11 Short & Sweet Tips To Help You Learn a Language in 2016

Ahh, happy new year to all of you! Even though the last two weeks have been quite busy, I did take a few minutes to note down my resolutions for the next year.

One thing that struck me this year is something I had not realised before. There is this huge difference between goals and resolutions. A goal is something specific, concrete, something that you can achieve and then feel good about your success. A resolution is deeper and comes from your emotional centre. It's about what you really want to change in your life.

learn a language new year

Language Learning Resolutions vs Goals

Resolutions are often ambitious and come out of the desire to improve something and feel better as a result. Here are some great language learning resolutions:

  • To become fearless in the face of talking to strangers in a foreign language
  • To feel comfortable watching foreign TV without subtitles
  • To become less self-critical
  • To build a habit of reviewing vocabulary every single week 

Success comes from combining ambition and goal. So once your ambition is set, think about how to break it down into goals - how much can you do in 3 months, how much can you do in a week? Documenting all those goals will give you a clear roadmap, with the resolution as your fuel and the ambition as the destination.

How to Start Reaching That Language Learning Ambition

The following set of tips is a summary of the best advice that Lindsay and I discussed in Episode 30 of the Creative Language Learning Podcast. You can listen to the episode to find out how we go about learning our own target languages, Japanese and Welsh.

1. Work With a Diary or Calendar

Automating a new habit is such a fantastic way to stop negotiating with yourself. If your diary usually has things like doctor's appointments and meetings with your boss in it, how can you question its authority? So use that rock in your life and start adding little bits of language study time, for example coaching sessions or vocab reviews.

2. Don't Rely on Empty Time

Instead of hoping for that Duolingo-at-the-bus-stop moment, set some time aside as a regular appointment with yourself. Lindsay sets time aside from 7am to 8am so she can enjoy an hour of language learning where she can do what she wants to do. I'm less consistent but have a Sunday afternoon study hour where I work on learning my languages.

3. Don't Be Quiet About Your Resolution

It's too easy to commit to a big resolution without even telling people about it. But when it comes to actually doing stuff, it helps to look out for other people that want to do the same. As language learners, this is more true for us than any other people. You want to learn a language, so you want to talk to people. Get started with the "people" part of it now and find a language learning buddy or a tutor to support you.

4. Build on Existing Habits

If there is a slot in your day that you repeat regularly, you have found a great opportunity to learn your language. For example, I know that every morning I sit on the stairs in my house and drink a coffee. The coffee is already a fixed part of my day, so adding a daily Welsh practice or reviewing one page of my learning notebook won't take too much willpower. Instead of going on Facebook before you drop off to sleep, could you spend 10 minutes with the flashcards?

5. Make Your Chunks Big and Small Enough

When you are studying at beginner level, it's too difficult to aim for passing the big C2 immigration exam. When you are advanced but haven't got travel money for the next 6 months, it's too unrealistic to aim for that in-country conversation with a native speaker. These goals need to be broken down so that you can see the end in sight of your current project. What can you do today so that it's a bit easier for you to get to the vision tomorrow?

6. Be Super Precise

Precision is essential for setting a good language learning goal. You must define exactly what it is that you are aiming for. Fluency is a vague desire, but what you need is more than that. Your goals have to be measurable in precise terms, so try to zoom in on those step-by-step achievements. For example, I tend to avoid putting my goals in terms of "having a conversation". Instead, I may want to finish Lesson 8 in my textbook next week or say 15 new sentences based on what I already know. The key is to DO something that will make you feel good when you've done it. Imagining your success does not count.

7.Once the Course is Set, Do Not Question It

It can be so tempting to set a big ambitious goal and leave a little bit of wriggle-room open for yourself when things don't quite work out. When you are setting your New Year's Resolution, is it so ambitious that you already know you're going to fail? If yes, then revise it. Halve it. Make it achievable so that you know you'll be committed.

This is where writing a goal down and sharing it come in handy. Write it in the comments of this blog article as a first step! Set yourself a reminder to come back to it. Whatever you do, don't just go away and forget what excited you enough to get started.

8. Repeat Your Successes

Meeting a goal doesn't mean that you'll never have to do it again. It is the first step to building an awesome new habit. So once you've had your first Skype lesson, you're one step further along the way. But you're not there. You may never be there.

Last year, my New Year's Resolution was to become a more punctual person. But that is an ambition and not a goal. A goal would have been to say "I will turn up 10 minutes early for every appointment I have tomorrow". And for the first day, I did just that. I was super proud! Now imagine what would have happened if I'd just stopped caring after that goal. I'd be just as late as I always was. But if I met the goal every single day, I'd start building new pathways and habits and become a more punctual person.

9. Identify What's Driving You

Behind all our ambitions for becoming a polyglot, more fluent, a better student, a more productive person, there is an assumption that you have a problem right now. It's extremely important to work out what drives your ambition and to identify this personal issue, so that you can start observing the progress you are making. Even if you don't meet every single goal or milestone along the way, are you learning more about yourself? Are you making progress? Are you trying out a new way of thinking?

10. Observe the Progress

It's very common to feel like you are falling behind within the first few weeks of the new year energy. But could you critique yourself in a positive way instead of being self-critical? Don't forget that failing to meet a hard goal doesn't signal a major failure. I'm reminded of Ron Gullekson's recent blog post where he spoke about failing the German exam he had spent months preparing for. Does that mean Ron is a complete German failure? No! He went through intense preparation, so even he still benefited from a tight learning schedule and improved his written German.

Finally, here is a great tip if you feel like this time is not right for resolutions, but you still want to welcome 2016 in the right way:

11. Set a Theme, Not a Resolution

If you didn't have the energy or courage to set yourself a specific goal, the theme for your year, month, or week can act as a wonderful guide to take its place. It also helps you focus on appreciating what you have got right now without becoming too self-critical. As I am entering a new year in my language studies and my teaching business, my theme will be "Figure it out!", a message to myself that giving up isn't what I'm here for.

What Are Your New Year's Resolutions?

So now it's over to you:

  • What are your plans?

  • How are you going to make sure you stay committed?

  • Have you found a buddy yet?

No matter if you have a language learning resolution or something else, I'm looking forward to reading about what you're planning in the comments below.

For more tips about how to learn a language the right way, check out Lindsay's new course Successful Self Study or my popular books Fluency Made Achievable and The Vocab Cookbook.

My New Year Language Challenge: Totalmente Italiano

Now that the new year has begun, I bet you're feeling fired up to take more language lessons, spend more time studying and set all kinds of new goals. And as a language tutor, you know where I stand on the issue: You should at try working with a 1-to-1 tutor. Good language teachers are the ultimate key to unlocking language learning.

While italki is certainly not the only place for you to find a good tutor, they are definitely one of the most encouraging. For 2015, italki is relaunching the Language Challenge. Sadly I'm too busy to get involved this time, but I've found a fearless roving reporter in my friend Tanja. Tanja is taking the Challenge and reporting on her Italian learning progress here on Fluent, and hopefully you'll feel encouraged and get involved in the Challenge too. You can read more below and sign up until Jan 31st.

italianlearning

Something New - Learning to be Fluent

My name is Tanja, and I have loved languages ever since my very first English lesson, aged 10, but sadly never turned into a “polyglot”. At school, I also took French and Latin while trying, at the same time, to teach myself Spanish at home, with tapes and a book (yes, tapes). At uni, I finally did an intensive Spanish course, followed up by a fairly advanced course in Girona. Ever since, I have been trying to boost my French and Spanish skills, to no great avail. My main achievement is that I own a lot of books in the languages. Some of the French ones I have even read. I also started courses in Swedish, Dutch and Ancient Greek, but never got past greetings.

Fluency

Fluency, for me, has a lot to do with speaking. I have come to realise that I am simply not fluent in more languages because I am too worried to make mistakes. Of course that’s wrong - after all, I moved to England aged 18 and therefore personally experienced that immersion works. I am a certified TEFL-teacher, I have been teaching classes for decades, not a single lesson passes in which I don’t tell my students that it’s okay to make mistakes. One of my students was “healed” from not speaking when I told her to pay attention to how many times a day, she can’t think of a word in German, doesn’t finish a sentence etc., in her mother tongue. I know the tricks of the trade, I understand how learning progresses, and I am aware that knowing a language isn’t just about being able to read books in it. My retirement vision of living in a house in France (with a big library) has long been marred by the realisation that I won’t be able to negotiate the contract and that my wine-fuelled discussions with my imaginary lovely neighbours will likely never happen if I don’t say more than “Bonjour, madame!”

So why Italian?

In the late summer of 2014, I decided to learn Italian from scratch. Though I still wanted to become fluent in French and possibly Spanish eventually, I made a choice. This time, I would go about it differently. I wouldn’t repeat and revise what I had already studied several times over the course of twenty years, but would start over. I wanted to apply all that I knew about language learning, and I wanted to give the communicative approach - basically, the belief that it is essential to speak and hence, communicate, from the very beginning - another try. Having had a very grammar-focused language education, this was bound to be hard for me, but it would be okay, especially because the other approaches clearly hadn’t worked.

I can’t say I have always wanted to learn Italian. In fact, I never wanted to learn Italian. I thought it was too similar to French and especially Spanish and it would confuse me more than help. I refused to holiday in Italy because it seemed more useful to go to places where “my” languages were spoken - but when in Spain or France, I very rarely used them. Nonetheless, I was fascinated by Italy: the history, the culture, the writers, recently even the politics were of great interest to me. After all, with the Front National being so successful in France, I might have to move my retirement home to Tuscany. Bonus: Italian food is glorious. So in August, I vowed to a friend that I’d learn Italian, and become fluent - fast.

What I Tried

Once the idea had hatched, I checked out the language very theoretically. I also booked a trip to Rome for New Year. By then, I wanted to be able to speak well enough. I tried to find a tandem partner via Couchsurfing and sort of did, but we never managed to meet up. It was a busy September, so I didn’t do much except practise on Duolingo. My plan was to fit a course into my full-time job schedule, and I had my eyes set on one that would be Fridays from 2-6pm, starting mid-October. This was meant to get me to B1-level in a semester. Shortly before the course was to commence, I bought the set course books. Then it was cancelled. This was the point at which I’d normally move on to another hobby - but not this time. I had made a promise to myself and further decided it would be good for my own teaching to feel like a newbie for a change. I searched online and found an offline teacher. The first time I sat in front of R., I was able to say absolutely nothing, Duolingo notwithstanding. I got homework though, and three days later, I had already improved. By the next week, I could write sentences in two tenses. I was hooked, but felt like I was doing most of the studying by myself. I then, having first registered in October, decided to actually use italki. In November I had my first trial sessions - both were very good, and in addition to being super-supportive, my second teacher somehow got me to talk.

How I Learn

So far, since late November, I have had one offline lesson a week (90 minutes) and one to two italki-sessions. I will be participating in the italki language challenge from January 15th, so that’ll mean three hours a week on average. In addition, I study some of the grammar we talk about in the classes on various websites (e.g. scudit.net, http://parliamoitaliano.altervista.org). I also use my prematurely purchased course book, especially for the offline course. My teacher on italki prepares Anki cards for me after every lesson. I downloaded free Italian Kindle books (though I haven’t read them yet) as well as some learning guides. Since I already know a decent amount of French and Latin words, I have assembled lists of cognates - there are several online for English speakers. I hope these will be more helpful when my grammar has improved a little. Apart from human interaction, my favourite exercise so far is writing just a few sentences a day into my new Italian calendar. In the next few blog posts, I will reflect on how well I am getting on with the different tools.

So far, so good

I think it’s going well - I am determined to succeed in the challenge, if only because Kerstin so kindly gave me the opportunity to share this adventure with you out there. After only four weeks of learning, I am able to understand a lot of Italian - and I always got the pizza I wanted in Rome. A presto!

Quick italki Language Challenge Overview

  • For this Challenge, Tanja is committing to taking 20 hours of language lessons between Jan 15th and Feb 28th - that's just 6 weeks!

  • All lessons count, even free community ones, so you can try out as many tutors as you like. This is about building a habit.

  • Learn ANY language at all - maybe even get to level C2 this time!

  • There's also a reward, as italki is giving away 400 ITC to successful takers at the end.

Sign up to the italki Language Challenge or simply learn more here.