As language learners, we ask ourselves this one question almost every single day:
“What should I study?”
When you think about it, this seems like a pretty big question. In fact, for some, it might even be overwhelming.
But, when it comes to learning a language, there isn’t really that much you have to work on.
There are JUST four core skills – speaking, listening, reading and writing.
And in a lot of cases – depending on what your personal language learning goals are – you might not need to get to an advanced level in all four.
One Specific Goal in Language Learning
Most language learners all have the same goal. They want to be able to use the language without hesitation whether that be in reading, writing, speaking or listening. In other words, they want to be able to use the language that they’re learning with confidence.
Now, when it comes to specifics, that may look a little different for each learner. For one it may mean being able to read Dostoevsky in Russian without having to keep a dictionary on hand. For another, it may mean navigating the streets of Beijing without the need of a tour guide or translator. And for yet another, it may be to have personal conversations with their non-English speaking in-laws in Spanish.
The point is, you need to figure out exactly what you want to be able to do in another language and then focus on study methods that will directly help you accomplish those goals.
If you haven’t figured out what this is for you, personally, I really recommend that you take a break from reading this article and do that now. Don’t worry, I’ll still be here when you come back. And if you need some help or guidance in figuring this out, then I’ve got you covered.
Now that you know what your specific goal is, everything you do when you study, and I mean EVERYTHING, needs to help you accomplish this goal. Whatever yours may be.
There are three steps you can take to direct your studies so that they align with your goals:
Get More aka Learn Vocabulary
The more words you know, the better you’ll be able to express yourself through writing or speaking, or understand what you’re consuming through reading or listening. This is really the first thing that I do whenever I start to learn a new language.
It’s like working on a puzzle. I was taught to dump all the puzzle pieces out onto the table (these would be the words you learn in your target language) before you connect them (this would be grammar).
In my experience, learning grammar is useless unless you have the words first. And you can even get away without knowing a lot of grammar by using Benny’s “Tarzan speak” method, by just slamming a bunch of words together to get your point across. It’s not pretty, but you can make yourself understood and that’s really a great first step.
Develop What You Already Have aka Learn Grammar
Until you learn grammar, it’s likely that you’re just memorizing and repeating set phrases or words. Grammar is really what allows you to make the language your own.
Learning grammar enables you to create your own sentences using the words you know rather than “cutting and pasting” set phrases and expressions. You can create in the language because you have the tools available to you to do so.
But again, you can put words together using grammar until you know the words, so don’t skip step one!
Use It aka Speak or Read or Write or Listen
You’ll never achieve mastery of a language without actually using it.
And again, how you use the language all depends on what your goals are. So if your goal is reading, then go and read something in your target language. If your goal is to be able to converse, then you need to be sure to practice speaking and listening comprehension. If your goal is to work in translation, then you’ll need to work on writing and reading comprehension.
Since speaking a language is often the end goal for many learners, let’s break it down so you can see what using it looks like.
Because most of us won’t be comfortable improvising a conversation off the top of our heads for our first speaking efforts, I suggest that you start by writing a script discussing a topic that interests you. Before you go and speak with another person, practice this script on your own. Then, go and practice it with other people until you feel comfortable discussing the topic you scripted without the script.
Once you’ve done this, you’re ready for the fun part. Go and improvise a conversation with someone on the same topic. Your script will have equipped you with enough words and grammar to do so. And if you go in armed with sentences like “How do you say ___ in [the language you’re learning]?” or “What does ___ mean in [your native language]?” you’ll get so much more out of your conversations.
If your goal isn’t speaking, then here are tasks you can complete for the other three aspects of language learning:
– Writing // Write a short essay on the subject or have a written chat with someone using a tool like HelloTalk.
– Reading // Find an article on the subject that you haven’t yet read and see how much you understand. For example, if you’re into video games, find a gaming website and read one of the most recent posts.
– Comprehension // Find a podcast or a radio show that discusses the subject in your target language (that you haven’t yet listened to) and see how much you understand.
Work On Comprehension Every Single Day
There’s one thing that I’d like to mention regardless of what your goal might be. It’s that you should work on comprehension every single day.
This can be your listening comprehension, your reading comprehension or a mix of the two (again, depending on what your goals are).
I, personally, try to spend at least 15-20 minutes per day on comprehension and it’s done wonders for not only my pronunciation, but also my overall sense for the languages that I’m learning.
So How Does This Work on a Day-to-Day Basis?
Each and every day your study should focus on ONE thing. Even if you’re working on multiple things (or multiple languages), each study session should have one specific focus.
You can start with one of the three methods we talked about:
– get more // where you work on acquiring new vocabulary
– develop what you have // where you tackle grammar concepts that you still haven’t mastered
– use it // where you apply all the work you’ve done learning the language in a useful context
The objective for each study session is to be able to do something just a little bit better than what you were capable of the day before. And to ensure that this is the case, at the end of every study session, write down what you can do better today than yesterday.
Yesterday I had no idea how to use the 把 particle in Chinese, but today I have a better understanding of how it functions.
Yesterday I didn’t know how to make something plural in French, but I am now more familiar with the rules that allow me to do this.
Yesterday I had never had a conversation about music in Russian, but today I managed to keep most of my 15 minute exchange in Russian about that very topic.
The goal is that whatever we study leads to us being just a little bit better at speaking or understanding the language we’re learning than we were the day before.
We want to be able to do things we couldn’t do the day before. Say things we couldn’t say. Understand things that we couldn’t understand just yesterday.
And when you really break down what is required of you to learn a language, there really isn’t that much you need to do. You merely need to build up your tool box (your vocabulary and grammar) and then go out and use it in contexts that align with with your language learning goals.
What about you?
What have you been working on in your target language and how do you keep yourself accountable?
I’d love to hear about them in the comments below!