Shooting for the Top: 5 Key Components of a Winning Language Study Plan
Have you recently decided to learn a new language, or recommitted to improving your language skills?
If so, you should know that learning a language, like any other major goal or commitment, requires long-term, consistent follow-through.
That’s why the key to real language learning success often lies in a rock-solid study plan.
Read on to learn how to create it.
- Why You Need a Language Study Plan
- 5 Components of a Foolproof Language Study Plan
- 1. It’s Realistic Considering Your Other Commitments
- 2. It Incorporates Diverse Learning Activities
- 3. It’s Targeted Towards Your Goals
- 4. It Includes Periodic, Measurable Evaluation
- 5. It’s Consistent
Why You Need a Language Study Plan
You know you need to put in some time reading in your target language—or doing grammar exercises or meeting with a language partner—but then a friend calls and invites you out for a drink. Do you have enough self-control to say no?
If you have a set time when you do your language study, it’s easier to explain to your friend—and yourself—that you have to stick to the plan and study. If, however, you just study “when you have time,” pretty soon you end up never having time and always opting to have a drink with friends instead of memorizing vocabulary.
So You Can Align Your Activities with Your Goals
We all learn languages for different reasons—some need to communicate with their in-laws, others want to advance at work and still others want to read literature in its original language. There is no right or wrong reason to learn a foreign language. But it’s important to make sure that how you study fits your goals: The person who wants to talk to his or her in-laws in a foreign language should study differently than the person who wants to read literature.
Having a study plan allows you to think through your goals and how each one of your study activities will help you move closer to each specific goal.
So You’ll Spend Time Studying, Not Deciding What to Study
Every time you sit down to study, you have options. Languages are complex monsters, and learning one requires mastering a huge set of skills. So every time you sit down to study, there are a range of activities you could do and skills you could work on.
If you only have a limited amount of time (like most people), you don’t want to spend any more time than necessary deciding whether to listen to a radio interview or doing a reading comprehension exercise or writing something to be corrected on Lang-8. If you have a good plan, you’ll know not only when you’re going to study, but exactly what you’re going to study at each time.
So when the time comes, you don’t have to even think about what to do—you just dive right in.
5 Components of a Foolproof Language Study Plan
1. It’s Realistic Considering Your Other Commitments
Have you ever met someone who says they are going to study four hours per day, in spite of having a full-time job and three kids? Maybe they can pull it off…but it’s more likely that they will burn out after a few weeks and then stop studying entirely.
Plan Around Your Job, Family, etc.
We all have things going on in our lives, and it’s important to realistically assess all of our other commitments before starting a project like language learning. Here’s how you can go about doing so:
- On a sheet of paper, make a grid showing Monday through Sunday, with each day broken down into hour-long intervals.
- Fill in the grid with your activities on a typical week. Include everything and be specific: If you spend an hour commuting, that should be labeled “commuting,” not “work.” If you typically go out with friends on a particular night of the week, include that. If you watch a TV show, include that.
- Identify any times you don’t usually have any activities—those are your first targets for scheduling language study!
- Secondly, identify activities that you might be willing to give up in order to make more time for language study (especially if you didn’t have any downtime in your schedule!).
- Lastly, find any activities in your schedule that could be overlapped with language study. Commuting is the perfect example—it’s a great time to listen to language materials (but obviously not a good time to work on writing or reading if you’re the one driving).
- Put your proposed language study times into your calendar!
You can also use time management apps like Rescue Time or Focus Booster to help you locate the downtime in your schedule—and make the most of it!
Don’t Be Overly Ambitious!
As you’re working on creating a schedule that will work around your other commitments, resist the temptation to fill every waking hour with language study. That will just burn you out. A good language study plan is sustainable. So don’t plan on giving up your favorite TV show or staying up two hours later every night.
2. It Incorporates Diverse Learning Activities
Incorporate Both Independent Study and Instruction
Your language study plan should include time alone—time that you’re listening to podcasts, learning and practicing grammar and memorizing vocabulary.
This is when you should focus on consuming authentic content in your target language. Video content made by and for native speakers will help get you used to understanding the language spoken at a natural pace, and will introduce you to vocabulary you might not otherwise learn.
Video resources for language learning will ideally have reliable captions in your target language. A video-focused language learning program can be a good choice for this reason. FluentU, for example, teaches languages using authentic web videos enhanced with interactive captions that let you look up words while you watch.
Whether you use a virtual immersion program like FluentU or decide to round up resources yourself, authentic video is the best way to understand how natives speak so you can understand them and imitate them.
But you also need to work with native speakers and get some kind of instruction, whether it’s from a class, from a private teacher or a language exchange partner.
You can kill two birds with one stone on italki. It’s a smart platform for finding free language exchange partners (native speakers of your target language, who also want to learn your native language). You can also hire professional language tutors on the platform, and you’ll be able to identify the ideal tutor for you based on your schedule, budget and language goals. Either way, the options here can be a huge boon for your language progress.
A good language study plan needs both independent study and instructed time—and it has to be scheduled.
Practice Different Language Skills
Fluency in a foreign language requires mastery of reading, writing, speaking and listening, and the best language study plans make time for all of those skills.
Truly masterful study plans align the type of skill to practice with your energy level and other activities. For example, if you commute to work and can listen to a podcast in your target language every day during this time. Alternatively, if writing is the most difficult skill for you to master, schedule your writing practice at a time when you can be 100 percent focused and when you tend to be alert and energetic.
3. It’s Targeted Towards Your Goals
Practice the Language Skills Important to Your Goals
Everyone has different goals, and you need to make sure your language study plan reflects yours, not someone else’s. So if your language goal is to read original-language literature, your study plan should be heavy on reading practice. If you need to use the language at work, it should focus on business vocabulary.
Make Goal-specific Benchmarks
Benchmarks in general are essential to a good language study plan, but you also need benchmarks that are specific to your aims. Scoring high marks on a test that measures reading ability isn’t that useful if you really want to improve your speaking ability. Here are some sample benchmarks that might be relevant to specific goals:
- Have a conversation in your target language with a native speaker.
- Read a complete book in your target language. (You could even be so specific as to specify which book to read.)
- Watch a movie without subtitles in your target language.
4. It Includes Periodic, Measurable Evaluation
You’ll need some way to determine if your plan is working—and those evaluation mechanisms should in fact be part of your study plan. There are two main ways to evaluate how you’re doing:
Take Language Proficiency Tests
Many languages have standardized language proficiency exams that people use to prove to employers or others that they can speak the language. Some of the more well-known exams are the HSK for Chinese, the DELF/DALF for French and the DELE for Spanish.
Incorporate taking these exams into your general study plan. They will provide an outside, objective evaluation of your progress, and give you an idea of which language skills you are comparatively weaker in. Knowing that a test is coming up can also be a powerful motivator to put in a little extra study time!
Get Individual Evaluation from Tutors
Finding a language tutor in your area is easy with WyzAnt, where you can immediately search and filter tutors by rates, availability, distance from you and more. You can look at a tutor’s profile and get an extensive idea of their experience and their schedule before even contacting them!
If you’d prefer to look exclusively at your online tutoring options, you can skip over to Verbling and browse hundreds upon hundreds of language tutors from all around the world. Verbling even offers their own video technology, so you can have your lessons right on their site.
Your language tutors can—and should—also provide you with feedback about your progress. It’s appropriate to ask for a progress report every month or every two months, so that you can make sure you’re on the right track.
5. It’s Consistent
The whole point of a study plan is to be as consistent as possible. Here’s how to make sure your plan fosters consistency.
Schedule Each Activity
Every language learning activity should have a time and a place. You don’t want to say, “I’ll do one hour of listening practice this week.” Instead, it should be, “Every Tuesday and Thursday I do half an hour of listening practice while I ride the train to work between 8:30 and 9 in the morning.”
You’re more likely to follow through week after week if you have the exact time and place nailed down in advance!
Your language time must be sacred—no text messages distracting you, no roommates offering you dinner and no kids begging for attention. Having scheduled activities helps manage interruptions enormously, because you can communicate to the people around you that you’re not available.
With the right language study plan, you can make continued progress towards fluency in your target language.
Learning a language often requires slow but steady progress, and having a solid plan will help you keep on track for the long haul.