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Doing Things Right: When Practice Comes without Effort

The WorldSet up your environment so that the language comes to you automatically. Then, your continued practice is assured regardless of what may personally hold you up.

I recently had another interesting, fun, cool milestone without trying or noticing. I thus wanted to share it and describe briefly how and why it happened, and how you could allow it to happen to you too.

The Picture that Showed it All….

So I had a long, busy day, the kind that would normally make me think I wouldn’t be able to get any decent language practice in, but as the day went by, I was noticing I was still managing some here and there. It was so busy, though, that I had not entered anything into my log by the end of the day, and I really didn’t feel like having to think over my whole day to go over this little chore. However, for my readers, for future readers, for language learners around the world, for the furthering of human progress…. I made myself spend the 10 minutes or so necessary to recall my day and write everything in. Yes, it took a while, but as I neared the end of my logging, it hit me (time is in h:m:s):

Study record 10-17-13

That’s long. Probably 4 times the length of a normal day’s entry!

Did you count how many languages were represented?

  1. Japanese
  2. Mandarin
  3. Shanghainese
  4. Korean
  5. Cantonese
  6. Minnanhua (Southern Min) / Taiwanese
  7. Vietnamese
  8. Hindi
  9. French
  10. Arabic

Now, since I’m not expecting you to decipher my shorthand notation, I’ll clarify a few things. “Time” refers to minutes elapsed doing the action from beginning to end (shown here in h:m:s format, though I only use minutes and hours). “Action” is self-explanatory. “Effort” describes an estimation of how much of that time was actually dedicated to or spent on the action, and the options are Full, Most, Multi(tasking), Spor(adic), & Back(ground) (initially conceived to represent listening to music in the background, but that I now use to refer to 10% effort or less). So “Most” means 80% of that time was doing the labeled action, and “Spor” would mean maybe 20%. Therefore, if there are 10 minutes with a “Spor” label, that means that if I cut out whatever else I was doing in those 10 minutes, I really only spent what would amount to 2 full minutes of the specified action. Finally, the “notes” is an extra label for as useful detail such as whether I was watching TV, listening to music, talking to a friend, texting, etc.

I am not saying I practiced 10 languages significantly in one day. I never make such judgments because any and all practice is significant. I know only a small handful of words and phrases in Arabic; any amount of thinking about it will help prevent losing what I know. Look the time spent every time. Some are 20 or 15 minutes, but most are just a few. We usually have spare minutes that we waste either just idling, or thinking or doing unnecessary things. Instead, use them wisely; they could amount to an hour or hours after a week or so.

Also note this is just a single day. While it’s a great milestone to notice, it only happened once, and I hope to see it happen more often – if I am indeed doings things “right.”

How did it happen?

Here comes the breakdown. How much sounds naturally occurring to you? In other words, a natural event just like anything I may do normally in English that did not require me to choose the foreign language. I hope you see that most of it was so, since a lot of it involved meeting friends, friends texting me, or friends leaving me voice messages. Still, I figure we can divide it into 3 categories. The first, are everyday events that normally happen in English but occurred in a different language without my control. Second would be interactions where it was my choice to act in the foreign language because someone else initiated or because the opportunity came up. Third, things that were completely my own decision and effort.

  • Natural Event: Natural, everyday event
  • Two-Way / Choice: Taking or responding to an opportunity
  • Self-Initiated: Solely initiating a stand-alone event

So here’s the breakdown, as pulled from my memory.

  • My foreign language experience that day began with 8 minutes of a video lesson – I either purposely decided I will watch one lesson today, or – more likely – I got a video recommendation or saw a new video update on YouTube or Facebook and I decided I could spare the time to watch the 4 or 5 minute video. That time stretched to 8 minutes due to rewinds and review. Then I simply repeated the dialog part or listened to a different Japanese video for 2 minutes.
  • Then 3 minutes writing some message in Chinese; most likely I left someone a text or wrote a status update on a Chinese social networking site.
  • 1 minute “sporadically” speaking Japanese to a friend on an app called WeChat, voice and text messaging app like WhatsApp, KakaoTalk, LINE, etc. So basically, I spent about 10 seconds saying something in Japanese to a friend – who is not Japanese, since she studied it a lot herself.
  • I noted 2 minutes looking something up in Japanese, with half-effort / while doing something else. Most likely I needed to check a word before speaking, or my message led me to wonder about how to say something related. I think I was confirming the word for “meal.”
  • 1 minute background (ie, <10% of the time) speaking Shanghainese with a friend. So it was probably just “hello” and “how are you” or something.
  • 2 minutes reading a Korean message; most likely a text someone left me. Then I spent 3 minutes looking up words I had trouble with.
  • 2 minutes speaking Korean with a friend. Another “sporadic” label but it covers two minutes, so we exchanged only a brief phrase or word here and t here.
  • Now there’s an interesting set. 3 minutes speaking Cantonese, 15 minutes speaking Mandarin, 1 Shanghainese, with low-effort labels but the important part is the “notes” label of “school.” When I merely mark a location, it means it was in person but NOT with someone I know personally (otherwise it would say “friend”). So these three instances describe meeting 1, 2, or 3 people at school, and exchanging a few words and phrases in that language with them.
  • 10 minutes singing Southern Min / Taiwanese. Could be a performance, recording, or singing / practicing in the car.
  • 30 minutes, and then 1 hour and 20 minutes texting in Mandarin. So while I was also doing something else, I was doing some heavy texting, having a conversation in Mandarin for almost 2 hours, leading me say I was “most”ly texting (Um, wasn’t I supposed to be “busy” on this day?? Busted….)
  • 10 minutes listening to Southern Min music, and 1 minute listening to a voice message someone sent me on WeChat.
  • 25 minutes drawing (ie, handwriting) Chinese while in class. I either didn’t need to pay much attention to the professor – or needed a way to pay more attention and stay awake – leading me to practice my writing, probably based on English words I heard and knew I should be able to translate.
  • Under a minute saying a couple things in Hindi to a friend (I remember I was practicing saying “how are you,” conjugating for the right gender since my friend was female), and then 3 minutes simply listening to friends talk in Hindi, trying to pick up what little I could.
  • 2 minutes texting in Japanese leading me to take another minute to look up a word or two.
  • 15 minutes of Japanese review from a video. I remember this; on my (1 hour) drive home, I listened to the video lesson I watched or heard in the morning, and looped it for 15 minutes.
  • Still on my drive home, I spoke 2 minutes of French to a friend over the phone – someone also learning French.
  • Then I spent the next 5 minutes doing a set of drills. Whatever I said in French got me started and I believe I ended up reciting the numbers in French as quickly as I could. Since I *should* know my numbers in 10 languages, I then moved on to practice and do speaking drills of the numbers in Cantonese, Arabic, and Vietnamese (the last listing visible). I probably also did it in most of the other languages, though they cannot be seen in the picture as I organized it to fit in the languages I hadn’t yet done that day.
  • Not visible in the picture are what I did after getting home, which was 4 minutes listening to a voice message from a friend in Mandarin, and 15 minutes of Chinese music, and….
  • an 11th language! I forgot this! I have a listing in here for Thai. I only know like 4 words in Thai, so what do we have here? 2 hours listening to Thai music (anyone following my Facebook page knows I recently updated my still-tiny Thai music YouTube playlist) and finally 2 minutes drilling myself speaking Thai. What? a 2 minute drill? Even now I wonder what that was about. Maybe I was practicing the male, formal way to say hello? (sawadnee krap). Or how to say delicious? (arroi)

Brief Categorical Language Practice Analysis 3000 – of Science!

So, how did that sound? Using my memory of the events, I’ve tallied them up into my 3 categories.

  • Natural Event: Natural, everyday event: 1 hour 34 minutes + 2 hours 25 minutes listening to music
  • Two-Way / Choice: Taking or responding to an opportunity: 48 minutes.
  • Self-Initiated: Solely initiating a stand-alone event: 40 minutes.

(I separated music in the first category since it’s skewing the result a bit; my time listening to music varies too much.)

Everyone may have a different idea on how to place my listed events in these categories – after all, a lot of what I considered as taking opportunities (blue) could be considered as being a natural thing as well, or something I purposefully made happen, but with this blue category, I wanted to emphasize slightly less-everyday occurrences that you must or could respond to, and indeed, some DO take a conscious effort if you’re not used it – e.g., being in class (especially if falling asleep) is (to me) an obvious opportunity for me to practice writing – but most people may not realize that or agree exactly.

The Take-Away: Lessen the Stand-Alone Efforts, Increase the Natural Ones

And that’s part of my point and the value of my making the blue category. At first, much of what I have in blue will be red for you – they will be things you have to put conscious effort in to find, realize, notice, and act upon. However, as you keep up the effort, they’ll become much more natural to you. As you get better in responding to your environment and opportunities, were to you label actions this same way, you would be aiming to lower the reds and increase the blues and especially the greens, which would be when the blue events become second-nature or normal, everyday occurrences.

Therefore, sending and receiving texts and voice messages, writing a status update on social media, and listening to music were marked in green – they required no special consideration in my mind and they are regular everyday occurrences. They could not have happened in English, or would have taken effort to do in English.

Saying a few things here and there when otherwise speaking in English, saying what few phrases I know when I met someone who speaks the language, practicing writing Chinese characters while in class, looking up a word for something I wanted to say, and speaking a language with a friend who is also leaning it were marked in blue, as they are a little less ordinary and took a little more conscious effort to choose to do so or take advantage of what I saw as an opportunity.

Finally, doing drills, watching a lesson, reviewing a lesson, and singing, are things I would not normally do for English, and were marked red since they are specific to language-learning and completely because I wanted to or decided I should. These easily do not happen if you are lazy or not putting in the effort – and this is where those new years resolutions fail.

Maybe I’ll write an article later specifically discussing the management of these activities.

Don’t hold back! Your own inhibitions and concerns can hold you back more than any person.

How’s my writing? Sorry, was I having too much fun with colors? Call 2MANY555CLRS. Ok, I’ll stop now.

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