We all love quick wins in our language learning but true success comes when we stay engaged over the long term. For that, habit trumps goals and motivation. But here’s an idea that may count as a habit but can also add some real motivational swing into the mix too: building participation in events into the rhythm of your year.
Of course, a twice-weekly conversation or once monthly in-person meetup can be a vibrant pulse in your language learning life. In this post, though, I want to share my experience of how recurring, annual events in (rather than about) your foreign language can pace out the year. I haven’t posted on the subject before, but I have vlogged it, from Hyde Park in London.
I was reminded of this when back there on Friday, to visit the summer pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery.
This is a temporary structure: up and ready to open in June and it’s taken down in early October.
Since Zaha Hadid’s first pavilion in 2000, there’s been a new design each year. Only 2020’s was not built and you know why. Each structure is the result of a competition open to architects and artists around the world.
I try to visit the new pavilion at least once.
It was from 2019’s low slate canopy by Junya Ishigami of Japan I looked ahead a few weeks before my 2019 trip to that country. In 2018 I riffed to camera on today’s blog topic from the shade of a cement lattice-walled, Mexican-inspired courtyard by Frida Escobedo.
This year’s sombre cylindrical structure, Black Chapel, is by Chicago-based Theaster Gates. Inside, you do indeed feel like you’re in a quasi-religious space.
In the UK, we often complain about the weather. Yet we do (or did) get proper seasons, nature’s way of pacing our year.
For me, the annual pilgrimage to the pavilion, complete with an overpriced espresso or cup of tea in the café inside is a much-enjoyed little part of summer.
Events in the target language (not events about it)
Vlogging aside, my pavilion trips aren’t language-learning focussed but there’s part of a pattern. Take a peek and you’d find a range of other, more directly-relevant annual events in my diary.
To underline the point: I’m not talking here principally about events for language learning such as my beloved Polyglot Gathering and Polyglot Conference (though they also give me an annual inspiration infusion).
Nor do I mean an annual trip to take part in a language course (though I know some learners like to make one of those a highlight of their language learning year).
What I have in mind are things that happen through the medium of the language but that are essentially about something else.
You may attend in person as the life-and-soul or be an unobtrusive but in-person presence. Or you may be a passive observer from a distance, watching on TV or writing mistake-ridden comments in a social media feed.
Some personal stand-out events in my own target languages
When I lived in Heidelberg, Germany, some of the milestones of my year were local. Each 30 April saw a torch-lit procession up the hill opposite the town: Walpurgisnacht (Saint Walpurga’s NIght). June through August was time for the SchlossfestspieleIn (theatre, opera and music against the backdrop of the famous castle). In the autumn there were trips to local small-scale wine producers for wine tasting and maybe to buy a few bottles.
I also grew to anticipate events with a wider resonance: the annual asparagus season (die Spargelzeit). yes, this really is a thing. It runs from late April to a prompt end on 24 June. Schwetzingan, Germany’s asparagus capital, is only a few miles away from Heidelberg Then, of course there was the Christmas market on the Universitätsplatz and fireworks viewed from the bridge at New Year (they were not a thing in the UK back then).
I no longer live in Germany and there’s no event there that I try to travel to specially to take part.
With Welsh, though, there is.
In the first week of August it’s time for the National Eisteddfod (Eisteddfod Genedlaethol). It’s a peripatetic festival, a moveable, Welsh-speaking pop-up metropolis. Many organisations such as learned societies, charities, cultural and political associations hold talks and events around the main pavilion where Welsh poetry, literature and music are centre-stage. In the evenings there are gigs, stand-up comedy and theatre.
As a Basque learner, I enjoy two or three events that the London Basque Society puts on every year.
In late March or early April every two years there’s a mini “korrika” to celebrate the mass run that weaves its way through the Basque Country to raise money for Basque language education (and to raise consciousness of the cause).
In July there’s their mini San Fermin bull run with a member dressed up as a bull. I follow the real event in Basque news broadcasts and the website of the newspaper Berria.eus. Then, in September, there’s the Society’s Basque Diaspora Day meal and, in December, the Christmas one.
As a Slavicist, I’ve learned a lot about the Russian year. Whether it’s the tradition in February of a whole pancake week (Maslenitsa) rather than a measly pancake day, celebrating the old new year (fourteen days behind the “real” new year) or the revived Orthodox Easter traditions, such as a generous slice of kulich, blessed by an Orthodox priest). Of course, there are also recurring secular highlight and, when I lived in Moscow, these included several art shows.
The annual events, then, don’t even have to involve the language at all.
As a new Japanese learner, I took notice for the first time of the importance of spring cherry blossom viewing in the Japanese year. I haven’t been in Japan at that time of year yet but I now have a heightened appreciation of the cherry blossom in my local park for the week or so when it’s in bloom.
Like all good habits, some “my” events have become something I do (or at least that I’m aware of) each year because. In a sense, they’ve become a small part of who I am. And expanding our identity to encompass aspects of life through our chosen language language is one of the most powerful things we long term language learners can do.
Now it’s your turn and here are my tips
So, can you build events which happen each year into your language learning?
Find maybe three or four different times of the year that you enjoy and that you could take part in physically or follow online year after year, whether they’re cultural, sporting, religious, whatever it is. Maybe one for each season, to begin with.
Do that today and put them into your calendar.
Also put in a reminder a couple of weeks in advance so that you can start to schedule some “me and my event” time. It could be simply viewing or reading or you might want to bone up on some relevant background or vocabulary that will help you to understand what’s going on. You might even want to make conversations about the upcoming event the focus of a one-to-one conversation session with your online language tutor or exchange partner.
Regular participation, even if passive and unnoticed, has firmly established some of “my” events as anticipated beats in the rhythm of my language learning year. Calendar crafting as we might call it is, to mix up the metaphors, a great way to weave the language into the warp and weft of your life over the long term and, in real language learning, that’s the timeframe that counts.
Vlogs from the summer pavilion
Interested in a course to help you establish your language learning habits? Check out the Language Habit Toolkit from my old friend and fellow long-term Welsh learner, the inspiring language teacher and coach Kerstin Cable of Fluent Language.