Why you should plan your language learning, and how to do it

Rob Ashby
The Spanish Obsessive

Planning our language learning is one of those things that we all know we should do, but seems so boring that none of us actually do it. Or, perhaps we consider it, and instead create some half-baked objectives before jumping in to our learning.

However, planning your language learning is not only not boring, but gives you an opportunity to take a broad look at where you are, and where you are going in your journey to Spanish mastery.

In this post we’ll provide some food for thought around planning your language learning journey, and give you a super simple planning framework that you can take away and use immediately, no matter what stage you have reached.

Why should we plan our learning?

If you grew up in the Western school system, you are used to pre-defined courses and syllabi. You were told what you needed to “cover”, and then your lessons would be focused on that. We didn’t need to think about what we should actually learn – we only worried about the learning itself.

While there are upsides and downsides to this approach, it does mean that as learners we are not used to charting our own course through learning a language. We are far more likely to stick to premade courses and objectives, and less likely to think about what we really want to cover.

That’s understandable. It’s hard enough learning a language, let alone having to also plan your own learning as well.

Planning your own learning, however, provides so many benefits:

  • It puts the onus and responsibility on learning squarely on you. You take responsibility for your own learning, which means you can go at your own pace.
  • It enables you to personalise goals and objectives. Instead of setting a goal of completing a coursebook (which, while a tangible goal, doesn’t mean anything in itself), you can set yourself goals around conversational competence, comprehension, or other meaningful objectives.
  • It will keep you motivated. Provided your plan is set around a meaningful objective for you, you will find it easier to persevere if the going gets tough.
  • It will help you appreciate your progress. If you’ve got no idea where you want to go, you won’t get anywhere. Setting an endpoint, or milestones, will give you a sense of progression as you continue learning.
  • It gives you criteria for success. If you commit to milestones and routines, you can be unambiguous about your success. This gives you no wriggle room for excuses!

What we mean by “planning your learning”

I’m not suggesting you go and create your own syllabus (although this is not a bad idea). What we mean by “planning your learning” involves 3 areas:

  1. Setting a big, inspiring, audacious goal.
  2. Breaking down your goal into achievable milestones
  3. Creating realistic habits and routines that will get you to your goals

Each of these feeds into the level above. Let’s take these one-by-one, starting from the top.

  1. Set yourself a big, inspiring, audacious goal

This is your “why”. Why did you decide to learn Spanish in the first place? The reasons are personal to you, and there is no right or wrong answer. However, the bigger and more inspiring the goal, the more motivation this will give you. We find that learning Spanish in and of itself isn’t necessarily the most powerful goal. Instead, think about what you want to do with the language.

We asked our audience “why are you learning Spanish”, and here are some of the answers we got:

  • “Talk with people, and understand tango lyrics”
  • “Appreciate books and films in the original language”
  • “Communicate with husband’s family”
  • “Moving to live and work in El Salvador”

Each of these reasons are inspiring and personal to those people.

Think about your big, inspiring goal, and write it down.

2. Break down your goal into achievable milestones

This is where you get more specific with your objectives. Remember: Your big, inspiring goal is your “why”; your milestones are specific points that mark the way to achieving your overall goal.

This is where SMART goals come in handy. I’m sure you’ve heard them before, so I won’t write too much about them. But, your intermediate milestones should be:

Specific. What, precisely, are you looking to achieve?
Measurable. How will you know when you’ve achieved it?
Agreed upon. If you share your milestones with others, this will also help you to commit to them, and keep you accountable.
Realistic. It should be something that you can actually hope to achieve. Trying to learn 100 words a day, for example, is not realistic for most people.
Time-bound. When are you looking to achieve this goal?

Provided your milestones fit the SMART framework, there are no real right or wrong milestones.

However, from my experience, try to avoid the trap of confusing “covering” material with actual learning.

Covering material vs actual learning

It’s very easy to feel a sense of progress on completing chapters in a coursebook, or levels in an app. Remember, though, that this act of completing is not the same as learning. Hopefully, it will lead to learning and acquisition, but if you focus too much on covering material, you may lose sight of actually learning and acquiring the language.

As an English teacher, I often encountered students who would be placed in higher level classes simply because they had completed the required textbooks. They would be surprised and disappointed to find that their general English was not at that level – they’d been focused on the box-ticking act of getting through material, without really taking the time to properly assimilate it.

Moral of the story? Don’t confuse completing text books and levels in an app with actual progress!

3. Create realistic habits and routines that will get you to your goals

In my episode of Reaching for Words with Shannon Kennedy, she talked about the strength of language routines. By creating a language routine, you remove discipline and motivation from the equation. If you commit to something small and regular, and stick with it, you don’t need to drum up motivation to spend significant time getting your head down to study.

When it comes to language learning, little and often is the real key.

Creating your milestones will reveal what your language routine should be

Create routines that you can do in short periods of time. Ideally, aim to do something every day, even if it’s just 5 minutes. Decide exactly when you are going to do it. Consider your normal habits and routines, and fit your new language habits into these. This will help them become automatic, and stop you forgetting about them.

Here are a couple of examples:

  • Read a chapter a day from a Spanish reader. Carry this around with you, or use a version on your phone/kindle. On a commute? Perfect time to fit some reading in!
  • Watch and take notes from your favourite Spanish TV shows (I’m a fan of Masterchef). Commit to doing this before you settle down to your evening TV viewing.
  • Memorise 10 phrases a day. Do this when you are in bed, or instead of some other activity. Use flashcards or a notebook, and make sure it’s accessible and convenient.
  • Listen to a podcast a day. Did we mention we have a few of these ourselves?!

When considering your habits, make sure that you decide where your language habit fits into your day. Don’t fit your day around your language habit; fit your language habit around your day.

Try to break down the barriers to completing your language habit. Make it as easy to complete as possible. It’s very easy to come up with excuses not to complete your habit, so by making it as easy and convenient as possible you leave yourself with no excuses. This can be something simple like always carrying a reader around with you, or leaving it in the same place each time, or saving a website as a bookmark in your browser.

Think about the steps required in completing your habit, and reduce these as far as possible.

Think about dead time during your day, such as commutes.

Creating language habits of 5 to 10 minutes is a powerful way of making steady, sustained progress.

The cumulative effect of this type of activity can be astonishing, and is far more effective than periodic bursts of longer sessions.

For a great list of possible activities, check out this post by Lindsay, on Lindsaydoeslanguages.com.

Let’s take an example, and work it through each step in our framework:

Big, inspiring goal: Be able to hold conversations with native speakers without getting lost.

Milestones:

  • Memorise and be fluent in common conversational scenarios: introducing myself, saying hello and goodbye, be able to talk about myself, etc. Learn and be comfortable with 100 phrases within 1 month.
  • Improve comprehension to understand gist of native spoken Spanish: Be able to watch Spanish TV and summarise topics and plots, within 3 months.
  • Hold 10 minute conversation with language partner, within 3 months.

Language habits and routines:

  • Memorise common conversational phrases through SRS (Spaced Repetition System) such as Anki or Quizlet. Aim for 100 phrases total, 10 minutes per day. Do this during commutes and other dead time.
  • Listen to 2 x conversational Spanish podcasts per week.
  • Note down important phrases and vocabulary I don’t know – add them to SRS once per week, on a Sunday.
  • Commit to conversational practice once every 2 weeks through local Intercambio.

Your plan may look something like the above, but that’s not the most important thing. What really matters is that you take some time to consider where you are, and where you want to go.

Planning your learning is like programming a destination into Google maps (as well as actually deciding where you want to go!). You don’t have to do it, but you’ll get there a whole lot quicker if you do!

Do you plan your learning? What approaches work for you, and how detailed are you in your planning? Let us know in the comments below!

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