Research-backed insights for language learning

Envy. Dread. Inspiration.

I have felt the strange mixture of envy, dread, and inspiration that comes when I see someone achieve a goal that I once set for myself.

That strange brew of emotions only comes together when I have let my own efforts flag, getting distracted by, well, distractions, and not staying focused on the thing I truly wanted.

Which that person now has. Envy.

And I may never achieve. Dread.

And yet, they’ve proven it’s possible. Inspiration.

It only happens with big goals, stuff that takes time, dedication, and perseverance to achieve:

  • Running a marathon
  • Building a business
  • Learning a language (you knew this was coming, right?)
  • Getting visible abs
  • Growing a productive garden
  • Learning to play the guitar

I’m sure you could add three more, just from your own life. Either things you’ve achieved, thus provoking envy, dread, and inspiration in others. Or, more likely, things you haven’t yet.

Because you can relate to those feelings too.

Losing Momentum

All of us occasionally reach a point where we’ve lost the momentum we once had for some project. A project that inspired us at an earlier time.

How did it happen?

There are a few possibilities I can think of from my own life. One time I lost momentum because life threw me a curveball. My wife left town for a week to help her parents move, and I had sole responsibility for our four kids. My regular habits of eating well and lifting went out the window as I struggled to fulfill my role as a father while also filling in for their mother. And when the week was over, I did not get back on the wagon. That week turned into 8 months of eating crap and not working out.

A more common challenge is the times when I make a big change to start working on a new goal. I go from zero to sixty overnight. But there is no real depth to the change. I throw myself into it, spending hours working on the project, but fizzle out after a few days, or weeks. This is the fate of many a New Year’s Resolution. Surely you’ve felt that excitement for a new goal, but looking back you can see that it was a little bit artificial. It was a surface excitement, without the deep, abiding commitment needed to get through the hard times.

It’s like starting a marathon, but thinking it’s a sprint. Off you go, fast as a jet. And then you get tired. Slow down. As people pass you, it slows you down more, because it’s very disheartening. Most just give up.

Why We Need Momentum

Without momentum, we are easily diverted from the path to our goals. In Newtonian physics, momentum is defined as mass times velocity. When it comes to achieving our goals, velocity is straightforward to think about: how fast are we moving towards the goal? But mass is trickier.

Mass is how much weight is moving towards that goal. It might be thought of as how easy it is to divert you from your path. A marble and a large boulder can be rolling down a hill with the same velocity, but the boulder is much harder to divert.

When it comes to our goals, building momentum isn’t just about increasing speed. Instead of a marble or a boulder, we can think of our momentum as being a snowball. You can accumulate mass as you go, making it harder and harder to get diverted from your goal. In time, your progress can be an avalanche, and achieving your goal becomes inevitable.

But without momentum, a week of changed routines can wipe out your progress.

Hell, even a bad headache could do it.

Building and Rebuilding Momentum

To build momentum in a sustainable way, here are a few principles, with examples from the world of language learning.

First, gradual velocity increase is more sustainable. Trying to sprint a marathon doesn’t work until you’re a world class marathon runner. But if you haven’t completed many, you don’t really know what kind of pace is going to work. So start out slow.

If you’re using Parley Blue to learn a language, this means it’s ok to just do a single sentence exercise in the app on a day. If you have a call with your coach, count it as progress, and bask in your momentum.

Second, build mass while velocity is low. If your language learning velocity is very low (one sentence exercise per day), it’s easier to build language learning mass. In this case, it is about making it harder and harder to get diverted when distractions come.

Some ways to do that:

  • Do your language learning at the same time each day.
  • Make it a requirement before doing something fun.
  • Set up triggers, or cues, that remind you to do your language learning.
  • Push through and do it even on days when it’s hard.

All of the above are easier when your velocity is low, i.e. when you’re only doing a small number of exercises. It’s possible to do them all while at a higher velocity, but it’s more likely you’ll miss a day and lose momentum.

If, instead, you start slow and craft a true habit, one you do automatically, because it’s become part of who you are, then it becomes easy to gradually add velocity. To do two, three, or ten sentence exercises each day. To start having more coaching calls.

Which brings us to point three: some forward movement is infinitely better than none. As you get comfortable with your habits, you can speed up, tackling more exercises, spending more time reading the language, or listening to videos, or speaking with natives that you know.

But it’s OK to slow down, as long as you don’t stop. On bad days, hard days, just make some progress. Go back to doing a single sentence exercise.

Don’t worry about making a ton of progress towards your goal in a short time. Worry instead about making any progress every day. The smallest amount of progress is still progress. And it preserves your existing momentum.
But what if you do drop the ball? Miss a day, or a week, or a month?

Then you need to rebuild. Principle four is a double edged sword. On the one hand, rebuilding momentum is hard. You just got evidence that you can’t finish the marathon and achieve your goal.

On the other hand, if you do rebuild your momentum, it comes back stronger than before. Doing so builds the psychological weight of the goal in your life. It proves that you’re committed. This increases the “mass” side of the equation, making it that much easier to keep going in the future.

Because you’ve shown that you’ll do the work to rebuild momentum.

The key to rebuilding is to go back to the first three principles: gradual increase of velocity, building mass while going slow, and making sure you’ve got some forward movement.

Building and rebuilding momentum is slow. But that’s ok, because achieving your goal is a marathon, not a sprint. And with momentum, it’s easy to keep going. It’s like a tailwind that almost pushes you forward.

Envy. Dread. Inspiration.

Being on the other side of envy, dread, and inspiration, is a wonderful thing.

Not that you want to inspire envy and dread in your friends and others. But far better that, than inspiring pity.

And when you see that look in their eyes, that desire to have what you have, you can share with them how you did it.

By building momentum.

Yes, they may feel a little bit of dread, but you can also be the inspiration they need to tackle their own language learning goal. Or any other goal.

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