One of the hardest parts of learning a second language is studying consistently over time. Every language learner is familiar with the dreadful feeling of realizing, “Oh no, it’s been three weeks since the last time I studied! How am I ever going to actually learn this language?”
When life gets in the way and things come up, it’s easy to put language learning on the backburner. But language learning takes time and dedication; there’s no such thing as a “fluent in two weeks” shortcut. You have to study regularly – ideally every day – for a long period of time in order to get really good.
How do we keep up a regular study habit when there are so many moving parts in our lives? How can we stay organized and on track?
Successfully learning a language starts with a study planner
A personalized study planner serves as a dashboard where you can keep track of your progress and goals – both from short- and long-term perspectives. Without a study planner it’s easy for language learning to become a catch-up game rather than a proactive, enjoyable journey.
Language learning habits that stick
In a traditional language class everything is already planned out. Your teacher plans the lessons, activities and homework, and you commit to meeting with them a few times per week.
Self-study, on the other hand, is a lot more difficult. You’re responsible for finding all of the lessons and learning materials, and nobody is there to guide you or keep you on track.
We’ve been studying foreign languages for more than 12 years and consistency is one of the biggest challenges we’ve faced. We like to call it “falling off the grid” – we’d be energized and motivated to “brush up on French,” or “finally learn Italian.” We’d download an app and study for a few weeks… and then fall off the grid. Suddenly two months have gone by and we haven’t studied at all, so we give up.
How do we outsmart ourselves to maintain consistent, effective study habits? The answer is simple: a detailed, organized study planner that contains:
- Realistic goals
- Diverse and interesting study tools
- A way to keep track of time spent studying
In fact, most language learning apps now incorporate some form of study planning. We’re currently using Busuu and Rosetta Stone to learn Russian. Both apps had us set goals at the beginning of our studies (for example, 30 minutes 3 days per week). Rosetta Stone even has a dashboard to help us keep track of our study time:
Our study planner for learning Russian
We’ve been studying Russian for the last two years. Right now we’re somewhere around B1 proficiency (early intermediate, if you’re not familiar with the CEFR Scale). We can read basic texts and have simple conversations but we really want to get to the point where we can listen to podcasts and have deeper conversations with Russian friends.
Russian is also one of the most difficult languages we’ve ever studied and the grammar is incredibly complex (oh, you thought the German case system was hard?). If we’re ever going to get really good we need to remain focused and spend our time wisely.
Our current goal is to study Russian for at least 30 minutes every day for 10 days. Our study planner is organized in Google Sheets and we keep track of our study activities and how much time we spend each day.
Here’s what our Russian language study planner looked like at the 10-day mark
We had one day where we didn’t reach 30 minutes, however we were able to make up the time on other days so we don’t need to feel bad about missing that day. We also kept track of the time spent on each activity so we can see which areas need more attention in the future.
For our next goal, we want to spend more time on Grammar and Dialogues. By breaking up our studying into smaller chunks and focusing only on the next 10 days, we’re much less likely to skip a day (or three). The goal of “learning to speak Russian” is simplified to an actionable item: study 30 minutes every day for 10 days. That feels much less overwhelming.
Plus, we included a handful of different study activities such as vocab practice with Anki or studying conversation dialogues. Some days we really don’t feel like reviewing grammar charts or memorizing vocabulary – on those days we can do a different activity, such as going through lessons on Rosetta Stone or Busuu. Most importantly, we don’t do the same thing every day.
Overall, we’re pretty satisfied with our progress here. We took a few days’ break for a holiday and then started a new goal after.
How to build your own study planner for any language
The whole point of a language study planner is to keep you organized and focused while you work towards a short term goal. It doesn’t have to be super complex or fancy, you really just need three things: a realistic short term study goal, some study tools that work for you, and a way to keep track of your study time.
1: Set a realistic study goal
Learning a language can be a daunting task – it can take several years of dedicated study to reach B2 or C1 level proficiency. In order to stay motivated and focused, we need to set realistic short term goals that we can feel good about. If we set our expectations too high we’re more likely to feel discouraged if we don’t meet them.
A good short term goal should be specific and attainable: “I’m going to learn Italian in 2022” is a great long-term goal to have but it’s too vague; we need a goal we can complete in the near future. “I’m going to study Italian every day for the next seven days.” is much more attainable. If we study every day for the next seven days, we have achieved our goal and we can allow ourselves to feel happy about our progress.
The goal should also be realistic: “I’m going to study Italian for 2 hours every day this week” focuses on the short-term, but it’s too ambitious. Work, school or social plans will likely get in the way and you’ll feel guilty for not studying enough. We recommend you set your expectations a bit low then aim to overachieve. “I’m going to study Italian at least 15 minutes per day this week.” is much more realistic. If you have a few days where you study several hours then you can feel extra proud of yourself for going above and beyond.
Bite-sized pieces you can feel good about: A good language learning goal is something you can achieve easily and feel good about. For example: “I’m going to study for at least 30 minutes every day for 7 days. But if I study for more than 15 minutes every day, that’s even better!” This goal is pretty easily attainable even on days when you don’t feel like studying – a 30 minute study session is no big deal. Also, there’s an end date: you don’t need to worry about the next month or six months, your only focus is on the next 7 days.
By concentrating on bite-sized pieces you can stay motivated and, most importantly, feel a sense of accomplishment as you continue your language learning journey.
2: Use diverse study tools
Language learning should be fun and enjoyable – not something that feels like a chore. In order to stay interested and motivated, your study activities should include a bit of variety. You’ll likely get bored after a while if all you do is play on Duolingo every day. Like a healthy diet, an effective study routine should be balanced and include multiple activities.
We recommend choosing three or four study activities you enjoy and adding them to your language study planner. For example if you enjoy politics and current events, you could find a news website you like and add a section on your planner with the label “Reading.” If you like true crime, you can find a podcast series and spend 15 minutes every day on “Listening.”
Choosing a handful of go-to study activities will help keep you motivated and also reduce decision fatigue.
Vocabulary: Every language learner should spend some amount of time memorizing new vocabulary words. We prefer using a flashcard app to learn a handful of new words every day (see our guide on memorizing vocabulary with the Anki flashcards app).
Listening: Listen to a podcast or audio book, or watch a YouTube video or Netflix show in your target language. Anything where you’re actively listening (i.e. focusing and paying attention) to the language. Even if you don’t understand, you’re still learning the sounds and rhythms of the language.
Grammar: Even native speakers of a language study grammar in school. We recommend dedicating some amount of your study time to learning grammar. There are plenty of resources online – we recommend finding a list of grammar concepts and spending some of your study time working through them.
Apps: There are so many wonderful language learning apps and programs available these days, both free and paid. If you’re looking for a free resource, we’d recommend starting with Duolingo. If you’re willing to pay $15-20 per month, we’d recommend checking out Rosetta Stone or Babbel.
As you advance, you’ll want to include a wider variety of activities to train your reading, writing, speaking and listening skills. Fortunately, there are thousands upon thousands of resources available online. We’d recommend investing some time in researching what’s available for your target language and choosing a handful of activities that fit your interests.
3: Keep track of your study time
Keeping a time log allows you to review your progress and adjust your study habits accordingly. For example, on our Russian study planner (mentioned above) we can see that on 17-Dec we studied for three hours and reviewed ‘plurals’ for 30 minutes. We actually really need to go back and review plurals again, so we’ll make a note to do that sometime this week.
We can also see that we didn’t review our Russian Dialogues very much toward the end of our 10 day goal. We’ll focus on that a bit more next time.
It feels pretty great to get to the end of the week and realize you’ve spent a significant amount of time studying. Plus, keeping a time log in your study planner will give you a lot of insight into how you’re using your study time and where you can improve.
4: Choose the format that works best for you
We prefer to use Google Sheets since there’s a lot of extra flexibility when it comes to formatting, but a Word document or even a piece of paper will do just fine. The important part is that you keep track of your study time and what activities you’ve completed. You’ll want to start by creating a chart so you can keep track of everything.
- Create rows for every day you want to include in your planner. Focus on your current short-term study goal. In the example below, there’s only enough space to complete this goal. Create a new study planner after you reach this goal by duplicating the data in Sheets. Don’t worry about what you’re going to do next week or next month – just focus on your short term goal!
- Create columns for all of your study activities. Not only will these columns remind you which activities you should work on (less decision fatigue!), they will also give you a visual representation of how you spend your study time.
- Add your study time after each activity. This will help you feel a sense of accomplishment after each activity, especially when you complete a study activity you weren’t really looking forward to.
Begin your own language study planner right now
Learning a second language requires you to invest a significant amount of effort over a long period of time, but that shouldn’t hold you back. By focusing your attention on an easily attainable short term goal you’ll feel much less overwhelmed.
A study planner can help you break up the time into smaller chunks, allowing you to focus on the short term and feel a greater sense of accomplishment from the progress you make. To get started, outline your short term goal and choose a handful of activities you’d like to work on this week.
If you commit to “studying at least three days this week, for at least 30 minutes each time” you can allow yourself to feel successful at the end of the week – especially if you do more than what you originally planned. Once you complete your first goal, analyze your progress and make a new goal for the next week.
– written by Drew Grubba for Smarter Language. Drew has ACTFL-certified proficiency in Swedish, German, Portuguese, French and Spanish. He’s also studied Mandarin Chinese, Norwegian and Dutch, and is currently learning Russian.
Disclaimer: Rosetta Stone is a property of IXL Learning Inc.