So You Want to Self-Teach? – Part II

In my last post on this topic, I discussed the role that motivation plays in successful self-teaching and gave three ways to keep that motivation from fizzling out. So today we’re going to look at those in more detail.

Creating a Routine

So how do you keep up your motivation over months and years? The same way you do in school: you create a schedule. Humans are creatures of routine. You don’t need a reminder to go to work (though maybe an alarm clock!). Making studying your target language a habit is the best way to make sure you are consistent enough and gaining enough exposure to become a successful language-learner. The more input or contact you have (whether using productive skills like speaking or writing or receptive skills like reading or listening), the better chance you have of achieving a high level (or even a usable level).

I would recommend doing something with your language every day, even if it’s passive (e.g. listening to music). Some bloggers, e.g. Khatzumoto, recommend doing absolutely everything in your target language that you possibly can. Music, TV, reading, friends, etc. For some people, this is excessive, and for me personally, I find this burns me out really quickly and then I want nothing to do with the language after a few days of immersion. Why? Immersion can be mentally exhausting. While immersion can be the best-case scenario, as it affords the largest amount of input and language contact possible, it’s not realistic for a lot of people (or simply not desired). And then there’s the question of the quality of the input, which I won’t go into here. So you should try to do something every day, or at least the majority of days in a week. Like exercising!

Create a routine by deciding how often you can dedicate yourself to study and what you want to do each day. Routines are easier if they’re specific, and we’ll get into setting specific goals in the next section. A routine like brush your teeth or eat at least one vegetable is much easier to remember to do and actually complete than take care of yourself or eat healthily.

You’ll need some dedication to set the routine in stone, but humans are nothing if not creatures of habit, so once you have that time built into your day, it will become easier and easier to do it.

Setting Goals

Before you begin seriously studying a language, you need to decide what you want to get out of it. You’ll want to set a long-term goal (or multiple), and short-term goals as milestones along the way.

Ideally, your long(est)-term goal should be the level of proficiency you want to end up at. The higher the proficiency level you’re aiming for, the more long-term and short-term goals you’ll want to have under this main goal.

Your goals should be specific and attainable. A goal that is I want to learn German or I want to speak Farsi is neither specific nor attainable. How do you measure whether you’ve learned German or not? Do you want to be able to say a single sentence in Farsi, or carry a conversation? Think about other goals you have or have heard. I want to lose 10 pounds or I want to vacuum all the carpets in my house or even I want to limit my personal spending to $300 this month are all specific and attainable. But many language-learners begin a new language with only a vague idea of their goal.

So what do good long-term goals look like for language-learning? Let’s start with our ultimate goal, or, the level of proficiency we want.

  • Successfully navigate a visit to a country wherein I will only be using the target language with speakers for short interactions that consist of set phrases.
  • Be able to have an X-minute conversation with a native speaker wherein I can communicate my thoughts and understand my interlocutor without much need for a dictionary or other aids.
  • Be able to conduct business relations in the target language.
  • Attend a university where all or most classes are taught in the target language and be successful in my courses.

Now we need to think of how we want to get there. This is where we add our milestones so we know what we want to work on in order to achieve that goal. These milestones can be long-term or short-term goals and should be even more specific. So let’s take the fourth bullet point and map out how we can plan our study in order to achieve that.

  • Ultimate Goal: Attend university in Germany.
    • Long-term Goal 1: Achieve a C1 level on the TestDAF exam.
      • Short-term Goals: (in order to pass the exam)
        • Be able to understand a 40-minute show/news that I have never seen in English, without subtitles.
        • Be able to write a complex text (using TestDAF prompt examples) in the time allotted for the test, without excessive grammatical mistakes (less than one mistake/sentence).
        • Be able to read and understand an academic article (and answer comprehension questions accurately).
        • Be able to use the correct case endings 95% of the time.
        • Be able to have a 30-minute conversation with a native speaker without constantly needing to ask for a word in German.
    • Long-term Goal 2: Become competent in my subject in German.
      • Short-term Goals:
        • Study general academic vocabulary using an SRS (e.g. Anki) to the point where I can translate the word to and from German.
        • Be able to use the above academic vocabulary correctly in context.
        • Read basic information about my field (e.g. a 101-level textbook) to isolate field-specific terms and be able to understand these terms in context, and use them in my own writing.
        • Be able to read a published research article in German in my field and understand without the need for a dictionary.

So here you can see that I have one ultimate goal, with two long-term goals to facilitate my ultimate goal, and milestones along the way to achieve these long-term goals. Obviously, since these goals are specific to one case, yours will differ depending on your ultimate and long-term goals, but you should have certain types of goals relating to language-use. The main foci of your short-term goals should revolve around the following: Speaking, Reading, Writing, Listening, Grammar, and Vocabulary, with the latter two often being subsumed under the former four. If you look at my example goals above, you’ll notice that they all have to do with one of these foci.

Goals may also be language-specific. Above, I used German as an example. Another language I personally am learning is Japanese, which doesn’t have case endings, so that wouldn’t be a goal I’d ever set for myself. Instead, I may find myself needing to set a goal on register use (i.e. polite language). Consider the features of your target language that you may have difficulty with — these may want to be part of your goals.

What to Study and Creating a Game Plan

Obviously, this section is going to be an introduction to a much larger conversation on choosing resources. There is a great deal that should be considered when deciding what tools you want to use to achieve your goals, but your goals themselves will give you the best clues. If your goals are specific enough, you should have a much easier time finding resources. For reference, let’s go back to my goals for German. One of my short-term goals is being able to write a complex text as I will on the TestDAF exam. If you look at the TestDAF website, you’ll see they have example prompts that can be used to study. So my goal led me directly to a resource!

Not all goals, even specific ones, will lead you to such a specific and appropriate resource. For my goal to improve my case usage, there are a number of websites that will teach you about cases. These aren’t all good resources and most of them can be ignored unless it’s the first time you’re ever encountering cases. Language is something you use, not something you read about. Find resources that let you practice the language, and not just read about the rules.

Once you have your routine and your goals and your resources, it’s time to make your game plan. How are you going to fill your study sessions? Obviously, you’re going to use your resources, but the next question is how to decide what to do each day. You can either work on each goal independently and only start on the next goal when you’ve completed one goal, or you can work on them simultaneously. There are pros and cons to both approaches. The first allows you to really focus on your goal and you might be able to achieve it more quickly. But if you’re only working on one thing at a time and not spending any time reviewing, you’ll also find that you lose what you worked so hard to gain. Working on them simultaneously assures that you’re always studying for that goal and you’re less likely to lose what you’ve already done, but it can make the process slower.

Personally, I am working simultaneously. I have a routine that I consider the minimum I should do. Each day of the week I focus on a specific skill. This is how my week looks right now (Jan 2017), keeping in mind my personal goals and the time I can dedicate (knowing that as my schedule changes, I may decide to do something else on a given day):

Monday: Grammar
Tuesday: Listening/Speaking (if there’s a meetup that week)
Wednesday: Grammar
Thursday: Vocabulary Review
Friday: Reading (& isolating unknown words to review later)
Saturday: Writing (& post to Lang-8 for corrections)
Sunday: Listening

Usually, I do extra listening (when I watch TV) and writing (using apps like HiNative) in a given day. What I do specifically each day comes from my stock of resources, which I try to add to often to make sure I don’t run out.

What are some of your language goals? Do you use the immersion method or do you prefer to have specific times to study?

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