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5:2 your language learning: Intermittent Mothertongue Fasting

language learning and diets - the benefits of intermittent language learning

If you were looking for a connection between language learning and diets, this could be your lucky day. And if you weren’t – this article may just make you think about the benefits of reducing your dependence on your first language. Both outcomes are fine by me, and hopefully will be inspiring for the language students out there!

1. The diet that changed it all (again)

One of these days, I’m going to start reading about diets with more interest, and I may even have to start one. For now, I’m enjoying my diet-free life and if I’m paying attention to the latest miraculous food-related theory, it’s mainly out of curiosity.

The one making headlines at the moment is the 5:2 diet. Its main advantage is simplicity. Five days in a week, there is no diet – then for two days, the calorie intake is drastically reduced (intermittent fasting is the scientific term here).

Now, I’m not going to tell you if the 5:2 diet works or not. But I want to think about the way this might affect language learners.

2. High caloric languages and information binges

I’ve had many days in my life that ended in my room, alone, with headphones on and lights out. I was fine, and I assured everyone that nothing was wrong – it’s just that I’d spent the whole day talking, listening, reading and typing away, and now I felt I didn’t really need to interact any more.

I’ve also had holidays and weekends like that: after five teaching or translating days, I’d go back to see my folks and politely explain that no, I didn’t want to chat, I’d spent five days with words already, so let’s just go for a walk and chill, maybe…?

Think about the last time you had that.

You can’t turn off the ability to process language (watch this video to see how true this is). So every day – at work, at college, even at home – you’re taking in bits of information. No wonder people talk so much of “information overload.” If we were to come back to our food analogy, your mothertongue would be highly caloric – every bit of it is processed, heard, understood, every word and every sentence affects you. The same is true for every language you’re proficient in.

3. Foreign language learners: watch your language calories

Let’s say you change your nutrition pattern. You want to achieve something. Experts will quickly tell you: this food is better than that. Eat this, don’t eat that. Cook this more often, stay away from that.

The “this” and “that” part changes depending on what you want your diet to result in, of course.

Now, if you’re a language learner, the analogy is even simpler: between information overload and the high caloric value of your mothertongue, the best and simplest way to learn a foreign language would be this: “eat” less of your mothertongue, and “eat” more of the foreign language calories. The rest may change a lot, or not at all, but the key issue remains. Every time you read, hear or produce a foreign language word or sentence, you’re NOT spending time on “empty calories” of your mother tongue.

4. The case for Intermittent Mothertongue Fasting

The rule sounds well in theory, but in practice there’s still more to be done. Short, little bursts of learning may be easy to fit around most busy schedules – but for many people learning by immersion is the way to go. That’s ambitious, awkward at first – and costly.

But it becomes easier if you take the first necessary step: reduce the amount of mothertongue you deal with.

I’m not saying you should cut it out altogether (and I’m certainly not going to defend this idea in front of your bemused boss / wife / colleagues!). Some social norms and constraints will require you to use this language and no other.

But there are many occasions when you simply choose to deal with language – or resort to any language available. Why should this be your mothertongue, dear polyglot? Here, have a few examples: they’re what I did today.

  • I picked up two newspapers to read on the Tube.
  • I checked on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter.
  • I listened to some songs on Spotify.
  • I followed a Wimbledon match report.
  • I watched the six o’clock news.
  • I researched laptops and jeans online.
  • I read about cotton, polyester and mycoprotein (please don’t ask).

All these are things I did in my free time. In English. Lazy stuff. It filled my day up with language I know well and not with the languages I really want to learn.

So what’s the alternative?

5. Five simple ideas for a 5:2 language learning plan

1. For five days a week, go wild. Let your mothertongue rule, stay safe in the comfort zone of the language you know well. In fact, indulge yourself. Read up on your newsfeeds, listen to the news, until you feel that the safe and comforting sound of the dialect you’re so familiar with becomes a bit too much. And then…

2. For two days a week, reduce your mother tongue. Resist the urge to catch up, tune in and so on. Stay away from beckoning newsfeeds. Burroughs once described language as a virus; if you’ve ever felt sick of communicating, you know what he meant. Do what you have to do: work, play, interact, learn in your most common language. Do this eagerly and dilligently. But stay away from “mothertongue binges.”

3. Notice what happens. Here’s the beauty of that previous step: I didn’t actually urge you to fill those two days up with the language you’re learning. Not just yet, anyway. The challenge was: stay away from the easy language calories. Chances are, you’re still going to want to read, hear and say something, right? See how you feel on those two days. Notice what you really want to do, when, how. Ask yourself: “what happened there?” – every time the mothertongue temptation is too strong.

4. Find a way to fill the urges – with the foreign language calories this time. Now you know what you really want to do with the language, and you’ve become more aware of the media, purposes and channels that really pull you in. Great! All that remains is to find a way of introducing the language you’re learning into these “gaps.” Radio news in English can be replaced with a downloaded podcast. Morning newspapers – with a well-curated RSS feed. The interface on your social media accounts can be changed for two days. And as for the books and audiobooks out there – there are brilliant foreign-language alternatives for those.

5. Keep it intermittent. Two such days in a row would feel even more awkward than one. Space them out, so that you’ve got some respite before another one comes along. If it makes sense not to fast for 48 hours in a row – it sure makes sense with language learning marathons as well! You’d be overlearning and not really helping your memory.

What do you think, learners and teachers? Does this sound like something we could try? I’d love to read your ideas and comments below. English is fine – I’m on my “easy language” day 🙂

(Photo credit: #ELTpics)


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