While living in Paraguay, I lived by a pretty set routine that gave me a certain time to study languages in the morning (I was studying both Spanish and Guarani at the time). Pretty much every day I set aside an hour for various language study topics – verb conjugations, vocabulary, pronunciation, grammar, etc. – and prepared to put them into practice during the day. I felt pretty proud of myself for spending an entire hour studying every day.
After about three months of this routine I realized that I often ended my study time with a slightly “empty” feeling – like I had just had a whole lot of rice cakes (“I just ate 10 rice cakes, why do I still feel hungry?”). It bothered me for several weeks, and as I realized it was there it began to stick out like a sore thumb… like I was missing something that I should be aware of, but wasn’t.
My answer came one morning as I reached the end of my 1 hour routine and spent a few moments of self-reflection. I asked myself one simple question: What did I accomplish just now? I answered myself with very reasonable answers: I had learned three new words that morning, could pronounce them well, knew how to conjugate them, and could use them in different contexts. Then I realized that on other days I might only learn 2 words, or maybe as many as 5. The discrepancy bothered me because it meant that the days I only learned 2 words were very unproductive days. Even though I had spent an hour studying my language, that hour could have been better. And that’s when time-based goals really hit home for me as a more effective way to study languages.
Some people use the acronym SMART for these types of goals: Simple, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-based (or similar variations of these letters). And while all of these are important for goal-setting, I would like to focus on the time-based element.
Setting goals that are both time-based and results-oriented is a powerful combination for language study. A time-based goal, such as “I’m going to study today for 30 minutes,” ensures that you will set aside everything else to focus on studying for those 30 minutes without interruption. A results-oriented goal, such as “I’m going to learn 10 vocabulary words today,” ensures that you make expected progress, which further drives motivation. But putting the two together, i.e. time restraints on a results-oriented goal, is a powerful combination because it establishes the sense of urgency required for meaningful focus. It’s that same sort of intense focus you get when you’re late in driving somewhere, or when trying to get a project finished by a short deadline.
Once I realized what I was lacking, I immediately implemented a results aspect of my language study goals. So instead of simply studying for an hour, I began to focus on achieving results in that hour of study. I nearly always accomplished those results because of my own self-induced urgency, and the information sank in much sooner than it would have in earlier weeks of study. My review time decreased and I was able to spend more time focusing on adding new content to my study routine. Instead of 2 or 3 words a day, I began to devour 5 words a day consistently (among other things, such as vocal reading for pronunciation).
Another side-effect that I noticed was that my language skills began to improve at a much faster rate because of the new intense focus I had during my studies. Strangely enough, my brain seemed to assimilate languages in a new way, which made my language practice more effective as well. What I mean by that is that the things I studied in the morning were more easily available when I needed them because of the intense focus I felt when studying – almost like they weren’t buried quite so deeply in my memory files – and when I used them in conversation it further solidified what I studied, making the learning experience as a whole much more effective. It also made speaking much less uncomfortable since I didn’t have to search quite as much for the right word.
While I certainly believe that language learning requires time, I also believe that time well-spent can reduce the overall time required for second language acquisition. I find claims of learning a new language in a few days or weeks to be rather absurd, but it certainly doesn’t need to take years either. Time-based, results-oriented goals became for me a simple, yet powerful concept that made my study time much, much more effective – and I believe it can have a similarly powerful effect on you.
Do you have any examples of time-based, results-oriented goals you’d like to share? What other study habits have you found helpful when studying languages?