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[The importance of persevering in building learning habits]

In his excellent book ‘Atomic Habits’ James Clear makes some very interesting points about the nature of progress (pp. 20-23).

In most cases, when we are learning something, progress is much slower at the beginning (when we are building the foundations of learning as it were) and it gradually accelerates as we continue. Think about learning words for instance; initially, you have few other lexical items in the L2 to peg the new ones on to. Later however, you can link new vocabulary to all kinds of synonyms, opposites, similar words, collocations etc.

If one were to present this diagrammatically, the line you would get would be one curving upwards – it is exactly the same line as if your English keeps getting better at the rate of, say, 1% every week. And yet when we study, most of us expect our progress to be linear (‘I have put in so much effort – I expect to see some results’).

Look at this excellent diagram (James Clear ‘Atomic Habits’ – p. 22). Notice the grey area. Clear calls this ‘the valley of disappointment’ and it represents the period of frustration when we keep working at something and the results seem meager at best. This can go on for months and months. But notice what happens then: beyond a certain point, we experience a period of progress which just seems explosive and it is way beyond our expectations.

I have seen this time and again with my students: they study and study and complain about how poor their English is and then they travel to the UK and when they come back they are ecstatic ‘After the first few hours I started talking and talking so freely and easily and I just couldn’t believe it was me!’

So this is the moral here: choose a few learning habits and stick with them. Keep reading a few pages of that reader every day. Keep singing along to songs. Keep watching your favourite series with English subtitles. All this work is bound to pay off and when it does, you will be amazed.

The Moral: Stick with your habits even if you cannot see any progress.