How to Get Your New Year’s Language Resolution Back on Track

How to get your language learning resolution back on track
 

2016 has been a bit of a crazy year for most the world – most of it not especially thrilling. Sure, some cool stuff has happened, but mostly it’s just one horrible event after another. Events that probably don’t bear repeating.

And I’m not trying to make things even worse, but you’ve probably been slacking on your New Year’s language resolutions as well, haven’t you…

The year is more than half over now and I’m not half as far as I had hoped I’d be on my German project. Progress has been made – I mean I live here, how could it not – but it isn’t what I’d have liked it to be back in January.

If you’ve slipped behind like I have – and I know that many of you probably have – what can we do to pull ourselves out of the rut and get our 2016 goals back on track?

1. Take inventory

If your progress has stalled, the number one reason – at least in my experience – is a lack of motivation.

  

Maybe life has got you down. Maybe your dog died. Maybe you’ve had more on your plate at work or with family and found yourself with less time for language learning.

Or, maybe like me you’ve moved to another country, become embroiled in [German] bureaucracy, [kill me now] and then switched apartments, all in the space of a few rapidly evaporating months.

But regardless of why everything has gone to Hell, the first thing to do is to sit down and make a list – it can be a mental list if you prefer – of all of the successes you’ve had with your goals so far.

It may only be one or two things, but it doesn’t matter. Remember the good things that you’ve accomplished and establish a base for yourself from which you can move on to step two…

2. Re-evaluate your goals

A while back I wrote an article about establishing and maintaining your language learning goals. You should skim through it really quickly if you haven’t read it already.

In that article I mention that failing to reach your goals can happen sometimes and that you can’t let it get you down too much. When this happens – and for most of us, we really do overestimate our capabilities and don’t plan for unforeseen circumstances – we need to sit back, relax and adjust.

What is it that’s giving you the most trouble? Will reducing your workload make things easier?

Maybe you should consider simply taking some time off from your project entirely. Sometimes when I do this I come back with a renewed sense of purpose and my brain seems to feel like it’s performing at a higher caliber. Try taking a week or two, then coming back and hitting the books with renewed force.

If you’re finding yourself bogged down with unanticipated bullshit it’s okay to admit it and cut your language learning regimen back a little bit. You can’t see this as a failure. Failure isn’t a thing as long as any progress is made.

3. Make new goals

When I started studying French back in 2015, my resolution that year was to tackle the relatively meager – or so I thought – goal of learning 100 new words upwards and downwards, inside and out, each month.

It started out as a simple enough task – and I intended it to be simple. It wasn’t something I wanted to kill myself on and I had to spend a lot of my time doing other things. Could I have made more time for it and made my goal steeper? Sure, but I didn’t want to.

By June it was becoming readily apparent that 100 words per month – while seemingly easy – wasn’t going to be as simple as I had hoped. The difficulty really begins to compound itself. I started to struggle to maintain what I had learned – and worse, to maintain interest.

And as always things come up. By October of 2015 I knew that I would be moving to Germany – not France or Belgium or any other French speaking country – Germany.

My goal had to be more or less thrown away and completely replaced, immediately.

I knew very little of the German language at the time. I hadn’t had an awful lot of interest in learning it right away and I was a bit bogged down with my French project and maintaining my limited Russian and Spanish.

Setting goals isn’t an especially hard process, but doing it right will make you more likely to succeed.

You can read a lot more about the details of SMART goal setting in the same article I linked before but the tl;dr is that the key, for me at least, is to make lots of smaller, easily achievable goals, instead of focusing on long term goals with which progress will appear smaller.

Basically, you’re tricking yourself into being satisfied with your progress. This keeps the motivation up and eventually adds up to you reaching a bigger goal.

I resolved to set a series of goals that consisted of completing Memrise courses. I started out with a basic A1 level course with maybe 200-300 words, and at a relatively relaxed pace completed it without too much hassle. Having achieved the super elementary vocabulary and the most basic of the basics of German grammar I started focusing on a series of smaller courses dedicated to individual subjects.

I’d start and finish a course on body parts, a course on emergency situations and a course on numbers and so on and so forth. Of course I was using other resources as well, but this was the series of goals that I laid out for myself.

These small goals took me maybe 1-3 weeks to complete and left me feeling a relatively solid sense of satisfaction due to the short term nature of my mini-projects.

By March, when I relocated to Hamburg, my German still wasn’t great – language learning takes a long time – but I felt sincerely motivated – not only by the fact that it was a live or die situation – but also because I was inspired by my very visible accomplishments.

I could look back at a list of completed courses with satisfaction, knowing that I knew that content and that while I  had a long road ahead of me (and still do) I would be able to continue making goals like these and continue chipping away – successfully – until my progress is highly tangible.

My point here is that yes – I failed my 2015 goal. Or rather, I changed it to meet sudden and unexpected circumstances.

There’s nothing wrong with deciding that your goal is no longer working or that you need to reduce, alter or otherwise revise your strategies.

Perhaps you can even break your existing goal down into even smaller bite-sized pieces.

Find something easier or more suited to your needs or maybe just forget about it entirely and do something else, like I did.

Don't dwell on dead end language learning goals. Let them go and start anew. Click To Tweet

4. Rekindle your motivation

Why did you begin learning that language in the first place? Is it for family reasons, travel, school, work or perhaps just because you love languages and thought it’d be super cool to speak Swahili? 

Write down as many reasons as you can think of that inspired you to study this language in the first place. If you can, think of even more reasons why this is a really good idea.

If you did this when you first started learning – which I recommend doing before you begin learning a new language – now is the time to break out that list that you pinned to the wall over your desk.

This is what it was made for. This is what you’ve been prepping for all along.

Hopefully doing so will remind you of why this is important to you.

If it doesn’t help, we’re not out of solutions just yet!

5. Maybe you’re just doing it wrong

Another one of the steps that I recommended at the very beginning of your language odyssey – and it really is an odyssey – was to take stock of how you find that you learn best.

Are you a note taker, an auditory learner, do you perform well at home at your desk, under a tree in the park, while hanging upside down from a set of monkey bars…

Once you’ve established that, perhaps it’s time to consider mixing it up a bit.

Check out some new language learning tools. Maybe the ones you’re using just aren’t cutting the cake anymore. Maybe they’ve become boring, stale or you’re realizing now that they just never really worked out the way you had hoped.

There are so many other resources out there waiting to be discovered by you. Resources I haven’t even begun to cover on this site yet.

If you’re looking for a few ideas, you can check out these articles for some new possible solutions to your problem.

10 Unconventional Language Learning Ideas You Have to Try

6 Ways to Study Languages in the Shower

8 Great Language Learning Tools You Haven’t Heard of

 

5 Hands Free Ways to Study Languages While You Work Out

Try to mix things up. Give yourself a chance to further diversify your language learning regimen. Use more tools to give yourself some variation and prevent the onset of repetition induced boredom.

If you let yourself become too bored it’s all over – so we can’t let that happen.

6. Maybe you just need a kick in the ass

I’m not a proponent of negative reinforcement. Most teachers the world over will tell you that positive reinforcement trumps negative 9 times out of 10. (Fabricated statistic for the sake of argument, but you get the idea).

However, this doesn’t mean that you get a free pass to just not do anything. That’s not how it works.

It’s called a New Year’s resolution, not a New Year’s pretty good idea I might try.

If you’re serious about this you should start treating it the way it’s supposed to be treated and get your ass in gear. Otherwise, stop calling it a resolution because you’re not being very resolute about it.

Sometimes that’s all we need – a swift kick in the pants. Remind ourselves that we need to wake up and get the job done.

Don’t punish yourself too harshly for your failure to do so thus far – indeed don’t think of it as a failure, think of it instead as unnecessary procrastination that you’re going to stop doing now.

Tragically, according to a study at the University of Scranton, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology, only 8% of people who make New Year’s resolutions are actually successful in reaching those goals by the end of the year. Likewise, roughly 40% of Americans make resolutions each year.

That’s kind of sad and seems to indicate a serious lack of conviction on the part of, well, pretty much everyone. Myself included.

Just writing this is reminding me of my own procrastination and motivating me to spend more time studying and less time sitting around doing nothing. I now live in a nearly total immersion environment – though we usually speak English or occasionally Spanish at home – and I should be taking full advantage of that.

So maybe we just need to remind ourselves every so often to get up and just get back to work!

Conclusion

Over half of 2016 is gone, and what a ridiculous year it has been. The weirdness isn’t about to get any less weird any time soon but instead of thinking of the year as half over, why not think of it as an opportunity?

5 months is a long time and you can make an awful lot of time for language practice in that period. You don’t have to become a statistic in a Forbes article. You can change things – there’s still lots of time.

So how about it? What were your goals for this year. Are you on track? Are you stagnating? What seems to be the problem?

Leave a comment with your answers!

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  • New Year’s resolutions have never been my thing, but language learning always is. Whatever your language-learning priority is, the thing is to keep it interesting and to incorporate the language into your life. Think of things you normally do in your native language and consider whether you can do them in your target language. For example, if you enjoy a certain kind of exercise or workout, check online to see what free videos are available in the target language. If you are looking for a recipe, see if the recipe is available online in your target language. If you’re taking a walk or having a commute, put a headset on and listen to recorded dialogues or music in your target language. That way at least you’re doing something with your target language even while going about your normal activities.

  • I’ve been slacking with my Spanish, but I’m very focussed on my Dutch at the moment and there are only so many hours in the day. I find this Idea of a New Year’s resolution very strange. I don’t believe in them. When I decide to do something I do it. I would never wait until a specific date. For me the resolution comes into force the second I make a decision.

    • Then you certainly have more resolve than many of us.

      I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions either, but with over 40% of the US (weakly) attempting to make them I figure why not capitalize on this proclivity to goal setting with some assistance.

      I gave it a shot last year and ultimately I wouldn’t really call myself especially successful. I achieved many things, but not the particular goal that I set out to accomplish. Stuff happens.

      Thanks for reading the article! I’m really glad to hear that your Dutch is going well. I understand the lack of time in a day, and I’m certainly not an expert on when it comes to managing my time.

      I just pretend on the Internet.

      • Fifteen years ago (possibly longer) I decided to stop smoking. I can’t even remember what season it was, I just thought about the damage I was doing to my body and thought “enough is enough”. At that point I was very motivated to stop. If I had decided to wait until New Year, and make it my resolution, I would probably have lost that motivation somewhere along the way. Everyone is different, though. What works for one may not work for another.

        My interest in Spanish was spurred by an interest in Latin music. Sometimes I would hear a song that was so good I’d wonder what the words meant. In your article about smart goal setting you state “Even something as simple as memorizing the lyrics to a song or the words to a poem works.” That’s very true. I’ve done that with many songs. It does work and the best thing is, every time you listen to the song, you are revising.

        It can be difficult to be a slave to two masters, so I am hoping that when I have a greater fluency in Dutch I can back off a bit and spend more time on Spanish. After that … Russian. But I want to use a technique called laddering, where you use your last language to learn the next. That way, as you are learning your new language you are forced to practice your last.

        • That’s a great idea Steve! Unfortunately it’s not always so easy to find material. French is the foreign language I use most to learn a new language because the materials are easier to find. I would love to have Catalan materials to learn Finnish or Lithuanian for example but I’m not sure where to find the materials. There are some digital solutions to this problem though. For example, on LingQ you can adjust your settings to use a different language to learn the new language.

          • You are right Dimitris. It can be hard to find the right materials. I am a bit fan of Duolingo, but it it isn’t the best option for laddering. Babbel is a good option for Spanish to Russian though. The Spanish to Russian course is not the same as the English to Russian course (if I have been informed correctly). The material is designed so that it is a good match for a Spaniard. If some words are the same in Spanish it points it out, etc,