (surprisingly ;)).

  • For the link you requested, click your own name. I'm sure you discuss how amazing slow learning is at length.I spent 20 hours on Thai plus one weekend, not 8 weeks. I've explained many times to you and your kind how I was in debt and working 65 hour weeks and not actually learning the language for the vast majority of my time in the country.I don't doubt you learned a lot, but I do doubt that you would have the confidence to actually use it as quick as I do. If you have a video of yourself confidently using your limited Thai after the first weekend, then we can have a pissing competition of which one if us is better. That's all you seem to care about. I despise it when people have little interest in using the language and more interest in proving themselves as superior to other learners.My comment isn't to promote negativity, it's just to confirm what Randy said about the power of urgency. But for anyone else who can't read between the lines and needs me to explicitly say it, create that urgency without travelling.(( Insert arrogant wink ;) ))

  • I find that anything which is approached with that sort of romanticism tends toward unrealistic expectations, and generally bears disappointing results. My own recent disenchantment with the appearance of Italy is a good example of this.

  • Chris, I can't help but notice a somewhat combative edge to your comment here, and I'm not surprised by the conteroffensive response you got.You did seem to have a couple of good questions here, and I might have really liked to see the responses they would have gotten had they not been asked in a manner that implied offense.

  • Benny, it seems to me that there's a clear delineation between the FI3M when you were still working as a translator, and the FI3M that exists now, but I can't help thinking that this delineation is somewhat less clear to other people. To me, the quality of the challenges, the amount of work you were able to put in, and the results you got before the change reflected a certain expectation that "working people" might also be able to do it, whereas after the changeover to fulltime blogger/language-hacker, you clearly have the luxury of much more time to invest in your language goals, so the expectations are no longer so easily matched to the average reader.I can't help thinking that this is part of the reason for a lot of misunderstandings. It seems that the newer material might be slightly less relevant to the older readers, and simultaneously, the older results would seem to look far inferior when viewed by the newer readers. I wonder if there is a way you could set up a logical barrier between those two as part of your coming redesign.  And/Or, maybe it would be worthwhile to revisit the earlier destinations (eg: Thailand, Czech Republic) and finish what you started. Just a thought.

  • Definitely. Getting to the edge of your comfort level is almost as important as taking one step past it once you get there. :) 

  • Yes, there is of course a distinction.It's interesting that you bring up a comparison of the "older" and "newer" results; I'll be writing a post about listing my missions to date and thoughts on them soon enough.Although people would like to think that I am a full time language learner with no other work responsibilities, I do actually have to work ;) 6,000 word articles about Rosetta Stone and the time involved in preparing them (it took me days to write that), researching, talking on the phone with the organisers etc. is a different kind of work now, and not something I fully enjoyed at all times. But to be fair it's perhaps 20-30 hours a week instead of my previous more typical single double time workweek transitions.If people think the results of my current challenges are less valid, I will simply refer them to the other 7 years of language learning where I was working more traditional jobs. In this case arguments like "I don't have the time" can always be answered based on my previous experience.I still write to an audience that can't be full time bloggers, and I don't think anything I've said since the change is irrelevant. If people feel they can relate to me less, then that is unfortunate. You'll notice that I've never suggested that people should follow my travel style, and have even actively discouraged it at times.One thing I will say that I would have hoped you would have seen by now is that I travel for destinations and cultural experiences, not for languages. I was in Thailand to experience Thailand, and learning some Thai helped me in that. In Prague I made some friends entirely through Czech. In both cases I decided that I simply didn't like the countries very much. There is nothing to finish; I don't want to speak Czech or Thai any more.The only thing I would achieve by "finishing what I started" would be to follow requests from readers. I have nothing to finish and got something important out of each of those experiences. Going back to reach fluency when I have no interest in doing so is pointless.People who are passionate about languages will always criticise me for this. How can say such a thing? But I'm not passionate about languages. I'm passionate about using them, and I don't want to use Czech or Thai enough to devote more months of my life to return, sorry.

  • Yeah, I know you don't travel for languages. But Thailand and Czech Republic did sound (from your writing) to have been interesting places to visit.  Anyway, if you're not interested in going back, there's no sense in discussing it further! :)And again, as I said at the start in my last comment, *I* see the difference, but I wonder if your critics do. I can't help thinking that much of the criticism is born out of a simple inability to reconcile two different "phases" of your current language-acquisition goals  (which still doesn't mention all the time you've spent doing it before you started the blog).I suppose in the end, critics will probably be critics no matter what you do, so I certainly don't advise you to make your plans just for the sake of their opinions. I myself would never change just to please the critics, so I can relate.

  • "I don't know the secret to success, but the secret to failure is trying to please everyone" - Bill Cosby

  • Benny I could have taken the pissing contest many times, lots of opportunities in the past to post that way in more public places. I was merely illustrating my point I think one comment here is a long way from "all I seem to care about". Yes you spent 20 hours on Thai plus one weekend, exactly!But by all means please link to where I discuss how amazing slow learning is, I don't doubt it is there maybe I didn't make clear what was between the lines myself.As for confidence to use it I explained that in my blog if you are interested I was using it very early on. Apologies for not providing a specially edited video to "prove" it.  So what do you base my confidence on exactly because I have used Chinese from early on also, not the first weekend though (another wall to piss up?).insert shouty bold text to prove my point unfounded belief? Nahh can't be bothered.

  • Hey Randy,
    I was a lurker for quite some time here, but lately I was honestly inspired to start a new language project - it's called POLISHing and it's my first podcast ever aimed at people learning Polish. As you a person with some interest in that I would like to get your advice from you! Would you be so kind to devote 5 minutes of your time and look at my first attempt at podcasting at https://polishingpodcast.wor... ? Is it useful? Is it easy to follow? How can I improve? I really look forward to hearing from you!Mizuu 

  • You see, Chris, this is what happens when people argue. You say your side, he says his side, the comments get filled with insults and one-ups, but no one ever really listens to the other, and nothing ever really gets accomplished.Now, if the two of you are only interested in a pissing match, please feel free to keep it up... I'm sure it's good for my traffic. But if you want to be heard, I might suggest taking a more civil tack.

  • Sorry Randy, I will let Benny inevitably reply to my reply, and leave alone. Sometimes when I see his comments in places they annoy me, often I find them 'passive aggressive' usually I can ignore them but this one seemed very out of place with my experience of reading his material, occasionally like everyone I get a little annoyed and occasionally I respond that way.

  • Hey, thanks for letting me know!  It's a great idea, and I'll be following along. 

  • This is something I've been meaning to ask for a long time. On several occasions now I've seen references to going to a foreign restaurant or shopping in the store owned by a foreign national who speaks your target language.Is this something culturally more relevant to the States and, perhaps, Europe? Having neighborhoods, where people of certain origin or descend live as a community...  I was thinking how to apply such an advice here, in Russia, but I have yet to find a grocery store with a Spanish worker :) We have plenty of immigrants here, in major cities, but they are mostly from ex-USSR countries.And for real communication, one has to either find a more specific language center, with natives as professors, etc., or use CouchSurfing to meet up with natives.Most of the public food places usually are themed (Italian cuisine, Spanish cuisine, and so on), but people who work there are usually Russians. Personally, I know only one truly Spanish restaurant in St. Petersburg and, well, this isn't the kind of place where you can dine every day, financially speaking :)

  • Hmm, yeah, it may be a more western thing. It's very common in the US for various immigrant communities to form, so that you have a part of town where there are Mexican stores, or another part of town with Polish stores. And every major city in the US has a "Chinatown". I'm sure this also happens in Europe — I know I've heard descriptions of English neighborhoods like this, and I've seen it to some extent in Italy — but I wouldn't be surprised if it was much more common in the US, for the simple reason that our country is built on immigration, rather than an ethnic identity. 

  •  I know that Madrid has a fairly large area not far from the center that has a Chinatown (Lavapiés). Oddly enough, there's also a large Moroccan/North African presence there too. Milan and Paris have a Chinatown too.They certainly exist, but I don't think they're nearly as neatly quartered off like they are in th US. And I don't think other typical "European" neighborhoods are nearly as well represented as they are in the US.

  • Yeah, it seems to me that in the US we step completely into another world within our cities.  In Europe there may be a large international presence, but it is largely intermixed in the city at large rather than sectioned off... 

  •  Good post. I moved to Poland, and indeed I'm surrounded by the language, but I don't have the urgency, because I have an English speaking job. I'm sure, that if I didn't have the job, it would of made my learning far more urgent, and I would of reached my goals quicker.I also honestly believe, that I could of learned just as well at home. It all depends how much time you put in, and how serious you are about it

  • Yes, this is also the case in the UK. We have Chinese takeaways, Italian restaurants, Polish stores, Indian restaurants, etc.. The staff are nearly always natives of that country, although our local Polish store was actually run by some Turkish people. I've noticed this isn't the case where I live in Poland, it seems that Italian restaurants, Pizza joints etc are actually run by Polish people. I'm guessing this is beginning to change now, especially since during the EU.

  • I just got back from 2 weeks in China with a very similiar experience.  After a day or 2, I developed my own system.  I get up early each morning, sit at a table facing the street in front of my hostel, eat some fruit I purchased the night before and sort of plan my day.  It usually involves where can I find something.  Then I start my walk and say good morning or something similiar to anyone on the street who smiles or looks curious.  Then I politely ask my pat question which can take us in many directions.  When I see an old man like myself sitting on a park bench, I'll ask "may I sit?" The answer is always "Please sit."  Many times throughout the day, I make entries in my journal to cement something in my mind.  When I return in the afternoon, I take a short nap, get up to eat supper, maybe socialize with a few beers, make final notes, and to bed.After 2 weeks I don't have to say I'm sorry I don't understand as often, and my responses are not as halting as when I got here.In Beijing I can meet one of the 20,000,000 teachers of Chinese language and culture almost every minute.  With the right attitude, of course I'll learn faster.I've been following yours and Benny's blogs for about 3 months, and want to thank both of you for helping me developing my own system.

  • I don't know that it's a US thing, necessarily. Rather, I think it's more an American continental thing.You can find fairly separated ethnic areas in other large cities throughout North and South America (Toronto, Vancouver, Mexico City, Sao Paolo, Buenos Aires, for example).I've not been to Australia, but I seem to remember reading that Sydney has such areas too. My guess is it's really more a post-colonial thing.

  • Hi Randy,I'm a little late on seeing this post, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I completely agree with you, and find that when I'm at home I find it much easier to simply sit back comfortably rather than continue in the urgency that I feel while in the target country. I notice huge differences in my lifestyle at home and when I was in Korea this past month, and I find that I'm still struggling to get back my rhythm since I'm distracted by work, family, friends and various other responsibilities.However, your post is just what I needed to consciously realize this fact so I can start taking action to create that urgency. I was wondering why my progress in Korean slowed to a grinding halt so suddenly, now it all makes sense. Thanks for the enlightenment! :D

  • I absolutely love this post. I've read a few of your articles now and I really appreciate your perspective on language learning. 

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