Most adults find learning a new language very difficult.
While it is true that learning languages as an adult is more difficult than when we were children, merely stating that is the case is like saying “the sky is blue.”
Yes, it is blue.
Any fool who is not color blind can see that.
The question is: WHY is it blue?
So, too, with the difficulty adults have learning languages. Simply saying that they do is pointless. The questions that need to be answered are :
Why do adults have trouble learning a new language?
And what can be done to help them make learning easier?
Answering the first question lies FAR beyond the scope of this blog; let alone this post. So, I won’t even try to go there right now. Instead, I’ll suggest one part of the answer and then discuss how to address that particular aspect of the much larger picture.
The part of the answer I’m interested is is found in the psychology of education studies showing how even taking the positive step of psyching ourselves up can actually lower our ability to learn and retain information because it adds to our stress level. And it is the stress level that is keeping us from learning effectively to begin with. So, our “solution” actually becomes part of the problem.
I experienced this as a postgrad student at the University of St. Andrews. Throughout my college and seminary careers I had spent very little time with the books compared to my classmates. And still managed to get better grades than they were. In fact, my grades were good enough that I got into St Andrews on a rare scholarship to incoming students . . . and promptly panicked.
After all, I reasoned, how was someone as casual as I was about studying going to justify getting and go about retaining such a scholarship at a major university like St Andrews?
I decided it was time to “get serious” about this whole studying thing. So, much to the annoyance of George Hall, my research supervisor, I spent an entire month reading Tillich’s wee volume The Courage to Be. When I was done, my notes had a higher word count than the book. And I still knew almost nothing about what Tillich had said because I had lost sight of the forest while examining every leaf on every tree in copious detail.
George was not amused.
What, then, is the solution?
If “getting serious” about studying can derail us so badly, how do we make learning easier and more effective?
According to Cal Newport, Georgetown University Associate Professor of Computer Science, one of the most important things you can do when learning any subject is to learn to relax.
Newport, the blogger behind the Study Hacks blog and author of three successful books advising students on how to improve their study skills (see below), even has a catchy phrase for the idea that learning to relax and use your study time well can help take you to new heights of achievement: the paradox of the relaxed Rhodes scholar.
What is “the paradox of the relaxed Rhodes scholar”?
Newport discusses his paradox in his blog post “If You’re Busy You’re Doing Something Wrong : the Surprisingly Relaxed Lives of Elite Achievers.”
In it he cites a study conducted in the early 1990s by three psychologists who studied students at the Universität der Künstet to determine what separated the good students from the bad.
What they found surprised them. Contrary to what they expected to find, the best students tended to spend more time relaxing than the worst students.
So, Newport’s “parodox of the relaxed Rhodes scholar” refers to the findings that the highest achievers were doing LESS work than the lesser achievers, not more. They were able to do so because they had learned the value of relaxing and working smarter, not harder. And that was producing amazing dividends in their learning process.
Conventional wisdom says: bear down and study harder like I did at St Andrews.
Newport says: Not so! What you need to do is learn to relax, and work smarter, not harder.
It’s all well and good to urge you to relax so that you can learn your target language faster and retain more of what you learn.
The question is: HOW do you do it?
The main points of Newport’s advice, which is aimed at college students, are:
- to manage your time well,
- schedule your study time and KEEP to the schedule,
- study in short blocks of about 2 hours, and
- take time to enjoy life.
Here, too, my own experience supports the study and Newport’s advice. While I never was able to set and keep to a regular study schedule, during my college and seminary years I had unknowingly been doing exactly what Newport suggests: I had managed my time well enough, and worked smart enough while studying that I appeared to be wasting time when, in fact, I was simply being very efficient in my use of my study time. By doing so I earned grades that qualified me for scholarships like the one at St Andrews.
When I panicked and tried to be “serious” about studying, I tossed aside everything I had been doing and tried to replace it with what I thought were “better” study habits. Consequently, I ground to a complete halt and ended up being so stressed out that despite numerous hours spent on just one, small book, I couldn’t remember anything about it.
Fortunately, with George’s help, I realized the error of my ways. And returned to my former, much more relaxed approach.
I had to.
For, as I said, George was not amused by the results of my efforts to “get serious” about studying.
How can you get yourself on track?
If you aren’t already doing so, learn to manage your study time so that it is scheduled for when you are at your most alert; keep to the schedule, study in short blocks of about an hour at most (much more and your mind will rebel), and take time to smell the roses.
No, make that “take LOTS of time to smell the roses.”
In other words: instead of stressing yourself out and making the learning process even more difficult than it already is by “getting serious” like I did at St Andrews . . .
RELAX! and work smarter, not harder.
You’ll learn faster and better if you do.
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Links to resources:
Those of you who are interested in them, may purchase Newport’s books from any of our fluencyAMAZON stores. They are in the “Study Skills & Aids” category.
For your convenience, I’ve put direct links to the “Study Skills & Aids” category below.