So, it’s officially a new year and that means you’ve probably set some new year resolutions. If you follow me and my work, then one of those resolutions is probably (or definitely) to improve your English in 2020.
However, most people don’t really know how to go about improving their English, especially when they’ve already reached a good intermediate level. That’s because at the beginning language goals are easier to obtain and more definable. For example, “learn numbers until 100” “memorize the irregular verbs in past simple” etc etc…
But as our language skills grow and we master a lot of the more digestible steps it gets harder to define our goals. What does a C1 fluency goal look like? Perhaps something like “speak confidently and fluently about environmental issues.”
So you could look up various vocabulary related to the environment, listen to some news reports, write a short article giving your opinion and practice speaking about this issue. However, it’s not as quantifiable as something like “learn the numbers until 100.” Maybe one day you speak about these issues really well, but after six months you totally forget all of that vocabulary.
Or maybe you need to improve your listening skills: how do you set a goal to achieve that? You can’t very well set a goal like “learn to understand spoken English by December 2020.” (That seems a bit bizarre doesn’t it?)
Set Routines not Goals
In episode 9 of the Clover English Podcast, I spoke with Eoin from Bitesize Irish about the Irish language and language learning in general. One thing that we spoke about was how goals can actually hinder our progress in some way instead of help it. We spoke about how it makes us focus too much on the end result of our efforts instead of helping us enjoy the process of learning.
This got me thinking about my own language learning process and that of my students, especially as many want to improve their English in 2020.
I realized that to overcome the intermediate plateau it’s much more useful to think about your learning routine, rather than your goals. If you set a good routine in place that fits in with your life then you WILL improve, above all if you make that routine as enjoyable as possible.
How to Set a Routine in Place (Step by Step)
# 1 Find & organize your favourite resources
Before you do anything make sure you’ve spent time looking for resources that you enjoy. These can be podcasts, textbooks, YouTube videos, books, newspapers, blogs, apps etc…
For example I love listening to podcasts so I spent time looking for podcasts in French. I searched for a variety of podcasts aimed for learners and others not designed for learners but which spoke about topics that I was interested in (such as linguistics, literature and ecology). I then added them all to a playlist on my podcast streaming service so I wouldn’t have to spend time searching for them later. I did the same for YouTube channels.
Make sure that you don’t just use resources for learners. Mix in some other material not designed for learners that covers topics you’re interested in.
# 2 Take Advantage of your ‘Dead Time’
Now that you have your resources all organized it’s time to look at your schedule, especially your ‘dead time’. Your dead time is the time spent travelling to and from work, eating breakfast, cooking dinner etc…
It’s also time that can be better exploited for your language learning routine. For example, why not listen to an English podcast in your car while you drive to work? Or watch a short YouTube video while having your breakfast?
My ‘dead time’ is breastfeeding my daughter. I worked out that on average I spend around 2 hours of my day feeding her. TWO HOURS! That means if I use that time smartly I could end up with two hours of learning my target language EVERY DAY! So, while I feed her I listen to my Irish or French podcasts.
# 3 Be realistic
I find that most people who start a sentence with “Every day I will…” tend to fail when it comes to their routine. Why? Simply because they expect too much from themselves.
Once you’ve taken advantage of your ‘dead time’ you’re already dedicating yourself to learning daily. The joy of using your ‘dead time’ is that you don’t need to make room in your schedule to learn. So if you start adding things like “study from my C1 grammar book for one hour” you might find yourself exhausted, overworked and unmotivated to learn. I believe that little and often is the best way to go if you have a lot of other commitments in your life.
# 4 Decide Daily, Weekly and Monthly Habits
Being realistic means that there are some things you won’t be able to do every day, but you can do them at other times. Once a week (or twice a week depending on how your schedule looks) set some time aside for the bigger tasks that take up more time. Basically, if the task takes up more time and effort do it at longer intervals.
CTA: Download this guide for lots of examples of daily, weekly and monthly habits that you can put in place TODAY. Link to landing page. Use Image and link to landing page.
# 5 Review
When learning anything you should always set time aside to do a review. I usually do a review once a month to make sure that I retain the things I’ve learnt. This is particularly useful for new vocabulary that I’ve learnt from reading. That’s why once a fortnight (every two weeks) I spend an hour or so making flashcards of new vocabulary that I review at the end of the month.
Make sure your review process has an active element. When looking through your flashcards try and recall the words before checking the answer. We remember things much more if we are actively trying to recall information, so don’t just simply read over your notes. Another great review practice is to speak aloud to yourself about the things you’ve learned that month. I normally try and summarize a podcast episode that I found interesting which really helps me retain vocabulary and helps me get some speaking practice.