The Rider & The Donkey: A metaphor for levelling up through the intermediate stage of language learning

QLA9g-21 After reaching an intermediate level in French (my ‘first’ second language) I started getting frustrated as all the material I was using seemed to be either too easy or too hard. Either way, it was very hard to find materials suited to the level I was at, and I felt lost unsure of how to navigate my way through intermediacy to an advanced level in French.

When searching online there is an overwhelming amount of material for every and any language you desire, particularly for the beginner or for the fluent/native speaker. However, there seems to be a noticeable absence of intermediate material, at least explicitly presented online like beginner and advanced material. I think this is in part because it’s very hard to group intermediate language learners together, even those learning the same language. For beginners it’s easy, you can teach them anything because they don’t yet have a firm grasp of the language (e.g. Colours, pronouns, grammar, verbs, adjectives, etc.). For the advanced learner it’s much the same but for opposite reasons. They can use any material to improve in any area of the language because they have a firm grasp of the language. However, intermediates seem to be the most diverse group. You can find two intermediates learning the same language who yet have very limited overlap of skills in that language (aside from the basics). Some are amazing with remembering words but suck at grammar. Some suck at word memory but ace grammar. Some are good at all these things, but only in the context of Anime or collecting stamps, etc. Hopefully you get what I mean. At the intermediate stage you know the basics of vocab and grammar, etc. but have holes everywhere, and no two intermediate learners of the same language have the same holes in the same places. This to me, is why it was initially very frustrating when I first started trying to navigate my way through the intermediate stage of language learning. The following post is my attempt at sharing my method of tackling this problem and alleviating at least a little of the frustration that comes with reaching intermediacy.

1. Realising that you are both the rider and the donkey.

I see my own language-learning journey as two parts: a rider and a donkey. Haha here me out! Pete learning French is a rider on a donkey setting off from point A (beginning the language) and traveling to point B (C1-C2 fluency in the language. This is my goal. It may not be yours). I am both the rider who’s hoping to get from A to B as easily as possible, preferably on someone else’s back, and also the donkey who has to put in the leg work and go the distance. Getting the rider and the donkey to work together to get things moving comes next. Realising this has made a big difference in how I have gone about learning French, and I hope that it will help you learn whatever language (or other skill) you are currently tackling.

2. Moving the donkey.

The donkey has to have a reason to move. In other words, there has to be incentive or the donkey isn’t going to budge, and you’re stuck at point A daydreaming about getting to point B. Think of incentive in this metaphor of the rider and the donkey as a carrot held out in front of the donkey on a stick by the rider. If the carrot is too close the donkey eats it and the incentive is gone. If it’s too far away the donkey will flip-off the carrot and say “Too hard. Can’t be bothered!”. But if it is just close enough that the donkey thinks he can reach it, he’ll start walking towards it and the rider and the donkey get moving. donkeycarrotbellcurve1“What the hell does this have to do with language learning?”, I hear you asking. Well you are the rider AND the donkey, where the carrot represents the difficulty of the material you are currently working with in order to learn your target language. If the material is too easy you won’t improve. If it is too difficult you won’t improve. But when it is at the right difficulty you start moving forward, improving at a steady rate! Getting that consistency of movement has taken me quite a bit of practice, but it has definitely paid off. I will get to the specifics of how to keep the donkey moving in a bit. The take away message here is that in order to improve in your target language, the rider has to position the carrot at the right distance in front of the donkey to get him moving forward (i.e. keep you improving).

3. Moving the donkey in the YOUR right direction.

The donkey is in charge of moving the rider, and the rider is in charge of directing the donkey as it moves. The start of your language-learning journey (point A) is known, you’re a beginner, however, the end of the journey (point B) is less certain. You might have a good idea of where point B is, it may simply be getting to the point where you can order a coffee whilst on holidays, or it may be achieving a C2 level of fluency. Either way point B is likely to shift as your journey unfolds. We all have different goals, i.e. point B’s that we’re aiming for, and it’s important to get a good idea of what yours are even if they are liable to change in the future. A journey has to have a destination at all times or you’re not moving. Whether or not your current destination (where you think point B is) remains so in a week, 6 months, a year or a decade, is less important.

The donkey and the rider travel the winding path from point A to point B one corner at a time, only ever able to see up until the next turn, but all the while knowing all these turns eventually lead to a destination. In other words, take things one corner at a time. Have the long-term goal in mind (point B), but don’t fixate on it constantly. Instead, try focusing more on short-term goals (reaching each corner), and you will find a great deal more satisfaction and motivation. This paves the path with a constant trial of mini rewards, and before you know it you’ll get your big pay off and be standing at point B. In the context of language learning, don’t focus on the end fluency, focus on daily/weekly/monthly short-term goals, for example: reading 10 pages of a book today; listening to 30 minutes of audio today; or completing 2 hours of spoken conversation this week. These are easily achievable short-term goals, which will give you the gratification you may be seeking much more often, keeping you motivated.

Picking the path you take shouldn’t depend on how long or short, nor how easy or hard it appears to be—don’t buy into the “X months to fluency” or “1 simple technique to fluency” hype. Rome wasn’t built in a day, as it’s said. The aim is to get from point A to point B, not to get half way from point A to point B as fast as possible and then give up and move on. So pick the path that will actually get you to your end goal. But “how do you do this?” I hear your asking.

At the start of your language-learning journey picking the right path is made a lot easier if you ask yourself the following questions.

Why are you learning the language?

I want to learn French because I like the way it sounds, I like the culture, I like the history, and I have numerous French-speaking friends.

What materials, methods, etc. will keep you learning the language?

It is so important to use materials you are passionate about. This makes it a great deal more enjoyable, and you want to improve so you can delve even further into the materials. For me, I absolutely love French movies and TV shows, as well as some of their journalistic/satire styles like Charlie Hebdo. So being able to better understand these materials is a real intensive, not only to read/watch them but to improve my French in order to more easily read/watch them. On a side note, it seems every male Japanese-learner I know started learning Japanese, and continues to do so, because of their deep obsession with anime. Find your interest or obsession in the context of the language you want to learn and exploit it!

How much study can I handle per day?

You need to study every day. Full stop. It sounds daunting to some at first, but it’s also a blessing in disguise. Some people would prefer to smash out 3.5 hours on the weekend of study, instead of 30 minutes a day. However, in the context of learning anything, it is a great deal more effective and time-efficient in the long run to do less more often, than more less often. There’s a big difference between brushing your teeth twice a day for 3 minutes compared with once a month for a few hours (ehhh an unpleasant thought on many levels!). It is also a lot easier to continue a routine when it is frequent.

Being aware of how much you can handle.

What can you personally handle? A big study load, a small study load, a varied load? Ultimately this is totally subjective, but picking the one that will keep you on the right path until you reach point B. (This can change through time.)

Not putting too much pressure on yourself.

Allowing your interests to change and evolve. Go with the flow and do whatever it is that keeps you enjoying learning your language and moving forward! So obviously there are an infinite number of paths that the rider on the donkey can take to get from point A to point B. There is no ONE CORRECT path. Some paths are definitely better than others, but it is subjective, relative only to you. The right path is the one that will get you to where you want to go. Don’t put too much emphasis on speed or perceived difficulty, or what got someone else to point B before you. Do what you enjoy, do what works for you, and you will be giving yourself the best possible chance of arriving at point B.

4. Keeping the donkey moving.

The most important thing is keeping the donkey moving, and at a consistent pace. Consistency is a powerful thing. Everybody will surely know the story of the tortoise and the hare, “slow and steady wins the race”. In order to keep the pace steady the rider needs to place the carrot at the right distance away from the donkey so that he can’t eat it and have no reason to continue moving, and not too far away that he thinks it’s unobtainable and gives up. You have to find a nice comfortable zone, which you learn to dial in over time. It just takes practice.

This is really relevant when it comes to picking the level of materials you’re using to learn your language at any given point in time. It can’t be too easy, and it can’t be too hard, as in either case you won’t be learning, at least not as efficiently as you could be. Think of all the possible materials from easiest to hardest spread across a bell curve, with the top of the bell curve being the region of peak learning efficiency (y-axis) at a given time (x-axis). At the beginning all material accept the most basic is sitting on the right-hand side of the bell curve in the ‘Too Hard’ area. As you slowly conquer the basics you move up the bell curve until you reach the peak where you are learning as efficiently as possible from your current material. After a while though this material becomes too easy and moves off to the left of the bell curve into the ‘Too Easy’ area. If you stay with that material your learning efficiency will drop as you drift with it to the left of the bell curve. This is the point, you need to start dipping into more difficult materials so that you stay at the top of the bell curve, in the area of peak learning efficiency (highlighted in blue on the bell curve). donkeycarrotbellcurve

This can take a bit of time and practice as finding the next book, podcast or TV show that is only just ahead of your current skill level can require testing out multiple options. In our rider and donkey metaphor, the rider is the ‘you who is choosing the materials’ and the donkey is the ‘you who is using the materials’. At first you may experience a few stops and starts when you choose material that is too easy or too hard (i.e. you’re placing the carrot too close or too far away). You get better at this with time as you get a feel for what is a confortable next step each time. Eventually it becomes a smooth process where the rider you is able constantly adjust the distance of the carrot from the donkey you to keep it you moving forward, i.e. constantly in the zone of peak learning efficiency (blue).

The rate at which you level up through material may be slow, or it may be incredibly fast. This really doesn’t matter, so don’t compare yourself to others or worry too much about what others may think. What matters is that you find a pace that you can sit at that you’re comfortable with and can maintain in the long term. That doesn’t mean you can’t do more when you feel like doing more, it just means that at the very least you get a minimum done each day to keep you on track. Anything on top of your normal amount of work is just a bonus!

To get a little specific (and this is complete conjecture on my behalf): I personally choose materials of which I can comprehend around 80-90%. Once you hit the intermediate stage this point seems very crucial: being able to comprehend enough of your chosen material so that you can work out unknown words based on context (at least some of the time to begin with). This to me is the golden zone of peak learning efficiency. If you know all the words you’re in the ‘too easy’ area. If you don’t know enough of the words to understand the material without using a dictionary on every second word, you’re in the ‘too hard’ area. And no matter what level you’re at, as you improve you’re going to have to keep picking slightly harder materials that remain at that same perceived difficulty level to keep you improving at the same rate. If you ever reach a point where you can no longer find ‘difficult’ materials, you’re not looking hard enough or are a long way past fluency. So it may be time to start a new language!  

5. Realising point B doesn’t exist. It’s a concept not a location.

Too many people are caught up with getting to the end as fast as possible these days. They want instant gratification and they want it now. However, it’s incredibly liberating, albeit a little terrifying, when you realise that there is no limit and that’s a good thing. Life is the journey, are you in a rush for it to be over? Enjoy it. Just keep aiming for you goals. They’ll change, I promise you that, but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth heading for in the time being. I’d prefer to stay on the ride as long as possible going around and around, than rush to the end and have to get off. When one language is over you may choose another. You may switch half way through learning one. You may be ok with conversational fluency. You may change your mind and decide you just want to be able to read, or talk, or write. It doesn’t really matter, just know you can achieve what you want to achieve but it’s up to you as both the rider and the donkey keep things moving. Anyway, I hope this blog post has helped to give you a little direction as you navigate your way through intermediacy to the advanced stage of learning your target language!

All the best,

Pete

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Author: Pete Smissen

I'm a PhD student with an ever developing passion for learning foreign languages. I started this blog to flesh out and share my thoughts and ideas on how to go about learning foreign languages to fluency. I am more interested in concept based approaches that each individual can tailor to their own personal living situation, interests, attention span, etc.

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