Taking Your Foreign Language Study to the Next Level

fountain pen on top of a Japanese magazine

In last week’s post,  I talked about the stages of foreign language learning and  common friction points.  Today, I want to expand on friction and what you can do when you feel that your progress is slowing to a stand still.

First, are you really sure that your foreign language study progress has slowed or do you just feel that your progress has slowed?

Several scientific studies have showed that  humans are really bad at tracking ourselves. If you are a self-directed learner, you don’t have the benefit of a teacher to keep you on course.   However, by using the same techniques that teachers use, you can keep your personal course of study more organized and effective:

1. Keep a Progress Notebook

Yes, I am going to keep pushing progress notebooks.  Why? If you don’t have a progress notebook of some sort, you may be selling your own effort short.  A progress notebook is a physical (or digital record) of your study efforts.

What do you need to put into your progress notebook for it to be effective?

1.  The amount of time that you spend studying
2.  What you are struggling with (words you can’t remember, grammar points that are frustrating, questions that you need to ask native speakers, etc.)
3. Your successes (vocabulary that you have learned, conversations with native speakers, sentences that you understood without checking your dictionary, etc.)

By reviewing your progress notebook, you will realize just how much progress you have made in learning your target language.  Give yourself credit.  Learning a new language is hard work!

2.  Look up foreign language course syllabi in your target language.

One of the difficulties of teaching yourself is that you have to provide the road map for your language learning process.  However, by checking out what foreign language teachers expect from their students in a year, you have an idea of where your progress should be and what a beginner, intermediate or advanced student should know.  Also, you may find a lot of interesting resources that you were unfamiliar with!

Second, how much time are you actually spending studying?

No matter what anyone tells you, most successful polyglots spend a LOT of time studying their target languages.  Sometimes the only way to bust through a wall is to chisel it down.  Here is where your progress notebook comes in handy.  By keeping track of your study time, you have an accurate record of how much you are ACTUALLY studying.

Now, before you start running away, I’m not saying that learning a language should not be fun.  In fact, language learning can be a lot of fun.  You just have to find study methods that are entertaining.  Look for movies or TV shows in your target language or, even better, see if a TV show that you are familiar with is also available in your target language.  By watching shows that you are familiar with, you can try to avoid using the subtitle function as much as possible.  You already know the storyline and what the characters are saying.  Now the challenge is trying to figure out new words in your target language.

When in doubt, switch up your language learning methods.

Here is a personal story on my own progress with Japanese.  I wanted to learn Japanese because I am a huge Sailormoon fan, and I wanted to read the manga (yes, that truly was my main reason.  At least I’m honest, right?)  I thought it was something I should be able to accomplish easily.  I had taken linguistics courses in college and Japanese was my second foreign language not my first.  Easy right?

Epic failure.

My first mistake was sitting down with a Japanese textbook and trying to learn the hiragana.  Everything that I had read online indicated that learning the hiragana should be a breeze.  Two weeks max and then I could get started with my textbook.

It took me six MONTHS to learn the hiragana.

Why?

Mostly because I was fighting everything I knew about my own brain and trying to follow other people’s advice.  I loaded a hiragana deck into Anki and started to work.  I could remember the hiragana for a day or two but then I would forget and my recall was absolutely horrible.

I was so dejected and out of frustration I gave up several times but then I would come back and start over again.   Nothing was working.  I thought I was a fairly intelligent person so why was I having so much difficulty with something that I thought would be so simple.

I had learned the English alphabet, right?  Why couldn’t I learn the hiragana?

Finally, I had a flash of insight.  I thought back to elementary school when I was learning new words for spelling tests.  How did I manage to learn the words?  My mom made me write each word five times.  So that’s what I did with the hiragana.  I wrote each character over and over and over again.

My hand hurt from writing the characters over and over but, by writing the characters and saying them out loud at the same time, I learned the hiragana.  Then I learned the katakana.  Now I’m learning the kanji.  For the kanji, I have had to adapt the process a little bit.  I have a great app on my iPhone that lets me trace out each kanji as I learn it.  The app also includes all the readings as well as Chinese and Korean readings.  Pretty cool!

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