Welcome, budding polyglot! As I am certain you know, one of the most frustrating aspects of learning a new language is that there are times when it feels like absolutely no progress is being made. Weeks on end where it feels like the same subjects and material are being covered incessantly. I have felt this way with every language I have tried to learn and it never really went away until I had that “ah ha” moment and woke up fluent. However, over the years I have devised a system that allows me to keep myself in check while also creating a way for me to track my progress without recording everything I do. Here are some ways to know that you are winning, even when it doesn’t exactly feel like it.
A point system will be the easiest way to conceptualize this and I think it is actually a rather good way to quantify progress that doesn't feel like progress. Most of us are so far removed from having learned a language that it can feel like we aren't making any progress as we venture out with a second language. In all reality, learning one's mother tongue is not a particularly speedy endeavor. It takes literal years to pick up one's native tongue, even if some of those years are spent in development. While it may be easier for children to learn and retain information, it is still easier to learn a language as an adult than as an infant. As an adult you can choose your own path. So let's discuss some options with regards to that:
The goal will be to achieve 70 points/week. I'm bad at math so we are going to keep this simple, that's 10 points per day or a little extra if you want to take the weekends off. If you have more time to dedicate or want to shorten the timeline, then you can adjust the points total/goal to something that better suits you. At the end of the day, all that matters is that what you do works for you.
Here's a breakdown of our points, all of these can stack, all of these are to be done in your target language:
- 5 sentences written = 1 point
- 5 pages read = 1 points
- 15 minutes on a language app of choice = 1 points
- TV show = 1 point
- 5 sticky notes = 1 point
- 5 songs = 1 point
- Podcast = 5 points (actively listening, writing down words and sentences you pick out)
- Article translated = 5 points
- Create a piece of art (poem, short story, song, etc) = 5 points
At the end of every week, go back and correct the sentences you wrote, revisit the sticky notes, listen to a portion of the podcast, and try to focus on the new things you are able to recognize. See the ways you thought sentences fit together and appreciate how far you've come as you correct your own writing.
You can take these exercises as seriously as you want, but you will get out what you put in to them. If all you do is default to the same activities every day, there is a high likelihood you will struggle with a plateau. Diversifying your activities will prevent that and allow you to continuously be engaged throughout the entire process. These are the little Ws that carry the day, stack them and watch as they snowball.
Progression through language acquisition is much smoother when there is momentum to carry it forward. One of the things that stands in the way of many students in an average class setting is it can be all but impossible to build and carry momentum. From the constant slowing down to cater to the lowest common denominator to the focus on tests being the best indicator for success, momentum does not thrive in a public education setting.
Fortunately, you are now in control of your own education and can create and maintain momentum moving forward. While there are no set paths, it is absolutely necessary to keep the energy flowing and not interrupt. Having wind at your back when working on learning anything allows for days off when necessary and the recovery from these days often leads to better outcomes in future study sessions. You will continue to progress even if you aren't practicing every single day. In order to get to that point, though, there has to be a concerted effort to get things rolling. Once the downhill snowball effect begins to take over, you just have to ride it out and not give up.
Once you are up and moving it can be difficult to decide what to do next. There are some guidelines I follow that I think will be beneficial to anyone working on a second language:
- 80% is enough
When coming from the US public education system this might feel jolting. 80% enough? To pass? But that's only a B, and barely!
Yes, and if you can understand over 80% you are not challenging yourself enough. Languages are unique in that, at a certain point, there simply isn't that much more to learn and from there it is all maintenance practice. So when you step up and work with progressive overload you are able to continue adding to the momentum rather than stagnating in a fit of complacency. I understand the temptation to stack some Ws getting 100%s and how good it can feel to feel masterful at the language. However, I also know what it is like to understand later how much of a disservice I did myself by becoming complacent with what I already knew.
It is going to be tempting to continue working with the same materials over and over again because you understand them better and better each time. But it is in your best interest to move up a level as soon as you surpass 80% comprehension (90% is okay, too). This will be challenging, but if you are already here, reading this, working on your second language, I doubt a challenge is something that will scare you away.
- Aim for the high point tasks
I included high point tasks because they are things I think are worth doing at least 4 times every week. They are worth so many points because I do understand the time commitment that each will take and I think they are all more than worth it. If you only do one per week to start out, that is totally fine. Everyone has their own pace. I encourage you, though, to push and get to the point where you are translating two articles per week and listening to two podcasts. This will drastically improve both your reading and writing, while also tuning your ear to the target language. Ideally switch the podcasts up so you don't get used to any one person's voice (this can make it difficult to understand other people) and try to only translate articles that are cover things about which you are interested in learning.
As much as I am sure it gets old when I repeat this, that does not change the veracity of the statement, "writing is the best way to improve" especially when you are just getting started. Writing allows you to better recall words, learn new and often better ways to say things, and keep a physical record of improvements over time. Whether writing sentences to practice words and sentence structure or endeavoring to write poetry or a short story in the target language using bilingual dictionaries and thesauruses, writing will always be one of the best ways to build momentum. Sometimes what we need the most is to see where we started to recognize how far we've come.
It doesn't matter what you start out writing. It doesn't matter how many mistakes you make when you start out writing. All that matters is that you start writing. Do this exercise for 6 weeks and watch how much you improve, not only in your writing and reading comprehension, but in your speaking and auditory comprehension as well. Writing drastically improves recall ability and speaking is all about the ability to recall what you need when you need it.
I say, "Stack the Ws" a lot, and it isn't just because it is something I think is important for learning languages. Life can be challenging and there are few things that lighten that load, but when you focus on stacking the wins, no matter how small, you will build momentum and get to the point where nothing can stop you. I want this for you in your language learning. I also want this for you in every other aspect of your life and I hope you will find ways to translate it into other areas. Learning a second language is difficult, but you can do difficult things and be great. So go do difficult things and become great.
Here I’ve given you some of the tools, but in the end, there is no comprehensive guide, no tips or tricks to carry anyone across the finish line. Language acquisition requires time, effort, and consistency. That said, it is something that anyone of any age is more than capable of accomplishing. I’ll be here rooting for you and watching your progress.