Making Excuses not to Learn a Language and Ways to Get Past Them

Procrastinating Panda

Thom Milson started learning French a few months ago, with the aim of eventually immigrating to Montreal, the French-speaking metropolis located in the province of Quebec, in eastern Canada. If you’d like to get more info about the French spoken over in Quebec, read this guest post I wrote a while ago on The Polyglot Dream blog. In the meantime, enjoy Thom’s post and the priceless advice he gives!

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When I was in school I learned to speak both Spanish and German. If I’m honest with myself I learned them because I had to: my school made it compulsory for all children to learn at least one language (Spanish or French) with German as an optional extra (it wasn’t really optional if they thought you could do it).

Although my school taught both French and Spanish as compulsory subjects, no one had a choice in which one they were taught. It was all down to luck, and on your first day it would be decided for you. As fate would have it, I would be picked for Spanish.

I always wanted to be chosen for French.

Harry Potter getting chosen

Three languages were – I thought – undoubtedly too much for me to manage with all of my other subjects, so it became something I never got around to doing while I was at school. It was however, something I would tell people I wanted to do.

This had two negative effects: The first, by telling people I intended to learn French I felt like I had already achieved something (and apparently by doing so I wouldn’t – an idea that’s being tossed around by a few thinkers) and second, people often responded by telling me how difficult French was to learn. Even though I’d learned two languages by this point, I believed them.

As time went on my “desire” to learn French never went away, and I would spend large chunks of my spare time reading about the language instead of learning the language. I read about the places French was spoken, the history of the French Congo, and the cultural quirks of Canada and Québec (I eventually want to live there).  I became particularly worried about the differences between Le Français standard and Le Français Québécois:how could I possibly master the differences?’ I would say to myself. I hadn’t even started to learn the language and I was already worried about how I would master it! What a fool!

Quebec City at night

La Ville de Québec

 

It all sounds very stupid (because it was) but I knew what I was doing: I was simply making excuses because I was afraid. What if I did struggle? What if I couldn’t get to grips with it? As long as I didn’t learn I wasn’t failing.

I didn’t realise I wasn’t succeeding either.

Then the strangest thing happened: one day I just started learning French. Suddenly all of my worries were gone, and in their place were realisations. These were my realisations:

1. Why not just start?

I always told myself that I would start when the time was right. The right time always felt around the corner and never came. That’s how the right time works. The best time to start something is: right now (and not NYE). Today is like any other day: it’s normal. There’s nothing special about it whatsoever. It’s just a plain old forgetful day. You can sit down and take just 15 minutes of today to read some basics for learning French Right? Sure you can! It’s only a day!

That’s how I think every day. Each day is a “checkpoint” for me. If I can learn even a little today, that a little more than I knew yesterday and that’s all that matters.

2. It doesn’t matter that you’ll suck.

Seriously, it doesn’t matter. To be amazing at something from the get go you have to be a genius. Most people are not geniuses.

At one point, the only words I could say in English were ‘gaga’ and ’blooboo’. Now look at me.

3. Stop telling people you’re going to do it.

The only people who currently know that I’m learning French are me and my French Buddy (more on this soon). Even my girlfriend doesn’t know I’m actually learning French (although I’m sure she’s figured it out by now).

It’s not that you shouldn’t tell them ever, but just don’t tell them you’re going to. I plan on telling people eventually (especially my girlfriend and family at least – maybe in French?), but only when I feel confident I’ll stick with it. I want to be too far down the rabbit hole as it were. You should always use the phrase “I have been…” rather than “I’m going to…”

4. Download Duolingo for your phone.

I downloaded Duolingo on my phone last January-ish as a sort of New Year’s Resolution to use my Spanish and German a little more, and it’s been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. I even managed to somehow stick to my resolution and prove my whole theory about them wrong. Anyway, the app kind of works like a game in the sense that you are given three lives to tackle each lesson and you can only progress onto the next lesson once you successfully passed the current lesson with at least one heart remaining. The heart logos look a little like The Legend of Zelda’s, which is something that definitely appeals to my generation Y/Millennial brain. It was also voted as Apple’s App of the Year in 2013 – for good reason too. There’s a great review and break down of the App here.

If you can’t get it on your phone, you can use it on your computer also.

Zelda video game screenshot

5. Find a buddy who speaks the language you want to learn and talk.

Okay, so I mentioned that I have a French Buddy who knows I’m learning French. Immersion is hugely important, nay compulsory, to learning a new language. I can’t always travel, but luckily I work for a company who employs lots of polyglots and native speakers of other languages. This means I get to sit with the French guys and pick up on what they’re saying/fail miserably at joining in. This has been such a tremendous aid for me.

6. Get a dictionary.

This. Get a good one.

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So that’s how I got past my procrastination. I hope that if you’re struggling with excuses too, that this might help you some. I’m finally getting there with the French: I think I could probably only hold down a simple conversion about food, and a few other basic things, but even that feels great.

I might still be a very long way from the level I want to be at, but it’s a lot better than I was a few months ago and now I’m actually doing it and that’s all that matters.

Have you ever struggled with excuses or extreme procrastination? If so, what did you do? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments section.

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  • Andy

    Agreed. I think especially the part about going to suck, is very true and it is what holds a lot of people back. Most people are scared about making mistakes so they end up never practicing at all. However, as you mention, you won’t be perfect from day one. It takes time.

    Andy
    BackpackingDiplomacy.com

    • http://www.lingholic.com/ lingholic

      I can’t imagine somebody learning how to play a musical instrument with the idea of never sucking! Indeed, it’s a totally natural part of the process.

  • http://morevietnamese.com/ Ruth Elisabeth

    I like the third point you make, Thom, about not telling people you plan to learn a language. For some that’s a strategy that works well as they don’t like to let people down. For others (myself included) it’s just not helpful. As you say, it’s a much better boost to be able to to say ‘I’ve started learning already and look at what I can do’.

    • http://www.lingholic.com/ lingholic

      Definitely! The TED Talk Thom linked to is quite interesting and it does make you rethink the conventional wisdom that says you should share your plans with others.

  • http://kubala.me/ Jakub

    True, I just started with my French. 4 months ago I have started talking to people that I want to learn French. 4 Months of talking about French without learning any.

    • http://www.lingholic.com/ lingholic

      Indeed! I think it’s much better to do something and tell others “I’ve been doing such-and-such for this many months,” rather than say “I will do it.”

      The only exception to this rule, I believe, is when you set up a contract with yourself (a so-called Ulysses contract), which is designed and intended to bind yourself in the future. This can be done, for example, by telling your friend that you will pay him/her a fixed sum of money if you don’t keep your promise.

      • http://kubala.me/ Jakub

        Have you ever tried to give money to somebody in case of that?

        • http://www.lingholic.com/ lingholic

          I haven’t tried no. These days there are lots of popular websites, such as stickk.com, that let you do this though. I’ve signed up for the +1 Challenge however, and it has helped a lot to keep myself on track and not give up. I recommend you to try it out! You can check out a recent guest post and interview here on Lingholic that deals with this challenge.

  • Emily

    This helps a lot! I’m trying to learn Japanese and Italian, as well as compulsory French and soon Spanish, at school and it’s hard! Especially when you spend three or more months discussing how and when you’ll learn them with friends! I don’t even know why I learn so many languages… but I can at least try harder now!