Once upon a time, I decided to do something challenging and fun.
The Babel Project was a response to a work situation that was becoming increasingly challenging, without much of a silver lining. If you have ever worked in an environment with people who are downbeat, critical and just plain miserable, you will understand how unhappy I felt becoming one of those people.
At the time, I described TBP as my “low-impact mid-life crisis.” I could chase my lost youth of travel and cultural immersion without running out on my family, endangering my health, or blowing the bank.
The first year of TBP was truly enjoyable and fulfilled the brief perfectly. It created a stimulating distraction after a difficult day at work. I could even fill a couple of lunch hours a week with foreign culture and new people. My Korean study-buddy was able to gain his language proficiency certificate and start the bureaucratic road to his Permanent Residency thanks in part (I flatter myself) to our English/Korean conversational sessions.
But then, late last year something odd happened. I changed jobs and found myself in a new situation where my company was growing with all of the attendant positive vibe and energy that goes with that. My own work changed from a local to a national focus. From 2012 to 2013, that focus went global, to the point where I suddenly work in a 24 hour environment.
It isn’t drudgery either – the emails that land overnight are more often than not full of good news, reports of success, or just plain opportunity.
But here’s the thing: now that I have so much more happening, all of which I want to do and chase, where does that leave 5 languages at once?
More often than not it means – on the outside. I can’t remember the last time I picked up my Hindi book and I haven’t IM’ed my Indian colleague (Hello Adhyaapak-ji!) in ages. If I look at the log of my Polish software I can see the enormous gaps (sometimes of a couple of weeks) between lessons.
On the other side, I am still attending my Arabic classes, my Mandarin lessons (even if I had to postpone last week because I was travelling) and my Korean buddy is starting to throw more at me.
If I take a dispassionate look at this year’s performance, it’s lagging. As much as I know that I am spending less time on TBP, I understand that the underlying yardstick is energy.
One of the handful of Internet writers I track is Tony Schwartz in the USA. Tony’s schtick is simple – you need to manage your energy, building in rituals and routines and regular sessions of exercise, rest and appropriate nutrition to perform at your best.
Last year, this was a lot easier. I had a reasonably regular work-week and could plan slots of my day to exercise and to study my languages. This year? It’s all gone to heck in a handbasket. From one week to the next I could be in a different state or a different country. (I spent a week in Spain recently which was preposterous given that I can speak three languages reasonably well, am studying five others, but Castilian/Catalan doesn’t fall anywhere into that mix.)
So now I am attempting to build a solid study and practice routine around this brave new work world. How am I going to do it?
- Come up with a plan. If there is anything that I have learned (mostly from Mrs TBP) it is that you need a plan of attack if you are going to reach any kind of challenging goal.
- Acknowledge my new world. I can’t go back to simplicity, so the new plan needs to be capable of agility to take advantage of pockets of opportunity. Practice when I can, not just when I want to.
- Start somewhere. I am fond of thinking of challenges as a bowl of spaghetti. You may be familiar with the experience of eating a bowl of pasta where you feel as if you have eaten enormous amounts, but when you look at the bowl, there is still a mound of noodles sitting there, laughing at you. (The Italians have a lovely expression for this feeling; “Fare un buco nel’acqua.”) But if you just keep at it, suddenly you reach the bottom of the bowl.
It’s very easy (continuing the spaghetti analogy) to stare at the bowl and ask yourself – where should I start? Which strand of spaghetti will get me most quickly to the end? Which is longest? Cleanest and least likely to splatter me with sauce? (Forget it, you’re wearing that sauce, it’s a given.)
It doesn’t help. The only thing that kind of strategising leaves you with is cold pasta. Stick your fork in and get moving.
I was reading another language blogger (Hi Olle) who suggested that vocabulary acquisition was the most important step to success. I am going to take that motto and run with it with one small distinction. I will narrow my focus on learning more verbs.
The hope is that in my early-intermediate phase where I have started building the basics of each language, verbs will give me more variation (and hopefully more communication) without needing to struggle with advanced grammar and syntax.
Most importantly – it’s a plan! (See no. 1 above).
Now all I need to do is work the plan. 😉