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5 ways language learning is like hitting the gym

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Jó napot! Welcome back, language learners, to Adventures in Language!
If you’re learning a language, you need to think about the process in a way that inspires you -- because doing so can change your whole approach to language learning. In this article, we’ll be explaining 5 ways learning a language is like hitting the gym.

Why does this matter?

The short answer: it influences your motivation! For example, some learners associate language learning with math; they approach sentences like equations where you can get the right answer by plugging in the right pieces. Others think of it like art; pieces get put together creatively as a form of self-expression. All of these approaches are valid. What’s important is that you understand what associations and expectations you bring to the table when it comes to language learning -- because they have big implications for your motivation! For example, if you hate math and you’ve subconsciously been associating the language learning process with math, your approach to learning your target language will be negatively biased. That won’t set you up for success. On the other hand, if you can strategically reframe the content and the process in terms you find more inspiring to you, it can change your whole approach to the language learning process. In this article, we’re sharing one particular way of thinking about the language learning process that has helped many learners stay motivated and approach language from a fresh and energizing perspective: we explain how language learning is like hitting the gym. If you think you could benefit from seeing the language learning process from this new angle, then read on! Well, fără alte formalități (‘without further ado’ in Romanian), let’s get to it!

5 ways learning a language is like hitting the gym:
  1. Warm-ups are important

  2. You’ll build muscle memory for certain things 

  3. Respect the “No pain, No gain” principle

  4. Go hard, but take breaks 

  5. Get enough sleep!

Now, let’s break those down...

#1 Warm-ups are important

You wouldn’t go to the gym and first thing, try to lift your heaviest weight. Language works the same way. Don’t expect that if you’ve been speaking your native language all day, you’ll be able to quickly turn on your target language like a lightswitch and go full force into a perfectly flowing conversation. Research from neurolinguistics has shown that there’s something called a codeswitching cost, which in this case means it takes some time to activate your target language mentally. What does this mean for you? Allow some time to orient yourself! If I’m going to have a phone conversation in Korean, but I’ve been speaking English all day, I’ll start talking to myself or listen to some Korean before that conversation. Pro-tip: One really impactful way to warm-up for a language study session is to first review what you covered in your last lesson because it helps that previous content get stored in your long-term memory.

 

#2 You’ll build muscle memory for certain things

When you have a muscle memory for your workout routine, your body and mind know it. Language is similar. Take, for example, common greetings and typical phrases like “What did you say?” or “Nice to meet you” (in linguistics, we call these multi-word chunks). Once you get to a certain point in your language learning, you acquire a kind of muscle memory for them. The phrases fall out of you without any real cognitive effort. This muscle memory for language also applies to what happens when you’ve had a long hiatus in your language learning and you’re “out of practice.” Whether it’s that first run back at the gym or your first conversation back in the language, it’s going to inevitably take time to get back in shape - but don’t worry you have muscle memory. There’ll be a re-starting cost, but it won’t be as hard for you as if you were starting from scratch. You never truly forget what you learned before - it’s just fuzzy.

 

#3 Respect the “No pain, No gain” principle

This one’s simple. When it comes to learning new stuff, you’ve gotta lean into the notion of productive discomfort. The first time you run a 5k, it’s going to be hard. Similarly, the first time you try to construct sentences in the past tense, it’s going to take cognitive effort to get it right. You have to recall the rules you learned, apply them to the current situation, all while making sure all the other stuff in the sentence is also correct. New stuff won’t come easy. But keep in mind - practice makes perfect. You’ll get there. If you’d like to learn more about how the “No pain, no gain” principle applies to language learning, check out our podcast episode on the “Desirable Difficulties Principle” (linked in the description).

 

#4 Go hard, but take breaks

The latest exercise science has been pretty clear that HIIT style training (High Intensity Interval Training) is one of the most effective ways to train your body and get results. How do they work?  You go through short periods of all-out effort interspersed with short, low-intensity breaks. An example of a classic HIIT workout would be to perform as many reps of pushups as possible for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds and repeat. Then do the same with squat jumps, burpees, sprinting. You can approach language learning in a similar fashion. Do a high intensity round for a set period of time. That could mean going full immersion for 5 minutes, speaking non-stop in the language without looking at your notes or using your native language as a crutch, listening to target language speech without any pausing. Just focus and get through it. Then take a short break where you allow yourself to look at your notes, review your textbook, ask questions in your native language...etc. Long story short, just in the way you can train your body, you can also train your mind.

 

#5 Get enough sleep!

Get enough sleep!  Your brain can’t function at peak performance if you’re not giving it what it needs - and that’s sleep. Current research suggests between 7-9 hours of sleep is what the average adult human brain needs to thrive. One added benefit here is that getting proper sleep has also been shown to enhance your mood, which also has been demonstrated to positively affect your language learning progress.

Well, there you have it!

The 5 ways language learning is like hitting the gym:

  1. Warm-ups are important

  2. You’ll build muscle memory for certain things 

  3. Respect the “No pain, No gain” principle

  4. Go hard, but take breaks 

  5. Get enough sleep!

Last thing...

Remember - it’s all about your goals! How you approach language learning should be closely tied to your goals. To that end, if you haven’t recently checked in on your language learning goals, I highly recommend you do so. If you’d like an easy step-by-step walk-through to help you do that, check out our FREE Setting Good Goals worksheet (free sign-up link). It’s the best 5 minutes you’ll ever spend on your language learning.

Thanks for reading!

We hope you leave this article feeling inspired, motivated and re-energized by this new framing of what language learning is and can be. Viszontlátásra! We look forward to seeing you back here for our next article!


Join the Mango fam!

Wondering what languages were used in this article?

  • English | (recording language)

  • Hungarian | Jó napot! means ‘Hello!’ and Viszontlátásra! means ‘Goodbye!’

  • Romanian | Fără alte formalități means ‘without further ado’ (lit. ‘without the usual formalities’)

  • Interested in learning English, Hungarian, Romanian, or one of the other 70+ languages that the Mango app offers? Click here to learn more!

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Emily Rae Sabo
Written by Emily Rae Sabo

Emily, a Pittsburgh native, is a linguist at Mango Languages whose areas of specialization are the social and cognitive factors that impact bilingual language processing and production. Having studied 7 languages and lived in various countries abroad, she sees multilingualism—and the cultural diversity that accompanies it—as the coolest of superpowers. Complementary to her work at Mango, Emily is a Lecturer of Spanish at the University of Tennessee, a Producer of the We Are What We Speak docu-series, and get this...a story-telling standup comedian!

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