This past year has been a year of simplifying. Of creating better processes for my studies and my work. And of decluttering my physical and mental spaces.
It’s worked quite well for me, but there was one realm I avoided. The digital.
Visualizing just how many physical objects you’re dealing with is easy. You can take all of your books off your shelves and pile them on the floor. Take all of your flashcards and store them in a box.
Digital possessions, however, are a little more difficult to sort because they’re different formats and can be found in different places.
I’ve tried on and off with little success to get my digital life in order. I’ve read tons of articles, tried out numerous apps, and at one point, even tried to Konmari my digital spaces.
I took every document, file and program and dumped it into a hard drive that I could then organize from scratch. I made a good start, but in all honesty, that drive is still a huge mess.
For the most part, this didn’t really bother me.
Until it did.
Language Learning Methods in the Digital Age
A few years ago, my language learning was 100% offline. I had course books, flashcards and in-person courses that served as my complete language learning routine.
But then I discovered apps. Then websites. Then online courses. Then tutoring platforms like iTalki (which came with tutors who provided their own study materials). Maybe not necessarily in that order, but you get the point.
In shifting some of my learning online, I discovered other bloggers who share their learning methods and who make their own resource recommendations. It quickly became a test – how many could I try? Which were the best? Do I have them all?
I wanted to be as thorough as possible in my learning and worried that I was missing out on having the best resources. The best tools. The best strategies.
I spent so much time collecting, gathering, and researching methods and materials that I no longer had the time to actually study the language(s) itself.
Something had to give.
Despite studying several hours each week, I felt overwhelmed. Not by the language itself, no. But by the sheer number of resources I hadn’t gotten to yet. It made me feel guilty.
As though I wasn’t doing enough or that I wasn’t learning fast enough.
But that was never the issue.
I Am My Own Best Language Learning Method
You see, all of these tools, resources, and strategies, they are all just things. They may be digital, but they can still be clutter.
Especially if they’re keeping you from doing the real work.
Those things are just there to help me learn the language. They won’t do the work for me. Having fifty books instead of five doesn’t mean that I know ten times more of the language. In fact, a lot of the material in those fifty books may be the same.
When I finally accepted this, and it took longer than I’m proud to admit, I knew I needed to make a change. The language learning materials I had were no longer helping me learn my languages. Instead, they were preventing me from focusing on them because I was overwhelmed by them.
I decided to simplify.
Step 1 Simplifying Physical Resources
I know I said that my primary problem was the number of digital resources that I had, but I knew that I couldn’t sort through them until I had tackled my physical resources.
Working with language learning books that I can hold in my hands is still my preferred method of study, so I knew I needed to work through my physical materials first in order to tackle my digital resources, so this is where I started.
I debated which method would work best for me:
* The Minimalist Packing Party // My understanding of the Minimalist Packing party would be that I take all of my language books and materials and pack them up into boxes. As I need them, I’m allowed to remove them, use them and return them to their homes on my shelves. Those still in the boxes after 90 days are donated, sold or disposed of.
* The KonMari Method // This method is a little more extreme, but it’s what I’ve used on a more general scale for my non-sentimental/language related belongings. It requires that you take all of your learning materials, pile them on the floor, then pick them up one by one to determine if they “spark joy”. If they do, then you can keep them and organize them properly on your shelves. If they don’t, then they are sold, donated, or disposed of.
* Get Rid of One // This method allows you to slowly work through your items so that you aren’t overwhelmed with having to decide all at once. The idea is that you get rid of one thing each day.
* Closet Hanger Method // Using this method, you would turn all of your books and learning materials away from you. This means the spine of the book would face the wall. You turn the books and materials back the right way as you use them. Anything still facing the wrong way after a pre-determined amount of time is minimized. This is similar to the Packing party method, but it doesn’t involve cluttering your space with a large number of boxes while you work through everything.
I ended up on using a mix of methods in order to pare things down to what I needed and wanted to keep. I started with the Konmari method, piling all of my materials on the floor and going through them. I immediately donated everything I decided not to hang on to so that I couldn’t change my mind.
* Chinese books written in the Traditional writing system (I had purchased them before I realized that Chinese had more than one writing system).
* French readers that were always below my level but that I had hung onto just in case
* Books in my target languages that I had purchased just because they’re hard to find here in the States and so I wanted to take advantage of the fact that they were available to me
* Books in my target language about things that I’m not interested in
After working through my books this way, I then set about organizing them. But instead of doing this normally, I implemented the Hanger Method and put everything I wanted to keep back on the shelves facing the wrong way. This then showed me the materials I was actually using.
From there, I used the Get Rid of One method. Each day, I selected a book or tool that was still reversed and decided whether or not I wanted to keep it. I made it a goal to find at least one each day that I might not use (until the number was reduced to the resources I knew with absolute certainty that I’d use).
* Don’t buy materials until you’re ready for them. You may end up buying more than you need, buy things and then forget that you have them (so they end up being below your level before you remember that you had them available to you), or buying things that aren’t right (the wrong writing system).
* Don’t buy materials unless they fill a need that you have. If you’re struggling with something in particular, look for a resource that helps you overcome it. Don’t buy a book because it’s one you don’t yet have and that will *maybe* include something you need. Save your hard earned money for something that helps you with something you specifically need help with.
* Don’t spend money on materials that you won’t use just because they are available to you. If you don’t like reading a certain kind of book, don’t buy it just because it’s in your target language. Trust me. It will just sit on the shelf. You may make it through a few pages, but not much more than that. And it may even cause you to feel frustrated or burnt out over your language.
After I went through my physical resources, I noticed an immediate difference in my study habits.
The first was that having the space on my desk made me more likely to use it. Before I went through all of my materials, I had stacks of books on my desk that I wanted to work through. But rather than actually working through them, they just piled up and got in my way.
Typically, when I study, I take notes by hand. Not having space on my desk to open up a book and a notebook to write in meant that I stopped taking notes and just read through resources. And that meant I retained far less of what I read. Taking notes digitally or just doing the exercises in my head just doesn’t work well for me.
After getting back my “proper” study space, my retention immediately went up because I was able to pick up my time-tested study methods.
The other difference that I noticed was that I felt so much less overwhelmed. I no longer had this huge pile of materials on my desk that made me feel guilty. Instead, I had a well-curated collection of textbooks, course books and reading material that I was excited to work through.
Step 2 Minimizing Digital Resources
But then came the great challenge.
According to the KonMari method, you want to start with the easier tasks first in order to build up the skills you need to take on the more challenging minimizing. And I’m glad I took her advice.
When you think about it, most digital resources don’t have a pricetag attached to them. They’re just a small amount of space on your hard drive or a link in your bookmarks. They don’t – relatively – cost you anything, so they accumulate quickly.
And because of that, they can easily bury you.
There’s less emotional attachment when it comes to digital resources, so it seems like they’d be the easier thing to take on. But this isn’t the case. Because you’re not as attached to your digital possessions, you tend to save more and then manage them poorly in comparison. Sorting through them, weeding out the unnecessary and organizing the important becomes an almost insurmountable task when you’re looking at thousands, maybe tens of thousands (and in my case when you count photographs, hundreds of thousands) of files, bookmarks, and emails.
Of course, you may be the exception to this rule. If you are – bravo. I admire you, especially because I wasn’t.
If I felt overwhelmed by my physical resources, there are no words for what I felt for my digital resources. And just the idea weeding through them, was immensely intimidating. And a huge part of why I avoided the task for so long.
Again, I started simply.
My first step? I cleaned up my to-do list.
On my to-do list, I have the task “study language” setup for every day. It’s not because I need to be reminded to study each day, but it’s a little motivation boost each day I’m able to cross it off.
But my to-do quickly became a place for me to store digital resources I wanted to work through (because I would get to cross them off). So rather than having one “study language” for each day, I had dozens. This collection of things I wanted to work through that transferred to the following day for months on end because I didn’t cross them off the day before.
And that’s on top of the files collected on my computer, the websites saved in my bookmarks and the resources I have saved in a dozen other places (like my Youtube queue, the Facebook save option, emails, etc.).
I knew that dumping all of these things into one general folder wouldn’t work. I’d already tried that. So instead, I decided to sort things correctly from the start. Well, second start.
How I minimized my digital language learning clutter.
Step One to Organizing Your Digital Language Learning Resources
I started using Asana with the launch of one of my courses. It was this thing that I had an account for, but didn’t fully utilize. When I took a look at the resources I had saved in email, on Google drive, in Dropbox, in Evernote, on my to-do list and in other places on my computer, I knew that I had to do something to consolidate everything.
Asana seemed like the perfect place. Not only could I upload my PDFs, but I could also create resource checklists (that way I’d know what I tried and what I hadn’t).
To start, I created an Asana project, built Kanban boards for each language and started to delete things from the other places I had them stored as I added them to Asana.
Very quickly, I had an organized database with my favorite links, PDF files, and lists of resources I’d like to try in the future. Suddenly, I had a very manageable and enjoyable place to plan out my next steps and language projects.
Step Two to Organizing Your Digital Language Learning Resources
Once I had everything in one place, I was able to decide what I was going to keep and what I was going to minimize. I could look through my lists of resources and decide “okay, I saved that when I was first starting, but now, it’s too easy for me, so I’m not going to keep this one” or “oh, that’s a great tool, I’m going to move it up in priority on my list so that’s what I tackle next.”
My collection of resources quickly became a more well-rounded and suitable selection based on my level and needs in each of my languages.
Step Three to Organizing Your Digital Language Learning Resources
I processed the materials and notes that I never dealt with because they got buried under all the clutter.
In dealing with my materials, I found old notes and documents that I could quickly reduce into fewer documents or add to my flashcards and then delete. By adding vocabulary lists or lesson notes I had saved to Memrise (rather than having them as tons of separate documents), I could actively work on that information rather than have it sit in a file that I never looked at.
I was also able to add questions and struggles I had for each language to my Next Lesson: Asana board so that I could follow up on the things I needed to work on.
* Storing everything in one place makes the next step that easier to take because it’s clearer what it might be
* You save time and energy by managing everything from one location
* It’s easier to work through my to-do list when it only contains specific tasks and not collections of things I’d like to get to
To Sum Up
A big part of making language learning easier is in simplifying the process. The more organized you are and the less clutter you have (either digital or physical), the easier it is to be focused on your studies.
I wrote earlier on why I feel minimalism is an important part of my language learning routine, but the more I reduce and focus, the more success I’m seeing with my studies.
What about you?
Do you have better study results when you minimize or do you feel more energized when you surround yourself with language materials?
I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.