Delayed gratification, people suck at it. There, I said it.
I’m ready to admit that I’m especially bad at it. As a child, I would have probably flunked that famous marshmallow experiment from the get go (and if I’m really honest, I’m pretty sure I would have spent the remaining 14 minutes plotting how to steal marshmallows from children with more willpower.)
Yet, somehow people think delayed gratification is an excellent language learning strategy. If you study a lot of vocabulary and grammar now, at a unspecified faraway moment in the future all your multilingual dreams will come true and you will speak French like a native, enjoying a croissant and nursing a glass of Pinot Noir while you whisper sweet nothings in the ear of the stunning Parisienne you wowed with your impeccable language skills.
Look, I get it. I love playing the piano, yet I refuse to let anyone hear me play because I’m too embarrassed, missing countless opportunities to practise. I can either allow this to continue until I win the Queen Elisabeth Competition (I’m beginning to think that ship has sailed) or show some courage and see where that brings me. Language learning is no different.
We need to stop relying on a mechanism that has let us down in about every other field in life. Unless you want to tell me that you’re great at skipping that cookie because you wanted to be beach body ready by summer, that it costs you no effort to refrain from bingewatching a new season of your favourite show that has just been released on Netflix (if it’s not Bojack Horseman we should talk) because you planned to catch up on laundry over the weekend.
Maybe that is you. I applaud you, but I think you’re lying.
For the rest of us (and maybe finally getting to the point here – how’s that for delayed gratification eh) this is how I think you should learn a language: you use it from day one. Sure, vocabulary and grammar exercises are great and definitely serve a purpose, but when’s the last time you heard someone say: “I’m so excited to take up Swedish. I don’t plan on ever speaking it to anyone, but those exercises and vocabulary lists sure look like heaps of fun.”*?
*My grandmother, who studied Russian for seven years without ever setting foot in Russia, might have said something along those lines but she’s the only one I swear.