I was 13, I had just smashed my piggy bank with a hammer to purchase a 10.000 Chilean pesos (about $20) Yu-Gi-Oh trading card game starter deck. My mom was looking at me with a “I expected from you, son” face while I was counting up all my 100 pesos coins to collect the money needed. I was short of $2, my mom lent it to me and we were on our way to the local geek store to purchase what I, at the time, thought would only provide countless hours of fun, but that ultimately also provided unquantifiable knowledge.
I got home, carefully opened the deck box, slid the plastic container out of the box and there they were, with their gorgeous illustrations (just like on TV!) printed on that almighty-bright glossy paper and the promise of a lot of fun. Those cards. I had been saving for months and now they were finally mine.
I didn’t even know how to play the game because the instruction booklet and the cards were both in English, I didn’t care, I would figure it all out at the same time that I was having fun.
Make it fun
Most people, unfortunately, fall prey to the trap of believing that learning is “boring” or a “drag”. Learning is not boring, it’s your system that makes it look that way. Learning is fun as long as you plan it to be.
As soon as we get enrolled in school as kids all our fun experiences dealing with the process of learning go flying off the window. We developed our motor skills playing around the house, not by sitting in a classroom with a teacher with his back against a blackboard telling us how we should “care” about developing our motor skills. We learned basic math by counting up how many Lego bricks we needed to build that skyscraper or that NASA station, not by getting home and slaving ourselves solving arithmetic problems. We learned how to enjoy written fiction because we had our parents read us The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia before bed, not by being threatened that we would get a bad grade if we didn’t read a book we cared nothing about.
All the former activities meant having fun, the latter, not so much. That’s what makes the current educational system an absolute failure: it’s not engaging, unengaged students means a classroom full of kids that are not learning, and the root of it all is boredom.
I know that, for you, it might not be a vivid memory anymore, but I guarantee you, learning can be fun again.
When, we, adults embark on a learning journey, one of the first things we do is come up with a study plan that is so structured that it drains all the fun out of learning. We mimic the same study methodology we so dreaded back in school. We do this because we were forced to believe throughout the entirety of our compulsory education that a boring, highly structured study plan was the only way to guarantee effective learning.
But this is simply not true. The best way to learn is by having fun. Don’t think, however, that you will be having fun all of the time, there are going to be times where you’ll have to endure a boring study session to understand the complexities of whatever it is that you are learning, but most of the time, you will be having fun, and who knows, maybe you’ll even enjoy those boring sessions (I know I do).
So let’s get right into the nitty-gritty of making your study plan (and thus your learning journey) fun.
There are two requirements to making your learning fun, the first and most important is doing something you think is fun that is related to what you are learning, and the second is making it interactive.
Remember when we went out on school trips to the zoo? It was way more fun to be with the animals in person than it was reading about them in the classroom, too bad that type of fun at school only happened once in a blue moon.
School trips not only were fun but they were also interactive. On the trip to the zoo, you were always allowed to touch some of the animals there, and you were able to feed the ones that were dangerous to play with, on trips to the museum, even though we were probably not allowed to touch what was on exhibition, we did have guided tours that made the whole experience immersive, interactive, and fun.
Interestingly enough, even the worst-performing students in a classroom get good grades on the trip follow-up test.
Even if what you are learning is not fun, making it interactive makes it more fun than it would be otherwise.
There’s a self-explanatory interactive museum in my country called MIM (which stands for Museo Interactivo Mirador). It’s fantastic, you can see kids getting interested in topics most of them would never care about if their only exposure to them was through anachronistic classroom education. They are having fun AND learning at the same time.
Your study plan cannot be taken from the internet or from some textbook, it has to be about you and what you like so you have to design it yourself, although it of course can revolve around a predetermined curriculum. Basically what you are doing is learning the same other people learn, but in an effective and fun way.
To make it efficient, you’ll arrange your study plan from most important topic to least important topic, for example, for languages, you’ll want to learn your target language pronunciation first instead of onomatopoeia.
Since this is a language-learning blog, I will focus on that, but you can use these same principles to learn absolutely anything, from world history all the way to calculus.
A very simple study plan for learning most languages (languages with logographic scripts will need a somewhat different study plan) is:
1.- Learn Pronunciation
2.- Go through a basic textbook.
3.- Stage 3 (having fun).
Let me explain.
Learn pronunciation first: Learning your target language pronunciation before doing anything else will save you a tremendous amount of time and frustration in the long run. You won’t be able to understand anything but you will be able to read complex literature and sound like a native while doing it in only a matter of weeks, whilst long time students may be able to understand said complex literature, but since their pronunciation is not on point, their speech will be unintelligible so they themselves will not be understood (or at least, not well) by other people.
Go through a basic textbook second: A lot of the questions basic students have no matter they target language arise from a lack of a strong foundation. Going through a basic textbook will ensure you learn the most important basic aspects of your target language, this way, when you get to stage 3, you won’t be so overwhelmed by the complexity of the language. In a way, you’re getting some hand-holding before you dip your toes into your target language.
I’m sure you’ve seen people ask on language forums things like “is this noun masculine or feminine?” “how do I know when to use ‘do’ or ‘does’?” “was Hitler emo?”. All of these questions (except the third one, we’ll never know) can and will be answered simply by going through a good basic textbook (look up on amazon high-rated basic textbooks for your target language).
Mini study plans compose stage 3, each one of these plans is determined by the immersion material of your choosing, this is why I can’t tell you learn this or that, because your stage 3 is a direct reflection of you, not me, or anybody else, you and you alone.
In Stage 3 your favorite video game, TV series, cartoon, comic book, etc. is your textbook.
That being said, there are three main rules governing stage 3, you can come up with your own set of rules of course, but these three rules will help you follow a clear path to fluency and prevent you from going astray:
- Stick with one type of genre.
- Focus on 80% good enough.
- Track your progress.
I have another rule set for myself which is “ask for help”. Basically whenever I bump into something I simply can’t understand by myself, I ask for help. I have language friends who help me in exchange that I help them, but if exchanging languages is not your thing, you can always get help from a teacher. You can adopt this rule as well, as I said, you can come up with your own rules because this is your journey.
I’ll be talking extensively about each one of these three rules, but I will first tell you how they came to be:
When I was learning English and also becoming the best duelist this world has ever seen, I didn’t have a plan, I wasn’t tracking my progress, I had no one to ask for help, I was a perfectionist, and to top it all up Anki didn’t even exist, the only thing I did right was sticking with one type of immersion material at a time, my Yu-Gi-Oh cards first, some video games and TV series later
For these reasons, learning English took me about 2 times longer than it should have.
Only when I was already becoming an advanced speaker did I start to realize all of these things.
Since I wasn’t tracking my progress I would get anxious, I knew I had put a lot of effort into my studies, but really how much exactly? In order to keep things in perspective, you need to have as close an exact measure as possible, otherwise your mind will try to gather the data from your memory, but this data will never even be close to exact because it will get distorted by your ego and simply because memory is fragile. I was also a perfectionist, trying to understand every little thing, instead of focusing on understanding 80% and then moving on, I wanted to know absolutely everything which made me waste a lot of time on things I would eventually learn anyway.
Stick with one type of immersion material genre
Stage 3 is uncomfortable for some people. These people are used to the textbook-like study plans that offer the feeling of “guided progression”, they want to know that after completing xyz textbook they will be at a certain determined point on the fluency scale, this makes them feel safe. This is all fine and dandy, expect, these are the same people that take decades (yes, decades) to learn a foreign language.
Learning a language is like an inverted bottleneck, at first there isn’t much to learn, basic conjugations, basic vocabulary, basic everything, but as you keep progressing, the language becomes increasingly more complex, and every step you take demands two times more effort than before.
This is why I recommend stage 2 to be completing a basic textbook. Since textbooks offer deep explanations to everything, you are sure to build a strong foundation for what’s to come, but what’s to come is so complex that if you keep relying on textbooks, everything will take you longer. Because textbooks can’t accommodate to your needs, the authors will simply present every constituting aspect of a language in great detail in their textbooks, so you will be going over every little thing as if it were a stumbling block for you, but maybe it isn’t. While this level of detailed explanations is certainly a plus in the beginner stages, it becomes a major con in every other stage.
These are two pages from an actual English language textbook:
Textbooks make you focus on every individual tree instead of focusing on the entire forest, they soon make you lose perspective over what’s important. You end up with a massive amount of knowledge that, unless you are a linguist, you will never use, which, as a natural consequence, turns it into garbage knowledge; you’re wasting time learning it and you’re wasting time remembering it.
I like to use textbooks as encyclopedias, I don’t pick up an encyclopedia and read it from cover to cover (although I did do that as a kid, I was bored and my mom refused to buy me a Nintendo 64), I go to its index, look up the topic I need to find information about, read only the pages containing that information, close it.
How do I decide what topics I need information on? I don’t. I let my immersion materials guide me.
Let’s say you want to go with your favorite science fiction book in your target language, quite an enterprise, but that’s what so great about this, you choose your own “textbook” and the challenge is a fun one to undertake.
You open it up and you don’t understand a whole lot, this is fine and normal, you know you can do it and you want to do it, you use a highlighter to mark parts of the text that you don’t understand whether that be grammar or vocabulary, you can use different colors if you want, you can also use any other method for marking (dog earing, translucent color film sticky notes, or anything you want). I suggest getting the same book in your native language or another language that you speak well enough to use it as guide; with other immersion materials, this might not be possible (you can’t be playing the same video game twice at the same time) and you’ll have to adjust your study plan accordingly.
Once you choose a type of immersion material genre, stick with it. By this I mean that if you chose science fiction, stick with science fiction, don’t go from science fiction to self-help, this is going to confuse the living hell out of you because even grammar constructions are different between these two genres, not to mention vocabulary. Ideally, you’d want to stick with the one thing you picked and move on to other materials once you are over with the former, but you can go back and forth between different materials within the same genre, so in this case you could go back and forth between science fiction books, science fiction movies, science fiction games. Don’t have a huge array of materials that you go back and forth between because it will take you longer to see progress and this might frustrate you.
Eventually, once you have reached a higher proficiency in your target language, you can start branching out and go back and forth between different genres, but for now, be patient.
Going through these immersion materials is your Stage 3 study plan, that’s why I said that this stage consisted in mini study plans, each immersion material that you plan on going through is one of those mini plans. One of my mini study plans for Stage 3 some years ago was reading the Lord of the Rings in English, it was a lot of fun.
Focus on 80% good enough
It’s funny, have you noticed how kids keep asking why why why and never shut up? it annoys most of us adults but when it comes down to learning we do it all the time and kids don’t.
When we learned how to speak our native language, we didn’t ask our parents “mom, why did you just use the subjunctive in that construction instead of the indicative?” we just absorb and ingrain what we hear around us (this is why kids from wealthier families have an overall better command of the language than those from poorer families) yet as adults we are too smart for our own good and question absolutely everything, this is why the average adult learning speed is so slow, not because we have below average intelligence but because we obsess over understanding every little detail and we don’t move on unless we polish our knowledge in whatever it is that we are learning to perfection, or what’s worse, if the challenge proves to be too much to handle, we simply give up entirely, we’ll usually use code words like “hard” “complicated” or “difficult” to validate our failure.
We would’ve never landed on the moon, the world would have never seen the likes of Picasso, van Gogh or Leonardo da Vinci, and we would have never had Breaking Bad on TV if it weren’t for that OCD feeling lurking inside all of us that tells us to aim for perfection, but you have to learn to be able to tell apart “waste of time perfectionism” from “necessary perfectionism”.
If you were an English language basic student, it wouldn’t make sense for you to obsess over the rules for inversions or learning the many uses of “should”, this is “waste of time perfectionism”; on the other hand if you were an upper-intermediate English language student, it would make sense for you to try and master these things, even more so if you needed to because you were taking an exam or going to a job interview, this is “necessary perfectionism”.
It’s like those people who want to change the way their body looks but instead of building a good diet plan and an efficient workout routine and actually follow them, they worry about what protein powder to buy. Who cares?! That’s minutiae, focus on building a habit of going to the gym and eating healthy (which by the way doesn’t mean eating salads all day) and after you start seeing results from focusing on the 80% most important part of your goal you can start worrying about the remaining 20%.
Some people say that perfectionism is never good, I disagree as much as I do with those who say that perfectionism is always good.
If you are never a perfectionist then you will never truly master anything, and if you are always a perfectionist then you will also never be a master at anything and even worse never accomplish anything because you will always be preoccupied with minutiae instead of focusing on what’s truly important at that moment.
When you focus on the 80% most important, you’re not giving up on the remaining 20%, you are simply leaving it for later as it doesn’t make sense to focus your energy on it right now, you’ll figure that 20% out eventually, for now you have more important things to work on.
A real life example of this is when I was learning the Japanese potential verb form, I focused on the 80% most important and then moved on, but oh-god-really? I ran into the Japanese passive form which for some verbs looks the exact same as the potential form. I shrugged, I wasn’t going to obsess over learning how to differentiate those two forms, I knew it would all make sense eventually. A few weeks later I started running into a plethora of sentences using both of these forms and from studying those it became obvious how to tell the difference between them from context. If I had obsessed over learning every little detail between those two forms so I could differentiate them right then and there, it would have taken me a much longer time, much more effort, and it would have been extremely tiring and boring, it just wouldn’t have made sense considering that the result would have been the same.
Remember to be seeking progress, not perfection. Perfection will come eventually when you are more experienced and better prepared.
Track your progress
Learning cannot be predicted, this is why so many students fall behind curriculum and are never able to bring themselves up to speed. It is because of this unpredictability that a study plan that forces strict deadlines on the student is neither efficient (although it might look like it is on the outside) nor realistic.
You can’t predict that this week you are going to learn Y and next week you are going to learn Z. Learning Y might take you much longer than a week or maybe less than a week. Efficient learning works by not being restrained by imposed pre-determined time frames, but by accommodating a realistic time frame to your own learning speed.
The main downside to Stage 3 is how unsystematic it is compared to regular study plans, a lot of people will get anxious just from realizing that it is them who will have to come up with their own mini study plans.
This anxiety arises from the fact that progress during Stage 3 is not as obvious as it is when following a regular study plan where you know exactly what you’ve already studied and what you “need” to study next.
I already talked about why regular study plans are ineffective, but there’s one reason I can’t stress enough: regular study plans aim for perfection, you can’t move on to point B if you haven’t already mastered point A, put this under fixed time frames where you have to master point A in a certain period of time and your probabilities of accomplishing your study goals are next to nothing.
The only way to make up for this lack of perceived on-going progress during Stage 3 is by tracking your progress yourself. Just like you are making your own mini study plans and deciding what to focus on and when to move on to something else, you will be tracking your own progress.
The easiest and best way to do this is by keeping a logbook where you will journal what you studied today (or this week, you pick how often you update your diary) if it was easy or not and why. When there’s something you don’t understand try to be as specific as possible as to why you don’t understand that, add sentences as well if possible.
When you come back to your logbook some time later you will realize that a lot of the things you didn’t understand before you do now. This is also great for exposing gaps in your learning, if there are things you still don’t understand after some time, you might want to focus on them before you keep moving forward.
In order to keep a logbook to document your learning in you can buy a physical diary/journal or choose a virtual one like Evernote, whatever your choice, make sure that all your entries are arranged by date.
Consolidation is part of Stage 3, it’s not a different stage because you can’t move on from Stage 3 which is consuming knowledge, nor can you ever move on from consolidation which is simply the active use of that knowledge.
Out of everything in this guide, consolidation is the most simple and straightforward concept: in order to consolidate your knowledge you need to use it.
I recommend two ways to consolidate your knowledge:
Writing and/or speaking
Writing is great because it leaves a record of how far you’ve come, but it can also be a double-edged sword because it can trigger analysis paralysis (which is a type of perfectionism), and most people simply don’t like writing.
In an ideal world, every language learner would like to write, but it’s not like that; luckily, you don’t really need to write in your target language to consolidate your knowledge in it, as you can simply hold conversations with native speakers of it.
This must be your lucky day because it just so happens I already wrote guides on how to find a language teacher online and how to find native speakers to have language exchanges with.
That’s it. It truly is that simple.
Notice how I use the word simple and not easy, nothing worthwile in life is easy. If you follow this simple system I can guarantee you you will accomplish your goals in your target language much faster than you would if you solely relay on textbooks.
It’s of extreme importance to remember that when you adopt an unorthodox approach to learning, you will run into people who will question your sanity by throwing passive-aggressive remarks at you such as “it’s good that you are learning Japanese through anime… as long as you want to sound like an anime character”. This is noise, nothing more, nothing less. Don’t listen to these people, they don’t speak a foreign language fluently, everyone who does knows the importance of immersion as the key determinant to fluency. Yes, if you learn Japanese from anime you will sound like an anime character, just like if you learned it from a textbook you’d sound like a stiff textbook, the difference is, one is much more fun and will get you to fluency much faster than the other. What’s more, it doesn’t matter what you end up sounding like, the way you speak isn’t written in stone, you can alter your speech to your liking because you already speak the language, Japanese from anime is Japanese all the same, and if you understand it well then you already speak the language well enough to modify your speech any way you want, don’t listen to naysayers.
Keep going, don’t give up and enjoy the process.
“It is not knowledge, but the act of learning, … which grants the greatest enjoyment.” – Carl Friedrich Gauss