Updated: Oct 26
So, you’ve decided to learn a new language. Work is moving slowly and you have some spare time; you want to go abroad; or maybe you read an article about the benefits of multilingualism. You’re revved up and ready to go. You start off strong, eyes bright. You sign up for classes, order books, and download dictionaries. You take impeccable notes and you ace exams. Maybe, even after the class ends, you review every day, watching foreign movies on the weekends and keeping in touch with your classmates. Your forward progress seems inevitable--a constant upward slope.
Then, all of a sudden, work picks up. Other responsibilities become overwhelming. A few days go by without a glimpse of your Chinese books. You don’t hear a word of Arabic for one week, then two, then three.
This is the place where most language learners hang up their hats, sometimes unconsciously, oftentimes shamefacedly, and retire. Life gets in the way. Whether it is school or work or personal conflict, something prevents you from continuing your studies, and you feel your language and your motivation to learn it slipping away.
I won’t bother with convincing you that language learning should be a habit. Every language-related website, blog, and discussion thread takes it as a given that, in our busy lives, the vehicle to language mastery is habit. Take this TechCrunch article on language-learning habits, this blog post by Language Mentoring about language-learning habits, or this Lingualist piece on, you guessed it, language-learning habits. In fact, language itself is a habit. What we say to whom, when we say it, how we express ourselves--these are habits formed of our native language or languages, and they shape how we present ourselves to the world.
I’m simply here to rehash, in no particular order, what I think are the most effective ways of forming that habit. These come from personal experience, experiences of people I know, and experiences of the countless language gurus on the Internet. Any combination of these tips can be leveraged to help you become a habitual language learner.
1. Set a time.
Treat language like a meal or a mandatory class, and you’ll be less inclined to skip it. Imagine that your language is a pill you need to take every day at the same time. If you do indeed have such a pill, keep your language-learning tools near your pill organizer, and extend that few seconds of prescribed medication into a few minutes of vocabulary review.
Other times that might work ...
First thing in the morning: put your textbook on your bedside table and give it a read before you pull yourself out of bed.
After your workout or meditation: cool down while listening to that foreign language radio station.
During your lunch break: after you eat, scroll through notes instead of tweets.
In the evening: after the dinner dishes have been washed, curl up with your cat and your favorite spiral-bound notebook.
Before bed: read yourself to sleep, and maybe you’ll even dream in that other language.
2. Start small.
The biggest trick to habit-making is to make the habit small. Just a little bit a day.
This is not a new concept. Take this Joy of Languages post about tiny habits. Or this article by the author of Atomic Habits, which separates the habit-building process into digestible steps, starting with a seemingly simple but oh-so-crucial concept: Make it so easy you can't say no.
Consider how you might apply this to build a habit of working out. First, do five push-ups every day as soon as you get out of bed. Doesn’t matter how sick you are or how little sleep you got. Doesn’t matter if your toddler is pulling at your nightgown--if it isn’t an allergic reaction or traumatic injury, she can wait those thirty seconds. Doesn’t matter if you’re late for work or class. You roll out of bed and onto the floor and you do those pushups.
After two weeks, increase to five push-ups and five sit-ups. After another week, ten and ten. Start and stop as often as you need in the middle. On days when your head is pounding, maybe dip back down to five and five. But never down to zero.
Then add a morning walk on the treadmill, or ten jumping jacks. When the habit is really formed, maybe you can allow yourself to drink some water and change beforehand, avoiding distractions like your phone or TV.
Now replace “push-up” with “old or new vocabulary item” and “sit-up” with “old or new grammatical concept,” and voila, you have a loose template for how to start off your days with a language-learning habit that might just stick.
3. Make a friend.
This should be someone who directly or indirectly aids in your habit-forming journey. It could be a former classmate, a pen pal, or even an application like Duolingo.
For apps, HuffPost has this list of seven language-learning apps and websites. Number one is Duolingo, a modern, mobile-optimized experience with a peppy owl mascot that seems built to keep users learning.
While looking for a penpal or language partner, make sure your levels are comparable. If your language partner speaks English far better than you speak Spanish, chances are you’ll end up defaulting to English where, with another partner, you might have been forced to power through in Spanish.
The beauty of having a language-learning friend, especially one with which you correspond every day, is that it incorporates many of the other tips on this list. Texting in your new language might be the small thing (Tip #2) you do every day; you and your friend can keep each other accountable and on track (Tip #4). Maybe your friend is someone you meet through a mutual hobby (Tip #6), like the local Chinese gardening community. And, after all, the point of language is to understand and communicate--there’s no reason the learning journey needs to be done alone.
4. Track Yourself
Is there a calendar on your wall that you use to mark the days? An app, a journal, or series of scratches on the home office table?
From now on, mark days where you did something related to your language. Every action, no matter how small, gets an X in the record.
There are a few ways to tweak this tip ...
A bigger accomplishment, like getting through a chapter of your textbook or watching a movie without subtitles, might be marked with a different symbol.
Incorporate rewards into the system. Give yourself a treat for every week-long streak.
Make miniature goals and plan ahead, writing them into your tracker.
The purpose of this tip is twofold. One, you can confirm for yourself that the habit has formed. Two, you begin to associate the mark in the calendar with a sense of accomplishment. That sense of accomplishment, in and of itself, is a reward, motivating further continuation of the habit.
5. Teach a loved one.
It doesn’t matter if they actually listen or not. What matters is that you are getting to spend some time with someone you love, and by recounting your day’s or week’s progress to a partner, parent, child, sibling, or friend, you are actually actively reviewing what you’ve learned.
This sort of learning by teaching method is well-documented as an effective learning strategy, especially when the teacher must actively retrieve memory of the topic. Combined with the theory of spaced repetition, learning by teaching can be a great way to increase the efficiency of your language-learning habit.
Use family dinnertime to tell your daughter about Arabic case markings. Call your father Sunday mornings and tell him the new Japanese classifiers you learned this week. Include tidbits of linguistic insights into the daily rehash of office drama to your dog.
Better yet, maybe your teaching will inspire those around you. Who knows? Combine this with Tip #3 and learn with your loved one.
6. Incorporate your hobbies.
It’s a tired tip, but that’s because it’s a good one. Pre-existing interests are an excellent medium for language learning. If you like music, find artists that appeal to your taste and sing in the language you’re learning. If you like reality TV, find a show and watch it without English (slash native language) subtitles. Listen to podcasts or audiobooks in the car. Learn baking recipes in the language you’re learning. If your biggest time sink is social media, then join language-learning groups and follow celebrities who speak the relevant language.
Simply put, make your new language a part of your life. This applies not just to your hobbies, but also to the tools you frequent on a day-to-day basis. Change the default language on your phone and in your favorite browsers. Make your new language a part of the most integral components of your life, and it automatically absorbs some of that importance.
7. Remember your goals (or set some).
One’s purpose in learning a new language is never anything as broadly simplistic as “to obtain mastery over X.” If that is your goal, get a more attainable one. Give yourself a goalpost so that you’re not just swimming in an endless sea of possibility with no clear direction.
For example ...
Perhaps there was a book you read and loved, and you would like to comprehend it in its original prose. Center your studies around that book. If the book is about French high society in Paris of the 1850s, maybe skim the animals unit and focus instead on learning about the geography of Paris in that time period. Your small daily action could be reading a single paragraph and brushing up on the vocabulary and grammar you encounter. You could find a French discussion group or book club. You could start saving up to go to France; combine with Tip #3 and track your language-learning days till summer vacation.
Or perhaps you were inspired by listening to the servers at your local Chinese restaurant and wanting to be able to speak to them. Practice with that in mind. Find a Chinese supermarket and note the labels and types of food. Eavesdrop--with caution--and see how much you understand.
If your goal is to talk to your partner’s Mexican parent, you might need to learn the formal ‘you.’ If same-age friendship is your aim, skip the formalities and learn some slang instead.
Break your goals into micro-goals, just as you should start your habits with micro-habits, but never lose sight of your actual purpose in learning this language.
8. Don't forget to give yourself a break.
Nothing is worse for forming a sustainable habit than the overwhelming pressure of perfection. Remember that language is a long-term commitment. You must be mindful of your mental and physical needs, just as someone training for a marathon needs rest days and plenty of water.
Don’t beat yourself up for missing a day or two, and don’t think you need to make up for missed days. The point of starting your habits small, and allowing them to stay small if need be, is to lower the pressure. If a writer makes it their goal to write 1000 words a day but misses one day, suddenly they have to write 2000 words the next day. But if their goal is 100 words, regardless of how many words they wrote yesterday, then all they need to face each day is that 100 words.
Just don’t give up. Keep that time of day free for language; keep your goals in sight. Allow your hobbies, your work, and your loved ones to support this habit, not prevent it from forming.
No matter your age, education level, and lifestyle, you can make a habit of learning a new language. ReDefiners World Languages offers virtual and in-person Chinese, Arabic, and Spanish courses for all ages. Sign up today at www.redefinerswl.org and start building your daily habit.