You’re off track.
It’s been days, weeks, or even months since you’ve last cracked a language book. You’ve made the owl cry, and all of your plants are dead.
You want to get back to learning a language, but enough time has passed that the confidence you once had is only a memory. The idea of reading a book, watching a movie, or even conjugating a few verbs sends you into nervous fits.
Despite all that, somehow, you’re here. You’re reading an article about language learning, meaning that that spark, that dream you once had, is still alive. You haven’t given up. Not really. You just need help; a few simple steps to get you in motion, and to help you build the momentum to get your language learning chugging-along, more powerful than ever.
Here are those steps:
Step 1: Protect Your Mindset
Sure, you’re restarting after taking some time off. Whether intentional or unintentional, you need to know that you are not a failure. Just because you’ve made a couple of mistakes, just because you may have struggled and eventually burned out, does not mean that your initial dream of speaking a language well is unattainable. This is just part of the process. So if you’re thinking to yourself “Wow, I’m such a failure” or “I quit once, I’ll quit again,” I need you to STOP. Shift your focus. If you’re pulled to reading articles like this, it means that you’re still driven by a deep desire to make this happen. Just having the thought to get back on the proverbial horse is something worth congratulating yourself for. You don’t need to bust out the champagne, but you do have to give yourself credit for standing up again, no matter how many times you’ve fallen.
Step 2: Know Your “Attraction Points”
By attraction points, I mean the aspects of language learning that are most attractive to you. Most of the time, these will be the reasons why you got involved in the first place. You want to travel, watch foreign movies, read great literature in its original language, or maybe speak to your relatives. The stuff that excites you. Take a few minutes to list a few of these “attraction points.” These are going to be your “points of entry” back into the language.
Step 3: Know Your “Resistance Points”
The opposite of attraction points, resistance points are the aspects of the language that you’ve found yourself deliberately avoiding in your past efforts. Instead of being aspects of the language that you simply just don’t find interesting, these are the things that you want to do, but are so afraid of doing that you avoid them or tiptoe around them as much as possible. Take a few minutes to list them out, but unlike the attraction points, we’re not going to dive right into language here. Instead, these resistance points are going to be the points we’ll aim towards.
Step 4: Start Small
The goal here is not to make up for lost time. This is important, so let me drive that home: you cannot make up for lost time. If you try to get back into the swing of things by doubling or tripling your previous efforts in order to “catch up” to where you were, you’re only heading towards burnout that much faster.
What you need to do is come up with a daily commitment that you believe is manageable. I would recommend thirty minutes to one hour daily.
Okay, so pick a number of minutes in that range…
…And then halve it. We don’t want your routine to just be manageable, we want it to be so manageable that it puts exactly zero stress on your day. It needs to be a routine that’s so simple that you can fit it in even at your busiest. And no matter how busy you are, I KNOW that you have at least 15 minutes in your day to dedicate to language learning. Once you can handle that half-routine consistently, then we can talk about gradually increasing your workload so you can make quicker progress.
Step 5: Make It New
Now that you’ve set aside 15 to 30 minutes to do your language learning, we need to make sure that it feels fresh. Even with a shorter routine, you’re not going to get very far if you’re using the same resources in the same order in the same way you always did. You need to build something new and fresh that will get you excited about your language learning again.
This is where your “attraction points” come in from earlier. If you can pinpoint the things that still get you excited about learning a language, you’re going to want to rebuild your routine around those things so that your studies mostly consist of tasks that are intrinsically enjoyable to you. If you’ve always wanted to watch movies or dramas in your target language, make sure at least part of your routine has those built right into it, so that it’s something you can look forward to. If you’re looking to use your language while traveling, use your study time to learn the vocabulary and phrases you’d need to know when visiting your dream destinations.
Step 6: Aim Beyond the Wall
You need a challenge. This almost goes against my “zero stress” recommendations above, but I truly believe that it’s a necessary part of breaking out of the rut that caused you to quit in the first place. To be clear, I’m not talking about just any challenge, but a challenge that will take you beyond the mental “wall” that caused you to quit last time. This is what I meant before when I wrote about “resistance points”.
There is an interesting phenomenon in motivation where we often resist doing the things that will be the most beneficial for us. If you’ve ever tried to start an exercise regimen, eat better, or implement any type of positive lifestyle change, you already know what I mean. We’re all 100% aware that eating a salad will be better for us than eating that greasy hamburger, yet we go for the hamburger anyway.
The choices we make in language learning can be very similar to the above. If you’ve always dreamed of speaking fluently, you’re aware deep down that more speaking is the best thing for your development. However, as with many people, the idea of actually putting yourself out there and speaking is incredibly intimidating, so we resist it, despite the fact that that’s exactly what we wish we could do.
When you’re just reviving your studies, there’s no need to dive right into the deep end and do what intimidates you. However, there is a need to aim beyond those “resistance points”, so that you can surpass them and enter the uncharted territories beyond the wall. So, when building your routine, you’ll want to gradually introduce activities that prepare you to face those challenges.
If you want to speak more, for example, set a goal that in 30 days you will have a 30-minute session with an online tutor, using both English and your target language. In 60 days, prepare yourself to speak entirely in your target language for the same 30-minutes. In 90 days, try to go English-free for the entire hour. This is just an example; the important thing is that you set longer-term goals that align with the language learner you would eventually like to be, no matter how much it may intimidate you.
Step 7: Write Down Your Goals
Your goals need to be concrete, so the next thing you must do is make sure that they’re written down. They don’t need to be too elaborate, just something along the lines of “Study 30 minutes a day using Resource A and Resource B” and “In 30-days, I commit to achieving X”. Make sure your targets for your daily routine goals align with your milestone goals.
Next, print out a calendar. Or draw one up. We’re going to play a game called “Don’t Break the Chain.” Popularized by comedian Jerry Seinfeld, the idea is to put a big red X or checkmark on the calendar for every day that you stick to your learning routine. After you get a few days under your belt, you’re going to find yourself looking forward to each new mark on the calendar, and wanting to keep that chain of X’s going for as long as possible. After a while, the desire to keep that visual chain of X’s intact will keep you from skipping your routine.
Step 8: Tell Somebody
We’ve all heard the age-old question: “If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, does it really make a sound?” Well, I’ve got a new one for you: “If you set a goal, and you don’t tell anyone about it, does the goal really exist?” Now, of course there are all sorts of goals that we set in our day-to-day lives that we never share with others. And that’s fine. Language learning, however, can often be quite challenging, and if we don’t share our goals with others, we can often deceive ourselves into believing that we never really wanted to achieve the goal in the first place, and then give up quietly without anyone knowing.
You’ve already done the work to create a new, manageable routine that is aligned with your interests and with worthy challenges. You’ve written down your goals, and have a calendar handy to visually represent your progress. Now I’m telling you to find someone to keep you accountable. I’ve often talked about accountability systems, both here and elsewhere. Without going into too much detail, you can build accountability quickly by having a trusted friend (or friends) check in with you regularly to make sure you’re on track, or you can find someone online or in person who is also learning a language, and mutually keep each other in the loop about your respective progress.
An even better way to get others involved in your learning is to start a blog. Whether you create one for free or with paid hosting, blogs are an excellent way to keep a detailed log of your learning progress and simultaneously keep you accountable to a potentially large audience of people who will (generally) cheer you on. Quite a few successful language learners have had success with this “Mission Model”, and regardless of your blogging end-goal, knowing that there are people who are looking forward to seeing your progress on a weekly or monthly basis will keep you from quitting, even during the toughest times.
Just Get Started
There you have it, folks. Those are my 8 simple steps to getting your learning back on track, no matter how long it’s been since you’ve derailed. By following these steps, you’ll be creating an exciting, consistent routine that challenges you to expand your comfort zone over time. Not only that, but you’ll have several ways to track your progress, and a support system to lean on in times of struggle.
The key is to get started (or restarted) right away. As Karen Lamb says:
“A year from now, you may wish you had started today”