Learning a Language Or Productive Procrastination?

The last few articles have been rather nuts-and-bolts, so it’s time to take a step back and think about the philosophy of learning a language somewhat. The subject for today is on preparation versus action.

Are you learning a language?

It seems a simple question at the outset. You’ll probably all say, “yes.” I would have said yes instantly at various points through my language learning adventures, but I was kidding myself.

Right now, I’m not learning a language. Right now, you’re not learning a language. I’m writing this article, you’re reading the article.

Learning a language is a very simple thing, in all actuality. It’s no different from riding a bike, or picking up any other skill. You have a plan, you stick to it. You write out your goals, and then you put the necessary hours of grafting into the craft to reach them.

Reading articles on a language learning site isn’t ‘learning a language.’ It might help, but it’s not the fundamental ‘putting in hours’ which is really what’s required. We all have procrastination. If you’re like me, the most insidious form of this is the ‘productive procrastination’ trap.

Learning A Language is about Planning and Doing

Productive Procrastination is something I’ve struggled for years with. It is when you spend hours and hours trying to plan the perfect method. It’s when you arrange everything into perfectly ordered folders and have all your notes on colour-co-ordinated paper so you can best relate speaking to listening and other topics.

It’s when you spend hours trawling online for ‘the best’ 1000 words that’ll allow you to understand 88.24% of conversations as opposed to the general list you’ve used before which’ll get you to 60%. It’s buying a Teach Yourself, Colloquial and Assimil course because each will cover that 5% of beginner stuff that the other two don’t cover.

This is all productive procrastination, and the reason it’s dangerous is because you convince your mind and body that what you’re doing is productive, when it’s really procrastination. All the while, you’ll be getting further behind in your goals. If your goal is to spend ten hours a week memorising new vocabulary, but what you actually do is 2 hours of memorising vocabulary and 8 hours of ‘perfectly preparing’ the vocabulary and setting up your Anki deck, then you’re a week behind schedule.

What will you do then? Probably try and optimise your language learning plan further. It starts a vicious cycle which leads to crazy ideas… like ‘language hacking’ and ‘learn this in seven days’ and ‘learn Russian in one hour.’

If I said you could become a grandmaster chess player in one hour’s worth of learning, you’d look at me like an idiot. If I said you could be a bodybuilder in a weeks’ time, you’d tell me that it takes years of hard work and food and drugs and all of that.

Language learning is no different. Certain plans will optimise your learning speed, but ultimately, it must come down to the hours you put in. By all means, optimise your plan, but if you say you’ll spend an hour a day learning a language, make sure learning a language is what you do for that hour. Organising and planning are not learning a language, they’re planning and optimising. Don’t fall for the trap of product procrastination.

Language Bug