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Language Learning “Buckets” – Why You Need Them and How to Get Them

Learner A is a chaotic, disorganised mess, someone who always misses classes, forgets notes and never remembers about tests / homework.
Learner B spent one afternoon of his life making sure that the right stuff comes to him at the right place and the right time.
My question is: which would you rather B? (Read on for a simple rationale and a plan of how to get from A to B.)

Language is Chaos, but Learning Shouldn’t Be

Now, before I even begin talking about how organization helps you learn, let me address a comment I have often heard voiced by teachers, students and language enthusiasts:
“Aren’t you going over the top with this systems-and-organization thinking? I mean, isn’t language this unpredictable, chaotic and messy thing?”
No, yes and not really.
Yes – every language is messy, chaotic, redundant, flexible, changing and unpredictable. But at the same time – it isn’t a hundred percent so: most languages will still have a spoken and written form, and thus – require 4 skills to be able to control is (reading, writing, listening and speaking). Many languages will have similar vocabulary – or grammar. Some will share phonological features. Some will be related more or less closely. Languages tend to be used to perform certain functions, and to accomplish things in a similar, predictable manner. Finally – and curiously – languages tend to be learnt and acquired in a similar way by most people around the world.
So there is room for going wild, improvising and letting things happen to you (an trust me – it feels good). But there’s also space for being organized and for knowing when, how and why things will happen.
That’s where David Allen comes in – and boy, did he write the book on this one.

David Allen, GTD and the Smell of Unreachable Ideals

I like to think that David Allen’s attic is really messy. Or that he is a really bad golfer. Or has a three-year-old tuna sandwich in his car’s glove compartment. Because really, this guy’s productivity system is just too good to be true.
Never heard of him? “Getting Things Done” doesn’t ring a bell? Friend, that must have been a pretty disorganized rock you’ve been hiding under. Read this, watch this and see me back here in a while.
Now, then: most people I know have their own “flavour” of GTD. By which I mean – they use the portion of the system which suits them best, and which improves the productivity in a chosen area of their lives. That might just mean they’re too lazy to get the system to the places where it could really make a difference – but hey, we’re all trying. So how could it help you learn a language? How could it bring order to a chaotic process of studying something so fluid?

Fluids Need Buckets

Really, this metaphor couldn’t be much more obvious.
On an average week, being an average learner of, say, German, you will have come across quite a lot of German-related “stuff”. Some of this will come in paper format (coursebooks, photocopies, post-its, lesson notes, magazine cut-outs), some will be digital (websites, screenshots, links, emails). Some of this stuff will just be an idea (a new school worth checking out, a German hotel that could be your next holiday spot) or a project (there’s a test looming, or a study session with your mates that needs to be planned). Finally – some of this would be suitable for handling “there and then” – and for other things, a suitable time and place would have to be found.
So you see, learning a language is not an easy and straightforward task – not by default.
A chaotic person – our Learner A – would attend to these things as and when they occurred, going from a piece of paper to an idea, from an idea to an audio clip, trying to remember the next thing that needed doing – and inevitably becoming more stressed about the whole process. Not an enjoyable way to learn.
Learner B would recognize the unpredictable and changeable nature of the learning process and set up “buckets” to hold the “stuff” that comes with language learning. A lot has been written on the bucket-setup process – here’s one article worth recommending (or just get The Book). The most important thing, though, is to make it work for you.

Your Bucketology: A Simple Checklist

I’m not going to set up your buckets for you. This would make you less organized and more spiteful, as you realize that “this system doesn’t work for me.” I’m just going to give you some essentials and questions to get you started. Here goes, in no particular order:
– What “stuff” comes with my language? Got tapes? Links sent by your teacher? Piles of photocopies? access codes? Ideas from coffee chats with native speakers? Sit down and list that stuff. Or locate it and pile it on your desk. Don’t let anything escape.
– Can I do anything with it? Don’t underestimate the power of the Trash. If it’s not useful any more – let go of it.
– Where do I feel best with it? Listening to podcasts on your commute. Bringing your newspaper cutouts to the library. Having your dictionary close by when you surf the web. Think of your locations and the best uses for each item of “stuff”.
– How do I make sure the ideas get captured? The key concept in David Allen’s philosophy is freeing your mind from the stress of having to remember everything. Capture your good ideas. Write down / record new words. Work out the best way to do it – and make sure it works all the time.
– When is the best time for it? Sometimes there’s very little you can do about a time: a test is usually scheduled, and a lesson is timetabled. These would go into your calendar. Everything else is up to you – one reminder, though – make sure that when you’re in your “German Irregular Verbs Blitzkrieg” mood, you’ve got the notes, tables and dictionaries at hand (see the “Where…” question above).
– How do I plan ahead? Sure, that hyper-intensive course in Vienna looks too hard right now. But the same time next year…how do you make sure that the good ideas remain with you? Where and how would you keep stock of the awesome plans and crazy designs that your language learning will afford? GTD calls it “Someday / Maybe” – another bucket worth having!
– Which format am I comfortable with? Paper or digital? Notes or voice memos? Portable or cabinet-based? Own it, whatever it is, and don’t be afraid to experiment – there’s no right or wrong way!

Confess, language learners: how is your bucket system doing? This comment section is for you!


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