I could tell you all about the best language learning apps, but that alone isn’t enough to make you learn. Learning a language requires daily practice and long-term dedication. So how do you do that?
Learning a language is not too different from accomplishing any other long-term goal in the sense that it takes habitual, deliberate practice. Additionally, any long-term goal needs to be broken into smaller parts that are well defined. Finally, a little accountability often helps, too, as does not having a financial barrier.
1. Make It a Habit
Daily practice is essential for learning a language. To make a daily practice out of anything, you have to make it a habit. To make it a habit, you have to be clear about what you’re going to study, how long it will take, and do it at the same time every day.
In forming a new habit, it helps to tie it to another existing habit. Habits, like brushing our teeth or walking the dog, are things we do so routinely that we hardly think about them. If you tie a new habit to an existing one, you have a trigger that reminds you to do it until it becomes routine on its own.
Let’s say you commute 30 minutes to work by car. That’s a perfect time to play an audio-based language learning program, such as Pimsleur. You’re already in your car every workday, which makes it an opportune time to latch a new habit onto the existing one. Or maybe you commute by public transit and you can afford to put your eyes on a screen. In that case, you could use a language-learning mobile app, such as Duolingo for iPhone. Or, let’s say you drink coffee every morning, and you usually surf Facebook while doing so. You can replace the Facebook habit with your language study. You’re still sitting down with your coffee, just as your routine dictates, which will become the hook on which you hang your new habit.
The first few days or weeks that you make it a point to practice a language at the same time every day, you might need a reminder. Set a reminder in your phone, or put a sticky note where you’ll see it. If you’re using a language-learning app or audio files on your smartphone, put the app icons onto the first home screen where you’ll see them. These are all simple tricks to help you remember to study until it becomes a habit.
2. Know How Much to Study
Some language-learning programs are really good at parsing out lessons so that you can complete one per day. When it comes to self-study, it’s very important to figure out what is the right amount of study or practice to do every day. It has to be enough to be challenging (more on that in a moment), but it can’t be too much as to be overwhelming.
Rosetta Stone lessons are measured out pretty well so that you can complete one a day and feel like you’ve made progress without pulling your hair out.
Pimsleur is also really good at this. In fact, Pimsleur comes with specific instructions to do one and only one lesson per day. Each lesson takes around 25 to 30 minutes. Beginning lessons are shorter. More advanced lessons are a little longer.
All my favorite language-learning programs told me what I was supposed to study each day and how long it would take. Having such clear guidance and expectations makes it easy to then add the study sessions to your daily routine.
3. Set a Daily Goal
Not all language-learning programs come with instructions for how much to study each day. Sometimes it’s up to you to decide. And you should decide! You should set a clear goal.
Remember, it has to be enough to be challenging, but not so much as to be overwhelming. Setting the right daily goal is part of deliberate practice. The lessons need to get progressively more challenging, too. Language-learning apps, with their sequential units, typically take care of that part for you.
Duolingo, which is free, has a goal setting built into it. You get points for hitting your goal and having an unbroken streak of days when you hit it. You can use the points you earn to unlock other features and fun perks.
With some of the more polished software, like Rosetta Stone and Fluenz, it’s easy enough to say your goal will be to complete one lesson per day. But other apps don’t measure out their learning quite so neatly. That still shouldn’t stop you from setting your own daily goal. Yabla, for example, lets you practice a language by watching online videos. The length and content of the videos varies dramatically. But you could make a goal for yourself to watch a minimum of 20 minutes of videos and study your weakest 10 vocabulary words every day. Whatever you decide, write it down so it’s concrete.
4. Make Yourself Accountable
Another trick that might help you study your language regularly is to make yourself accountable. When enrolling in classroom learning, it’s normal to feel accountable to the instructor or the other students, which twists your arm into showing up for each class. Well, many language-learning software packages have a virtual classroom component.
Rosetta Stone and Living Language Platinum both have e-tutoring sessions that take place in a video conference setting. Once you sign up and your instructor has set aside time to teach, it might pressure you into studying diligently that week so that you’ll be fully prepared for the class.
You don’t necessarily need an instructor to make you feel accountable. Duolingo has a social component, for example. If you befriend other users, they can see your progress and even compete against you. If you skip out on your lessons, they’ll know.
5. Try Free Language Learning Software
Finally, many people fail at learning a language because they never start; the cost of some of the premium apps is just too off-putting for what is, to many people, a hobby. There’s no doubt that language learning software packages can be very expensive, but there are plenty of places to find them for free, too.
I’ve already mentioned that Duolingo is 100 percent free. It’s a great place to start if the language you want to study is one of the 15 for which it has programs.
The other place to look is your local public library. Many libraries have deals with online language learning software companies that let patrons log in online using their library IDs and get full access to the programs. Mango Languages isn’t my favorite app, but it’s widely supported in libraries and offers programs in more than 65 languages.
I recently learned that Rocket Languages, Rosetta Stone, Transparent Language Online, and several other programs have deals with libraries, too. To name a few supporters, the public libraries of Austin, Los Angeles, New York (City), Queens, San Francisco, and Seattle all provide online access to at least one of these language-learning programs.
If you’re a more traditional library goer, ask a librarian to show you the section on language learning. Most libraries stock books, CDs, and DVDs that you can borrow, too. When the materials are free and you have a few tips to help you make a habit of your studies, there’s no excuse not to at least try picking up a new language.