I’ve been studying languages pretty much nonstop for the last two years.
Honestly, though, I haven’t always been like that. When I was an Arabic translator, I became so burned out on languages that the last thing I wanted to do was get back to the grind of studying grammar and vocab. I didn’t study foreign languages for a few years.
A few years ago I moved to Germany, and I made a brief initial stab at learning German. Then I stopped for a little while. I still listened to the radio and talked to people at restaurants, but I was a little discouraged, since I had so much to learn. But then one day I made a decision to just buckle down and make a real go at it, and I got decent results.
Everyone is going to fall off track with their language learning. It just happens. So if that’s happened to you, here are three ways to get back on track.
1. Set a compliance goal.
Everyone who learns a language gets caught up in performance goals. Most commonly, someone says, “I want to become fluent” by a certain date. Or maybe they want to pass a test. Or be able to understand every word in a telenovela.
That’s great. It’s good to have goals. But sometimes those goals are overwhelming. Big goals feel out of reach and at times impossible. (They’re not impossible, but they can feel that way.) And even small performance goals can add pressure. For example, if you say, “This month I’m going to learn 50 verbs and know how to conjugate them in past tense,” you’re basically trying to tell your brain what to do, instead of letting your brain tell you what it’s capable of.
Now, I’m not trying to get too philosophical here. You have to push yourself to learn. But if you’ve fallen off track, there’s a good chance you’ve pushed yourself too hard.
So to fix this, I recommend setting a compliance goal. Instead of having any expectations for your performance, simply get back on the horse. 80% of success is showing up, right? Examples of these goals:
- I will study 30 minutes a day for the next month.
- I will complete the 21-Day Language Blast (which is discussed in my book).
- I will get my Duolingo streak up to 45 days.
- I will read 5 pages of Harry Potter in my target language every day for the next three weeks.
When you pick a goal, try to pick something that you can realistically do every day (or at least several times a week) for a good amount of time–at least 21 days, give or take. When I do this, it does two things:
- It gets me in the habit of daily studying.
- It’s a long enough time for me to see some improvement.
At that point, I’m in the habit of working with the language, I’m enjoying the process, and I’m addicted to the rush of feeling myself improve. Fast forward two years later and I’m studying every day, and it doesn’t feel like work.
2. Remember why you’re learning the language in the first place.
Why did you start learning the language? Travel? Work opportunities? Crossing something off your bucket list?
If you’ve fallen off track, then you need to remember that reason.
Language learning takes time. A lot of time. While you’re in the muck of conjugating verbs, or caught up in the cycle of memorizing and forgetting vocabulary words, it’s easy to lose your motivation. So really focus on why the language is important to you.
Also, try to get some of the benefits right now. Examples:
- If you are studying English because you enjoy American culture, watch sitcoms or reality shows online, even if you don’t understand every word.
- If you are learning Spanish because you want to travel, take a short trip to Mexico or even just go down to the local Mexican restaurant and say “buenas tardes” and “gracias” to the wait staff.
- If you want to speak with your grandparents in the language of the old country, memorize a couple simple phrases and try them out.
Even a little bit of that might be enough to motivate you to get back to your routine.
3. Take a class.
My very first post on this site was a list of reasons why you shouldn’t take a class. And I still think they’re pretty compelling reasons.
My site is geared toward the autonomous learners, the self-studyers, the autodidacts. I’m big on people taking control of their own foreign language education.
But I also know that some people really need classes, if for no other reason than the accountability those classes provide. When you plop down a good chunk of cash to go to the local community college or Berlitz center, you’re more than likely going to show up for classes.
This isn’t foolproof. People skip classes, sure. But for many people, having a teacher expecting them is just enough social pressure to keep them on track.
Try these out and let me know how they work out. And if you have any other tips you like to use to get back on the language-learning horse, please leave them in the comments.