She looked at me with the weary eyes only a tired student who’s been up until late in the night can give you.
“What’s wrong?” I asked her.
“Oh, it took me forever to go to sleep because I was studying until late.”
It does not have to be that way! In fact, it shouldn’t be that way, and the main reason for it is that, I’m sorry to have to tell you, is that cramming does nothing for your brain or your learning.
I’ll say it again.
Hardcore, nonstop learning, does nothing for your brain and it does nothing for your language acquisition.
Just like me, you have most probably also been in that situation where you just sit in front of homework and you can just feel how nothing is getting into your brain anymore, there is an overflow of information and no matter how hard you try or stick it out, it’s in vain.
The best way to learn a language is the same as with most other things:
Take bite-sized information and then take a mental break or rest to let the brain process.
Yes, you heard that right!
I, as a teacher, give you full permission to put down that book and that pen, to get up from your chair and just go enjoy yourself and do something that is absolutely not related to learning.
Why? Because your brain can only absorb that much at once and it needs regular breaks to be able to process what it has just learned before it’s ready to “download and save” more knowledge.
(That’s also why I am not in favour of homework, by the way, but that is another post altogether.)
You know when you update a program on your computer? Sometimes it can take a while and often you have to restart your computer.
Your brain is no different. So learn to use it to your advantage – plus it makes learning a whole lot more fun!
So, what type of activities can or should you do while “waiting for your brain to process”?
- Anything that does not require much thought or brain power.
- Anything that gives your brain a break, so it can focus on what you just learned.
- Ideally something physical or manual.
No book, no magazine, no radio, no TV, NO CELL PHONE. Even in your native language.
Why? Because these are additional information for your brain which will create information overload (that we already have to deal with all day and every day) and that will hinder the “processing” we want our brain to do.
The best thing is to do something physical or manual that you are used to and that comes like second nature. Something that doesn’t require much brain activity FOR YOU. (So don’t try to play the piano if you’ve never tried or try to bake a cake if you can’t even fry an egg.)
So, if you already play an instrument well, relax by playing music.
Same goes for cooking. If you’re a good cook and you don’t have to think much to bake a cake, do that. (I know I used that strategy during a very intense season of my life as a student and used to bake a cake a day to relax until my dad once said we should finish eating one before I bake another one!)
Going outdoors for a walk or a run is also an excellent idea.
You can also take a shower or a bath.
Just don’t use forms of relaxation that take away brain power from you. (This goes especially if you’re still at a learning level in that specific activity.)
So, pretty much anything that doesn’t require much brain activity for you, so that you can mentally go through the stuff you have just learned. See it like chewing. The more you chew your food, the easier the work will be on your stomach and the quicker it will digest it. The same goes for your brain.
Once you feel your brain has processed (how long that takes depends on the person and on how long you studied before your break and how complex the linguistic elements were), you can do whatever you like: continue learning or do another activity that engages your brain.
Let me repeat a comparison I’ve already made in another post:
Do you spend the entire weekend eating for the week to come so you don’t have to spend time grocery shopping, cooking, eating and cleaning up? Of course not!
Do you go to the gym once a week and workout for 3 hours straight so you can couch potato the rest of the week? No!
The key to success with most activities is just a consistent, regular habit.
The secret to learning is this: YOU’RE ALWAYS LEARNING. Even when you aren’t actively sitting in front of your books or listening to your favourite podcast, the brain keeps learning and processing long after you closed those books and pressed “stop” on your phone.
Even though you aren’t aware of it, even when you’re doing something that is totally unrelated, even when you’re sleeping or just relaxing. The learning continues. Maybe not actively on the surface, but quietly below it.
The learning and acquisition process continues even when you’re not actively studying.
Don’t ignore it. Make the most of it.
And now go and enjoy that well-deserved break – without feeling guilty about it!
Your brain will thank you.