My entire experience with language learning has led me to one important conclusion about the big question of setting goals and making progress.
What matters is not what we study; it's how we study.
I use sprint learning, a simple but powerful approach to making progress and getting s*** done.
I hope that knowing more about this method will change the way you study for good.
If you want to learn a new language, while study routines are essential, using the right method is also key.
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Everyone worries about things like remembering a difficult grammar point (that'll be the grammar villain), learning enough vocabulary, or memorising the 1,981 kanji supposedly in daily use in Japan.
But in the rush to get stuff learnt, what gets forgotten is how we are actually going about doing it.
So what I think you need to remember is this: learn to control your time and routine (and beat the inconsistency villain), and then start worrying about the language.
Why Setting Goals Doesn't Work
Traditional goal-setting in language learning would have you focus on the product.
- I will reach level B1 by November
- I will memorise 1,981 Japanese kanji over the next 3 months
- I will learn 30 words a day
That's all very well, and I love the ambition there, but… and be honest now… if you set a goal like this, can you really see yourself reaching it?
Look, the harsh reality is that most of us get incredibly excited about our goals but are woefully inadequate at following through.
Says Anna Salamon, on Sebastian Marshall's blog:
“[We] mostly just do things. We act from habit; we act from impulse or convenience when primed by the activities in front of us; we remember our goal and choose an action that feels associated with our goal. We do any number of things. But we do not systematically choose the narrow sets of actions that would effectively optimize for our claimed goals, or for any other goals.”
Add to this the fact that the intangibility of a language makes it very difficult to break down into discrete parts.
Traditional goal-setting in language learning doesn't work for 99% of people.
Hell, it doesn't even work for me, who's been through the language learning process many times, and should know what to expect.
It doesn't. I'm not built for it.
Accepting this can be liberating, though.
I found focus sprints to be a much more effective method for intensive learning.
How to Use Sprint Learning
A “Sprint” is when you devote a set time to doing one thing, and one thing only, to completion. The idea is to put everything else aside and get this one thing done.
Picture a small software company racing to launch a new piece of software. The entire team comes together and works flat out for 2 months on that one product until it's ready to show to the world.
Other projects might suffer for a while, but – and here's the key thing – the job gets done.
This (with minor tweaks) is my approach to getting s*** done in language learning.
I choose one substantial activity that I enjoy and that I know is beneficial to me.
I then focus all my available time on that activity and little else for a set period (usually around 3 weeks). I go as deep as I can, learn as much as possible from it, and exploit it for all it's worth.
I've found 3 weeks to be an ideal time for me. Much longer and I get bored. Much shorter and the full benefits of the intense work may fail to materialise.
I don't have to worry about how to study each day; I don't jump from book to book, I don' go searching on blogs for the best method (!)… I have this one, simple focus, and I go all out.
What Does a Typical Focus Sprint Look Like?
Here are some examples of what to commit to on any given day…
- Studying 2 pages of your textbook
- Listening to a new dialogue for 15 minutes and following along with the text at the same time
- Watching one episode of your favourite TV drama
- Having a 15-minute Skype conversation with a tutor
- Writing a diary entry in your target language before bed and have it corrected on lang-8.com.
How Long Should My Learning Sprints Be?
The biggest danger, like with traditional goal-setting, is that you don't actually do what you're supposed to.
Therefore, and there is support for this across the extensive literature on motivation, start small so that you can't possibly fail.
I'm talking 5-minute goals.
5-minute goals work because you're never so tired that you can't do a quick 5-minutes to achieve your goal for the day.
But they also have the key effect of getting you started, and you'll usually do far more than the 5-minutes. Starting the habit, which may take 1-2 weeks to take hold, is the hard part, so make it easy to do.
What If I Choose the Wrong Thing to Do On My Sprint?
Who cares? You will benefit from the sprint learning experience because you're doing it intensively.
If it turns out not to be all that good, you've learnt something about how you learn. (If it truly is an awful thing to be doing, you'll probably stop anyway.)
Won't I Be Neglecting Other Parts of My Learning During That Time?
Look, as I said earlier, the alternative is not doing anything at all because you tried to bite off more than you can chew.
Done is better than perfect.
There's a huge benefit to doing ONE THING intensively instead of many things half-heartedly.
Can I Mix Other Things In With My Learning Sprint?
Well, yes. But not at the start. You're doing the sprint in the first place to get s*** done (rather than just fizzle out).
So why don't you just try one thing first, get it working, and then add something else when you're comfortable.
A Note on Process Over Product
Remember that the underlying concept of Sprints is focusing on the process. So, don't fall into the trap of setting product-based goals by mistake.
For example, rather than saying:
- I will learn 10 new words today (product).
- I will spend 10 minutes memorising vocabulary with my spaced-repetition software (process).
Rather than saying:
- I will understand everything in this chapter by the end of the week.
- I will read this chapter twice each night, checking key words in the dictionary.
You can control the process, but you can't control the product.
It's small, but it's key.
With process, you can't fail, but with product, you can always fail to meet your goals.
Go Out And Make It Happen
This discussion is about what you should do every day to progress in your language learning.
I think it's crucial to do achievable things and to do something that you will actually enjoy.
Changing my mindset and discovering sprint learning has helped me in various ways. I make more consistent progress, and I'm happier doing it.
What more could you wish for? 🙂
It's a long road, and I want you to enjoy the process.
Break a leg!