Are you a Language Butterfly?

I was reading this link, which I got via Richard Simcott’s twitter. On the discussion, he suggests that if you are a Language Butterfly, you get excited about the prospect of new languages, learn a little, and then move on to the next one.
This is a real condition. You can see it across the Internet, as well as in real life. People say, “I should learn this!” Or, “I’m going to pick up six new language over the summer!” Or, “This guy can speak four sentences in 200 languages.. I just want to get fluent in 9!”
What we have is a general raising of the bar – in that people should expect to learn multiple languages in a very short time. We also have a lowering of the bar – people can ‘speak a language’ with a grand total of enough vocabulary to put out a thirty second Youtube video.
This is Language Butterfly Syndrome, and it’s pretty contagious.

What is Language Butterfly Syndrome?

If you’re a Language Butterfly, you like the sound of learning a foreign language. You might want to speak to a particular person, or go on holiday. You might want to learn it because it’s the hardest language in the world. You might want to impress a friend. You might want to becoming a globe-travelling pirate. Who knows? If you have a small goal, then you’re going to achieve it quickly. Unless that small goal is part of a larger goal, you’re going to forget it as soon as you achieve it.
If you’ve got an unrealistic goal, you’re going to give up before you get started. If you underestimate how many hours you have to put in, then you’re going to give up. If you don’t have the right resources, you’re going to give up.
The fact is that going from 0 to 10 mph in a new language is exhilarating. Getting those first few phrases, whilst you’re still enthusiastic, is brilliant. Getting enough language to impress someone who knows nothing about the language is easy. And a lot of the time, it’s easier to keep feeling that same high with a different language than it is to persevere to the higher echelons of lingual ability.

How do I get rid of Language Butterfly Syndrome?

Set goals appropriately. Make the projects at least three months. That’ll give you enough time to go beyond the basics. It’s enough time to achieve a lot, really. You can be building sentences, and talking to natives, and reading interesting books in that time frame. It’s a lot more permanent an undertaking than chatting up the Italian Waiter/Waitress at the local restaurant.

Make a commitment to yourself. Once you’ve set your goals, stick to them. Some days, it will be a slog. Like an athlete pulling themselves to the gym in the snow, some days you’ll not want to. Some days, you’ll think, “This is the worst language in the world and I can’t be bothered… I’ll learn another language instead.” Resist the temptation. You’ll achieve a lot more if you fight through those days. Will power works in the same way a muscle does. The more you exercise it and force yourself to stick to your goals, the stronger you get.
In the future, that mental strength will help you in too many ways to mention, and not just in learning.

Then, how do I learn more than one language?

You might want to learn multiple languages. That’s fine. You might want to learn 200 languages, and figure that you’ve only got so much time. That’s also a goal. (Though, not necessarily the best goal.) The fact is though, will power is limited. Attention is limited. The amount of time you can spend learning new things in a day is limited. You might be someone who can compartmentalise new languages, so learn multiple languages at the same time. You might be telling yourself that, even if it isn’t true.

The fact is, learning one language at a time is ideal. You get the best of attention, will power, and results. You’ll learn more Chinese if you spend 4 hours on it than one hour on four languages. You’ll learn more Spanish if you take the time to concentrate on it until you’re good at it versus not.

Also the higher a level you learn a language to, the better the free bonuses you get. A Language Butterfly might start with Spanish and then after two weeks realise it is close to Portuguese. That Language Butterfly might then switch to Portuguese, and you’ll learn five hundred words and fifty sentences in both languages. However, if you grind out two months in Spanish, you’ll realise that there are a lot more freebies the higher up you go. Instead of two hundred shared words, there might be a thousand shared words and several grammar rules that are indistinguishable across Spanish and Portuguese. Even if there aren’t, knowledge of one will aid in the learning of the other. “Oh, that’s different to Spanish – It’s backwards, that’s how I’ll remember!”

So, to stop being a Language Butterfly, think of these three things:
1. Set goals for maximum effect.
2. Charge your attention battery and work your will power muscle.
3. Realise that the more you learn of one language, the more cross-over you get when you decide to switch.


Language Bug