Confessions in August 2011

Updated August 30, 2011

New Confessions Home:
With the posts dwindling as my enthusiasm for typing them in HTML wore down, I've moved this blog to WordPress. The archives will stay here, but for now, new entries will be at the WordPress site. Hope to see you there.

August 30, 2010 - Good Strategy/Bad Strategy

Recently, I started reading Rumelt's Good Strategy/Bad Strategy. While it's a bit author-centric, it hits some very important points for thinking about any strategy, including your strategy for learning a language. One of Rumelt's central points is that a strategy is not a list of strategic goals - it's a series of actions to achieve these goals. Another central point is that working harder is not a strategy either - the direction in which energy is expended is as important as the amount.

For a strategy to work, it has to consist of actions that you can and will take that will lead to the completion of strategic goals leading to a desired overall result. Too often, language learners, like business leaders, think that deciding where they want to be in 6 months and that they're determined to get there is enough.

If your strategy goes beyond wishes about the future, the next important point is to make sure those actions will lead to the results you desire. The management experts note that you get more of what you measure, but learning a certain number of words or sentence patterns isn't the same thing as learning a language. So you have to be willing to think hard about what you want out of a language so that you can set strategic goals whose numerical targets align with what you're trying to do. If you're learning French for a wine tasting tour, it's not the number of words you know, it's whether you can make a coherent request for another glass without thinking about it when you've already had two glasses. (This is a fun one to field test :) ! - the measure, by the way, is success or failure, though you could make a chart of how many glasses you can manage before the words stop coming.)

I've sometimes said that language learning is a lifetime project. That's a problematic phrasing since, in theory, a project has a beginning, middle and end, but also a result. And presumably, you're looking for a better result than an extended learning project whose result is oblivion (do you need to speak Vietnamese in heaven?). That said, it's worth approaching language learning as a project plan in the sense that you should be setting smaller goals to be achieved as you work toward broader goals (sub-projects within projects within a language learning program).

There's nothing wrong with dreaming, and even dreaming big, when it comes to your language learning plans. Just make sure there's something underlying those plans. Do you have a strategy for your learning - a series of measurable, achievable goals that will lead to the desired result - or just goals? Know the difference and you can lay out a learning path where you've got a better grasp not just of what you want to do, but of how to get there and of the real steps you've already taken as you work through the different phases of your plans.

July 12, 2011 - Burn-out

Regular visitors to this blog, should there still be any, will notice there hasn't been much new posted of late. I thought I'd say a few words about that, about life, and about life and language learning.

About a year and a half ago, there was some major changes within my company that had a pretty big impact on me - doubling my commute time, putting me with a different sort of client base, responsibilities in shutting down my old office while getting adjusted to the new one. Pretty stressful, and not a good thing for somebody who hasn't always been the chipper sort anyway. By May of last year, I was wondering if I'd make my 38th birthday without having a heart attack. And then a full-blown depression set in as I took stock of how things were going. The question ceased to be whether I'd make my 38th birthday, or whether I'd allow myself to see it, or my 39th. I'm not sure how dark my thinking got or how serious things actually were because once environmental stress tips you into chemical depression, you really can't take a very sane accounting of things anymore. And I didn't.

I'm far from out of the woods, but I think and hope I've seen the last day where asking myself whether to get on the train or just toss myself in front of it is a real question, not just a morbid bit of melodramatic thinking. Not that I ever quite got there, but there were too many days when I read about other people tossing themselves in front of trains and considered that it would be one way not to have to get up in the morning and face what the new day brought. Awful stuff, I know, but environmental stress mixed with chemical depression isn't exactly the stuff of rainbows and unicorns.

In the past, language has always been an outlet. At a certain point, though, it started drifted into the category of things I'd like to have got farther with but hadn't - a pretty full category at times. And while the Assimil Experiment with Alsatian gave me a lot of pleasure in getting to know the language, the experiment part didn't by the end. The learning could be done with ease, but the fact of doing anything at all couldn't.

At the moment, I'm giving my brain free reign to explore whatever it latches onto. This runs the gamut from Vietnamese to Greek to calculus to accounting. But plans and projects are on hold. The big project is making it through life until I find the right combination of antidepressants, anti-anxiety meds and attitude changes to treat a new project as a challenge, and not one more thing.

I've always advised that if you don't need to learn a language for travel or a job, you should be sure only to do it for you and not take it too seriously. I'll amend that: Unless you're learning a language to achieve something you want, you shouldn't take it too seriously. Let language be your respite, not one more frustration. Let your language addiction be a source of happy escape to joke about, not one more piece of the pathology.