To learn a language this year, stop saying this word

12th January 2019

This innocent little word could be sabotaging your efforts to learn a language. Stop saying it and make this the year you learn a language!

A few months ago, I decided to try and become fluent in Mandarin Chinese. I made a plan. Looking at people who'd already done it, I worked out that it'd probably take me around 1500 hours. If I wanted to do it in 2 years, I'd need to study for around 2 hours a day. 156 days later, I should have done around 312 hours. So far, I'm on 147. I'm already way behind schedule, and it's all because of one little word. Tomorrow. It's the busiest day of the week. And the reason I'm publishing this New Year's post on the 12th of January. And it could be the reason you're not as far ahead with your language learning as you'd like to be. If you're one of those people who keeps telling yourself you'll start tomorrow (and never getting around to it), keep reading. If you don't cure your tomorrow-itus now, in December you'll look back and realise that another year has passed. And you still don't speak that language as well as you could. We don't want that for you! In this post, you'll learn a 2-step plan to stop tomorrowing yourself and make 2019 the year you learn a language.

Why "tomorrow" is toxic for language learning

Busy projects, problems at work, vacations, guests. Over the last few months, I've had some great excuses to put off learning Chinese until tomorrow. One little day - it seemed innocent enough. Until I looked back over the last few months and realised that all those tomorrows had added up and I was way off schedule. Progress (or deterioration) is usually an accumulation of small actions taken over time. Take smoking for example. One little cigarette won't kill you, but the cumulative effect over a lifetime could. Missing one study session won't stop you from learning a language, but putting it off every day will. Most people focus on today and underestimate the cumulative consequences of their actions (or lack of actions) over time. But if you tomorrow yourself enough, one day you'll look back over your life and realise you never did any of the cool stuff you planned.

The tried-and-tested plan to stop putting off learning a language

Although I'm definitely one of those people who tends to put things off, there are a few times when I haven't done this. Like last year, when I managed to go from intermediate to advanced French in a few months. Or recently, when I finished a presentation a whole week before the deadline. Why? These goals had two things in common, that were missing from my Chinese plan.
  1. They were short-term
  2. Other people knew about them
For my French mission, I booked myself in for the DALF exam a few months away. I could feel the exam date approaching so I knew I couldn't get away with putting it off. And, as I'd already talked about it on the blog, it would have been embarrassing not to go through with it! For my presentation, I had a meeting with the reviewer a week before the conference. He was relying on me, so I made sure it got done. When I made my Chinese plan, I forgot to include short-term goals. And being as I didn't have a short-term goal, no one was watching to make sure I did it. It was easy to keep lying to myself and tell myself I'd do it tomorrow. Recently, I've adjusted my plan to account for these two steps and I'm getting loads more done.

1. Set short-term goals

I've broken my plan down. I'm now aiming to do 65 hours a month, which translates to around 16 hours a week. This includes downtime activities, like listening to podcasts and watching Chinese TV (even though I don't understand a lot yet!) and stuff I do on the go, such as revising vocabulary on my flashcard app on the subway or in line at the supermarket. I know 16 hours a week is loads, so please don't let that put you off! You can start with any number that fits in well with your life. 15 focused minutes a day is enough to see tangible progress over the year.

2. Check in with a friend

I've teamed up with a friend, who I check in with every day. The system is simple: for every hour of Chinese I do, I send him an emoji on WhatsApp. If I stop sending emojis, he knows I'm slacking off and after a while, it gets embarrassing. I'm peer-pressuring myself to stay on track - and it's working!

The 2-step plan to make sure you learn a language this year

1. Set yourself some short term goals

Choose a short-term goal that you like the sound of. This could be a language exam, a trip to the country or simply the number of hours per month/week that you're going to spend learning the language. Actually, even if you choose a goal like an exam or trip, you should probably decide on the number of hours you're going to study each month/week anyway, as this will help you stay on track (see next step). And when I say "learning" this doesn't have to be boring stuff like studying from a grammar book or memorising vocabulary. If you're going to be spending so much time learning a language, you might as well enjoy it! Here are a few posts that will help you find fun ways to learn a language. Related posts: 5 smart ways to learn a language by watching TV and films How to learn a language at home (even if you're really lazy) 32 fun ways to learn a language (that actually work)

2. Check in with a friend

Find a friend to check in with each day/week to make sure you're staying on track. The simpler the system, the better. Sending a thumbs up emoji or a "done" message works well. If you can't think of anyone to do this with in real life, there are people online who can help! Try joining the Language Diary Challenge Facebook Group - they're a friendly bunch so you should easily find like-minded language learners to team up with.

Before you go...

It's possible that these ideas aren't new to you. But there's a big difference between knowing about this stuff and actually doing it. Although I knew about these ideas, I wasn't applying them, which is why I fell behind with my Chinese mission. If you think these ideas could help you, think about practical ways you can apply them to your life and start doing them asap.

How about you?

Do you have a habit of tomorrowing yourself? Do you have any other strategies to stop yourself from putting things off? Share them in the comments!

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