Yo! After a 1.5+ year long nerve injury and the general life changes of graduating from college, I'm done with Powlyglot. If I find myself sharing my language experience in another format later on, I'll probably link to it here, on my personal site, or on Twitter at @mpvboehme. Thanks for reading.
What I Learned from Fluent in 3 Months, Part 1: Focus Is Key

What I Learned from Fluent in 3 Months, Part 1: Focus Is Key

If you’ve paid any attention to the online world of language learning, you’ve probably heard of the Irish polyglot, Benny Lewis. He’s been travelling the world for over 10 years learning over 12 languages and running the world’s biggest language learning blog, Fluent in 3 Months.

Not long after I had the chance to speak with him earlier this year, he released his first published book: Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World. Naturally, I ended up buying it twice.

Here’s my overall impression of the book: it’s a fantastic read, and I recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who wants to learn another language.

But rather than just tell you how good it is, why not prove it? Instead of summarizing and critiquing the book, I’m going to tell you the three most important lessons I took from Fluent in 3 Months, and how I’m applying them to my life to make myself a better language learner now. Not only that, I’m going to spend the next few posts doing it.

No advice is going to do much for you if you don’t use it, so I hope you can take my experiences as an example of how to apply these teachings to your own life and become the best language learner you can be.

Without further ado, here’s lesson number one.

Focus Is Key

Those with focus will make the various interests they have in life work sequentially rather than in parallel, so that they are not spreading themselves too thin. This way nothing gets neglected.

When I first read these words, it sounded so obvious, and yet I was still juggling a million things as always. Having my focus constantly split between projects is a bit of a weakness for me, but I’m so used to it that I don’t seem to notice when I’m not really getting anywhere with any of them.

In short, every one of my projects, including my language learning, was being neglected.

Back in October of last year, I wrote an article titled Should You Learn More than One Language at Once? This post was the result of my attempt to work on five languages at the same time, while handling university work, a social life, a job, Powlyglot, and a normal sleep schedule.

It seemed like I was managing things well enough, but if I look back, most of it was actually being neglected — I was making great progress in Chinese, but I was stagnating or doing the bare minimum in Spanish, French, German, and Japanese, even though I had scheduled time to study them. I wasn’t getting nearly as much written for Powlyglot as I’d wanted to, and my grades for the semester weren’t as high as they normally are.

The breaking point came when I injured my ankle, and was unable to walk for several weeks.

If I had been managing a reasonable amount of things, I’m sure the injury wouldn’t have done much — unfortunately, I was barely handling my workload, and everything came crashing down when I had to add the inconvenience of x-rays and crutches.

I ended up dropping Japanese, German, and Chinese as active pursuits after scraping by the rest of the semester, and I’d lost quite a bit of my confidence with French.

Was the injury to blame? More than I’d like to admit, but not entirely.

The biggest issue was what was already balanced on my shoulders, not the painful, but arguably light butterfly that landed on top. After all, almost all of my work takes place on a computer — my legs don’t help much when I’m typing, and they do just as little when I’m speaking.

Don't let it fool you — when used as a metaphor, this thing is ruthless.

Don’t let it fool you — when used as a metaphor, this thing is ruthless.

After that semester, I tried splitting my week up between just Spanish and French. It was basically Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for Spanish and Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday for French.

Now, on paper, this looks balanced and reasonable. At least I thought it did, considering it was my supposed solution for being overworked the semester before. But I still wasn’t getting anywhere. I was studying, but ended up merely maintaining my language skills, with only the illusion of progress offered by my completed checkboxes and still filled calendar.

Then, I read Benny’s book, and that line about focus really hit me.

Even though I had pared down my projects by over half, I still wasn’t focusing. If I wanted to progress, I needed to stop splitting my attention so much between different languages.

So, I decided to try something new.

Instead of splitting Spanish and French up during the week, I made the split a little larger and easier to work with. I decided to dedicate the entire month of May to Spanish, and then move on to French. This would give me time to review the material I hadn’t quite mastered, and finally start that conversation plan I should have started a long time ago.

I spent the entire month so focused on Spanish that I crushed the entire Duolingo curriculum, and had my first conversation with someone in Spanish in a long time.

Now that I’m focused on French, I’m still maintaining and improving my fluency in Spanish, but primarily through having at least one Spanish conversation every week. This helps me make sure I won’t forget anything I’ve learned, but it also means that the rest of the week I can direct my attention to French with laser sharp focus.

I can’t say for sure whether I’ll resist the temptation to pile a million other projects on my plate in the future, but I do know that my newfound focus in language learning is much more effective (and much less stressful) than anything I’ve tried before.

Just remember, this doesn’t only apply to having your attention split between languages. It applies to anything that’s taking away the time you would otherwise be using to speak and learn.

How much do you have on your plate? What can you put aside for a while or do more efficiently? Which things are unavoidable for the time being?

You can totally manage multiple projects and goals at once, but if you want to learn another language, you need to make sure it’s not getting pushed to the side by your other endeavors.

Remember — focus is key.

photo source: butterfly
  • http://polyglotkent.com Kent Roper

    Excellent post, Martin. I had a similar experience last year trying to study Spanish, French, German, Italian, and Portuguese on Duolingo all at once. I’d finish a lesson in one language and then move on to a lesson in another language. After doing this for a month and realizing it got me nowhere, I just focused on German.

    Hard to be patient though. I really wish I could effectively study multiple languages at once.

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      I feel your pain, Kent. It all seems so logical on paper, but it just doesn’t seem to work out very well. Being patient is hard when every language is so interesting.

  • Lucie

    That’s the key indeed!
    I’ve never had this kind of experience since I
    started to study Spanish at school several years after English, but
    this summer I decided to learn on my own for the first time, and I
    hesitated over studying German and Chinese at the same time. I
    eventually chose to focus on German, by working everyday (with Duolingo
    you mentionned, and Memrise), my objective being to be able to
    understand the main lines of a German course I might take the next year.

    However, focusing on a single language doesn’t necessarily implie
    to neglect the “old” ones. On the contrary, it’s better to keep wtaching
    an OV movie from time to time, or to have talks. To my mind, the best
    is to learn the new language with one of your old ones which is not your
    mother tongue and which has common points with the target language :
    for instance, to learn German by English (what I’m doing at the time),
    or Spanish by French, Dutch by German and so on so forth (the idea is by
    the way evoked in Benny Lewis’ book).
    I even noticed that you earn some benefits on the languages you are already fluent in.
    So, it’s worth the patience!

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      You’ve got it! It’s definitely hard to leave any focus left for German after Chinese tones and characters demand so much of your attention. Doing one at a time is much more manageable.

      The laddering technique is brilliant. I think it’s really fun to study French from Spanish, and I’d imagine it helps make it easier to not mix them up later on.