“How hard can it be to put into practice your own advice?”
This is what I ask myself every time I have a free hour to dedicate to language learning, and I spend it thinking about where to start from. Grammar exercises or listening to a podcast? Textbook or extensive reading? Translating a song or reading the news? Or even… Swedish or Spanish? Then I end up opening Instagram and spending half an hour scrolling through the feed instead. By the end of the hour, I haven’t accomplished anything but feeling utterly terrible about myself.
At this point, I don’t really hope for my willpower or motivation alone to lead to an effective study session. I need to set up a clear plan and to force myself to stick to it – at least until it becomes a habit.
So here is an overview of how I’ll go about prioritising among languages, planning and sticking to a schedule. Let’s go through the process together and build a learning habit we can feel good about.
Prioritise among different languages
A lot of people in the language learning community are studying more than one language at a time. Many also want to maintain languages they learned previously. I fit into both categories: at the moment I’m learning Swedish and Spanish and I want to keep polishing my French and Japanese.
I’m learning Swedish because I moved to Sweden earlier this year, so I need the language in my everyday life. My long-term goal is to communicate like an educated person in Swedish – so a C2 level.
Spanish, for now, is just for fun. I study a bit every day when my brain needs a break from Swedish or from work. I find it relatively easy, my native language being Italian, and I’m in no rush to make progress.
My French needs training especially when it comes to listening and writing skills, while for Japanese I need to focus on reading to avoid forgetting too many kanji.
Swedish, my highest priority, gets a dedicated hour every day. I want to practice a bit of Spanish daily, too, for about 10 minutes.
French and Japanese will find space in my leisure time, on weekends or evenings.
Why am I learning this language? Which one is my highest priority? How much time per day / per week do I want to dedicate to this language?
If you’re learning all of your languages for pleasure, without clear priorities, you can manage your time freely. You can have a focus language and a “break” language, or dedicate the same amount of time to every language, or just go with the flow.
Plan time for language learning
I used to try and fit language learning in every free moment, like a pro time hacker, but it didn’t work out well. It made me feel exhausted and stressed, without ever bringing to any real consistency. So I started to actively carve out time for it. This allows me both to build a regular study habit and to leave some tiny bits of time that I don’t need to fill when I can just do nothing. No more anxiety-inducing study strategies, please.
My “language learning hour” is after work and before dinner. It’s my time to unwind and without it, I get grumpy and gloomy.
If you have a regular working routine, you can decide when to fit your language learning slot each day. If you have more of an irregular schedule, carve time for your study sessions week by week, once you know your plans.
At least in the beginning, do write in your diary when you’re going to study. Stick to it as you would with any other commitment. You have the right to give yourself some time for what makes you feel happy.
First of all, I wrote a list of my language learning activities and the resources I normally use.
These will depend on the skills you are focusing on at the moment. You can decide to have a balanced schedule when you train all skills equally or to focus on a specific skill you want to train.
During long study sessions, a bit of variety is good to avoid getting bored and losing concentration. I try not to overdo it and stick to 2-3 activities for one hour of study. Also, I pick not more than 5-6 resources and activities for each language, without spreading myself too thin or risking overwhelm.
This is how my schedule for September looks like:
Notice that I have allowed some free time on weekends, to add some more studies if I feel like it, read or watch videos in one of my languages.
A big problem for me is to stay focused and avoid interrupting a session by checking social media or looking up something random on Google.
Offline activities are my favourites because they allow me to put my laptop and phone away for a while. I’m thinking about buying an old-school paper dictionary, to stay away from screens as much as possible while I study.
My general rules will be no social media, phone in flight mode, no opening new windows in my browser.
The Pomodoro technique (25 minutes of focused work + 5 minutes break) is helpful, though I was never able to adopt it for a long time. In the worst case scenario, I am going to install some focus app or plugin to keep me from slacking around the web during my study time. If you’re using one that you would recommend, let me know in the comments.
What about unexpected available time?
That is when I might get stuck again: where should I start from? What do I feel like doing? And puff… the free time is gone.
I am going to try to literally go with the first activity that comes to mind. Doing something – anything – is more valuable than spending time wondering about the “right” step to take.
So this is a bit of an experiment to tackle a problem that left me frustrated for a long time. The feeling of wasting time and accomplishing nothing made me anxious, and I don’t ever want language learning to make me feel that way. Hopefully, I’ll be able to start my study sessions without delays and, eventually, to remove a bit of the structure and learn more freely.
Do you ever struggle with focus or have a hard time deciding what to work on? Do you schedule your study sessions or do you prefer to be less structured?