Have you ever tried to learn a language and became completely lost, frustrated and overwhelmed by all the resources out there and everything that needs to be done?
Do you have difficulties finding the time and establishing the routine to make yourself work on your target language?
Well, my friend, you’re not alone…
Overwhelm is one of the biggest reasons why people don’t reach their language learning goals.
And the main reason for this overwhelm… is that people complicate language learning so much!
You see, most people don’t have a good idea about what to do to learn a language.
They’ll pick up a textbook, maybe a grammar book. They might sign up for some classes. They might find podcasts on the internet, a book, apps like Duolingo, Babbel, Memrise, and use them once in a while.
And that’s it.
No plan. No structure. No overarching strategy. Nothing!
No wonder so many people give up…
And yet, language learning doesn’t have to be difficult… if you build a routine around a very simple framework, consisting of just two ingredients.
In this post you'll discover what these two ingredients are and how you can design a simple, bare-bones routine around them for your target language.
The Two Ingredients of a Successful Language Learning Routine
To learn a language, you just need two things: Exposure to that language (both passive reading and listening as active speaking and writing), and Focused Study Sessions to internalise the language (vocabulary, grammar,...).
As long as you keep doing this, you'll make progress in your target language. Guaranteed.
If you get a lot of (relevant) input to your target language that’s aligned with your goals from Passive Exposure…
You do regular Focused Study Sessions to analyse and internalise everything you learn there…
And you then Actively Expose yourself and consciously put into practice what you’ve learned….
There’s only one possible outcome.
And the more input you get…
And the more regular study sessions you do…
And the more you implement during active exposure time…
The faster it will all go.
Troubleshooting Language Learning Routines
This might sound like common knowledge to you, but trust me, many language learners are getting this wrong.
You see, the beauty of this way of organising language learning is that there’s a big chance that if you’re stuck in a language, if you’re not making progress, the reason is that you’re neglecting either Focused Study Time, or Exposure!
Let me explain. You’ll see, it totally makes sense.
The Immersion Trap
Say, you’re learning Spanish, and you’re totally immersing yourself in the language. You’re watching tv every day, you try to talk to people, you’re reading in Spanish, etc.
However, you almost never sit down to do some studying, and to convert all the input you’re getting into actual things you memorise, you actively know.
You don't follow a course book, you’re never learning something new or learning or revising new words you’ve picked up.
Will you make progress?
Well, probably you will, since you’re doing a great job immersing yourself in the language and getting a lot of exposure, and you will pick up some things.
However, it will probably be painstakingly slow; at least considerably slower than if you would also incorporate some regular studying that you can then put into practice during all the immersion you’re doing.
Let’s just say you’re leaving a lot of potential on the table!
The Dusty Professor Trap
Now let’s consider the opposite example.
You’re also learning Spanish and you’ve bought a method like Teach Yourself or Assimil, a grammar book, a big vocabulary book and you’re studying 2 hours every day. You have flash cards, you do verb conjugation exercises, and you’re going through your course book at an incredible pace.
But this really is the only thing you do. You never watch series or read anything in Spanish. You’ve never actually spoken to a native speaker.
You see the problem here too, right? You’ll become a professor with a lot of what I call “dusty textbook knowledge”, but you never took the effort to convert this knowledge into usable skills.
Again, you’re only learning at 30% of your potential here.
The Key to a Successful Language Learning Routine
This leads us to the key to a successful language learning routine:
Find the balance between Focused Study Time and Exposure
Depending on your learning style and, if you’re already learning a language, what you’re focusing on the most right now, you’ll need to spend some more time on one of the two types of activities.
But trust me: you can never make really good progress if you neglect one of the two.
Don't Forget to KISS!
Now we know about the two ingredients of a successful study routine, the two main components of the SE Framework, let’s take a closer look at the actual characteristics of such a routine!
There’s one overarching principle that governs all choices you make when it comes to designing a study routine with the SE Framework, and that’s the following:
Keep It Simple Stupid
For those of you not familiar with this term: of course; this is a principle invented by the US Navy that says that most systems work best if they are kept simple, instead of complicated, and that you should always try to find the simplest solutions.
I can’t stress this enough, and this is really something many people are struggling with. Language learning is absolutely no rocket science, and you don’t need hundreds of different apps, books and courses to make progress. In fact, that will even slow you down!
Characteristics of a Simple Study Routine
So following the KISS approach, these are the characteristics of a simple language learning routine:
- Regular Focused Study Sessions and regular Exposure sessions.
- Limited skills to focus on every day. No need to cram listening, reading, speaking, writing and grammar sessions in one day!
- Limited materials per skill. You don't need twenty podcasts to practise your listening skills. Neither do you need 20 grammar books to learn verb conjugations.
- Fits into your lifestyle! Make use of 'dead moments' in your day and replace some activities in your mother tongue with activities in your target language to save time (e.g. watch series in your target language).
Case Study: My Italian Language Learning Routine
You see, I’ve studied applied linguistics at university (English, German and Dutch, which is my mother tongue) and for that I had to use a lot of materials, several grammar books, vocabulary books, etc. While this worked, it was also very overwhelming, and probably overkill.
Flash forward to now. I’m living in Italy at the moment and I’m learning Italian in self-study, and for this language I decided to go back to basics. That looks more or less like this.
For my Focused Study Sessions, I use one comprehensive course book: Assimil. It covers pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, there’s audio, there’s text, everything. I also make flashcards of the things I learn from my Assimil book and use the Anki app to review them.
I do one Assimil lesson per day (10-15 mins) and review my Anki flashcards every day (5-10) mins.
For Exposure, I decided to use 1 resource for each big skill. I’m reading one Italian book, listening to 1 Italian podcast, write 1-2 texts per week. Since I’m living in Italy, I’m speaking Italian every day, of course, so there I’m doing a bit more. But I’m actively trying to keep it simple.
This approach has a lot of advantages, not in the least: it’s very clear.
Every time I’m going to study or going to do some exposure sessions, I know exactly what to do; I don’t have to choose between resources, etc.
It’s easy and eliminates confusion, and makes sure I don’t suffer from decision fatigue.
I’m learning consistently (more consistently than I ever did at university), and I’m actually progressing faster in Italian than in any other language I’ve learned before using different methods.
And I’m even spending less time on it!
But isn't that boring...?
Now, some of you might say - and some people really do tell me this - Lukas, this sounds boring!
And in some way, you might be right. If you’re someone who needs a lot of variety, you might get bored quickly if you’re using only one resource, especially for the exposure part.
However, for me this is a trade-off between variety and consistency. If I always need to choose which resource I’m going to use, that makes me lose time and often I might even give up before I get started.
And for many people, getting started is the most difficult part. …
Though you might have a lot of different input, if I do it that way, I’m losing all my consistency.
Now, to find the middle way, I propose the following.
For your focused study time, you choose one course and you stick with it until the very end! This is because you need the foundations in a language, and the best, fastest way to build these foundations and to make sure you’re not leaving anything is by using one course and completing it.
At an intermediate level, you can allow some more variety.
As for exposure: you can have more freedom here. Mix up the resources you use more often. However, I’d strongly advise you to only use 1-3 resources per skill at a time to avoid too much confusion!
Let me quickly repeat some key points.
First of all, based on the SE Framework, the two main categories for language learning activities are Focused Study time and Eposure. You need both, and you need a balance between the two that works for you.
For these activities, and for your language learning routine you’re going to design, it’s important to Keep it Simple. Language learning is no rocket science, and if you want to make sure you’re not getting overwhelmed, this is the way to do it.
Then, as a last remark: make your language learning varied, but never go overboard and trade-off variety for consistency!