21-Day Bursts of Language Learning

All right, confession time:

I’m not feeling too confident about hitting a B2/C1 level in German reading by mid December, and I’m anxious about being able to pass the test and reach my goal.

I’ve made a ton of progress in the last six weeks. My overall German comprehension is much, much better than it was before. Yet the better I get, the more I realize I don’t know, and that makes me uneasy.

But I’m not giving up yet. I’m going to mix up my routine for the next three weeks to see if the change gives me a boost.


I was at Alamo Square in San Antonio yesterday and snapped this photo. To me, this scene is the best of American multiculturalism. To the left, Indian vendors are setting up for the Diwali festival held later that day. In the middle, Mexican-American and white American families are enjoying the weekend. Just out of the picture, my friend with Haitian roots is smoking a cigarette. And a multiracial guy (me) is taking the photo. I love how people from different cultural, racial, religious, and linguistic backgrounds are interacting seamlessly here in this melting pot.

Why 21 Days?

If you’ve read my book, you know that I’ve talked about a “21-Day Language Blast” before.

And now I’m bringing up the whole 21-day thing again.

But why 21 days? What’s special about three weeks?

Admittedly, the number isn’t set in stone. I first got the idea from old self-help advice that said it takes 21 days of doing something before it becomes a habit. Yet as this article from Forbes points out, that advice is more myth than reality.

The real reason I like 21 days is that it’s a long enough time frame to see improvement and a short enough time frame not to be overwhelming.

I wish it was more scientific than that. I think that maybe three weeks lines up with the body’s response to stress: alarm, resistance, recovery. This is how athletes get stronger and faster (and is why many popular running programs are broken up into three-week cycles).

But truthfully? I don’t know for sure how much that idea extends to language learning.

What I do know is that in my own studying, if I’m consistent for three weeks, I notice a considerable improvement in my abilities. So my goal is simply to get three weeks of consistent studying under my belt, improve, pat myself on the back, and repeat. At the end of three weeks, it’s also a good time to change up my routine to focus on different areas and give my brain a different stimulus.

My Next 21 Days

I’m going to do these three things every day:

  • Read or listen to 7500 words. My volume has dipped a little bit, so I want to bump things back up closer to my peak of 10,000 words a day.
  • Review vocabulary words and old materials. In the last six weeks, I’ve added 1400 new vocabulary words to my Readlang word list. I learned a lot of those words backwards and forwards, but obviously not all of them. I’ll spend the next three weeks reviewing those words, as well as re-reading and re-listening to texts I’ve already studied.
  • Complete a grammar drill. I’ve been slacking off a little with grammar, so I’ll make this a bigger priority.

So the big difference is, I spent the last six weeks prioritizing new vocab, while I’ll spend the next three weeks not learning any new vocab but instead trying to make what I’ve learned really sink in. The added volume should help drive overall acquisition too.

When I’m finished with this cycle, I’ll have about a month left before the test, so I can decide what I need to work on then.

Designing Your Own 21-Day Routine

This is pretty straightforward stuff, but I do want to pass along some tips for your own routines:

  • Make your main goal adherence. I imagine you’ll have some performance goals in mind–learning x number of vocab words, completing x number of lessons, going up a level, and so on. Don’t make those performance goals your main objective. Instead, your primary goal is to stick to the routine for the full 21 days. If you design even a marginally good routine and keep at it for 21 days, you will improve, and the improvement will be noticeable.
  • Keep your routine relatively simple. As you can see in the three bullet points above, I give myself three things to accomplish every day. At the end of the day, I assess how well I did: Did I do the things I said I would? If so, then I’m on track. If not, then I get on track tomorrow. I’m able to do this because I keep the routine simple and easy to keep track of.
  • Take some risks. The nice thing about 21 days is that it’s a short enough time frame that you won’t cause yourself any irreparable damage if you mess up. The risk I’m taking in this cycle is that I’m stopping with the learning of new vocabulary, even though I need new vocabulary. I’m switching to a more acquisition-based routine, and if you’ve read my book, then you’ll understand that I’ve been filling the glass, and now I’m trying to build a bigger glass. Will it work? I think so, but if it doesn’t, I’ll readjust in three weeks.

Wrapping Up

Hopefully this will give my studying a jolt and put me in a good position to pass the test.

Leave your own 21-day routines in the comments, and feel free to leave any questions for me or the other readers.

Good luck!

  • Cori

    You´ll pass the test. And I´m sure you´ll be learning new vocabulary anyway, as you might be reading news and blogs in German in these 21 days.

    I don´t really like the idea of 21 days for me, I´m more the kind of a little bit every day, I usually base my studies on a book, and then add a lot of material I find to my routine, but always following a book as a guide. So my goals are often “1 unit of the book per month” (maybe your 21 days are my month, so it´s almost the same method). I like paper books so I can write and doodle on them…I guess I´m that old-fashioned… haha.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Thanks for the encouragement. I really appreciate it. :)

      Your approach sounds good and I have no doubt it works. For me, I have a hard time sticking to one book for a long time, so having some kind of guide is important for me not to lose focus even if I jump around from text to text. (And yes, I think that 1 month and 21 days are very close–similar ideas in that sense.)

      Nothing wrong with being old fashioned. I like to use old-fashioned flash cards because physically writing the words out seems to help…even if I feel like a dinosaur sometimes. haha

  • http://fluenthistorian.com/ Natalie

    My favorite part of this post is the photo. San Antonio is one of my favorite cities EVER. :)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Yesterday was my first time there. It was AWESOME.

  • Michael Millar

    I’m glad you enjoyed San Antonio! If I’d known you were in town, I’d have driven downtown to thank you in person for your encouragement and specific advice. Hadn’t thought of the Alamo City as such a multicultural city, although we have French, Portuguese, German, and Spanish conversation groups; a Japanese tea garden (were you able to check it out – near the zoo?); and a wonderful Folklife festival of dance, food and music each June. I understand the Diwali celebration here draws some 15,000 from throughout Texas. I’ll see what I can do about getting a 21-day routine in place for Greek and Armenian. There aren’t as many online courses for these as there are for other common languages, but that doesn’t mean I can’t figure out a daily plan of my own, as I test knowledge with online native speaker friends from these countries.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Michael! Thank you for that. You live in a great city. I didn’t get a chance to see the zoo area–just saw the Alamo and the Riverwalk area–but what I was able to see was beautiful.

      Greek and Armenian are tough to find materials for, I imagine, but I’m glad you’re making it happen. Keep me posted!

  • Jordan Johnson

    I also want to join you on your 21 day burst. I am studying for the JLPT N2 and I don’t feel ready for it. TBH I have been studying just flash cards I feel that I need to see, hear and read more of the language if I want to pass. Are you doing a combination of listening and reading or are you more focused on listening? Lets say you are reading a book and you come across some words you don’t know would you stop, write them down and look them up or come back to them later? I feel that I really have this problem I get overwhelmed with the words I don’t know and I stop reading altogether. Any tips on having a smoother time with reading? Thank you for the help and good luck!!

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Definitely go with your instincts. The flash cards are good to a point, but you’ll also want to see the language in context. Try this: http://www.languagesurfer.com/2014/02/20/building-vocabulary-the-backwards-method/

      Since you’re studying for a test, you might not want to use Twitter for that. So do a Google search on a word. For example, if I were studying English and came across the word “indentured,” I’d run this search string to get stuff back from NY Times –> <>

      I’m doing a combination of listening and reading but making sure to get in at least a half hour of free listening in a day. To answer your question about the reading, there are two general ways to read: intensive reading, where you try to understand every single word and every sentence, looking up what you don’t know. And extensive reading, where you just read naturally and pick up the general meaning with the words you do know and fill in the blanks with context, to the extent possible. If you don’t know something, you just move forward.

      Both approaches are good and I do both. For the past six weeks, I put a lot of emphasis on intensive reading and really built my vocab up. But now I need to transition into more natural, extensive reading where I’m not obsessing over every word and where I’m building my intuition, feeling the language naturally.

      The sooner you can jump into extensive reading, the better, because you’ll go crazy trying to analyze every word like it’s computer code. Intensive reading is great for short bursts, but extensive reading should be your default “mode.” There’s no shame in picking easier texts either.

  • http://lindsaydoeslanguages.com Lindsay Dow

    Good luck, Ron! As Natalie says, I also love that photo. Reminded me of a BBC radio show I heard the other day about languages in New York (and America in general). The link is here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01pbhw3 I don’t know if it’ll work outside the UK but it’s worth a listen if so. :)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I’m finally getting a chance to listen to this. It’s amazing! Hearing the Nepali family makes me miss my old Nepali-American friend I worked with in Germany.

  • http://whatwedomatters.blogspot.co.uk/ Emma Sibley

    Ten days into my 21 day language blast! It hasn’t been entirely successful, but is quite an experience! If anything I’m learning more about myself, and how I learn which is always good. I’ve been writing about my attempts here – http://whatwedomatters.blogspot.co.uk/

    Good luck with your 21 day burst! :)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Emma! Oh, this is awesome. Thank you for sharing your experiences. It looks like you’re making progress, even if you’re running into some hiccups.

      One thing that was really promising: “I’ve found the more I listen to the more I want to listen.”

      It looks like you tweaked this particular program a little, but are staying within the main template from chapter 2. If you discover the actual “Language Blast” program isn’t for you, it’s much, much better to adjust it to your tastes than to give up altogether. As long as you’re getting in that free listening, getting in a studying activity, and doing some kind of active, engaged listening (or speaking), you’ll see progress after 21 days. The LB takes some of the guesswork out for people who had trouble getting started, and as I mentioned, it’s been effective for me, but that doesn’t mean it jibes with your learning style 100%.

      Man, exciting! I’m going to share your articles. Hit me up again after 21 days with your results, warts and all.

      • http://whatwedomatters.blogspot.co.uk/ Emma Sibley

        Ron, I’m all done! :) You can read about it here. http://whatwedomatters.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/update-21-day-language-blast-complete.html

        Thank you for giving me the kick start I needed in doing this!

        • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

          Awesome! I replied on your blog. (I had trouble with logging in, so I might have replied three times. Please feel free to delete some of those. hahaha)

          • http://whatwedomatters.blogspot.co.uk/ Emma Sibley

            Thanks Ron. Your comments don’t seem to have shown up, so maybe there’s a problem with blogger atm?.. Thanks for popping over though :)

  • vern777er

    Hi Ron, I know you’re into German at the moment and this is not about this topic but I was wondering if you used a book called ‘Breaking out of Beginners Spanish’ when you studied Spanish? I’ve heard lots of good things about it.
    Good luck with the German test. i’m still doing well with the Spanish and I’m still enjoying your blogs even with less emphasis on Spanish.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hi Vern! Nice to hear from you and to hear that you’re doing well. I haven’t read that book, so I can’t vouch for it, but it has some incredible reviews on Amazon. (Wow!)

      I’m itching to get back to Spanish, but one thing at a time for me. haha. I can still understand the basics of Spanish conversation, but I definitely took a step back. I’m surprised at how much I retained, though. I know I sound like a broken record, but putting an emphasis on listening really made a huge difference in long-term retention.

      If you try that book out, let me know what you think–por favor. 😀

  • Nina

    I am on the 8th day of doing 3 simple things, which I mentioned in the other article: Duolingo, Memrise and watching at least one episode of soap opera. I’ve decided that I will focus only on that for 21 days, but I’m actively trying also to find someone to speak French with me, though I’m still unsuccessful with that. I have plans for what to do next, but for now is just those 3 things. I think that I don’t have anything to lose, and I think that my weakness is studying regularly, so I’m working on that.
    I hope that you passed the test. :)

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Awesome! Please let me know on Day 21 how you feel.

      You’re doing exactly right. Even though you’re not able to find a speaking partner right now, you’re still doing something that will improve your language. In fact, that’s very similar to how I often study, so I have no doubt you’re going to make good progress.

      Test is in two weeks. Man, I’ll see. lol…

  • mjs_28s


    I am working on Spanish right now and I am getting along ok.

    My question is – how much time (I get that everyone will vary) does it typically take before their brain automatically translates learned words and phrases?

    While I find it pretty rewarding right now that can look at a fair bit of my Spanish words and grammar and spit out meanings and translate some short sentences I am still having to actively rather than passively do it. When I listen to Spanish, since I have to focus to translate, my brain gets hung up on a word I recognize while it goes through my mental files and then spits back the English translation. Grant it, this only takes 1/2 second to a little over a second, but that is often enough to already start missing what else is said. Hearing something with a few words in it that I know and before you know it I start to miss hearing entire sentences.

    Even now, someone dumping a ‘Como se llama’ on me would have my brain processing it for a couple of seconds while I stare at you like I am an idiot as my brain rifles through my nearly full 4GB if gray matter ram.

    Are we talking about a few months of repeated exposure until the brain is quick enough for basic conversation or reading to be translated in my head on the fly and naturally?

    Ok, one more question – are there little tricks that I can do to get my brain to start to think in Spanish? As I learn more vocab I want to try to train my brain to use a Spanish only mode so even when I am thinking to myself I am using my Spanish language skills.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Hola! I know exactly what you’re talking about. That’s exactly one of the reasons why I really think listening to lots and lots of the language should help.

      Let me give you my unscientific breakdown of what I *think* is going on:

      – It takes repeated meaningful exposures to a word or chunk of words before you’re hearing them on “autopilot.” By repeated, I mean 10 times to 20 times, spread out over a period of time.
      – To follow along in a conversation, you should know at least 85% of the words you’re hearing at that “autopilot” level and be reasonably familiar at least another 10%.

      Again, that’s just an approximation based on my own experiences.

      Part of the “genius” of experienced language learners is the ability to use contextual clues and intuition to lower those percentages. This is important because it’s natural (it’s what kids do), it facilitates communication, and it keeps you from getting frustrated as your language develops

      With time, the “intuition” I’m talking about will go up, and your “acquisition” of Spanish will improve so that 1 to 1/2 second lag you’re experience will go down. You’ll be able to follow along with conversations and communication really well.

      So my recommendation to you is make sure you get *at least* a half hour of meaningful listening practice in every single day. Try to find stuff you can reasonably understand, but it’s okay to reach for a harder text if there are clues that help you follow along.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Oh, and as far as thinking in Spanish…I’d say get in more practice speaking. Talk to yourself, talk to other people, mimic the people you hear on TV, sing songs. All that should help.