Some people say that you need to practice something for 10,000 hours before becoming a master in that field. I don’t particularly subscribe to this, as I believe in quality over quantity– but I do feel that while you can become good at something with practice over time, there are limits to becoming great without following a premeditated, strategic regimen of training. Languages can be trained just like any other skill in terms of practice–consider developing a custom schedule for learning your favorite foreign language. Dealing with the logistics of language practice can be placed into two categories, finding time itself and finding a type of schedule you enjoy that also pushes you to new ability levels.
Finding extra time itself:
Anticipate any potential obstacles to practicing language each week and figure out how you can get around them. Can you reschedule a meeting that makes for a really long day? When do the last-minute parties tend to happen? What other things are on your to-do list and how long do you think they’ll take?
If you can’t find time, make time by turning existing time into language time:
- Wake up early or stay up late and have the peaceful, quiet time to yourself to practice.
- Listen to a podcast or playlist of songs during a workout or on your regular walks.
- Do your math homework by saying the numbers and mechanisms aloud in your target language as you go.
Have a language learning party–either by yourself or with classmates. Get out chips and salsa, order pizza delivery, and have a blast. Blare some music and converse only in your target language, get out several contemporary books and movies, etc. Go out to a party and only speak in your target language with your classmates. Bonus points for making people think you’re foreign exchange students.
Take a serious look at your schedule, as if you were someone else objectively analyzing it. What do you spend a lot of your free time on? Is there time being wasted on unimportant things? Document a few days or a week of your daily activities and what you do–can stuff be cut out? Don’t be afraid to switch up the practice schedule each week depending on what’s going on then.
How frequently do you want to practice language? For how long? What kind of focus is most important to you? Why are you doing this? Take a piece of paper and write all of this down in short bullet points or whatever format you’re most comfortable with. Place this paper wherever you’ll see it often to remind yourself that this is important to you.
Approach this like a sports practice or a job. You basically are expected to show up to sessions unless in the case of illness or other unavoidable circumstances. Why should your language practice be any different? Your skills, and more importantly, you, deserve the same accountability that you afford to others.
Finding a type of practice schedule you enjoy:
Try not to see this as “studying” language, but “practicing” language. Even if you are delving into a language for an academic class, placing the emphasis on language being a fun part of your lifestyle and a long-term skill you’re developing, rather than just another contributor of homework and sleepless nights, can help turn your motivation around.
Create goals for yourself. What are your short and long term goals? Some example goals: Practice 30 minutes per session, twice a week outside of your classes. Meet with a language partner once a week. Consider creating goals for longer periods of time, such as weekly, biweekly, etc if you find yourself feeling stressed over more frequently occurring goal-periods. Provide yourself some leniency–if you schedule a practice for Monday and it just doesn’t happen, let yourself be okay with it and don’t waste any time getting upset over it. Give yourself a week to make up the missed time and consider it over. Then move on. Just move on.
Have some form of timeline for at least some of your goals, i.e. “be able to talk confidently about various types of appetizers by March.” Productivity is a numbers game–progress can be measured in many ways, including the feeling that you’re getting better. But when you’re looking at hard numbers [“did I meet my two goals this month?], this can help further validate your progress objectively and is a great way to chart progress over long amounts of time. Having these records enables you to replicate the magnitude of these results for future language goals, and to avoid past mistakes you see in patterns.
Here are some ideas for fun activities to make consistent language practice easier:
A popup calendar: Create a calendar where you can peel back little flaps each day–each day you choose to practice has its own area of focus or activity related to language practice. For example, try pronunciation, spelling, grammar, vocab, and activities like watching video clips and listening to music, writing text messages, speaking over Skype to an overseas language partner, reading from a foreign newspaper, etc. Mix it up and have fun with this. Add “fun” surprises on certain days, like a freestyle practice day, a culture day involving cooking authentic cuisine, etc.
Language Bingo: Make this yourself, out of construction paper or anything else you can find. Award yourself points for each portion of the board, by achieving certain specific accomplishments like learning 5 new words, being able to order basic food and drink, having a conversation with a native for 2 minutes without getting confused, etc. Leave the board up in your room, office or wherever you frequent so that you can see your progress. Reward yourself once you hit Bingo, and again once you fill the entire board.
Reward ideas: membership to a new language software/website, a foreign DVD or magazine, a trip overseas, a board game, cuisine of a country that speaks your target language, etc. Have fun, unique incentives that aren’t in your life otherwise. I recommend keeping the reward language-related, to remind yourself of the intrinsic value of learning a foreign language, which can be a great source of motivation.
Above all, have fun with this! The core of picking up a new language is being able to communicate better with those around us–whether it be for business, pleasure or other reasons. I encourage you to use my ideas as a springboard for inspiration of your own; in your language practice I also encourage you to use the same organizational skills that you use in scheduling classes, part-time jobs, student organization meetings, etc. One of Michigan’s challenges is time management, but if you are able to hack your time and make the most of what you have in a way that’s meaningful & enjoyable to you, you can find remarkably fast improvement in your skills–no matter how many hours you’re working with.
— Alaska Lam