Staying the Course Despite Challenges
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! Anyone who has ever endeavored to learn a new language, especially as an adult, has likely struggled with consistency. Whether it is because life got in the way, progress was too slow, or the reason you started is no longer relevant, everyone has stopped their language learning once or twice. There are some things you can do to avoid this bump in the road, though. Language teachers do serve a purpose that most people overlook, that of applying pressure. While being able to choose what you do and when is great, it can also be paralyzing as too much freedom tends to be. That is why it is so important to define your language learning wins.
Define your wins
When you are trying to define what a win is for your language learning sessions, the first thing to nail down is what your goals are. Language acquisition looks different from individual to individual and that is because goals are all different depending on the individual and their situation. Whether you choose to focus on vocabulary words or grammar rules, picking specific numbers to signify your progress is vital.
If you waste too much time on things that are not conducive to you meeting your goals, no amount of learning strategies will help you get where you want to go. If you goal is to develop communication strategies that make it possible for you to communicate effectively with a small vocabulary, then it is probably worthwhile to study grammar and learn vocabulary words via the sentences you are given as examples.
On the other hand, if your goal is to be able to express yourself in the most eloquent way possible, even if you are not perfect with grammar, then you will likely want to focus on high level writing and reading comprehension. You will want a dictionary on hand and you will write often. By speaking and writing you will be able to visualize your mistakes and take time to consider how you would correct them. Once you have figured out the correct usage, you should write it down and come back to it in a couple weeks to ensure it is still the best way you could say that particular thing.
Do not waste your energy focusing on things that do not propel you toward your goals. Not only will you grow frustrated quickly, you will also be more tempted to walk away simply due to the fact that you have not made any progress towards your pre-determined goal. That is why it is imperative that you define for yourself what constitutes a win. If you don't know what your wins are you will have trouble stacking them and building momentum to carry you when you inevitably plateau.
Once you know what your wins are, you can start stacking. When you are getting started, building your vocabulary and successfully reading texts is phenomenal. Slowly building your vocabulary base and implementing new grammar tenses is exciting, but when you know exactly how many new words you need to learn to qualify as a win in your book, then you take away the guess work of solo study.
It is worthwhile to have big and small wins. Life gets busy, being able to come home, learn 5 words in your target language, and use them when writing sentences at the end of the day is a great way to ensure you are winning, at least a little, every day. Those wins will carry the day when you are struggling to keep going on with your second language acquisition. Starting small is a good way to ensure you are able to remain consistent. Consistency beats intensity, there is no shame in starting small.
As you set your goals, keep in mind that, irrespective of how small you start, there is no limit to how far they can expand. For more on goal setting best practices, you can check out this article:
Whether you decide that learning five words per day or fifty words per day constitutes a win, the next thing to keep in mind is that your goals should evolve with your ability. If you have preconceived notions as to the speed at which you should be progressing in your target language, it can be tempting to elevate your goals despite a lack of comprehension. At the end of the day, this is not a strategy that is conducive to long term success. More likely than not you will become frustrated and quit.
Showing up every day does not mean you will be perfect and crush your language study every day. Some days your brain will simply refuse to cooperate, no matter how developed your language skills are. If you are able to work on your target language for an hour four times per week, that is a great starting point. It does not take a lot to ensure consistent progress when learning a new language. One of the best ways to ensure you are able to show up is by making it easy for yourself. Develop a routine that makes it easy for you to jump in and out of second language acquisition work.
Create a language learning routine
An underrated tool in maintaining consistency is setting yourself up for success. Not enough people take advantage of their strengths and most people tend to spend more time mitigating their weaknesses than they do catering to their strengths. When you set yourself up for success by leaning into your strengths, you make consistency simple; and while simple is not inherently easy, simple beats complicated when it comes to remaining consistent.
Language learning for most people is easiest using the make your bed approach. Waking up and stacking small wins to ensure the rest of your day follows suit. If you are a morning person, working on your language learning in the morning is probably a good strategy. On the other hand, if you are a night owl, studying before bed can lead to some incredible dreams. All that matters is that you do it every day. If you do not plan to work on your target language every day, another approach is to know where you stand and how you plan to measure your progress.
Know how you measure your progress
There are a myriad of ways to go about measuring your fluency level throughout your language learning journey. Irrespective of your learning style, you need to determine how you will go about measuring your knowledge. Whether it's by measuring your understanding of various levels of comprehensible input or seeing how well you are doing by speaking with native speakers, you need to be tracking your numbers.
At the beginning, reading books and listening to music will suffice to help you build your skills, but after a certain amount of time, listening comprehension will need to be tested against something more complex than music. Audiobooks, for example, are perfect for measuring just how well you are understanding spoken words. The average language learner will find second language acquisition difficult, but by measuring progress and continually testing limits, difficulty will not supersede consistency.
Whether you decide that fluency tests online, speaking to native speakers, or testing yourself against your previous limits is the best measure of progress, building in time to test your ability from time to time is vital. You need to be checking on your progress consistently as it will be motivating to see just how far you've come as you remain consistent over time. Testing your limits is the best way to ensure you continue pushing on to fluency, without paying too much attention to how long it is taking you.
Consistency is more important than intensity. This is true in many arenas, but language learning is certainly among the most prominent. It can be easy to get caught up in the excitement of learning the intricacies of a new language, but getting addicted to the beginning is detrimental to your long term success. When you are working on developing language learning strategies that work best for you, ensuring that you have things in place to facilitate consistency is vital.
Knowing what your wins are, checking on your progress, and pushing your limits will allow you to progress and stay engaged across the plateaus you encounter. When you are working with foreign languages, the amount of time you spend preparing to practice is often wasted time that would be better spent actually practicing. That is why it is so important to create a routine that works with your life and creates a path towards achieving your goals.
Learning a language is no easy feat, it will be difficult irrespective of how you approach it. But you can do difficult things and be great, so continue to do difficult things and be great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same.
Be sure to check out Second Language Strategies to catch up on anything you missed, find me on Twitter or Instagram for some short form content. If you are struggling to get speaking in your target language, join our Discord! I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.