Language Learning Fitness

June 26, 2016

Ever notice that some days language just seems to flow beautifully off your tongue, while other days you struggle to get the words out and make silly mistakes?

This is what I refer to as the "Fitness" dimension of skill acquisition: general factors that are not a direct part of skill acquisition that nonetheless affect your performance.

For language acquisition, this basically means everything that affects your general mental and communicative abilities:

  • - If you're not well-slept, your mind's processing speed, endurance, and flexibility will likely be compromised. 
  • - If you haven't spoken much over the last 24 hours, your vocal chords may feel clogged up, or your articulation sluggish.
  • - If you are troubled about problems or things on your to-do list, you won't be able to devote 100% of your attention to the conversation you are trying to have.
I believe we are basically talking about your hormone and neurotransmitter levels. The closer these substances are to your personal optimum, the more deep and productive your language-learning activities will be. 


The past week I got five days in a row of 8+ hours of sleep for the first time in years. I won't go much into my personal challenges here, but I've put a lot of effort recently into trying to resolve this and related problems. It's largely been working. My level of alertness has been excellent.

Furthermore, I've been talking a lot AND have felt highly competent, mostly as a result of having 6 days of conference interpreting within a 9-day period. Two or three of those days I was interpreting in peak form much of the time. This is when you're in the "Zone" and feel like you're getting 95% or more of the information across and doing so at least as well as the speaker you're translating. 

As a result of these positive factors, my serotonin, dopamine, acetylcholine, oxytocin, testosterone, etc. (I'm fairly well-versed in this stuff) were probably all near optimal.

What effect did this have?

After I began getting better sleep, I worked with an interpreter for two days that I'd been with the previous week at another event. At that event, I had felt sluggish and found myself struggling to hold my own in the conversation. She spoke so much and so animatedly (in Russian) that I just felt like closing up and zoning out. The second time around I easily held my own in the conversation and was able to direct interactions to my liking.

This week I magically spoke Georgian much better than I had in the past three months. The words were easier to recall, and it was much easier for me to engage with Georgian speakers. In fact, I had a couple long conversations. 

This week I went to Spanish club for the first time in 6 weeks. I had had no Spanish exposure whatsoever in that time. Apart from a couple expressions that I needed help with, I was able to speak fluently and quickly got myself into a long and interesting discussion with another club member from Spain. 

In all of these situations and many others, I noticed that I easily became fully engaged in conversation and had no worries weighing on my mind. 

If you only speak a certain foreign language for one hour a month, but do so in an optimal state of Fitness, that may be just as or more beneficial than trying to speak one hour a week in a significantly lower state of Fitness.


The body, heart, and mind are inextricably linked. You most obviously need your mind and your heart (ability to engage emotionally) to communicate in a foreign language, but the state of your body powerfully affects both. 

So, to learn languages well:

  • - Get the sleep you truly need.
  • - Have a sufficient amount of verbal interaction with people to keep your verbal apparatus "well-oiled."
  • - Get your finances in order so that you aren't worrying about being able to provide for yourself.
  • - Create and maintain a sufficient number of close, supportive relationships in order to avoid feelings of loneliness and loneliness-induced stress and unease.
  • - Do whatever needs to be done in order to feel proud of yourself and generally efficacious in life. 
Because, while these things are not directly related to language learning, they determine how much energy and attention your mind will be able to allocate to language learning when the need for that arises. 

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