According to you, what's the single most important success factor in language learning?
A rock-solid memory?
Enough time to study?
Enough study materials?
Take your pick.
Sure, all of these are very important.
But the real catalyst for language learning success?
It’s not a specific skill.
Not a language learning resource.
Not even a mindset!
And yet, without it, you’re approaching language learning like a chicken with its head chopped off…
You’ll get by for a while, floundering around cluelessly, but the language learning passion inside you will be short-lived!
So what’s the answer?
I say: having a language learning routine that combines all of the above.
A routine that gives you clarity and direction.
A routine that tells you what to learn every single day. So when you wake up, you immediately know what you’re going to do that day to improve your target language.
A routine that puts all the conditions in place in your life, so that language learning becomes inevitable.
Do you have such a routine in place?
If you do, congratulations! I bet you’re a very successful language learner.
If not: it’s time to put that head back on your shoulders!
Here are 5 tips to create a successful language learning routine.
Tip 1: do you REALLY know why you’re learning a language?
Success in language learning starts with knowing why you’re learning a language!
You need a vision. Something to work towards.
And for that, you need to have a clear idea of the situations in which you’re going to use your target language! If you know that, you can zero in on the vocabulary and context that’s relevant to you. And in language learning, relevance is the key to motivation.
So if you’re learning Spanish to go on holiday, do you want to be able to order the sangria at the beach? Tapas at the local bar? Will you rent a car? Book a hotel or rent a flat? Visit museums? Do you want to get to know the locals and ask them about their lives as well?
If you learn German because it will help you on your job, what does that mean? Will you have to travel to Germany? Buy tickets for the train? Book a hotel? Will you have to talk in German about the sector you’re working in? Do you know the German words for CEO? HR? Trade unions? Strikes?
You get the point.
In your mind, go over several real-life scenarios in which you’re using (or would like to use) your target language.
Once you start using your target language, you’ll be happy if you prepared for the actual situations you’ll find yourself in, and not just the generic stuff you find in a textbooks (although textbooks usually do a good job covering the most-occurring situations).
Obviously, sometimes, you’ll still find yourself tongue-tied in situations you didn’t anticipate.
That’s ok! Just add it to the list of possible usage situations and work on the situation later on.
Once you’ve got your list, you can now start focusing on a daily game plan! Which leads us to tip 2...
Tip 2: Are you doing something every day to improve your target language?
Have you ever sat for a test or exam for which you didn’t prepare until the last minute?
I did. I still remember the long days and nights of cramming pages for hours on ends.
And sure, I passed the exam. But ask me anything about the topic now and the only thing you’ll get from me is a blank stare.
In fact, if you’d have asked me two hours after the exam I probably couldn’t give you an answer either!
Studying something once is only the beginning. To consolidate what you’ve learned in your long-term memory, you need a lot of repetition and novelty.
Neuroscientist Manfred Spitzer says that to learn the brain needs both repetition and novelty.
This is also true for language learning. Study for hours on end, once a week, and I can guarantee you’ll progress like a snail.
Same goes for taking a 2-hour language course once a week and doing nothing outside.
But study and revise a little bit every day, and all of a sudden your brain awakens...
It doesn’t have to be much, but you need to do something.
Not twice a week. Not three times a week. Not even every other day.
Every. Single. Day.
5-10 minutes of Focused Study Time can be enough! Just do something.
It’ll bring you in a long-term language learning flow.
It just feels good to know that you’re doing something to improve your target language every day.
And who knows, once you’ve done your 5 minutes you’ll be excited enough to keep going for another 5 minutes! Or 10 minutes. Or 20..
Tip 3: Have you thought about how you integrate your language learning into your daily life?
Are you struggling to make time for language learning in your busy schedule?
Well, don’t. There’s no need to make much time for language learning.
There’s plenty of it, right in front of your nose!
Where, you ask?
You replace activities you do anyway with the same activities in your target language!
Do you listen to music during your daily jog? Try listening to some music in your target language. Or maybe a podcast!
Do you watch series at night? Why not watch Narcos to get some Spanish practice in? Or un medico in familiar? Or any soap in your target language?
Do you always read a book before going to bed? Why not try a short story or a bilingual book in your target language?
Do you use your commute to work for a quick nap? Why not replace that with a quick 5-minute flashcard session?
Reading a magazine in ‘the little room’? Why not read something in your target language? You could even place some post-its with vocabulary you want to learn on the walls in your bathroom.
You get the point.
Your life is full of opportunities for language learning that wont’t take away any of your precious time.
Take advantage of them.
What’s more: once you’ve identified and implemented, these language learning opportunities will have become such an integral part of your language learning, that it becomes difficult not to get some daily language practice done!
Think of it this way: what if you could set up all the conditions in your life so that learning your target language becomes inevitable?
Tip 4: Don’t fall into the 'language learning materials black hole'
When I was 16, after a holiday in Madrid with my parents, I decided I wanted to learn Spanish.
I went to my local library and got myself every book I could get my hands on.
Among my conquests: 3 vocabulary books, 2 grammar books, a grammar exercise book, 3 textbooks. I also found an e-method: Tell Me More. (Who remembers that one? Apparently it was acquired by Rosetta Stone a couple of years ago!)
To complete my set-up, I took to the internet and signed up for Livemocha, some old Rosetta Stone language exchange website (I don’t know if it still exists!) and a couple of other language learning websites.
Then I ran back to the library because I forgot dictionaries! I got myself two, just in case one of them didn’t have a word I was looking for... Oh, no Spanish word was going to slip through the cracks of my memory!
On my way out I stumbled upon a Spanish audio-course in the CD section so I decided to take that one as well.
Perfect set-up, right?
Well, it lasted exactly 2 days.
2 days that started off with excitement, but quickly turned into a nightmare of overwhelm, not knowing where to start and desperation in the face of a seemingly insurmountable task.
I kept my books for the maximum allowed 28 days to save myself the pitying look of the librarian ("Ah, another failed language learner!" ) But for 26 days, they were just piled up in my room, collecting dust.
Moral of the story? Choice overload is real, and looking for ‘enough’ materials for learning a language is a bottomless pit.
If you don’t know exactly what you’re going to do to learn your target language, and you waste the first 10 minutes of each study sessions on choosing which materials you’re going to use, you’ll never get anywhere.
Better use that willpower to get some real studying done!
Here’s another way of thinking about it: we humans often tend to take the path of least resistance.
If you want to start a study session but don’t know exactly what you’re going to do, the path of least resistance is… well, doing nothing!
If you sit down and your study schedule tells you exactly which podcast to listen to, or which flashcards to revise, then the path to learning a language becomes much less resistant...
So choose your language learning resources wisely. Less is more, and complexity is your enemy.
Think about the goals and the language use scenarios you determined in Tip 1. Choose one (maximum two) courses for Focused Study Time, and a couple of practice resources to have fun with the language.
Integrate them into your lifestyle.
Stick with them.
And get fluent.
Tip 5: do you have a way to track your progress?
Do you know what’s even worse than not knowing what you’re going to do to learn a language every single day?
Not knowing what you have done to learn a language every single day.
It’s all good to have a clear plan for language learning, but if you don’t know if it brings you any results, then what’s the purpose?
That’s why it’s a good idea to always track what you’re doing, and find a way to make sure you’re sticking to your plan.
Take advantage of accountability checks!
The easiest way to add accountability in your routine is by using a progress tracker.
That can be as simple as taking a notebook, ticking a checkbox if you’ve done some studying, and another one if you’ve exposed yourself in your target language.
You make it as elaborate as you want, of course. You can write down which materials you’ve used. Or maybe split the exposure part into speaking, listening, reading and writing.
Then review what you’ve done every week. You’ll instantly discover in which areas you’re doing well, and what needs some more focus.
Pro tip: every time when you find yourself in a situation where you were struggling to express yourself, write it down on your tracking sheet! During your review sessions, you can add these scenarios to your language goals and pay more attention to them during studying. That way, your language goals and needs will become clearer and clearer.
Another way to go about it is finding an accountability partner. Tell someone you’re learning a language, or start a blog or youtube channel.
Let me say this again: the fastest way to fluency is designing a good language learning routine and integrating language learning into your daily life.
Create a plan to set up the conditions for language learning, so improving your target language becomes inevitable.
The 5 tips for a better language learning routine that I've just introduced you to are great start.