7 Ways to Develop Good Habits in Language Learning

Posted on 09. Sep, 2013 by in Language Learning, Trends

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” – Aristotle

how.to.develop.good.habitsWe’ve all heard about the importance of good habits, right? We sort of know it’s something we should be developing, working on, perhaps thinking about here and then… But we somehow forget about it, or we promise ourselves to start working on it… tomorrow. The only problem is that, well, tomorrow never comes, does it?

My name is Sam, and I write a blog on language learning entitled lingholic. I’ve been learning languages and have been an active member of the online language learning community for quite some time now, and I’ve written dozens of articles on language learning, motivation, and learning hacks. A theme that I constantly hear about from language learners and personal development enthusiasts is the issue of habits.

Why Do I Need To Develop Good Habits?

Very simply speaking, developing habits is a great way of getting stuff done, of reaching your goals. Being extremely motivated for a short period of time can drain your batteries, after which you’ll have to take a break and relax. We’re all super excited when we start learning a new language. We feel like buying every single book we can get our hands on, endlessly reading about the language on the net, and dreaming about traveling the country that speaks the target language. Most of us have this initial motivation boost. The problem is that when this flow of motivation comes to a stop, and the tide reverses, we’re in for some disappointment.

How do we stave off this disappointment? Develop good, sustainable habits.

How Can I Develop Good Language Learning Habits?



  1. Form goals: Knowing what you want to achieve is crucial to developing successful, good habits. A common practice in business development is to set “S.M.A.R.T.” goals. A SMART goal is: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-Bound. Achieving “fluency” is vague and hardly measurable. Instead, a better goal would be “Study basic greetings and vocabulary every morning, at 10am, for 30 minutes, until I can have an everyday conversation with native speakers.” Once you have such a specific goal, developing habits and getting into a routine will be much easier and might even come naturally.study.time.at.a.cafe

  2. Physically assign a place for studying: It may help you to associate a certain room or place with your language. Benny Lewis, from Fluent In 3 Months, keeps a room in his home as an Arabic-only room, saying “It’s a small step, but very helpful to physically assign a place to help us compartmentalize the language mentally.” Don’t limit yourself to a room (not all of us might have the luxury of having an extra room only for study purposes). It can be the subway/bus, the library, the park, or when going to a café (my personal favorite). However, make sure to choose a place that will allow you to focus and avoid major distractions.

  3. Pace yourself: Once you have a place to study, you need to decide how much time to put into studying. Go slowly, especially in the early stages of learning a language. I’d suggest studying no more than 30 minutes a day to avoid burning yourself out. Figure out what pace works for you, and stick with it. Soon studying in 30 minute chunks will become second nature.

  4. Make use of dead time: There may be days when you just don’t have 30 minutes to study. To continue your habit, look for periods of “dead time” in your day and take advantage of them. Last year, while living in Korea, I spent about 25 minutes commuting to and from work. Instead of staring into the air, I got into the habit of listening to Korean podcasts. Throughout my time in Korea, there were periods of a few weeks or months when I just did not feel like studying. Fortunately, by that time my habit of listening to podcasts on the subway was ingrained and required no effort, so I still managed to engage with the language daily, which helped me retain and improve my language skills.

  5. Take on a 30-day challenge: Commit to building a small positive habit when learning a language and do it every day for 30 days. After, either stick with it or change to another habit. Examples could include simple changes like reading the news in your target language instead of your native language or listening to podcasts while commuting/walking/shopping. nEED some motivation? Watch Matt Cutts’ short and funny TED Talk about his 30-day challenges.stop.procrastinating

  6. Improve your self-control: You can train yourself to have better self-control and stop procrastinating. Hedy Kober, a psychologist and cognitive-neuroscientist at Yale University, uses the metaphor of self-control as a mental muscle that can be trained and reinforced with exercises. Remind yourself of all the negative consequences that your loss of self-control might incur. If you start procrastinating on your studies of a foreign language and you deviate from your habits, make a conscious effort to remind yourself of all the beautiful opportunities you will miss by not speaking the language fluently in X amount of time. Write down a list so you have a physical reminder that you can refer to every time you falter.

  7. Know yourself: We all learn differently. Get to know your learning style by trying different approaches to language learning. Books, grammar, online programs, movies, music, language exchange partners, the list is endless. Find out what works for you and what doesn’t. You wouldn’t want to build a routine around something that’s not meant for you, right? Get into the habit of trying different approaches, especially at different stages of your learning journey, and you’ll most likely save yourself a lot of frustration and avoid getting stuck in a rut.

What techniques do you use to make habit building easier and smoother? Let us know in the comments! And don’t forget to visit my blog, lingholic, as well as my Facebook and Twitter pages. Thanks a bunch!

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14 Responses to “7 Ways to Develop Good Habits in Language Learning”

  1. Benjamin 9 September 2013 at 11:04 am #

    Thanks for these interesting advice. For many people, staying motivated is the hardest part of the learning process. When you are in the country where the language is spoken, it’s easy, you learn and use the language everyday. But when you don’t have that much exposure to the language, it’s hard.

    So what I usually do is I try to get in touch with people speaking the language as soon as possible and make talking to them a habit. This way the motivation also comes from the other person you have the habit to talk to in the language, and it makes everything much easier. When I struggled to learn English, making English speaking friends helped a lot, they didn’t speak French and I wanted to talk to them anyway, to get to know them etc. It motivated me a lot to learn English.

    • lingholic 9 September 2013 at 5:54 pm #

      Hey Benjamin!

      I agree that staying motivated is one of the most challenging aspects of foreign language acquisition. I think that whether you’re in the country that speaks the language or not, learning a language is never an easy thing, but it’s extremely rewarding and it opens many doors.

      You have a very good habit, I think it’s really great that you try to speak with natives as soon as possible. You’re English is fantastic! Great job :-)

  2. Marilyn Welsh 9 September 2013 at 3:01 pm #

    Thanks for these motivational tips!
    I would like to endorse a few of your suggestions.
    I listen to podcasts when travelling to & from work;
    & when doing various chores around the house
    (subliminal learning).
    I also follow various language accounts on Twitter
    so, that I am reading in my chosen language (French)
    As well, lastly I have a word of the day sent to
    my inbox every day – that includes a sample sentence;
    & of course watching films is another great way
    for learning.

    • lingholic 9 September 2013 at 5:56 pm #

      Hi Marilyn!

      I think it’s really a good idea to learn podcasts when commuting to and from work. It’s amazing people so few people think about doing it. If you have a car, it’s even better because you can loudly repeat after the speaker(s) (unless you’re driving with somebody else that’s not learning the language I guess!).

      Thanks for the insightful comment!

      Sam

  3. Teski 10 September 2013 at 8:51 am #

    What really counts on learning a new language is not to be shy and shamed of your errors. You should really start speaking even when you do not know a lot of vocabulary and grammar. You should make efforts on starting to think in different language and always insist to speak in the other language that you would like to be fluent. Definitely you should listen more and read in that language.

    Habits count a lot. Its better every day to make efforts rather than saying that one day I will start learning intensively.

    In the end what language matters the most is when you have to say something with meaning and develop, share and exchange your ideas with your friends, colleagues, family and be understood.

    • lingholic 11 September 2013 at 10:25 pm #

      Hi Teski.

      I totally agree with you, it’s important not the be afraid to make errors, and starting to speak early, while not necessary the best for everyone, is usually good and help the brain to solidify acquired knowledge and transform one’s language skill from passive to active.

      I also agree that it’s much, much better to do small efforts every day than studying only one day but very intensively. Developing habits is the key to success!

      Sam

  4. Carlos 10 September 2013 at 6:15 pm #

    It is very interesting the way that you advice to get the learning of a new language through habit adquisition. I was trying to study four languages simultaneously and I find out that my brain processed all this information into my linguistic hemisphere. I understand that the most important purpose of a language is communication and if I learn many expressions I will have a conversation.

    • lingholic 11 September 2013 at 10:28 pm #

      Hello Carlos!

      Wow, four languages at the same time! That’s really a lot. I personally wouldn’t recommend that approach to anyone, because it’s too hard to focus this way and the brain can get confused.

      I think learning one language at a time is the best, or two at most. It all depends on your self-discipline and your ability to absorb new linguistic patterns of course, but generally speaking I would advise people to go with one language at a time and then, if needed or wanted, switch to another one after having reached the desired level of fluency in the first one. I know a lot of polyglots who also recommend going it one at a time.

      By the way, which languages are you learning at the moment?

      Thanks for commenting!

      Sam

  5. Carlos 12 September 2013 at 12:17 am #

    Thanks for your reply. Actually I am trying to learn the languages that came from the latin roots. French, italian and Portuguese. My mother language is Spanish and I find many similarities between those idioms. I am a Spanish Literature teacher and I began to study English since my childhood. When I was a kid I read an article about study a new language while you sleep. Is that possible?

    • lingholic 12 September 2013 at 1:19 pm #

      Hi Carlos.

      My belief is that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is! So that probably answers the question of whether it’s possible to learn a language in your sleep :)

  6. Francesco 25 October 2013 at 2:23 pm #

    You all are such an encouragement.
    Thank you.


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