How to make your language learning habits stick

Language learning habits

Have you heard the story of that woman in Lapland who learned a new language in just one week, without studying it?

We haven’t, either. Because it never happened.

Language learning isn’t as simple as becoming fluent in a week or two. It can be a long journey without a finish line. A constant learning process that requires commitment and there’s always room for improvement.

While motivation may help you get that journey started, it’s your habits that help keep it going.

Two of Lydia’s Four Pillars of Successful Language Learning are System and Contact. If you want to make progress in the long run, you have to have contact with the language and systematically work toward improving your skills.

You have to create new habits and make them stick.

If you’ve previously failed at learning a language, chances are you had a lot of motivation at first but at some point you lost all contact with the language. Language learning didn’t turn into a habit, and even if it did, it didn’t stick.

In this article, I will show you why it is important to turn language learning into a habit and how to make sure it sticks with you.

Why are language learning habits so important

Not all successful polyglots learn languages in the same way, but they all share some common traits, the most important being language learning habits.

These are language-related actions that you can regularly take without too much willpower. They have become automatic; things that don’t require special thinking to get done. Think about the habits you do daily without thinking: brushing your teeth in the morning, locking your apartment door before you leave, changing clothes after you come home from work…

Imagine what you could achieve if you could make language learning a daily habit.

What daily habits can do for you

Doing something every day is all-powerful. Even if you don’t notice it, and you most probably won’t, it can gradually bring about a big change.

There have been countless times when I thought I’d never fully understand a concept in a language, and yet by going at it every day, it gradually became second nature. I’d even ask how on earth this seemed so confusing in the first place!

There have been countless times I thought I’d never master a certain sound in a language, or pronounce certain words, or remember new words, and yet by trying every day, it somehow happened.

All these results didn’t come overnight, but they came when I least expected it.

Why?

Because I had turned language learning into a habit.

I no longer really cared about the end result, as long as I did something every day without even thinking about it. I no longer pushed myself to study a language, I just got into it. Day in, day out. And one day, I noticed the results. Even before I did, other people did.

Every time you brush your teeth, you don’t really have getting your teeth as white as possible in mind. You just do it effortlessly, because at some point someone told you to do it and it’s since turned into a habit.

By now, you might have thought “all right, I agree with whatever you said, but no matter how hard I’ve tried, any language-related habit I formed did not stick.”

Let’s take a moment to analyze why this happened.

Why didn’t my previous habits stick?

There are many reasons habits don’t stick. Sometimes life gets in the way, unexpected things happen, changes in your personal or work schedule occur, or there’s too much going on. Maybe you started a daily habit, but missed a day or two and got completely discouraged. Maybe you talked yourself out of it. Maybe following a habit became a burden to you, so you gave up.

Maybe your habits didn’t stick because you weren’t able to find pleasure in doing them. Pleasure is the driving force behind our daily actions. Eating chocolate makes you happy. So does watching your favorite movie or going out with friends. If it doesn’t give you pleasure, you don’t want to do it after a while. It becomes a chore, but unlike household chores, you can avoid this one without unpleasant consequences. So you let it go.

How can you trick your brain into making new habits stick? You must look at your existing habits — and habits in general — to find out.

Breaking down habits

Every habit consists of three things: Trigger, Routine, and Reward.

A trigger causes you to take action. It’s what you hook your new habit with. It can be:

  • Any change during the day, such as when you wake up or return home from work
  • An existing habit, like brushing your teeth
  • A special time of day (like at 5pm, for example)
  • Being with other people
  • A certain emotion
  • A certain location: a room in your house, a bus station, the park, anywhere you go regularly

Your existing habits also have triggers. What triggers you to brush your teeth is having dinner, or waking up. Watching TV may trigger you to have a coke. Being with a friend may trigger you to light up a cigarette. Think of any habit you have and try to figure out what triggers that habit; you’ll always find something.

A routine is the action you take after the trigger.

A reward is what you get after you take action. To make a new habit stick, you have to find pleasure in performing the routine. For example, if you eat chocolate often, it’s because you enjoy the taste, and it also makes you happy or energetic. The reward keeps all your existing habits going. It’s what tells your brain it’s worth it to maintain them. They bring you pleasure, so you want to do them again and again.

language learning habits reward

Making a habit stick

To make a habit stick, make sure it has all three things: Trigger, Routine, and Reward.

If you can’t find a reward, create one. Celebrate the fact that you performed the routine of your new habit. Tell your brain it’s worth keeping this new habit, as it gives you pleasure.

Let’s see some examples of language learning related habits you can use.

Sample learning habits

Having more contact with the target language:

  • Trigger: Waking up
  • Routine: Listen to one song in your target language and dance to it
  • Reward: A positive way of starting your new day. If you also dance to the song, chances are you won’t need that morning coffee anymore.

Improve your vocabulary and speaking skills:

  • Trigger: You finish brushing your teeth
  • Routine: Look up a new word and write one sentence with it.
  • Reward: You’re one word (and sentence) closer to fluency!

Improve your listening skills:

  • Trigger: You finish your dinner.
  • Routine: Start watching a YouTube video tutorial in your target language.
  • Reward:  Learn something new and improve your listening skills at the same time

Improve your pronunciation:

  • Trigger: You take a shower.
  • Routine: Practice pronouncing one letter or one word that’s hard for you to pronounce
  • Reward: You improve your pronunciation and feel happy once you find out you can pronounce a difficult sound

Have you noticed a common pattern in these habits, apart that they all consist of the three parts of a habit that we talked about?

They’re all tiny!

How much time does it take to listen to one song? Or watch a video? Not much.

There’s a reason for that.

Your brain favors tiny habits over bigger ones, because it knows it’s very easy and takes little to no time to perform them. Tiny habits set you up for big results.

Remember: The smaller the step you push yourself to take, the more likely you are to take it.

At the same time, these habits aren’t too easy to perform. Sure, looking up a new word is easy, but using it in a sentence is harder. Pressing the play button is a piece of cake. But following a YouTube video in your target language isn’t.

While you want to start very small, you’ll also want to challenge yourself a bit, so that it makes you feel you’re making an effort to reach your language learning goals. But don’t make it too hard from the start! Just make sure it’s not way too easy.

Your next steps

After you figure out what kind of tiny habits you want to incorporate in your daily life and you manage to make them stick, it’s time for expanding.

You know you can look up a word and make a sentence with it every day. Why not do the same with two words a day? Or five words a day?

You know you can listen to a different song in your target language in the morning, every day. Why not learn the lyrics and sing along next time? Or create a whole playlist to listen to?

You know you can practice pronouncing words and letters in the shower. Why not try entire sentences instead?

You can even increase the difficulty as you go, but make sure you do it slowly and only marginally, so that it doesn’t get too hard too soon and you stop gaining any pleasure from it.

Once you have a habit you do daily, it’s easy to build up and do more, without feeling overwhelmed. That’s why it’s important to start small and expand over time. Remember, every big journey begins with a small step. 🙂 

What language habits do you have? How did you make them stick? What are your triggers and rewards? Let us know in the comments.

If you feel that you need some more tips for learning a language, watch the free webinar by polyglot and language mentor Lýdia Machová.

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Would you like to learn a language by yourself but don't know where to start? Watch my free webinar where I give out tips and tricks for learning any language effectively and making the learning proces fun!

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The author of this blog post is Maria Spantidi.

Language Mentoring provides a complete guide for learning any language using simple and often free resources on the internet and in bookshops. It was founded by polyglot, language mentor and author of this website, Lýdia Machová, PhD., in 2016. She's learned 7 languages by herself and she adds another one every other year. Her philosophy is that everybody can learn a language regardless talent, age or other qualities – if they know how to do it.

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