Five years ago I had a life changing event. It left me unable to read, write and concentrate. Before that event I prided myself on being able to concentrate for hours at a time. In my job I was able to take in large amounts of complicated information and rewrite it so it was easily accessible to others.
After the event my concentration became worse because my mind was focused on reliving an event I could not change. Watching television was difficult and speaking to other people was even worse – my mind would drift off during the shortest conversation.
When I talk to people about learning another language they reveal their biggest worry to be about lack of concentration. Obviously I can relate to them from my own experience, but I know there is a way to restore your focus and concentration. Even if you've never had great concentration it can be improved, and learning a language is the best way to practice.
In this article I am going to discuss how using mindfulness can improve your language skills. Also, in six short steps, I'll show how I restored my concentration using some mindfulness techniques.
What is mindfulness?
In a nutshell: mindfulness is the practice of living in the moment. Rather than reliving the past or worrying about the future, mindfulness trains you to enjoy life as you live it. By focusing more on where you are and what you are doing, mindfulness can work wonders for anyone who has previously struggled to learn a language.
Step 1: The warm up
Most mornings I do not start work until 10:30am. This gives me some time every day to do some extra language practice. From 7 to 9am I practice my Japanese. To begin with, I struggled to practice my speaking and listening exercises after having just got out of bed. For a few months I lacked resolve and would quit to have another cup of tea and listen to the radio instead. As someone once said “everything that is good for us is often hard to do”.
After being disappointed with quitting again one morning, I decided to take some time to think about where I was going wrong. I realised that like physical exercise, mental concentration needs a warming up period. When watching football game, it is always obvious a substitute player is about to be brought on to the pitch. Ten to fifteen minutes before the player comes out to join the team you will seem them warming up on the side line. They will be walking up and down, perhaps also jogging and performing a few stretching exercises to warm up their bodies.
The human brain is just like any other muscle; it needs a little time and light exercise before it gets into its stride. Considering this principle I decided which part of learning the Japanese language I found the easiest. For myself personally, I found writing in Japanese to be the least demanding task. With that in mind, I decided that the first forty minutes of my two hours each morning would be devoted to Hiragana. Once I had mastered Hiragana, I moved on to studying Katakana and eventually the Kanji.
For the remaining one hour and twenty minutes I focused on listening and speaking exercises. Overall, this change made my two hours each morning easier and more effective. More importantly, I have never quit since I implemented that strategy three years ago.
What I am trying to say is that it is more profitable to work smarter than to work harder. Think about your own language learning time: can you make it easier and more effective for yourself?
Step 2: Worry sheets
This next step may sound strange, but it might just work for you if you are constantly worrying about something rather than focusing on your language studies. One of the biggest obstacles to concentrating is when we have a problem not related to what we are studying. It is easy for our minds to give up on our language study and to preoccupy ourselves with something else. If this is a constant problem for you then something which might help is picking up on your worrying thoughts.
The next time you sit down to study, say Spanish, keep a piece of blank paper handy. When you notice your mind drifting toward a worry that you have – write that worry down and underline it. As an example, let's say you're worried about student debt. Write down 'student debt' and underline it. Then every time your mind begins to think of student debt, use your pen to put a tick under the words which are worrying you. Now each time you find your mind focusing on student debt place a tick on your sheet of paper and then slowly move your mind back to focusing on your language studies. Do not get angry with yourself for letting your mind drift off. Simply notice that your focus has gone and correct it by bringing your focus back to your language learning.
At the end of your study period count up how many ticks you placed under your worry on the paper. Do this every time you study and see if the number of marks on the paper begins to decrease as you become more proficient at noticing and dealing with distracting thoughts. If you are worrying a lot about something, consider allocating some 'worry time' to your problem each day. Try thinking about the issue for twenty minutes each morning. If the thought returns to you later in the day – tell yourself you will only worry about that problem during your allocated worry time.
Step 3: Live one day at a time
In mindfulness you are aiming to live in the moment. Every morning make a clear plan of what you are going to do with your day. Focus only on your plan for the day and do not worry about yesterday or tomorrow. You cannot change the past, and tomorrow can often turn out to be the opposite of what you expect. It is better to live for today and enjoy every moment of it.
Step 4: Use experiment sheets
Consider which area of your language studies needs improvement. My biggest weakness at one time was conversational Japanese. I met fluent speakers of Japanese in Manchester where I live, but my progress was limited and I often felt embarrassed when my language partner failed to understand every word I said.
Again, my problem was down to worrying about the future and this only increased my nervousness. When nervous I could hardly put two words together. To remedy this worry, I decided to create an 'experiment' sheet. There is nothing complicated about creating an experiment sheet and it can often be fun – I tend to put some dark humour into mine. To remedy my conversation nerves I had decided to take a holiday to Japan. My experiment sheets are in two parts: one is filled in before the event and one is completed after the event. Here is what my experiment sheet looked like before I got to Japan.
What could go wrong in Japan:
- No one will understand me: 90% chance of this happening
- I will starve because no one will understand me: 30% chance of this happening
- I'll get lost and end up in Mongolia because no one will understand me: 50% chance of this happening
- I'll be mistaken for Justin Bieber: 0% chance of this happening
- I won't enjoy my holiday because my Japanese skills are poor: 70%
When I arrived in Japan all my worries were unfounded. The people were very friendly. I never got lost, and nearly everyone who met me could understand what I was saying. When I got back to England I decided to revise my experiment sheet and the results were a pleasant surprise:
- No one will understand me: this happened only 10% of the time
- I will starve because no one will understand me: this happened 0% of the time
- I'll get lost: this happened 5% of the time, and I am sure I am not the first person to get lost on a train.
- I was never mistaken for Justin Bieber: darn... maybe next time.
- I won't enjoy my holiday because my Japanese skills are poor: definitely 0%
We can surmise from the experiment that none of my fears were realised, and to be honest I would love to visit Mongolia one day. I would also love to get back all the time I have wasted in my life on worrying about what might go wrong.
Step 5: Gratitude sheets
Every now and then take some time to consider the progress you have made in your target language. Have you mastered a new verb or learned a new adjective? Whatever your achievement, take some time to think about and celebrate it. If you've made new friends because you learnt another language, then be grateful for this also and perhaps consider how they have helped you.
Step 6: Meditate
I was often put off on meditating by the length of some meditation tapes. They were asking for forty-five minutes of my time which I did not have to spare. There are now shorter and more convenient meditation courses. I would recommend an app called 'Headspace' as it offers ten lessons for free and each lesson is only ten minutes in length. This is a perfect start and introduction to meditation. The benefits for myself have been a better night's sleep and help in keeping myself in the moment. For many people being in the moment during meditation has increased their concentration.
The only true way to become fluent in a language is through hard work. However, that hard work could become a lot more productive if you use mindfulness to focus your attention on what you are doing and to mitigate wasted time. I hope you will take the time to study and consider mindfulness, and I also hope it will help you as much as it has helped me in studying a foreign language.