The Two Sides of Foreign Language Learning

What does it take to start learning a language and stick with it...even through the difficult parts?

Today I have a guest post from linguist and blogger tutor Julia Gracheva. In this article, Julia is all about balance and will give you actionable tips on marrying the two important sides of learning: Joy and Discipline...or Yin and Yang!

Over to Julia..

How To Create Balance In Language Learning

yin yang balance language learning

Learning a foreign language is fun! Learning a foreign language is rewarding and uplifting! Learning a foreign language is a pure joy you could only otherwise get from eating chocolate (insert “cheese” instead of “chocolate” if you are a savoury person not a sweet one)!

Now, let me tell you: it’s not all peaches and cream (and, yes, I am writing this hungry). It’s oftentimes hard, brain wrecking work that doesn’t give you immediate results to motivate you to keep going. But this hard work has to be done, so that your language learning could also be fun, rewarding, uplifting and a pure joy (have just tucked into a cheese sandwich, so no more food mentions, I promise!).

What is the Yin and Yang of Language Learning?

I will be referring to the hard part and the pure joy one as the yin and yang of language learning. These parts are very different and still cannot exist without each other.

Yang is that hard bit, the grammar you need to understand, the words you have to memorise and the peculiar sounds that you teach your mouth to articulate.

Yin is the fun bit, the melody of the language, its humour, flavour and culture. It’s all the stuff that makes a combination of sounds, words and grammar rules a unique, rich and fascinating phenomenon which is a language of the people who speak it, reflecting their unique ways, views, lifestyle, history and what not.

I have seen many adults lured into studying a foreign language by its yin side only to discover the yang one is not so easy and far too long winded to crack in a couple of months of even intense study. They would learn some frequently used or touristy words and phrases, some easy dialogues, may be read an easy book or two in this language or even complete a beginner course at a language school or with some app. The novelty would wear out, they would discover they are still far away from fluency, their busy adult life would take over and au revoir the big sweet language dream!


Where there used to be pleasant exotic sounds flowing about of hoş geldiniz’s being trained, doors, windows and dinner table carefully labelled with sticky notes with die Tür, das Fenster and der Tisch written on them or where there used to be a poster of the Eiffel tower overlooking the desk with a neat stack of French for beginners books on top with pretty bookmarks showing between the pages, now there is just a whiff of foreign language sadness and a pile of unused publications gathering dust.

Not Forgetting the Yang

So, how do you save yourself from this heart breaking scene of your foreign language that died young? Of a big language dream that crashed down having barely taken off the ground? Of having to repair the wall in your study after the blooming Eiffel tower poster came off with half the wall when you tried to take it down?

Firstly, you shouldn’t forget the yang of foreign language learning. And, secondly, you need to marry the two of them, the yin and the yang.

You need to be ready for the long term game, to realise that there is not only yin but there is yang as well and you cannot get the one without the other. The better you get at the language, the better you get tuned to the culture and understand the ways of the people who speak it. And the more you are able to take part in all this language/cultural awesomeness yourself!

When the novelty of a new language wears out and you have learnt all the shiny touristy stuff about the culture, you can get too lazy to keep dealing with the yang. If you give up on the yang, you won’t be able to appreciate and enjoy the yin deeper, to really understand and fall in love with the culture. And you won’t carry on with learning the language!    

So, to make a success out of your language study, to get really fluent in the language you are learning, you need to marry yin and yang.

Finding the Yin  

The yin and yang of my first foreign language were separate for quite a while. As I started learning it at school as a kid (I studied English as a foreign language at a Russian school), I didn’t go through this phase typical for many adult language learners that I talked about earlier.

Instead, I just followed the rules as any diligent student would, without too much of a passion and excitement over yin injected into my study. Then at some point in my early twenties I got overtaken by the yin and had to really sort out the yang. So, here is the story of how I married the yin and yang of my language learning.

Marrying the Yin and Yang

So, it starts at school. Do you remember how you studied your foreign language at school? To me personally it all seemed to be about new grammar and vocabulary topics. We drilled them by doing all sorts of exercises and were assessed by doing more (marked and timed) exercises. Of course, after graduating from high school, I didn’t speak a word in the language I had been studying. None of us did. And I would have been surprised if anybody did. And that was fine as apparently learning a foreign language at school doesn’t imply that pupils will be able to speak it.

On the other hand, was I myself trying hard to learn the language? Was I driven by the yin? In other words, was I interested in the culture of the people who spoke it? Nah, not really. I was barely aware of my own at that time. So, the yang of the language was underdeveloped and the yin was just totally lost on me.

You see, kids and teens are very practical about languages: if there is no point in using it, they won’t. Period. Unless, of course, they are bilinguals. Or constantly pushed by parents, tutors or teachers to speak it in artificial settings. None of these two was my case. So, for me there was no point in using it. Indeed, if I don’t need to use a foreign language living in a country where it’s not really spoken, if I am not really fascinated by the yin, why would I want to be able to read, listen, write or speak in it? Especially, if there is more than enough interesting (and easier) information for me to digest in my own language?

But then I got older. And the Internet happened. Websites in the language. Language exchange. Wow. The yin was right there at the end of a long monotonous sound of a modem connecting my PC to the big big world out there. The yin with its people, their habits, foods, houses, their beliefs, dreams and values: all of them not quite like my own hence super exciting. The oops moment - they spoke a different language which I myself could barely speak. On top of it, I was painfully slow with instant messaging and who cares to write lengthy emails in their early twenties? So, I had to sort out the yang for real, grab the books, learn words and drill the grammar. The more I progressed with the yang, the more I enjoyed the yin.

So, the two were finally married and have been living happily ever after. Years passed but I still try to keep up and improve the yang, so as to get a better grip of the yin and enjoy it more. It’s no longer chats with peers and reading love stories like in my youth. It’s mostly collectively expressed yin in the form of the media, non-fiction books and Netflix. The yin that keeps me going with my yang, which in its turn helps me understand the yin deeper. The unity of the two that makes me really fluent.

There is another story of my second foreign language. It is less of a success but the yin and yang idea helps me to keep going. I hope that someday I will be able to mark it as a success story, too.

So, if you feel like giving up your language study, may be all you need to do is marry the yang and yin?

Yin & Yang In Action: How To Learn Languages In Balance

Here are the yin and yang tasks I marry to make my language learning “happy ever after”.

  • Yin: I watch comedies and TV series. These are a lot of fun!

  • Yang: While watching I make sure I record the new words I loved. The more words I learn, the better I understand while watching!

  • Yin: I listen to songs. And even sing them along when no one is listening!

  • Yang: I listen to and sing along the same songs again and again so that I can sing along with the same speed as the original. It’s not easy but worth it as helps me improve my pronunciation. The better I can articulate, the more I enjoy singing along!

  • Yin: I talk to my language partner regularly. Luckily he’s an interesting person who makes me laugh and tells interesting stories.

  • Yang: I make sure I discuss with him the stuff I have recently read about in the language I learn. Thus, I use in the conversation the specific vocabulary and even certain grammar I picked up while reading. The better I express myself, the more I enjoy the conversation.

What helps you to keep going with your language study?

Have you noticed your own sense of yin and yang in language learning? Are you drawn to one of them: the yin that motivates you or the grammar and efficiency of the yang? Tell us in the comments below!


Thanks to Julia Gracheva for sharing this article. You can find more of Julia's writing on the vocBlocks blog. Her target languages are German and French.