Guest Blogger: Bryce DeCora, Founder of Finite Languages.
Sometimes we learn from the most unlikely sources. I learned my first magic trick from a cereal box. I learned how to do a cartwheel from a 6-year-old. And I learned Italian from my newborn son. No, my son did not come out of the womb speaking Italian. He was born to a couple of monolingual parents in South Dakota and, like most other kids in the USA, was well on track to a monolingual life. So how did this smelly little ball of cute teach me Italian? He taught me to be like a kid and live the language.
By the time Atlas was born, I had been studying Italian for about a year. Like most other inexperienced language learners, I barely knew a proper greeting in Italian, even after a year of studying. Fast forward to Atlas’s first birthday. I’m feeling pretty proud of my 2 years of language studying and decide that I’ll try only speaking to him in Italian… I never looked back. Over the past year and a half, I have never spoken a word of English to Atlas.
“Over the past year and a half I have never spoken a word of English to Atlas.”
Imagine the difficulties of speaking a language you are not comfortable in with your kids. When I told him “Ti voglio bene” (I love you), I didn’t feel a connection. There were days where I was too tired to think in Italian around him, so I didn’t say anything. There were even times where I fought with my spouse because she couldn’t understand what I was saying to our son. But this is how I was able to really learn Italian.
After a couple months, I realized I was able to say simple things in Italian on impulse. I was starting to think in Italian. I was starting to dream in Italian. This was true language learning. And the more I spoke to him, the faster I learned and the more comfortable I became in the language. I had figured out the key. To truly learn a language, programming your mind so that you process thoughts in that language, you have to force yourself to live the language.
“This was true language learning.”
Duolingo, Babbel, Rosetta Stone; those are training wheels that can only take you so far. If your goal is to reach fluency in your target language (or anywhere close), it is essential that you find a way to live it. Atlas and I watch TV in Italian, we have kitchen dance parties to Italian music, we argue in Italian and we love each other in Italian.
Atlas is now two and a half and speaks Russian (learned from his nanny), English (from his mom) and Italian (from me). Of course, he is only two and a half, so his sentences are limited to things like “Dammi un biscotto!” or “Where did the moon go?” or “Я хочу кота!” He has been able to learn so much about languages because he, like all kids, lives the language. Learn from Atlas. Learn from me. Apps and flashcards are not enough; you have to live your language.
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How to stick to your language learning plan and be proud of yourself?
Do you find it hard to make consistent progress?
And do you feel upset about it?
It may sound cliché but with a language learning plan, you can kill two birds with one stone! Those who learn a language start a journey with obstacles and challenges. Therefore, you can better be prepared and take small and realistic steps.
But how can you make your plan work and what if you can’t achieve your goal anyway? How can you motivate yourself to keep going even when the crosswind is too strong to set some steps forward?
I’ll explain all of that in this post. Oh, and make sure you grab some pieces of paper. You’ll need them.
Write down your ultimate goal
This is the most important step in making a language learning plan because people who write down why they want to reach a goal are more likely to achieve it. Whenever you lose motivation, you can remind yourself why you first started, which can be very powerful.
Why do you want to learn a language? Do you want to talk with your girlfriend or boyfriend in your target language? Or do you want to go on a holiday?
Grab your first piece of paper and write it down as specific as possible!
Add a date to your goal
Learning a language is like a project. By when do you want to have your learning project finished?
Stick your goal to your wall
Or to the cover of your notebook.
Or to the cover of your laptop.
It doesn’t matter where you stick your goal too but it’s important that you can see it every day. This helps you remind why you should put work into reaching it.
Divide your goal into smaller goals
For this step, you’ll need a second piece of paper.
If I would tell you that I want to run a marathon without any training, would you think that I would be able to run the marathon entirely at once?
No. I’ll have to train 5 km first, then 10, then 15, and continue increasing the distance after reaching a milestone. I’ll also need to learn how to breathe and what to eat beforehand to keep going during a run.
The same counts for language learning. You’ll need to set small steps and you should practice your reading, writing, listening, and speaking.
For instance, when I want to become fluent in a language, I divide my goal into the following smaller goals:
Learning the alphabet and the pronunciation of letters
Becoming able to introduce myself
Learning the basic vocabulary
Learning the most common verbs and basic verb tenses (e.g. present, past, and future tense)
Becoming able to can talk about my hobbies for at least 2 minutes
Watching videos until I can follow them with the subtitles in that language
Holding a conversation for 5 minutes with a native speaker
Let’s call these small goals “milestones”. Now go and write down your milestones.
Take your time for each milestone
If you want to become fluent in a language, you should practice every day and, at the same time, take your time for each milestone. Don’t forget that little steps add up to big results.
Make a tracker for your language learning plan
With your milestones, you can now make a tracker. It should look a little bit like this:
Grammar (in writing and speaking)
Vocabulary (in writing and speaking)
Fill the months in the columns and the aspects you want to work on like listening, speaking, grammar, and vocabulary in the rows.
Of course, you can find your own way to do this and add other things to the rows.
I personally find it useful to use colors for each level and use a legend that illustrates which level each shade of the color represents.
With a tracker like this, it’s visible what your current level is and what level you want to reach after a while from now. You’ll clearly see what you can work on. At the end of each month, you can fill in what your estimated level is.
Define your weekly and monthly activities
Okay, now you know exactly what direction you want to go.
What resources are you going to use and what exactly are you going to do to reach your milestones?
You don’t have to write this down for each month but you can make a mini-language learning plan for each week or month. Define your activities and resources there.
Define how you’ll celebrate your progress
Each milestone is an important achievement. Think of the time and work you’ve put into it. That’s something worth celebrating even if it’s a small thing like reaching level A2. It helps you keep going and punished away your negative thoughts.
Write down how you’ll treat yourself after reaching a milestone.
Reflect & refine
If this is the first time you make a language learning plan, you might not know what exactly ‘realistic’ is for you.
That’s something you will discover along the way.
Every week when you define your new weekly activities, take your time to reflect on your progress of the week before. If you’ve done better than expected, you can set bigger goals. If you haven’t done better than expected, then you can set smaller goals.
What if you won’t reach your milestone?
This is when most people feel sad and guilty about themselves. Even if you haven’t reached your milestone, there is always something that you have done instead. Subconsciously, we do more than we think we do.
For example, I’m a non-native speaker of English and often tell myself that I want to practice the phonetic alphabet until my accent sounds great. However, I’m often so busy that I only practice 3 letters.
That’s already something great!
I’m often distracted by watching lots of YouTube videos in English. Even though my accent doesn’t sound quite good yet, I notice a slight difference in my intonation.
That means that I have been working on my intonation too (while I wasn’t aware of it).
Always ask yourself, “What have I done instead?” and don’t be too critical. Write down everything that comes to your mind!
Have you ever made a language learning plan?
Share your language planning tips in the comments!
Guest Blogger: Kamila
Kamila has taught herself over 5 languages using social media and modern technology. Along the way, she learned how to set goals and make consistent progress. On her blog, PolyglotsDiary she shares her tips and learning experience. You can follow her progress on Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube!