We all have that one bilingual dream scenario: you step off a plane in Tokyo, Berlin, or maybe Mexico City, and your next move is to figure out how to catch a train into the city. But in the dream, instead of fumbling with the iPhone Translate app at the information desk, you consult with employees in their native language with ease. Grammatically sound, effortless composure, and–whoa–great accent!
That may be all the scenario is for you–a pipe dream, too daunting and distant to be reality. But, what if mastering a language isn’t as complicated as you think?
Yes, language learning inevitably requires sustained time and effort, but the good news is that you can habit-hack your way to a smoother learning process that incorporates language into your everyday life–without being a chore. Efficient habits help you acquire new languages faster, easier, and more confidently.
So, let’s get into,
The Unofficially Official 7 Habits of Highly Effective Language Learners:
1. Create language goals, no matter how small–and remind yourself of them often.
When you decide to learn a new language, your first order of business should be to identify your why. What’s driving your desire to speak and understand this language? Maybe you yearn to converse with relatives in their mother tongue, or you hope to take an extended travel stint in another country. Whatever your why, keep it in clear focus and use it to continue setting milestones for yourself throughout your process.
Being proactive about your education is the #1 most important habit you can adopt when learning a language. When you can harness internal motivation, it’s easier to continue putting in effort and to stay aligned with your ultimate goal (getting yourself on that train without iPhone Translate!).
2. Review, review, and… did we mention review?
We get it–going over old lessons all the time can be a drag. How many times do you need to confirm that you know naranja from amarillo?
Unfortunately, review work does the heavy lifting in language learning. Down the line, even if you stopped consistently using your language for several months or even years, it’s likely you would still remember core vocabulary and grammar rules from years of review.
Successful language learners always prioritize review in their study sessions by revisiting previous tests, notes, readings, etc. Making a habit of reviewing will ensure you won’t eliminate your progress. There’s no use spending so much time studying a lesson just to forget everything in a couple of weeks!
3. Turn language learning into a lifestyle.
As ideal as it would be to have endless time to learn a new language, that’s not a reality for most people. Even carving out thirty-minute blocks can be difficult with our daily obligations. So, how can we still get practice and exposure on particularly jam-packed days?
The answer is to fit a new language into your everyday life by combining it with activities or entertainment you already enjoy. That could mean listening to podcasts, watching your favorite TV shows with subtitles, pulling up the lyrics feature on Spotify while singing your favorite reggaeton song, and the list goes on! You can also adapt your hobbies to get more exposure; for instance, if you cook for most meals, you can try making authentic dishes using recipes in your new language for added practice.
This approach allows you to engage with the language for short periods of time without even really feeling like you’re practicing, which adds up throughout the day. So next time you feel too busy to learn, consider making a habit of optimizing your free time!
4. Accept failure as growth, and fail frequently.
Successful language learners know that making mistakes, especially when it comes to speaking, is imperative for improvement. Immersion isn’t always comfortable, but it’s the best way to learn the finer nuances of a language’s everyday use.
It can be nerve-wracking to put yourself out there in front of native speakers. But just remember that nobody is judging you for wanting to learn their language; in fact, most people are beyond appreciative when others want to understand their culture.
At the end of the day, learning a language is just like getting good at anything else: you won’t improve unless you let yourself be a beginner. Embrace the mistakes that come with growth, and use them as an opportunity to improve. After all, the only way you can truly fail is to give up.
5. Talk to yourself!
We know how this sounds… but trust us. One common mistake people make is that they hyper-focus on learning the rules of a language, but they neglect to use these newfound skills out loud.
Speaking a different language is a muscle that needs constant exercise so that you can perfect pronunciation, sentence construction, conjugation, and more. Make sure you take time in your lessons to verbalize words and sentences and practice speech patterns, even when you’re the only person around.
You can do this in the comfort of your home, on a walk, or even in public (though we don’t necessarily recommend this last option unless you’re okay getting a few stares!). The important thing is that you get accustomed to new sounds and inflections, and self-talk is a fantastic way to check in on your progress.
6. Practice variability.
The best way to achieve a well-rounded understanding of a language? Get a well-rounded education.
People often mistake progress in one facet of a language for progress in all its other facets–but each skill is different, and just because you’re a great speaker doesn’t mean you’ll automatically be a great reader.
Make a concerted effort to vary your education by balancing your input and output. For every article you read, try to also write one or two sentences about it. For every piece of audio you listen to, try to speak a bit about what you heard. Language is both an art and a science, so expose your brain to as much material as possible.
7. Celebrate small victories, but frame progress in the context of your goals.
Do get into the habit of recognizing what you’ve accomplished! Learning a language is no small feat. Instead of focusing on how far you have to go, it’s better to focus on how far you’ve come to avoid becoming discouraged.
Don’t fall into the habit of cramming a ton of learning into a short time and then falling off. When push comes to shove, learning a language is about time, repetition, and commitment, and it’s easy to burn out if you don’t expect to give the process consistent care and attention. The recipe for success is to accept that learning in quick bursts won’t cut it, and you should enjoy the journey for what it is!