In this post you’ll discover four mini language learning habits that are easy to take up and that you’ll find fun to do every day. There’s a habit for each of the four language skills: listening, reading, speaking and writing.
New Year’s resolutions don’t all have to be big and dramatic and, if you stick to your new tiny language learning habit, it could compound over the weeks and months to help you make real progress in your language in 2023. You could use them whatever your current level
I call listening the “senior skill” for good reason.
It comes first when we learn our mother tongue, so there’s something “natural” about putting it centre stage as we learn a foreign language.
After all, it’s hard for us to have a two-way conversation if we’re not used to listening to the real, spoken language.
Listening also underpins reading, as we build up the experience to “hear” what we read.
The sound of a new language is fleeting, rushing at you, out of your control. There’s no time to pause like you would when reading, writing or even speaking. An added challenge is that the flow of connected speech often changes the pronunciation of individual words as, for example, when a word merges into the one that follows.
If regular listening practice isn’t part of your language habit yet, how about doing something about it from New Year’s Day on?
To start the habit, find an appealing source of recorded audio in your target language.
This could be a podcast (or YouTube channel) or something else online (preferably something that won’t be taken down after a brief period, so that you can also go back and re-listen later). It could be an offline recording.
You could choose an audio book, but more natural conversational speech is preferable.
Commit yourself to listening for fifteen or twenty minutes a day.
For maximum benefit, you could listen intensively, your entire attention focussed on the audio.
I know I’m always saying this, but a transcript of the audio is really useful if you can get one.
It’ll enable you to check you’ve understood or to try some even more active engagement, for example by listening and transcribing (what I call “laser listening”). Use the pause and rewind functions as often as you need.
You could also listen more passively.
So, find a time when you’re occupied with another activity that doesn’t take up too much of your brain power. For example, having a shower, washing up, commuting to work, in the gym or jogging). Have the audio playing through headphones as you go. You’ll probably find that your attention levels will fluctuate but you’ll be listening well at least some of the time.
Speaking a foreign language fluently just feels grrrreat and it’s guaranteed to impress your friends.
For these reasons, I call speaking the “sexy skill”.
Now, you can’t get good at speaking without lots of actual practice.
If you’d like to make improving your speaking skills a priority, how about committing yourself to at least one, thirty-minute conversational session with a fluent speaker each week in January?
The easiest way to make this happen is to try to find a teacher as your conversation partner via an online booking and payment platform like italki.
It’s free to create an account.
You can then load up some credit and search for teachers in your target language. The “big” languages have many, many teachers, though the choice will be more limited for less widely-learned tongues.
If you book your first lesson through my “refer a friend link”, you get an extra USD10 credit. I get lesson credits too (at no extra cost to you).
Here’s my “refer a friend” link:
Before you book a teacher, watch their short intro video and check out the student reviews.
See whether the teacher offers thirty-minute slots. Some only have forty-five minutes or one hour, but that’s great too, if you’re up for it.
Compare prices and check a teacher’s available times (which will be shown in your time zone if you set it in your profile).
To see a teacher’s slot lengths, prices and available times, you need to click on “book a lesson” on the teacher’s profile page and start the booking process (you can always break off before the confirmation stage).
Some teachers are “community tutors” who tend to be cheaper than “professional teachers”. In practice, I don’t think the difference in status matters.
Draw up a teacher shortlist and try one or two out. There’s no obligation to take more than one session with any individual (and some teachers even offer a short, taster session for free).
It’s a good idea to work regularly with two or three different teachers whom you like.
This gives you variety and more scheduling choice. It’s also an “insurance policy” in case one becomes unavailable later.
If you’ve already got the speaking habit, how about mixing it up a bit this New Year?
Make a list of relevant life situations or discussion topics that you haven’t covered yet and let your teacher know that you’d like to work through some of them in the coming month.
Don’t forget that your conversational sessions should be two-way.
Ask questions, show an interest in your teacher’s life. It’ll take some of the pressure off you and add to that feeling of rewarding, live connection that you get as you speak your way to fluency.
For tips on how to get the most out of one-to-one sessions with your teacher, check out the nine short vids on the topic that I shot for the YouTube channel. Here’s the first vid on the playlists (the others will follow in order as you watch):
Blog post: How to choose an online language tutor
I call reading the “turbocharger skill” because it can really inject some pazazz into your learning.
How? By presenting you with endless examples of words, phrases and grammar patterns in a memory-enhancing context.
That’s a great way to reinforce what you already know and, if the text isn’t too difficult, to acquire new language naturally from the surrounding meaning.
Oh, and reading is, of course, an endless source of information and pleasure for many people.
If you’d like to make improving your reading skills a priority this New Year, how about committing yourself to read at least one, two or five pages of a book each evening before you go to sleep (or each morning after you’ve just woken up)?
Choose something that interests you and is at or just above your current level.
In order to learn from context, it’s usually said that you should understand about 95% of contents already but it’s not an exact science.
If you’re reading on a screen, you can highlight unknown words. You could use instant translation if it’s available on your device) but don’t let all the checking get in the way.
In the spirit of “no screens in the bedroom” and all that, I’d actually go for a “dead tree” book.
Don’t keep reaching for the dictionary. Just underline words you don’t know with a pencil. You can always look them up later.
If you want, head straight for the classics of your language (perhaps adopted for learners if you’re below upper-intermediate level).
You could go for a text you already know in English (or some other language).
Stories can be great to draw you in, but you don’t have to read fiction. A magazine or a factual book about an interest or hobby might appeal to you more.
I did a series on reading over on the blog. If you want to learn more, maybe start with this post (it has links to the others at the bottom):
=> Struggling to read? Three tips to help smooth the way
In my own language learning, writing often feels like the neglected poor relation.
I know I’m not alone here and writing often really is the “forgotten skill”.
It can be a bit of a challenge that we’d rather put off.
There’s nowhere to hide what with spelling and punctuation to think about, getting the grammar correct and the style idiomatic.
On the other hand, compared with speaking, writing is low pressure “output”
You can take your time as you go.
If you’d like to hone your powers of written expression in 2022, how about choosing an attractive notebook and keeping a “sentence a day” diary?
Each night, before your head hits the pillow, write down the briefest of records in your target language of something relevant to the day you’ve just lived.
One rule: for as long as you do this, don’t repeat a day’s key idea.
If one day you write “I got up extra early so that I could wash the car before work”, no more about “washing the car”.
If you want to write about the same thing another day, you’ll have to change it up a bit: “I hosed down the car and Fred polished it for me”.
“I saw a squirrel in the back garden” then, if the critters turn up again: “Three squirrels dug up my broad bean plants.”
(That last tragic event really happened to me, I’m afraid.)
As long as it’s connected to your day, there’s no limit to what you could write about. It could be a domestic event, something to do with your work or friends. You could jot down your response to something you’ve read or heard in culture or the news…
The idea is that you push yourself up against the limits of your word power. As a result, you’ll sometimes have to dig out new words and phrases.
So (unlike if you do the reading “mini habit”) do keep a dictionary to hand (preferably a printed one).
Of course, you’ll make mistakes as you write, but don’t worry.
If you’re reading and listening to enough of your language then, at some point down the line, you’ll come across a way of expressing what you were trying to write. You’ll discover the correct usages of any new words or phrases that you deployed wrongly in your diary.
They’ll stick better when you read or hear them in their natural habitat thanks to your earlier writing frustrations.
Just as your attempts to write can feed into how you read or listen, so your new writing habit could also underpin speaking practice sessions.
Yes, you could structure a thirty minute session with a teacher around discussing the week’s diary entries and getting the teacher’s feedback on them.
In language learning, everything is connected in one strengthening web.
Ready to give one of the language learning mini habits a go?
The whole point of these language learning mini habits is that they are easy to adopt and sustain. Commit yourself to just for January. Keep turning up! Make it a habit and maybe you’ll want to continue as the months go by.
Trust in the process and the benefits will follow.
Fancy giving just one of them a try from January 1st?
If you do, I’d love to hear how it goes. Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below 🙂
Happy New Year/ Bonne année/ Blwyddyn Newydd Dda/ Guten Rutsch/ Hyvää uutta vuotta/ Boldog új évet/ Feliz Ano Novo/ Buon anno/ Urte berri on/ Selamat Tahun Baru/ С новым годом/ Καλή χρονιά!/ Gleðilegt nýtt ár/ 明けましておめでとうございます! et cetera, et cetera 😉
Right now, I’m learning Czech and mostly focusing on reading. (I’ve set myself the goal of reading 10K pages of native-level Czech, and so far, I’m somewhere between 4K and 5K.) I never had the discipline for “a few pages per day”: I read in blocks once or twice per week. 🙂 I was wondering, though: do you have any tips for acquiring vocabulary at an advanced level? Reading is key (obviously), but the more advanced you get, the trickier it gets. An average page of an average Czech novel will have about 5-6 unknown words (unknown to me, that is). Alas, they’re always different words. 🙁 A word I look up might not reappear until 50 or 150 pages later, if it reappears at all. That has obvious consequences for vocabulary acquisition. A massive amount of reading (say, another 10K-20K pages) would turn those 5-6 unknown words into 2-3. (Or at least I imagine that would happen: that’s what I accomplished with French and Russian via massive amounts of reading.) Is there a better/faster way…?
Dr Popkins says
It’s a classic advanced challenge, isn’t it. One thing you can do is practise talking or writing about topics that aren’t so familiar to you as a way of deliberately pushing your vocab boundaries. I made a short vid about this on the YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIGdCBh93BM but I think that at this level, we need to celebrate that there are only a few words pre page that we don’t know and, as you say, keep reading. Oh, and poetry is great for new words as it’s such concentrated language. Happy New Year! 🙂
Carol Vang says
Up until now, I have been afraid to try writing in Chinese. But I did write a paragraph about my cat one time. I wrote it in pinyin, and then let the computer put it into characters. Now I am going to try your one sentence a day idea, writing in Chinese characters. One sentence sounds fun, I even have my idea for my first one. Yesterday it snowed. I made spaghetti at home…
Dr Popkins says
Great to hear, Carol. Let us know how it goes!