Good or bad, habits are part of who we are, what we do and who we become.
We spend time trying to eliminate bad habits and an equal amount of energy in establishing good habits. And when it comes to language learning, things are no different. Ensuring that we have good study habits surrounding our language learning routine is imperative to our success as learners.
So why are good study habits so important? Isn’t it enough to just spend time studying the language whenever and however we can?
No, and here’s why.
Bad study habits can really hinder our development in our target language, so it’s imperative to develop good learning habits.
Establishing Good Language Learning Habits
It’s been said that it takes about 21 days of consecutively doing something for it to become a habit. This means that if you can study each day for at least 15 minutes for 21 days, you have a pretty good chance of it getting easier to sit down and do on a regular basis.
So how do we make effective language study a habit?
If you hope to train yourself to develop good language learning habits, you need to make it so that studying is something you’ll miss if you don’t do it. Like brushing your teeth, eating dinner or your morning cup of coffee. There are a few “hacks” to make language study a more regular part of your schedule. Here are just a few ideas.
But before you read on, download my free Project 365 worksheet. It’s a fun way to keep track of how many days in a row you study!
1 // Check in with a tutor or language exchange partner to make sure you’re on track with your learning.
If you spend too much time trying to work things out on your own, you may find you develop bad habits that hold you back or make certain aspects of your speaking/comprehension more difficult than they need to be. Someone who knows what they’re doing, like a teacher, can help you avoid this. As you invest more time into your language studies, and have a few years under your belt, you won’t need to do this as often. But at the beginning when you’re first starting out, especially when you’re still trying to figure out what kind of language study works for you, it can be crucial.
A quick example I have is with one of my French students. He was learning French in school and was struggling with doing well on his homework and exams. After our first lesson, I realized a big part of his problem was that the group learning setting wasn’t working for him. As part of the class, he was too intimidated to ask the questions he needed to ask in front of his peers. But by working one-on-one with me, he was able to ask questions and work through exercises with me at his own pace, allowing him to pick up and understand the vocabulary and grammar he was expected to learn.
This student thought that he was bad at language learning, but this wasn’t the case at all. He actually picked up complex grammar rules and new vocabulary quite quickly. There was nothing wrong with him as a learner, but only with the environment within which he was learning. Once he had a tutor he could talk things out with, his ability in the language skyrocketed.
So, to make a long story short, if you find that you’re struggling, it’s definitely worth checking in with someone every once in a while to help give you some direction. If you don’t do this, especially at the beginning, you can easily develop bad study habits and burn yourself out.
2 // Set goals and make plans.
One of the best ways to make sure that your study habits are good habits, is by setting goals. Goals are your final destination and plans are your roadmap to get there. Once you know what it is you want to achieve as a language learner, you can establish the steps you need to take to get there. And these steps provide you with the information you need to set up language learning habits that increase the odds of your success.
3 // Set aside a specific time for language study.
One of the techniques I’ve seen often as a recommendation for developing good habits is to set aside a specific time in your schedule each and every day just for whatever habit it is that you’re trying to establish. In this case, language study. The mornings are often best because you haven’t yet become overwhelmed with other side projects, tasks, calls or emails. But sometimes the evening works too.
When I was preparing for my HSK exam, I woke up an hour early in order to have a Chinese lesson. Other times I studied and worked on practice tests right after I got home from work so that I wouldn’t be too mentally exhausted to tackle it by the time I had finished preparing and eating dinner and taken care of other tasks around the house. It wasn’t long before it was natural for me to come home and crack open my practice test book right away.
With this method, the most important thing is to pick a block of time and stick with it. If you consistently sit down to study your language at a set time, your brain and body become so used to doing it that they automatically switch into study mode at that specific time. It almost becomes second nature to study when that time rolls around.
4 // Create a specific place just for language study.
Another method, if you have the space, is to create a dedicated study area free from distractions so that each time you step into that area, you know what you’re there to do. When you’re in this space (or when it’s your dedicated time), make sure that others (parents, siblings, spouses) know not to disturb you.
5 // Focus.
If you have trouble focusing, try studying for shorter spurts of time rather than trying to survive an hour long learning session. If you force yourself to sit for too long while your mind and body are fighting against it, you’re going to come away from your studies far more exhausted than necessary and you won’t look forward to the next one. If you start to dread your study time, you’ll quickly find yourself skipping sessions and ruining all the work you’ve put into building your study habits.
6 // Leave off at a place that makes it easy to pick your studies back up the next day.
When your study time is over, try to make a note of things you’d like to work on the next time so you have a place to start the next time you sit down to work on your target language. Sometimes one of the hardest things about learning a language is choosing exactly what to study. By keeping a study journal and making notes as you work, you can eliminate this lack of direction so that you always have something to work on. This will also help prevent you from hitting a plateau.
Another technique that you can try is to leave off in the middle of the resource that you’re using. So, rather than ending your study session at the end of a chapter, go a page or two into the next chapter so that you are less intimidated by picking up where you left off. There’s something about having already started the next section that makes getting back into it a little bit easier.
7 // Start small.
If you aren’t used to studying regularly, it’s more difficult to stay on track. You may not have the endurance quite yet so don’t push yourself too hard. If you do, you risk burning out and quitting language study altogether.
That being said, you won’t enjoy everyday of your studies, but that’s not reason to dread it or stop altogether! If you get too frustrated, overwhelmed, or bored more often than not, you’re likely doing it wrong.
You don’t have to become an expert in your target language right away – it’s something you’ll always work towards. So rather than aiming to get fluent fast, just take small, regular steps towards small, daily improvements.
Set small goals you know that you can accomplish and eventually work towards longer study sessions.
Start with just 15 minutes a day and then after a couple weeks, increase it to 30 minutes, then 45, then an hour, etc. And that 45 minutes or hour don’t have to be a solid block of time. You can practice 15 minutes thrice a day to get to 45 total minutes or 45 minutes once and the 15 minutes once to get to an hour. Regardless of how you go about it, make an effort to slowly increase the total amount of time you spend per day.
If you do this right, you’ll eventually find that an entire hour has slipped by without notice and you’ll no longer find yourself counting down the minutes until your study session is supposed to be “over.”
8 // Follow Prompts
There are great groups online, particularly on Facebook that host daily language themes (Lindsay Dow’s Facebook groups is a great example of this). She picks topics each day such as #motivationmonday where she encourages learners to discuss their language goals and provides them with ways to be more accountable. It’s also a great way to connect with other language learners, be a part of a community, and get ideas for more effective ways to learn your target language.
There are also communities online for specific languages, so rather than focusing on learning strategies in general, they focus on the language itself. One example is the Learning Croatian group that I am a member of. As a part of this group, you can post Croatian learning resources, questions, and even get feedback on your progress in the language.
Joining groups is a great way to get motivated and inspired (by seeing what other learners are doing). It also helps you set reasonable goals and the accountability that can serve as an incentive to work towards those goals.
9 // Experiment with different kinds of practice
If you start to find studying stale, to the point that you have a hard time keeping it up regularly, try changing up your routine with different kinds of study. If you normally work on listening comprehension, try extensive reading. If you normally work on speaking, try writing about the topics you’d normally chat about. If you normally read in your target language, try watching a tv show in your target language.
10 // Listen to more audio in your target language
As a musician, I can’t help but feel that audio input has a huge benefit to you as a learner. Actively listening is one of the best ways to learn. In order to truly improve your comprehension (and accent, pronunciation, and even vocabulary/grammar), you must listen to as much as you can in your target language.
Pay attention to the speakers – what they’re saying and how they’re saying it. And the more you listen, the more accents and speaking styles you’ll be exposed to. Listen to female speakers, male speakers, adult speakers, adolescents – you get the point!
11 // If inspiration hits you, don’t let the moment escape you.
As a creative type, I’ve often woken up suddenly at 3am in the morning with the idea for a song that I urgently needed to work out to the point that I wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep until I had gotten the idea out of my head. If the inspiration suddenly hits you to study or use your target language, then do it. Sit down and get it out of your system. Some of my most productive study sessions are those that have happened when the urge to look up a word in my target language suddenly hit me and led me down the rabbit hole of internet language resources.
12 // Be patient
Success in habit building doesn’t happen overnight. Just do what you can to put in regular work each and everyday. That consistency, even if it’s only a little bit at a time, will add up. You can move mountains, but only one wheelbarrow full of earth at a time.
So there you have it. Twelve suggestions for making language study and practice a daily habit.
Don’t forget to download my free Project 365 worksheet!
What about you?
What do you do to help yourself keep on track?
I’d love to hear about some of your strategies in the comments below!
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My name is Shannon Kennedy and I'm the language lover, traveler, and foodie behind Eurolinguiste. I'm also the Resident Polyglot at Drops and the Head Coach of the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge.