5 Reasons Why Learning a Language is Like Going to the Gym

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I hate to admit it, but like lots of other hopeful people, I went back to the gym in January. A free month-pass to a fancy, luxurious gym helped me along my way. But while I was there today, burning some butt on the cross trainer and admiring the beautiful people (who can actually afford to be members) in their lovely lululemon yoga outfits, sipping their green smoothies, it struck me again how similar fitness and language learning are (green smoothies and yoga posing aside):

1. You can’t outsource it
Let’s start with the bad news. Nobody can do it for you. Unlike green smoothies and nice outfits, you can’t buy fitness. Even if you pay for a trainer, you still have to do the work. In the same way, you can’t buy yourself a language. No matter what some smart marketing people like to tell you; “Get fit in 10 days!” “Speak fluent Japanese in 30 days!”. And even if that were possible, what happens after? Can I train really hard for 10 days and then be fit for the rest of my life? One month of intensive Japanese and I’m fluent forever? Of course not. Like fitness levels, language ability declines as soon as you stop using it. It’s best to accept from the start that it really is a never-ending project.

2. There will be ups and downs
You know those weeks. The weeks where you had the best intentions but it just didn’t work out. You feel ill so you can’t go for a run. You are too tired to learn any vocabulary. No time for the gym. No time for your language class. The key thing here is to accept you had a bad week, don’t weigh yourself down with guilt and get back on track. Going back to the gym when you’ve been a way for a while can be pretty brutal. The same as turning up for a class and knowing you’ve missed a couple of weeks of new grammar and vocabulary. It’s downright uncomfortable. But all is not lost. Try to focus on the small wins as you get back into it, rather than feeling overwhelmed by the big ultimate goal. In the end, starting again rather than just giving up altogether is the key to long-term success.

3. It’s good for your health
So here comes the good news. The benefits of physical exercise are well-known but did you know that learning a language is also good for your health? More and more studies are proving that learning a foreign language improves your memory, increases your multi-tasking abilities and can even delay the onset of dementia. Recent studies have shown that bilingual people who develop dementia do so up to 5 years later than monolingual people.

4. You never completely forget
So even if you’ve had a long break from the gym or a language, there’s an amazing thing called muscle memory which means you never really start from zero. It’s a complex topic but scientific evidence suggests that your body and brain still retain parts of what you trained in the past. How many times have I met clients who tell me they remember “nothing at all” of the English they learnt years ago. In my experience, never true. There’s always something still there to build on.

5. It gives you a high
Aaaaaaah, the feel-good factor. The thing we are all praying for when we are struggling away on the treadmill and feeling crappy. It does exist, I promise. You just have to wait a bit longer for it to show up than you might like. According to studies, people experience this “kick” after exercising for a certain length of time (it can differ from person to person) and pushing themselves. In the same way, it might take a while to experience the “feel-good factor” from your language learning. However, when you start to improve and finally get rewarded, levels of dopamine (another feel-good chemical) in the brain increase. The reward could be, for example, getting something right in class, finally figuring out how the hell to form the past perfect continuous tense, or best of all, having your first proper impromptu conversation with a native speaker and that person complimenting your skills.  Sounds nerdy I know, but the feel- good factor really does kick in and it’s hugely motivating.

So, try to keep these things in mind on your language learning journey. I’m off to drink a green smoothie, buy myself a fancy gym outfit (if I can’t afford the gym I can at least have the accessories!) and get my Japanese grammar book out.  Feel free to leave a comment below with your thoughts on this or subscribe to my blog. Just add your email address to the box on the right.

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