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Boost your chances of success this year

Have you set yourself the goal of ‘learning a language’ this year? Or are you thinking about it? Well, you’re in great company. Most people in the world are bilingual, so language learning is the norm. It has all sorts of benefits, from opening up new career opportunities to expanding your dating pool!

But one thing has always struck me about people who learn languages. Many have been learning for a long time and have struggled to reach a level they are happy with. Many lack confidence when they have to speak. I put myself firmly in this camp.

Nothing has made me more aware of this than the experience I’m having as I write this on a train in France. The family sat in front of me is bilingual in English and Chinese, the woman in front of me at the café switched effortlessly between Spanish to talk to her kids and French to order food, and the person that served me responded in English when she detected my accent.

How have they done it? And why do so many people fail? Don’t worry, I’m not going to propose you move in with a bilingual family, but there must be some things we can do to give ourselves the best chance possible.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes. It takes time and effort but you will see results if you build good learning habits. So below is a list of things that have helped me. I can’t claim credit for them. They’re just things that have worked for me which may, or may not, help you. A lot of them are common knowledge or I’ve read about. A great book is Atomic Habits by James Clear which I highly recommend.

  1. Set a goal
  2. Do things you enjoy
  3. Set a time and place
  4. Track progress
  5. Be accountable

Set a goal

When we know why we’re doing something, we tend to be more committed to it. Sometimes these goals are clear – studying for exam, learning a few phrases to get by on holiday etc. Sometimes, we’re learning just because we want to.

So, what is a good goal when you ‘just want to learn’? This is probably where I’ve failed the most as a learner, treating languages as something you can master over a very intensive period of study. Maybe some people can do this, but most of us have busy lives and can’t immerse ourselves completely in a language. Languages are a skill that need to be nurtured and practiced continuously.

This is why I now set goals based on what I’ll do in my target language, rather than my overall competency. So, I’ll commit to reading a short article a day, a Netflix show once a week and a 5 minute lesson on golingo in the evening. Each activity increases my exposure to my target language and keeps the brain ticking.

This approach works best when I form small habits but do them regularly and consistently. They may seem like a drop in the ocean, but something is better than nothing. And once you’ve formed a habit, it’s much easier to scale it up. Small changes and improvements soon add up. It’s this consistent approach (not ad hoc learning) which will pay off in the future and boost your language skills.

Do things you enjoy

A learning habit will stick if you find it rewarding. Unfortunately, I learnt this very late on. For too long, I treated languages more as a science than art. Vocabulary and grammar rules had to be learnt. I thought completing textbook exercises would give me the competence to use Spanish in real-life. While these are very useful ways of learning, I totally ignored the vast resources out there that bring language to life: movies, music, media, people. Of course, I knew they existed and would be good to use, but for some reason I deprioritised them from learning. Mistake.

With more time on my hands during lockdown, I started doing more things in Spanish: watching films on Netflix, listening to playlists while working and reading short stories. It was then I realised I do a lot of these activities in my native language so it was a no brainer to switch some of these over to Spanish. Doing more of this stuff makes learning more fulfilling, ‘real-life’ and engaging, which means you’re more likely to do it.

The thing I like to do the most is speak a language. There’s no bigger buzz than having a conversation with someone, understanding what they’re saying and them understanding you. Unfortunately, speaking practice seems to be the one area language learners don’t get enough of. I did language exchanges which were invaluable but wanted something on-demand so I could do it in short, convenient and consistent bursts. This is where the idea for golingo came from.

If you’re learning a language, try not to neglect speaking practice. When you’re able to hold a conversation with someone in your target language, no matter how short, it makes all the hours of learning worthwhile. For more ideas to make your learning more fun, read our blog here.

Set a time and a place

Now you know what you’re going to do, commit to a time and place. You’ll massively increase your chances of doing it. Even better, stick it in your diary or put a reminder in your phone. That way, you won’t even have to remember to do it yourself. Find a location that works for you. As I work from home a lot, a change of scene helps me refocus. I find the local pub makes a great location to read a book on a Sunday afternoon!

Defining a time and place for each new learning habit has helped me massively. You’re just more likely to do something if you’ve thought about how and where you’ll fit it in. I also try to pair habits with other things I already do and enjoy. Each morning, reading an article in Spanish with a coffee has become an easy addition to my morning routine. You could try listening to a playlist while walking the dog, reading in bed with a hot coco, listening to a podcast in the bath or whatever you like doing! I’ve started doing a conversation on golingo in the evening on the sofa while cuddling the dog.

If you’re not doing something as much as you’d like to, you may just need to change up the time and place. Lately I’ve struggled to find time to watch TV shows and movies so this year I’m going to do a monthly Spanish film night x Taco Tuesday in our household. Why not try this yourself?

Track progress

Keeping track of progress can spur us on. Maintaining a tracker of your learning habits and ticking them off when done can make you feel good about what you’ve achieved and motivate you to continue. This has worked really well for me in the past, and something I’m hoping to do more of this year. If I miss something, I don’t beat myself up. I’m conscious I didn’t do it and I’ll make sure I don’t miss it next time. On those days it seems too much effort to do anything, I’ll make sure I do at least something, no matter how small.

When you meet your goals, reward yourself! Met all your Italian targets for the month? Go the new Italian restaurant down the road. Met all your French targets for the last 6 months, jump on the Eurostar to Paris!

But let’s be honest. You might have good intentions but seeing them through can be difficult. We tend to be overly ambitious, or at least I am. Life easily gets in the way and after a long day of work, do you realistic have the time (and energy) to do what you said you would? Hit the gym, cook every night and then learn a language?

Keeping track lets you assess what’s working and be more specific about what needs to change. Instead of feeling like you’re failing at language learning across the board, you’ll notice what you’re enjoying and what needs to be tweaked. Here are a few changes I’ve made to my learning habits after tracking my progress. Some of these may sound really stupid, but they have made a big difference:

  • I found reading in a foreign language too brain draining right before bed so I now carry a Spanish book around in my bag so I can pull it out whenever I have a spare 10 minutes on the train, waiting for an appointment or when I’m grabbing a coffee.
  • Listening to podcasts while walking the dog sounded like a nice idea but in reality didn’t work. Having to manage a hyperactive dog and avoid being run over meant I couldn’t give them the attention they deserved. So I now listen to music while out and podcasts at home.
  • Reading articles about world events was too intense first thing in the morning, even over a coffee. So I switched to news sources that were for people on the go and more general interest (ok – dumbed down!).
  • I’ve rebalanced my learning to do more speaking, especially on golingo! Afterall, this is the reason I am learning – to speak!

Be accountable

I’d be lying if I said I had found something that works for me. In fact, I’d probably say the lack of accountability in my learning has been my biggest drawback. If I don’t squeeze in that 5 minutes of speaking practice today, what’s going to happen? Well, nothing. But that’s the point, I guess. Nothing. I learn nothing. And doing that everyday won’t get me very far.

In the past, I toyed with the idea of signing up for an exam to boost my CV and motivate me to stay on track. But if you don’t need to pass a language-level exam for work, what other things can you do?

If you’re lucky enough to know someone else learning a language, learning together and being accountable to each other can be great way to stay motivated. It’s a bit like having a gym partner. It’s harder to let them down than actually doing the work itself.

If you don’t know someone else learning a language, you could try joining a community of learners. Look for Facebook groups, perhaps in your local area. You could even join golingo’s FB group. You may not be strictly accountable to the other members, but being part of a learning community and engaging with people with similar interests is a strong motivator.

Whatever you do, there has to be some sort of consequence if you don’t meet your goals for this to work. Fine yourself or cancel your holiday(!). You could get your family and friends involved. You may need to think creatively. If you have good ideas, let me know. This is one area I definitely need to work on!