Making the most of time

Over the past few months, as I’ve been trying to improve my classical-guitar playing, I’ve read numerous books about goal setting and routines to aid playing tricky pieces but also to maintain motivation – nothing makes you give up more than stuff you can’t do! Some of things I’ve learned for music, though, have also proved useful for me in language learning.


‘The Practice of Practice: How to Boost Your Music Skills’ by Jonathan Harnum has been particular useful in exploring the problems of a ‘fixed mindset’ (intelligence is fixed, fail at something will lead you to completely give up) and the benefits of a ‘growth mindset’ (intelligence grows through effort, work and challenge. To persist in the face of failure). So, rather than avoid challenges, or ignore critique and feel threatened by others’ success, it’s useful instead to:

Keep Trying – learn how to overcome this.

Seek Challenges – if I fail, I will learn something.

See Effort as a Key – harder I work, the better I get.

Pursue Critique – what can I learn from this comment?

Feel Inspired by Others Success – I want to do that.

In addition, such thoughts have also proved helpful in considering long-term, mid-term and short-term goals. In music, this means I break down a single practice session in terms of immediate goals (learn a particular section), micro goals (focus on right hand arpeggio pattern or left hand finger movement and placement) and nano goals (now putting it together by slowing down the arpeggio and even looping a small section).  I’ve also found it extremely useful in my language learning. When time is of the essence for me, at best an hour or two a day, any time where I’m studying a language it has to be carefully organised; I need to make the most of the time I have. So, this idea of immediate goals, goals for that specific time, is something I will often use.

To give an example, recently I have been doing a great deal of input of Italian. This week, though, I decided I wanted to do my own writing, be that to write about current events or making comments on things I’ve read. I want to post comments in Italian on LingQ rather than asking questions in English. This will hopefully lead to my long-term goal of being an active participant of the Italian book club at GoodReads. So, back to today then. I was working through an Italian textbook which gave me the task of filling in gaps as I listened. As I did so, I was left with a couple of questions not really explained in the book at the point. I understand why they didn’t explain but I still wanted to know and I didn’t want to write about my own day (as the book asked for) until I understood these points further. So, the following was one of those points broken down into goals.

Immediate goal – understanding ‘mi riposo’

mi riposo – Why mi? What other words use mi instead of io? Is ‘mi’ always before the verb?

Micro goals for mi riposo

So, after noticing such things I set a mirco goal of identifying the grammatical terms and researching further explanations

Nano goals for mi riposo

I copied out a few complete sentences and annotated them – just to secure my understanding.
I then wrote a few sentences (set by my textbooks) and checked they were correct.
I used spaced repetition (more on this below) as I tried to write more unseen sentences from my textbook.

griffinAs I mentioned above, spaced repetition was also used during these tasks. This is particularly useful in making the most of my time and also learning things I don’t understand. Again another book, Michael Griffin’s ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’, helped me with my music but also the example of spaced repetition has helped my language learning too. Naturally, most language learners, me included, use spaced repetition particularly when learning vocabulary be that with Anki, Memrise etc. However, use it for grammar points? Consider nuances with the language? Hum.

In ‘Learning Strategies’, Griffin shows how a thirty minute session can be divided either into ‘blocked repetition’ or ‘spaced repetition’.

Blocked repetition – useful for introducing new skills to create a foundation’
Passage A – 10mins
Passage B – 10mins
Passage C – 10mins
Spaced Repetition – more effective
Passage A – 4mins
Passage B – 3mins
Passage A – 3mins
Passage C – 4mins
Passage B – 5mins
Passage A – 3mins
Passage C – 6mins
Passage B – 2mins

Both types of repetition can be useful provided full attention is maintained during that time. As Griffin goes on to argue, ‘if concentration wanes during blocked repetition, progress can stagnate and possibly deteriorate’. For myself, I probably work with both possibilities. But in terms of SR, I’m always careful in what I choose for A, B and C.  For example, I wouldn’t have three new things for SR. There is nothing more off-putting than struggling to follow three different tricky pieces of music – really doesn’t boost my confidence nor my enthusiasm to play (especially if I only have that thirty minutes and nothing else for the rest of the day). Instead, I would have pieces which vary in focus and also vary in my competence. – two-three bars struggling and slow, focus on dynamics at 70bpm, consistent placement as I play tremolo. So, in terms of language learning, then, I will follow the same pattern rating my current competency out of five to ensure a balanced and motivating session. Similar to my music practice, I would also choose three different language focuses. I wouldn’t, say, choose three verb types to practice. That would just get confusing in my head. So, for example, today I focused on the following

A = Basic expressions – I’m sometimes forgetting the formal and informal version of general getting-to-know someone (name, age, live, work). 3/5 competency.Task: Translating English in Italian (there is a glossary of phrases in my textbook, so I’ll just cover the Italian)

B= Object pronouns – in terms of usage, omission, contraction etc. 1/5
Task: ‘Collins Grammar Practice’ has a variety of English-Italian activities – though need to make sure I’m remembering how to use it and not just remembering the sentences themselves!
C = Present tense verbs – know -are, -ire, -ere. Also including irregular verbs I’m familiar with (avere, andare, fare, essere). 3/5. I’m leaving out the two -rre types as I’d give myself 1/5 for these and need to do them separately in order to give myself concentrated time with them.
Task: Write out (without looking) verb forms with the correct pronoun. I will then check. I will do all types with the option of doing more of one type should that be a particular weakness. I will also notice any patterns.
In terms of time then, this works out as:
Task A – Basic expressions 4mins.
Task B – Object PN- 3mins
Task A – Basic expression 3mins
Task C – Present tense verbs 4mins
Task B – Object PN – 5mins
Task A – Basic expressions 3mins
Task C – Present tense verbs – 6mins
Task B -Object PN – 2mins
For me, this is just one way that I get to know the nuts and bolts of a language. I might do it everyday, I might not. I might do a reduced form and just spend 15mins. The point is, it depends how I feel.  if I’m tired or have a lot of work stuff to deal with, then I’m not going to be fully attentive when I do the practice. As is often written, ‘practice makes permanent’ – I need to make sure that I’m not sloppy, make mistakes over-and-over again without changing it, otherwise my brain will just remember the mistakes. Whatever I do, though, in this session, I’m interested in noticing and improving. If I had to do something I didn’t want to, often because I find it too hard to figure out, I would use the SR time to work out the ‘why’, to clarify the difficulty. This may include attempting to write something or just commenting on examples. Either way my goal there would be to share that with someone on LingQ or iTalki so I could better my understanding. So, from my own experiences, SR for grammar can be a useful tool in making progress – just need to make sure you’re focused throughout!

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