The Third Variety of Motivation

Motivation is a perennial topic of discussion when it comes to language learning, because so much of what it takes to succeed at the endeavor hinges on a learner keeping their motivation high.  Most of the advice that floats around about the subject attacks from two points: advice on keeping your motivation up day-to-day, and advice on what a learner ought to be bringing to the table when they first start out on the task, the motivation of the big picture.  It’s hard to commit to something that will last you months or years to achieve if there is no real bedrock for why you’re doing it in the first place, and it’s hard to keep up with the day-to-day if you find yourself constantly saying, “Eh, I’ll work on it tomorrow.”  Something that isn’t discussed at length, however, is the motivation that falls between these two extremes.  If the day-to-day could be called short-term motivation, and the reasons for why you’re learning the language provide the long-term motivation, the other time could be called the mid-term motivation.

Mid-term motivation is kinda squirrelly, because it changes depending on where you’re at with learning a language.  A beginner who is still in the stage of wrapping their head around the basic rules and mechanics of their target language has different wants, challenges, and milestones to reach for than someone in the intermediate plateau.  And for that matter, someone just inside the intermediate plateau is going through a different set of problems than someone at the far end of it who’s pushing themselves up toward an advanced, functional level.  These differences can be so extreme to the point where things are operating on an entirely different scale of time.

The beginner, even if they have their expectations properly adjusted, is dealing with things on a much smaller scale than someone more advanced: the milestones they’re reaching for and the measure of progress they have to compare themselves against are smaller things, things that can be conquered in the space of a few weeks to a few months.  In comparison, the people trekking across the intermediate plateau are seeing far less treacherous, hilly terrain, but they’re also operating in the space of a few months to a few years instead.  And the timeline keeps expanding in a certain form.  I might not be at the top of the mountain in Spanish, but I’m also still a learner of English.  It might be my native language, but I still come across new words here and there, and improve at using it the more I read and write.  My improvement path there is in the years to decades range, and probably would be the same even if I was putting as much focused work into improving my English as I was my Spanish right now, which I’m not.

Because of the variation, mid-term motivation by necessity needs to be molded and customized to meet the current stage of a learner, and as such it’s usually only talked about in the broad terms of the different stages of learning.  A beginner should keep this in mind, an intermediate learner that, and in those broad strokes people are left to just sort of flounder around and figure it out for themselves.  For the most part, that makes sense.  If you’ve got a clear goal in mind to keep you going on the grand scale, and the grit to keep going day-to-day, the middle part more or less takes care of itself while you make adjustments the higher up the mountain you climb.  On the other hand, though, it’s easy to get trapped in a mindset you built at an earlier stage and struggle to come to terms with how that mindset doesn’t translate well further along the path.

The main reason why the intermediate plateau is a big talking point has a lot more to do with that mental readjustment than it concerns anything inherently special about that stage of learning a new language.  Hitting the plateau doesn’t result in your brain doing something different and forcing you to approach learning from a new angle, there is no big light switch that gets flipped.  Instead, it’s simply that you’ve reached a stage where you know enough to not be constantly surprised anymore, but not enough to really do much, and without that feeling of the former guiding you the way it did at the start, backfilling in enough to where you can do stuff feels a lot like you’re treading water.  It’s normal, it’s common, and the people who have gone through it before know that it isn’t a sign that the learner’s brain has died and refuses to keep working, it’s just the name of the game.  So, they warn people.  Feeling like you’re treading water and not expecting it is a good way to get discouraged.

This framing device has its flaws, outside of just lending importance to different levels of learning where there isn’t any (which is a flaw, I remember talking about wondering if I was in the plateau yet or not, thinking about it as a more concrete step in the process).  For one thing, it breaks learning a language down into discrete chunks, where it’s a far more gradient process than that.  People don’t just suddenly hit the intermediate plateau one day, things just start to level off, and they do so at different rates for different things.  I don’t just mean it in the sense of, like, being at the intermediate plateau for reading, but still a beginner for speaking, or something like that, I mean that you can have a really solid grasp of smalltalk phrases, but still be at a beginner stage for the names of animals.  There are tons of little pockets of blindspots with learning a language like that, and it’s easy to start thinking about things wrong, or worrying about your progress overall if you’re hung up on the idea of monolithic “stages” to learning.

I think that in general it’s a better idea to think of things in a more fluid manner.  The idea of the plateau, or other stages in general, up to and including things like the CEFR language levels and the like, are pretty useful tools, but that’s all they are, not a concrete fact or force of nature.  It’s often more useful to think along the gradient and be more willing to adapt and shift your way of thinking about things.  The long-term motivation might give you a finish-line to aim for, and the short-term gives you the strength to march toward that finish-line, but the mid-term is the map you’re following for the climb.

Anyway then, let’s look at this week’s numbers.

Tuesday 2/19

  • Duolingo: 80 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 13 chapters of Cambios, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Wednesday 2/20

  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 14 chapters of Cambios, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Thursday 2/21

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 11 chapters of Cambios, ~190 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Friday 2/22

  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 10 chapters of Cambios, some of part 1 of El Color de la Magia, ~175 minutes
  • Watching/Listening: 1 episode of Daniel San GMR, ~5 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Saturday 2/23

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: rest of part 1 and part 2 of El Color de la Magia, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Sunday 2/24

  • Duolingo: 120 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: parts 3 and 4 of El Color de la Magia, ~210 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes

Monday 2/25

  • Duolingo: 200 XP earned, ~0 minutes
  • Reading: 1/3 of La Luz Fantástica, ~180 minutes
  • Speaking: reading out loud, ~30 minutes
  • Total Duolingo: 1040 XP, 0 minutes
  • Total reading: 48 chapters, 4 parts, and 1/3 of a book read, 1,295 minutes
  • Total watching/listening: 1 YouTube video, 5 minutes
  • Total speaking: reading out loud, 210 minutes
  • Total Time: 21 hours 40 minutes

Woo, numbers.  So another nice and reading-heavy week.  As you can see, I ran out of Dresden Files finally, much to my dismay.  I’ll be keeping an eye open for the last three books, in case they come out in Spanish sometime soon, but for now I’ve had to leave the series behind.  I picked up the first couple of Discworld books, and as those seem to be available in abundance, I haven’t fussed over picking up a bunch all at once like I did at the start of the month with DF.  I’d read the first three before, a few years ago, but that’s as far as I got in the series.  Not for any negative reason, I quite liked the three when I read them, but I just never got around to getting more.  This is a good time to correct that and read a whole bunch.  None of them are particularly long, so there’s probably going to be an even faster turnaround of book to book for the last week of this four-week experiment.  To my minor annoyance for recording and tracking my reading progress, the Discworld books have not been broken up into traditional chapters.  Not a big deal, but it does make it harder for me to keep track of my time as I go.

Daniel San GMR had another new episode come out this week, which I once again just watched rather than saving, though this one was significantly shorter.  There still hasn’t been any drastic and noticeable change in my listening comprehension with them, so at this point my expectations for where I’m going to be at after the end of the experiment are rather tempered.  I’m not at all sure what it is I’ll be doing after next week’s end, aside from a day with a fairly heavy amount of watching to test myself more rigorously than a couple of YouTube videos could really do.  I’ve been enjoying the heavy reading for the most part, and I think that there has been an improvement in my reading comprehension at least.

There was a bit of a hitch after finishing Dresden Files and switching to Discworld, something that’s happened to me before when switching book series, as a result of a shift in writing tone and word choice.  It didn’t seem to take as long to adapt to it this time around as it has in the past.  My reading speed hasn’t had as great of an increase as it did earlier in the experiment, but I feel like it’s continued improving.  When I am reading, there’s a lot more “automatic” reading than there used to be, times when what I’m reading is so clear that there’s no need to consider anything and I might as well have read it in English.  There’s still a lot of reading that’s fully comprehensible but not automatic, where I need the extra step of translating parts of a sentence into English in my head first before grasping the full meaning, but it’s slowly moving toward automatic all around.

Depending on how my listening test goes, I likely will be keeping up with reading as at least a main focus day to day, even if it isn’t the full focus like it has been.  At least for the mid-term focus.  Extra listening comprehension time might prove indispensable, I’m not sure, but the reading feels very valuable on its own.

I’ve been a bit under the weather this week, which as a result has given me a lot of “sitting around and not doing much besides reading” time, but that hasn’t had the effect of gangbusters numbers of anything.  I’ve been feeling crappy, so I’ve opted for a lot of sitting and doing nothing instead.  Hopefully I start feeling better soon, it’s getting rather annoying.

Anyway, that’ll do for this week.  Time to finish off this experiment, hopefully I can do it with style.  TTFN.

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