I’ve been coaching a dozen or so students for a few months now, and I wanted to reflect a little on the experience. (For more information on what language coaching is, click here). Since I mainly work on meta-skills around habit formation, scheduling and planning, and accountability, I even work with those who are studying languages I don’t speak. (I also work and consult on specific productivity-related issues, such as with PhD students to figure out work plans, idea structures and schedule reconfigurations).
Today, however, I wanted to specifically take stock of the habits and characteristics of the students who have made the most solid progress. (Small caveat / usage warning: All of this is flexible. Most students will do all of these things at some point; the challenge is to make these habits the norm.)
The key habit that really determines whether you’ll be able to learn a language is studying every day. Students who engage with their chosen target language on a regular basis, even if that is sometimes only for 5 minutes, will do better on average than those who try to wait for the perfect moment to study or who bunch study time into one day of the week. Of course, sometimes your circumstances will make regularity a challenge, but I challenge anyone to tell me that they really don’t have 5 minutes in their day to write some practice sentences. (Even astronauts take breaks.).
Have a Plan
Unless you’ve been learning languages before, this is usually where I come in. You need a macro plan (your goals for the coming year or two) and a micro plan (what you’ll be doing this week or today). There’s often space for a plan for in-between those levels — a few three-month challenges to be accomplished over the course of a year. These goals should be specific and they should be measurable. The smaller short-term goals need to match up with the longer-term goals, and these longer-term goals need to be realistic. (There’s no point thinking you’re going to go from zero to reading modern Arabic literature in 6 months.) There’s a lot more to say about this (a lot of which is best learnt through experience), but for now suffice it to say that you need to know what you’re doing and where you’re going.
Your goals need to adapt to your life. Life throws up all sorts of surprises and changes, and you need to be able to have the flexibility to change your plans if need be. This doesn’t mean changing your long-term goals every time the wind changes direction or based on momentary enthusiasms and/or distractions. Flexibility means that sometimes the world changes around you (or sometimes you change on the course of your journey) and that you should make sure to take this into account.
Track Your Progress
Having a goal like “become fluent in x” is not a particularly useful goal, mainly because it’s not really concrete enough to be able to monitor your progress. There are many different ways of making your goals concrete, but generally if you can track it in a spreadsheet then you’re probably on the right track. I have all my students track the number of minutes they’re spending working on various skills. They also write qualitative notes on what worked or what didn’t work in a particular session. Anki, the pre-eminent SRS application, tracks a whole bunch of vocal-related numbers as well, which is useful at the beginning since that’s the bulk of the work. Then you can use reviews to see how your day-to-day activities are matching up with your short- and long-term goals.
Plan for the Unexpected
A large number of my students live in Kabul or other countries that face instability, coup attempts and the like. It’s not unusual to get a message like, “I had to move house today because of the kidnapping threat so we’ll have to reschedule today’s lesson.” Or sometimes it’s something mundane like, “There’s no electricity in my part of the city this week.” If you live somewhere like that, you need to plan for the unexpected and for emergency-type situations. This usually means coming up with a list of easy exercises and/or tasks that you can accomplish in 5 minutes or less, or that can be done without any need for electricity or internet. This way, even when you have a bad day and everything is failing around you, you’ve made a plan for such a situation and you can make sure to stay regular.
Break Tasks Down
If you’re living in a chaotic environment, it often helps to break tasks down into smaller components. Even though it’s much better to set aside time (and schedule into your calendar and inform others around you that this is time to be respected), sometimes this isn’t possible. In that case, you can’t just wait until you have an uninterrupted stretch of 60 minutes to study. If you do that, you’ll never study and then you’ll be putting your regularity in jeopardy. So you have to come up with smaller task groupings (that you can accomplish in 10-minute dashes, for example) and you need to be ok with that. A student will sometimes be fine coming up with suggestions for shorter activities, but will strongly resist the idea of studying in shorter bursts. It’s not ideal, but if your life is that chaotic then it might be your only change.
At the lower end of the spectrum, the more time you spend, the more progress you’ll make. This applies to everything from zero to sixty minutes per day. Once you’re studying for over an hour every day without too many exceptions, then it’s time to talk about speeding up the process and making efficiency improvements. But until then, you just need to keep finding time in your day to be doing short small bursts, making sure that it adds up.
Language learning isn’t rocket science. Millions do it every day, the majority without a great song and dance. If you keep in mind these basic principles, you’ll go far.
If you want to work with me on your language-learning goals, please read this overview and get in touch with me using the link specified.