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Language as a workout for the brain: how language learning is like going to the gym

I have been working out in the gym a lot lately. While sweating my face off one day on one of the torture devices claimed to improve fitness I suddenly thought: ”wait, this has a lot to do with language learning…”

I know, it may sound like a bizarre comparison at first, or perhaps you think that for gym goers everything ends up reminding them of a workout. But give me a chance. Let’s see what kinds of parallels I can draw. Who knows, maybe they will resonate with you and help you take a new look at your language routines?

The best workout is the one you actually do

I can spend a lot of time reading the bodybuilding forum and watching exercise vlogs of fitness instructors. Sure, they are inspirational and have plenty of good, practical advice. Yet, planning a perfect workout and finding a perfect time to go to the gym can take you years.

Postponing starting to learn until you find a perfect book or app and until you have more time will put it off for ever.

Why? Simply because there is no such thing as a perfect book and your days will stay as busy as they are, if not more.

Trying out with whatever tools and time you have will ascertain whether you actually want to learn the language you chose. It will help you get into the habit of learning and, most importantly, it will be the first test of what method is right for you.

Start your language workout now!

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Choose the workout that’s right for you

There is plenty of well-meaning workout advice out there. As a woman with a medium level of fitness, should I copy the exercise routine of an olympic weight-lifter? Probably not. During the first visits to the gym I had to establish the most appropriate weight for different exercises and understand my current abilities. The only way to break your limits is to know them first.

By trying out different language resources you establish what type of book or app is right for you. Choosing a study method you enjoy will help you avoid getting bored and follow through with your desire to learn regularly.

In this method-testing phase, you can also discover something new about your abilities. Do you have problems learning vocabulary? Does small talk come naturally to you?

Defining the problematic areas of your learning will help you decide what aspects you should focus on.

Make each rep count

If you want to get stronger it’s not the amount of repetitions of a particular exercise that matters. I could probably lift a 1kg weight a hundred times, but the only thing it would do for my body is strain my elbow. It wouldn’t help exercise any muscles and it would be a waste of time. For what I want to achieve, it is better to do 6 repetitions at a maximum weight I can lift.

Once you have established your areas of focus you can plan a language workout routine that will be highly-efficient and optimised for your goals. One hour of absent-minded browsing through a vocab list is much less efficient than a 15-minute review using a spaced repetition system. At first, it may seem that a study session like this is too short to bring benefits. However, if each of these 15 minutes you exercise your brain to its maximum, you will actually make progress.

Make each minute of your study session count!

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Record your progress

If you have been in the gym (or even looked into one through the window) you’ll know that there are many resistance machines and pieces of equipment you can use there. Even if you are a regular it is pretty hard to remember what weight you should set on each of them. That’s why from the first workout session you write down the weight and the number of reps and sets of each exercise you did. This helps you keep track of your progress from session to session.

Progress in language learning may be hard to track. You may feel like you are just writing meaningless sentences, cramming vocabulary, and your conversation skills don’t go past “hello, how are you”. If you are using LinguaLift. you probably heard me say this many times: Start a study journal and record your progress. After each learning session write down the concepts you have studied, sentences and phrases you have learned. With time you will notice that the complexity of material is growing from session to session.

If each study session you are giving your best, then the only way you can go is forward.

Challenge yourself

In the gym I try to follow a workout routine I have planned for myself with the help of a trainer. But a routine is what it is, a routine, and somewhat naturally it can start feeling a bit repetitive and boring. That’s why sometimes I feel an urge to try something harder – out of simple curiosity – just to see if I can manage a higher weight or sprint for 30 seconds longer. Sometimes I fail, but when I succeed, my sense of achievement is doubled.

Even if you have been defined (or have defined yourself) as a “beginner” or “intermediate” student it doesn’t mean you are confined to this category. It is good to challenge yourself, overstep your prescribed boundaries. Take a leap and try reading a text on a higher level, writing a longer sentence, chatting about a lesser known topic.

Completing even just 50% of a challenging exercise is equivalent to completing one at your regular level. Even if you feel you haven’t done as well as usual, you have proven to yourself you’re closer to mastering the language than you expected.

Occasional challenges in language learning will help you take a leap to the next level.

Sometimes you reach a plateau

If you train regularly, you start noticing patterns of how your body reacts to different workouts. You get a certain high from watching your achievements, but there is always a time when you reach a plateau. It can be because you are tired, an exercise stops being challenging enough, or because you lost motivation.

Recording your progress should help you see the patterns in your learning. The harder the material, the slower it will be to make progress and sometimes you will stay at the same level for a longer period of time. If you familiarise yourself with your learning patterns you will know that this is normal.

Take time to pause, appreciate what you have learned. 

A plateau can be a sign that you need changes in your learning routine. Take time to re-examine your study methods. Are you still enjoying the tools you use for learning, is the workload alright? Perhaps your circumstances have changed and you should adjust your study plan accordingly.

A plateau is temporary. Re-examine your methods and take a pause before starting to climb again.

Is language learning like working out in the gym? Whether you agree with me or not, I hope this post has helped you see your studying from a new perspective.

Do you see any more parallels between language learning and the gym? Let us know on Twitter!

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