I’m a huge fan of learning languages through immersion. With the internet these days, you can emulate whatever country you want, all in your own home, or even as you walk or commute. You can watch TV episodes through YouTube, find and listen to target language music in a variety of places, and, as I’ve mentioned many a time, you can listen to target language radio and podcasts to your heart’s content. It’s never been easier to locate and read novels in your target language without having to step foot on the continent where the language is spoken.
For some, all out immersion works great. By this, I mean immersion 24/7, like from the blog All Japanese All The Time. You keep your headphones in whenever you can, you eschew L1 (your native language) media from your life, and you create that target language bubble that breeds fluency and confidence.
All of this is well and good. But why can’t learners stick with it?
Some learners can’t do all out immersion. Maybe your schedule is too unpredictable or crazy. Maybe you don’t like having headphones in all of the time. Maybe L1 media is important to you, like literature or movies. Maybe you’re like me and have a handful of languages to balance, and total immersion means neglecting three other languages!
I propose that total immersion isn’t what’s important here. Rather, it’s consistency.
You need to come into contact with your target language on a regular basis. If you’re immersing all of the time, that’s super. That means you have all of your bases covered. However, if you’re not keeping track of your work when you don’t immerse all of the time, that means you can lose track of your studies and your consistency begins to falter.
For me, total immersion can result in burnout, which can mean a pretty big stumbling block in language learning. Near-total immersion worked great for me with French, but when I tried it with Japanese a couple years ago, I slipped up about two weeks in and went months without any Japanese exposure at all. That’s not great for anyone’s language skills.
What people need to think about first is what’s sustainable. Start with smaller sessions that you do on a daily basis (or a few days a week), and work your way up. Build a schedule that fits you.
As I mentioned, I balance several languages right now, and I have a system that’s been working pretty well for me.
So, here are some tips for building consistency and habit!
- Find a way to give yourself instant gratification for your daily goals. Yes, I do mean reward yourself. It doesn’t have to be big or lavish. For me, I use Forest, an iOS (and I think Android) app. It’s a simple timer that blocks all other applications while you’re using it. But, its fun twist is that it plants a bush or tree for every span of time you complete. It might seem silly, but it’s very satisfying to see my little garden at the end of the day. I also make old-fashioned to do lists and get a huge amount of satisfaction ticking items off as the day goes by. What we’re doing here is timeboxing— a method of cutting up a big task into smaller, doable bits. Lists and timers makes you feel like you’ve accomplished a goal, something that’s hard to do when you have a big, amorphous project like learning a language.
- Along the same lines, set your daily target timeboxes to short periods. If you’re going to take advantage of a timer of some sort, I wouldn’t recommend studying more than 30 minutes at a time. I’ve been setting goals for 10-20 minutes or so, and it’s working great. These are things like reading or studying textbooks. At the 10 minute mark, the goal is small enough that I don’t procrastinate. 25-ish minutes is the upper limit of that effect. And, if I want to keep going, I can always set another timer, and I get another plant in my Forest garden!
- Time limits, rather than achievements, are your friends. Last summer, my Spanish goals revolved around reading two chapters of Harry Potter a day. Sounds easy, right? Well, in the early books, the chapters are short– I think it would take me 20-30 minutes to read two of them. But in the later books, the chapters are long. I sometimes read more than an hour trying to reach my goal. While noble, this didn’t get me anywhere. It tired me out and just made me more prone to putting off my reading until later in the day. A lot of times, I skipped altogether because the task was too daunting. Time limits are bright lines that you can always hit. When I sit down to read 25 minutes of Spanish, I stop when the timer’s up, unless I’m feeling really good. It doesn’t matter if I’m in the middle of a page or chapter. I accomplished what I set out to do in a span of time that wasn’t painful! Don’t underestimate the danger of pushing yourself too hard. You risk getting frustrated, and then you might toss the whole project. Keep things small, and keep your daily goals separate from your actual language skills. Your skills will follow, believe me.
- Take days off. Again, this is all about sustainability for a long-term project. When I started using extensive to do lists and timers, my daily language goals became a lot more feasible. However, by doing so much more in a day, I felt like I’d worked pretty hard! This isn’t a bad feeling by any means; it’s that tired, accomplished sort of feeling. Still, I found that if I continued through the weekends like I had on the weekdays, I’d be feeling a little stretched thin by Monday. Now, I take weekends off. Not completely– I still listen to radio, watch videos, and read if I feel like it, but I don’t track, and I don’t write lists on weekends. When I figured this out, I was maintaining my daily goals for months rather than a couple days at a time. My language learning can be slapdash and sporadic (which is not bad! Goals and habits should be flexible and change as you change) but building consistency is helping me move ahead quicker. Don’t underestimate the wonders of taking a break!
And finally, here are what my Spanish, Dutch, and Japanese daily goals look like right now:
Read 25 minutes of La ciudad de las bestias
Watch 1 YouTube video (about 5-6 minutes)
Dutch (you can tell I’m concentrating on this one :))
3 Duolingo lessons (10 minutes)
Watch Avondjournaal on Jeugdjournaal (10 minutes)
Listen to a podcast for 30 minutes (I do this on my walk)
Read for 20 minutes
Study textbook for 20 minutes
Read for 10 minutes
As you can see, each task is pretty small, but they add up to a lot of daily time spent on the language. I break my own rules with the Duolingo goal being based on lessons and not time limits, but Duolingo lessons are pretty standardized and they always take about the same length of time. Similarly, any videos I watch always take the same length of time. I might not hit all of these every day, but having them written out really helps and keeps me on track.