The new school year is right around the corner, and that means big changes are coming.
Summer is the perfect time to build your new language skill because free time is plenty. But once school starts, the hours not spent in a classroom are often filled with homework, sports, and other after-school activities.
So what happens to that incredible language learning habit you built during your three-month break?
For the Love of Language Learning
Let’s be real for a moment: language learning takes time, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring. During the summer that time can be filled with popcorn-at-the-ready while binge-watching your favorite show in your new language, game-like, and immersive vocabulary learning, or outings to show off your Spanish to your friends at the restaurant down the street. When school rolls around…not so much.
But you’re here. And that means you love your new language enough to do what’s needed to keep learning throughout the school year.
So here’s what you need to do:
Be a Planner and Not a Pantser
In the field of writing, there are two types of writers — the planner and the pantser. Now bear with me for a moment here, I’ll get to how this relates to language learning in a moment. You see, the planner is the type who prefers to outline their story first, getting as many of the details in place and doing as much of the research beforehand as possible, and then they write. The pantser, on the other hand, prefers to just sit down and start writing. All the cleanup, fact-checking, and outlining happens later.
These terms also fit really well when it comes to language learning. The pantser is the learner who just picks up resources and studies, without any clear direction or planning. The planner, in contrast, prefers to figure out exactly what they plan to do and then create a curriculum to get there.
During the summer, it doesn’t matter which of these you are. With limited time during the school year, however, you’ll want to spend as much time as you can with the language itself. So use these last few days of summer to become a planner, not a pantser.
You don’t want to waste precious energy on figuring out how to learn your language or what to use to study it. Do your planning before school starts so all of your language learning time is spent actually learning. If you don’t, you may find yourself without a next step later down the line. And if you’re too busy with school, your language studies may drop off.
You’ll also want to spend some time figuring out what is most important to you when it comes to why you’re learning the language. Knowing this will help you pick the right resources so you don’t spend time learning things that don’t keep you on a direct path towards your goals.
Here are some tactical to-do’s to get ready:
- Do any research needed on how to learn languages. Take notes so you can refer to them later, but once the first week of school comes around, stop. A few great places to look are Fluent in 3 Months, I Will Teach You a Language, Lindsay Does Languages, Fluent Language, Eurolinguiste, and of course, here — on the Drops blog.
- Pick out the resources you’ll use. Having something you can use on-the-go is an absolute must in this category. Then you can use your breaks between classes or activities to squeeze in a bit of study.
- Figure out what your goal is for your language by the end of the school year. You’ll then have a clear view of what you’re working towards.
- Create milestones you’d like to reach throughout the year. It’s okay if you don’t quite reach some of these, but having them will help you stay on course.
If You’re Short on Time
Does your school schedule seem to eat up every spare moment?
One of the biggest complaints I hear from would-be language learners is: “I don’t have enough time.” But is that really the case?
As a student, you may find your evenings filled with cram sessions or late night essay writing, but this might not be because you don’t have enough time. It might be because you need to get better at managing the time that you have.
In his book “How to be a Straight-A Student”, Cal Newport shares that students should be doing consistent, daily work in advance of due dates so you don’t spend time “pseudo-working” as you pull all-nighters.
But how do you know if you’re doing “deep work” or “pseudo-work”?
“Pseudo work” happens when you try to do long, uninterrupted study sessions — usually anything more than an hour. And this usually happens because you skip studying or writing your paper for a few days, only to have to catch up on it later. “Deep work” happens when you do short, highly focused study sessions, and these happen daily.
The best way to figure out what you’re doing is by taking a day or two to track exactly where your time is going. Grab a notebook and write down how you spend your time. I recommend keeping track in 15-minute increments. You don’t have to stop what you’re doing every 15 minutes to write down what you’ve worked on, but take a moment every hour or so.
The key here is to be brutally honest. If you spent 30 minutes scrolling through your Instagram feed, make sure you add it to your log. If you spent 45 minutes chatting with your friends online, log it. If you spent two hours catching up on your history project but got distracted by notifications on your phone for some part of that, be sure to include it.
Here’s a quick look at my morning thus far:
By doing this, I can quickly pick out where I get distracted or where I can pair language learning with other tasks. For example, I can listen to audio lessons while driving.
Here’s how to track your time:
- Find a notebook or a couple sheets of paper. Be sure to keep them with you over the next day or two.
- Keep track of how you spend your time in 15-minute increments for those one or two days. Be 100% honest.
- Go through your log and circle anything that stands out. These may be times where you can pair language learning with something else you’re doing (i.e. chores) or where you could have better used your time (i.e. scrolling your newsfeed, playing games or watching TV for more than an hour, etc.)
If the Language You Learn for School is Different than the Language You Learn for Yourself
In addition to the language you’ve learned at home, you may find yourself studying another language at school, but these languages may not always be the same. It’s possible to find yourself in a Spanish class at school, but learning Korean at home, or even Italian at home and French at school.
Whatever the combination may be, you may find you’re mixing up the languages or you’re unsure of how to balance your time with both.
First, while the language you’re learning outside of school may be more “fun” and have a lot of benefits later down the road, the language you’re learning in school should take priority. You don’t want to sacrifice your grades.
If you find you’re overwhelmed, or confusing the languages, here are a few tips to get you through it:
- Language Mixing or interference is normal, so don’t fret. It’s all a part of the process of your brain sorting them out. The more time you spend with each of them, the less this will happen.
- Don’t study both languages in one sitting. Sometimes a little distance between them helps keep them separate. Or…
Study both together and deliberately compare the two. Being proactive and drawing conclusions about similarities and differences can also help you avoid mixing them up.
- Try language laddering. If one of your languages is stronger than the other, you can try language laddering. This is where you study one language through the other. So, if you spent the summer learning Korean and you have a good foundation of the language, you can study Spanish through Korean. On Drops, for example, you can set your native language to Korean and your target language to Spanish. That way, you get to learn both at the same time and have other visual elements to help you strengthen your knowledge of each.
- Take a break from the language you’re learning for fun. If you find your “at home” language is affecting your ability to learn your “at school” language, don’t be afraid to take a break from it. Even though you won’t be spending time with the language itself, you’ll still spend time learning a language. Remember, the skills you build by becoming a better language learner can apply to your “at home” language when you’re ready to pick it back up.
If You Get Distracted
Real focus is something that often seems to be in short supply. Even when we’re sitting down to do the work, there are a million other things pulling us in other directions. Alerts on our phones, knowing a project is due and you should be working on it; your parents calling you for dinner, the ads on a website you’re browsing, or that list of chores, all chip away at our ability to give our all to the task at hand.
So how do you improve your focus?
- Get in and get out. Set a time limit so you’ll feel more pressure to use that time exclusively for your studies.
- Go offline. If you get distracted when studying online or on your phone, try doing your language learning offline. When you’re on YouTube, the recommended videos in the side column can be uber tempting. And when you’re on a language learning site, the ads may steal your attention, and before you know it, you’ve gone down the side column blackhole only to come up for air hours later.
- Use an adblocker. If you find ads distracting or tempting, install a browser plugin that blocks them.
- Use a site blocker. And when you start studying, activate it so you can’t get to the sites that are likely to draw your attention away from what needs to be done.
- Don’t multitask. You’ll do a better and quicker job of anything you work on when you don’t try to multitask. The exceptions, of course, are chores and things that are automatic and don’t require attention — like vacuuming, sweeping or doing the dishes.
Know That At First, It’ll Feel Like You’re Learning a Lot, and Then It’ll Feel Like You’re Not Learning at All
When you started learning your new language, every new word made it feel like you knew so much more. But after that first thousand or so words, it feels as though your progress slowly grinds to a halt. You see, when you learn your first word, you have 100% more knowledge of your language than you did before. When you learn your 100th word, that’s only 1% more knowledge. And when you learn your 3,000th, that’s only 0.03%.
It’s normal to feel like you’re learning less, but the truth is every word counts. Even though each new word is only a small part of your total knowledge in a language, it still plays a part and adds to that total knowledge.
These plateaus happen throughout your language learning, and when a good part of your energy is (rightfully) taken up by school, these can feel even tougher to break through than usual.
Here’s what you can do:
- Stick with it. Even though it might not feel like you’re making progress, each day you study will ultimately get you through that plateau. Trust the process.
- Try something different. If you usually do the same thing each day to learn your language, try changing it up. Looking at your language through a new lens may give you just what you need to keep moving forward.
- Talk about it. Find a fellow language enthusiast, mentor or tutor to chat about what’s holding you back. They may be able to offer just the insight you need to break through your plateau.
- Keep a language journal. At the end of each study session, write down what you’re struggling with, what you’d like to work on but didn’t get to, or any gaps you noticed in your ability.
Get Enough Sleep
And finally, but most importantly, make sure you get enough sleep. Sleep is when your brain has the time to digest all of the awesome new language knowledge you gained during the day. It’s also what helps you regenerate the energy and focus you need to get back to it the following day.
Now I’ll turn it over to you. How do you keep up your language studies during the school year? I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments below.
Drops: the new way to easily learn a language that combines engaging and fun word games with beautiful design. Learn up to 30 languages with fun, visual games. Try the fastest-growing language app in the world for free on iOS or Android.
This post originally appeared on the Drops blog on Medium.