New Year - New Me! The New Year is a popular time to set goals for your language-learning. And if you're like the majority of people worldwide, by now you have already fallen back into old habits. So here are some thoughts on how to make resolutions and set goals that actually stick.
Goals and Steps
You probably already know that goals should be specific and achievable. It's easy to set a vague goal like "learn French" and never know what you should do today or whether you're on track. It's also easy to take on too much in language-learning ("achieve C2 level in two languages this year") - especially when you don't know how much work is involved in your goal.
That is why I recommend seeking the advice of someone who has already achieved what you want to achieve, and whose situation is comparable to yours: for example, if you cannot go live in your target country this year, look for someone who has successfully learned the language without living abroad. Once you have found a suitable advisor among your acquaintances or among professionals online (including myself), have them help you clarify your goal and break down the steps. For example, I wrote this article breaking down the steps to being able to read literature in a foreign language and this article on the steps to quickly achieving conversational ability.
Steps and Habits
Once you have some broad steps like "spend 50 hours reading texts with the help of the Reading Tool" or "study 100 intermediate-level conversations and spend 50 hours with a tutor", you need to translate this into a quarterly goal and then a weekly goal:
- Can you two study sessions per week and some light review on the other days?
- On which days and where will you do the study sessions?
- Do you retain more in the mornings or the evenings? What does this mean for when you should schedule the session?
In order to have the best chance to achieve your goal, it should be completely broken down into steps and these steps should become habits. For example, if your goal for the year is to spend 100 hours with a tutor, 100 hours divided by 52 weeks is roughly 2 hours per week, and if you schedule a lesson for every Monday and Wednesday at 6pm and have a fall-back plan for when you can't make those days, you are very likely to hit your goal. If however you leave it up to chance, scheduling 5 lessons one week and then none the next, you are much less likely to hit your goal. Consistency and habit-forming helps a lot.
The same goes for goals that are harder to schedule, such as Anki sessions. Look for an existing habit that you can connect them to, e.g. drinking coffee. If you develop a habit of always studying Anki with your morning coffee, you will probably not fall back on any Anki-related goal.
Accountability systems can make a huge difference in how many language-learning hours you fit into your busy life. Just think of all those people who are celebrating their 50-day or 200-day or even 500-day Duolingo streak! The same people do not have a similarly-long streak for studying Teach Yourself courses or Anki or anything else, because these study methods do not natively provide accountability or streak counts. That is sad, because most methods are a lot more effective than Duolingo. So create your own accountability system! Count your own streaks! Your accountability / habit-building system could be as simple as Don't-Break-The-Chain or as complex as Getting Things Done.
For myself, I started using a spreadsheet in 2010 and immediately started seeing a huge boost in my language hours. It's true what they say in management classes: what gets measured gets done.
Over the past 13 years, my spreadsheet became a sophisticated piece of software which doesn't just tell me how many hours I spent on each language but also which methods I spent the most time on, what my current streak is, and whether I'm on track to meet the language-learning goals that I set at the beginning of the year. I can set separate goals for each quarter, check my progress towards those, and even log 1-month special challenges such as a reading challenge. If you want to use the same tool, you can get it here. But any tool is better than no tool, even if you keep a list of your study sessions using pen and paper. What gets measured gets done.
Another way to stay accountable is to have an accountability buddy or language partner. If you both set yourselves a goal, e.g. to study all the intermediate-level Language Tool Conversations, and then you regularly talk about what you read, that greatly increases the probability that you will both keep reading. You can also put your LangTracker on iCloud or Google Drive and ask a friend to bug you whenever they see you falling behind.
More than any short-lived firework of intensive study, it's our daily and weekly habits that determine whether any of us actually hit our language goals at the end of the year. So be sure to convert your goals into steps and then calculate what you need to do on a daily or weekly basis in order to achieve this. Good luck with your language studies! You can do it!