How To See Progress In Language Learning

Learning a new language is a long process. What’s worse is that, at many times throughout the journey it can feel as though you’re not making any progress whatsoever.

This sucks and can make anyone feel like it’s time to quit. But is there a way to avoid this trap?

How can you stay motivated to study and practice the new language you’re learning, when you’re not even sure if what you’re doing is working?

I’ve got a few ideas on how to handle this problem, and I’d like to share what’s worked for me. Read on to see if this is something that you can use as well.

Change Your Mindset And Let Go Of The Outcome

There is a saying that “everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to die.” When it comes to language learning we can say that everybody wants to be fluent, but nobody wants to work at it for months and years until they achieve it.

But for the people who are willing to work at it for an extended period of time (Yeah, I’m talking about You), a new problem arises: How do you stay motivated when you feel like you aren’t making progress?

A typical scenario is that a person spends six months working on books and courses, and then turns on a show in the new language and they don’t understand anything. This can lead to a feeling of hopelessness and make a person wonder if they should just give up.

But I’m going to suggest that the real problem is that the student’s focus is on the wrong thing. Don’t focus on the final goal and measure yourself against that, instead focus on the activities that lead up to the final goal.

Here’s the thing, it’s understandable why we would focus on the desired outcome, but the problem is that we can’t directly control any outcome that we want. We can only control the activities that potentially lead up to it.

You can’t just decide to become literate in Japanese by the end of the year, but what you can do is focus on learning how to read the two syllabaries, work on learning the kanji you encounter, and spend time each day reading something in Japanese.

It just like Socrates said: “If you want to get to Mount Olympus, just make sure every step you take is in that direction.”

Changing your mindset in this way will make the following techniques more effective.

1. Set Goals And Create Daily Activities

Alright, let me just say that having goals in language learning is important. But the reason why they are so powerful is because they give you direction on how you should be spending your time each day.

The method that I like to use is to set a challenging, but realistic goal and then work backwards from there to the present day and make a daily plan based off of it that should accomplish the goal on time.

As an example, let’s say that your goal is to learn all 2,136 jōyō kanji in a year. That’s your desired outcome and you can break it down into the daily activities you’ll need to engage in to make it a reality.

Since there are 365 days in a year, you can see that all you need to do is learn 6 new kanji per day and you will reach your target right on time. A little early in fact.

In addition to learning 6 new kanji each day, you would want to work on reviewing the ones you had previously learned so that you can keep the information locked into your long term memory.

Now you can forget all about the mountain that’s called “learning over 2,000 kanji” because all you really have to do is “learn 6 kanji, today” which is much easier to do, and keeps the focus on something you can manage.

Accomplishing your goals in the new language are one way of seeing progress, but unfortunately it takes a long time and you only get the positive emotions after all the hard work is done. So let’s explore a better way to see your language progress.

2. Track Your Activities In The New Language

I’m a sucker for stats. I love seeing the score at the end of the games like Mario Party and seeing how many stars everyone got, how many coins they earned, mini games won, blue spaces stepped on, and all of that stuff.

It’s such a cool way to review what you’ve done, and many times you surprise yourself by the things you’ve managed to accomplish.

This type of positive reinforcement can be brought over to language learning by tracking the things that you do each day and see how you’ve been spending your time.

You see, language learning is a weird thing. There will be times when you understand everything you read and hear, and then there will be times (like the next day) when you understand nothing and feel like all your efforts have been a waste.

But when you track the things you do, the stats are right there in front of you (objectively) and they show you that you actually are getting better and better as time continues.

Here’s a couple of areas that you could track to see how far you’ve come:

  • Hours listened
  • Words read
  • Words known
  • Flashcards reviewed
  • Conversations with native had
  • Books or courses completed

And I’m sure you can think of some others yourself.

Keeping a running tally of the time spent in your new language is the easiest way to see (and feel) that you are making progress.

When you combine this type of tracking with the mindset of focusing on daily activities you can control, rather than something big that you can’t control, it helps you to stay motivated and excited to continue learning.

3. Revisit Old Materials And Note The Differences

So far we’ve covered two ways to see progress when learning a new language:

  1. Accomplishing goals
  2. Tracking activities

I think that you should do both of them, and then combine them with this third and final method: revisiting old materials.

The thing about language improvement is that (in my experience) it improves by leaps. Below is a diagram of what I mean.

As you can see, you spend about the same about of time learning the new language each day, and that causes the line to increase at a smooth angle.

But for whatever reason, your abilities don’t follow this smooth curve and instead remain unchanged for quite a while, and then they leap up to a much higher level all at once.

Maybe the brain needs to digest the new information for a while before it can figure it out and make it useful… I don’t have any studies that support this idea, it’s just my speculation on the matter.

The thing I want to share with you is that the simplest way to see these huge leaps is to revisit old materials after you’ve left them alone for a while.

A simple way to do this might be to go through a beginner book in the new language, and then leave it along for three to six months before going back through it a second time.

Not only will it be way easier the second time, but you will probably notice a lot of things that you missed initially.

The thing that I enjoy doing is rereading a Japanese book or manga (or re watching a show).

You will notice on the second time through that it’s a lot easier to comprehend what is happening. You will probably also realize that there were certain scenes that are actually quite different from how you remember them.

If you can, give yourself a mark on how well you feel you understood it on the first time through (like say 25% comprehension) and write that somewhere where it will be safe until you decide to reread the book six months later.

Then you can give yourself a new grade (80% comprehension) and you can see just how far you’ve come.

This is powerful because we don’t really feel like we improve from one day to the next. It’s only when we can look back over several months or years and then compare the old version of ourselves with the current version that we can see huge progress.

Here Is The Real Secret

As long as people feel like they are making progress, they will continue to work hard at whatever it is that they want.

Here’s the key word in that phrase: FEEL

I’ve given you several methods that I use to feel like I am improving in my own studies, and keep myself motivated to work at it each and everyday.

I hope that some or all of these ideas will be useful to you, and let you know that you are on your way to the place you want to be.

What tips do you have for seeing progress in your language learning? What advice would you give to someone who feels like they’re not improving?

Leave a comment below and let me know! Thanks!

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