noticing your progress

This is a response to a question about a “dummy-proof” method for language learning. What do you do when your progress at learning a language looks like nothing is happening? If you’re working on a difficult language, how do you keep going when you can’t tell if you’re getting better or not?

I’ve frequently found that making goals based on the number of hours of listening, or number of words read, or number of episodes of TV watched was very helpful. It let me refocus my efforts towards exposure, rather than judging my progress based on what I could or could not say. In this way, the numbers always go up if you keep doing it. The only way to fail is to stop.

This points out that the main problem of language learning is motivation. You have to keep choosing to do it day after day. Along this line, I really like the idea of the “Victory Calendar”. You pick some relatively far off date like 1 year from now, and the idea is to do something every day until the end. Also, you have some other numerical goals about how much you want to do on an “ideal” day. Then you have some way to mark down whether you did anything at all that day, and then another way to mark down whether you exceeded the day’s goal. A day is a success if you did anything at all, but it’s an even bigger success if you exceeded the daily goal. For me, this is a color scheme for each day: yellow for nothing, blue for something, green for exceeding the goal. I’ve also used pencil marks when I have a physical piece of paper with boxes on it: A big X for nothing, a shaded triangle for something (like half of the box is full), and then a full shaded box for exceeding the goal.

None of this has anything to do with being able to say certain things by a certain day. Progress is only measured by exposure to content. Success is (rightly) tied to doing it over and over and over again. I’ve found that the most common reason that I give up on a language is because I can’t see obvious progress in my abilities in the language. I start to wonder if I’m getting better or just staying the same. This is a very big problem in a language that’s far from the ones you know. At some point you just have to trust that repeated exposure to the language over your chosen long-term timespan will result in you being much better at the language, even though you won’t be able to see those improvements from day to day or maybe even week to week.

In this sense, it becomes similar to weight training. You can’t just go to the gym one day and lift 20kg, and then the next day be sad because 30kg is still impossible. A potential bodybuilder can’t give up when they don’t look like Arnold Schwarzenegger after a few weeks. What you have to do is be confident that lifting weights over and over again for an extended time period will make you stronger.

One common strategy for weight lifters is to keep a record of what they’ve lifted each workout, so that they can look back on it 2 months later in order to realize how much progress they’ve actually made over that time, even though it looked like nothing was happening from day to day or week to week. Perhaps for the language learner, this would be a record of what’s hard to understand, what’s easy to understand, and also what was just discovered. When I look back on my “new discoveries” a month later, they all seem so obvious. How could I not know that? This is a big sign of improvement, when the difficult becomes obvious, but that is something that can’t be noticed over a short time span.

These sorts of strategies aren’t just useful for very difficult languages. I thought that Swedish would be so easy and quick that I wouldn’t need to use any of these strategies to keep me going, but I quickly learned that this was a mistake. No language learning is fast (although some languages are clearly quicker than others). It needs to happen again and again, over a long period of time, and this means (for me, anyway), that I need to have some sort of record to look back at in order to see how far I’ve come.

2 Responses to noticing your progress

  1. A Reader says:

    Thanks for posting such useful articles. I’ve been wondering about the breakdown versus intensive and extensive activities recently and I wonder if you have any advice. My chinese experience started with years of intensive studies and now I’ve flipp-flopped and have mostly been doing extensive work. I’ve been thinking of incorporating more intensive practice but I’m haven’t figured how much to include without it being a burden. With swedish, on your calendar for example how much time did you focus on intensive work and how much time on extensive work? Thanks.

  2. daftpig says:

    A very good post that I shall direct my English students to for language learning practice, a sly way to expose them to the content too!

    Thanks.

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