Have you been studying a language for a few months, years, or even decades, but aren’t seeing any noticeable progress?
First of all, make sure that you’re using a good way to measure your actual—as opposed to perceived—progress. I suggest recording an unrehearsed audio or video diary at least once a week, and writing a daily journal. Both of these active output tasks are far better measures of your fluency than multiple choice tests, and best of all, encourage you to do the very tasks that lead to conversational fluency.
Assuming your progress tracking tools are not the issue, here are five likely reasons you’re not improving as quickly as you’d like:
1) You’re not putting in the requisite hours each week.
The most common reason we fail to progress in any skill based endeavor is that we simply don’t spend enough time on task. It’s all too easy to log in 40 hours a week marathon viewing Breaking Bad, but how many hours a week do you honestly spend hearing, speaking, reading, and writing your target language? As an experiment, jot down how many minutes or hours you spend studying or immersing in a language each day for a week and then tally up your results. Even the most diehard learners may be surprised how little they spend each week. This is but one of the highly under-appreciated components of child language acquisition. They have no choice but to immerse in their first language throughout the day, and end up spending an enormous amount of time in their first few years of life sucking up the language around them. Before you say “children are better learners than adults”, try spending the same number of hours they do actively acquiring the language. If you did, I bet you’d learn even faster than the little ones.
2) You’re spending too much time reading and not enough time listening and speaking.
Although reading skills are extremely important, many learners (especially highly educated adults) fall into the cozy trap of reading far more than listening or speaking. I get it. Reading is safe. There’s no messy two-way communication to deal with. No chance that people won’t understand you, laugh at your mistakes, or give you chicken feet when you wanted fried chicken. But realize that reading does very little to improve your listening and speaking skills. You’ve probably encountered non-native speakers of English who can read The New York Times without much difficulty but can barely order a coffee to go along with the paper.
3) You’re not engaging in “deliberate practice”.
Podcasts and YouTube are great, but passive input alone is not enough. To make quick, tangible progress in a language, you have to engage in deliberate practice every day:
- Stay on target. Deliberate practice requires a high level of motivation and intense, constant focus on your specific goals. If your goal, for example, is to be conversationally fluent in 3 months, ignore (or at least minimize) reading and writing tasks for now until you’ve reached your objective.
- Get immediate feedback on your performance. Deliberate practice requires immediate feedback on your performance in the language. Have your friends, tutors, or teachers jot down mistakes you make and go over them one by one once you finish your sentence.
- Repetition, Repetition, Repetition. Deliberate practice requires that you get repeated exposure to the same words, kanji, phrases, structures, topics, etc., especially those that prove most difficult for you. If you already know something frontwards and backwards, there’s no reason to waste valuable time reviewing it again. Spaced repetition systems (SRS) like Anki and Memrise are a great way to automatically schedule reviews based on difficulty and the time since your last exposure, but just like the reading trap I mentioned above, make sure that you are not spending more time doing Anki reps than you are actively listening and speaking your target language.
4) You’re not hungry enough for it.
Aside from using archaic methods and boring textbooks, there’s a major reason why most folks don’t learn much in their high school Spanish class: the class is mandatory. If you had been given the choice to learn more “exotic” sounding languages like Japanese or Chinese in school, I bet you would have been more motivated to learn and retained much more of what you studied. Choice is a powerful motivator. I’ve taught thousands of adult English learners over the past 10 years, and have observed two overarching trends:
- Even after years of study, students in mandatory English classes (whether at school or work) seldom make any real progress.
- Those who did excel had strong internal motivation. Even if they didn’t have to learn English or weren’t offered free classes by their company, they would have chosen to do so at their own expense.
5) You don’t have a clear purpose for learning the language.
While there’s nothing wrong with learning a language just for spits and giggles, you probably won’t progress very quickly if you’re just learning as a casual pastime. If you’re serious about making rapid progress, you must make the language your top priority, and create extremely “S.M.A.R.T.” (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound) goals. “I want to be fluent in Japanese”, for example, is not such a goal:
- It’s not specific. “Fluency” is a very broad concept. Do you mean oral fluency or literacy? Do you mean fluency in a wide range of topics or just for your specific professional needs and personal interests?
- It’s not measurable. Not only is “fluency” difficult to define, but it’s also extremely difficult to measure. Sure, you can use standardized tests like the JLPT (Japanese Language Proficiency Test), but it is better at measuring your test taking ability and how much information about Japanese you’ve memorized, not your actual ability to use it day to day.
- It’s not attainable. If something can’t even be defined or measured, then how can you ever attain it?
- It’s not relevant. This goal is so large and vague that it has little impact on the day to day activities required to improve your fluency in Japanese.
- It’s not time-bound. There is no finish line in languages. Even native speakers continually expand their vocabularies and refine their communication skills, so by definition, this goal is not time bound is therefore not helpful for our purposes.