Transparent Language Blog

Charts and Checkpoints: A Language Learner’s Friends Posted by on Aug 11, 2014 in Archived Posts

(Click above for the full-length comic)

(Click above for the full-length strip)

Starting to learn a new skill is great.

When you begin honing a skill, whether it be chess, whittling, playing the flute, styling hair, writing Hollywood comedies, or learning to speak a new language, there’s an immediate, satisfactory sense of accomplishment. Hey, look! At first you couldn’t do something at all, and now, after ten minutes of practice, you can do it a little bit. That’s 100% improvement from ten minutes ago!

But then the curve settles in.

The Curve

The Curve

As you can see from the extremely scientific chart above, what happens is that as your skill level improves steadily, the visible improvement you make starts to dwindle. The better you get, the harder and harder it is to tell whether or not you’re getting better! Often times you can still clearly see the gap between yourself and the experts with whom you compare yourself, but you can’t see your own progress. You’re missing the big picture.

As I said, this happens in all areas of life. My stepfather, Stan Hirsch, has been playing the guitar since he was ten years old. Every day he gets up before dawn and plays for at least four hours. Why? Because he can’t tell whether or not he’s getting any better, but he knows the only way he can get better is to keep playing.

It’s like when you get a puppy, and your friends all comment how big she’s gotten every time they come over for a visit. You didn’t even notice! That’s because you’re living with her. She grows a teeny-tiny bit each day, but you can’t tell because it’s incremental. Your friends see a jump in size because they only come around every so often, and their mental image is of the last time they saw her, when she was smaller.

This is exactly how it is with language learning.

You live with yourself, so you can’t see your improvement. At the beginning, it’s obvious—ten minutes ago, you couldn’t say a word! Now you can say “hello” and “thank you” and “where’s the bathroom?” It’s instant feedback.

But the more you learn, the harder it is to see the forest for the trees. You start to have the same kinds of conversations. You learn new words here and there, of course, but you can’t tell if you’re actually getting better. Are you speaking more fluently? Are you taking less time to build the sentence in your head? Do you understand more than you did last week? Sure, as with the puppy, occasionally you’ll speak to a friend you haven’t spoken to in a few months and they’ll compliment you, amazed at how much you’ve improved in the meantime. But you don’t feel like you’ve gotten any better at all. How can you be sure?

The answer is to mark checkpoints along the way.

If you’re a painter, you can always go back and look at your old sketches. If you’re a writer, you can read last year’s work. And so it should be for language learners. Record your progress!

Here’s what I do. I sit down with someone, whether it be my wife, a friend, or my cat. I start recording on my computer or phone, and start talking in the language I’m learning. I talk about my day, I talk about my plans, I talk about my hopes for tomorrow, about politics, about the noisy neighbors and the water bill and how I’d spend a billion dollars. Just five or ten minutes of whatever comes to mind. If I have a partner that isn’t my cat, I let them talk for a while. So much the better if it’s a native speaker—I can respond to whatever they’re saying.

Then I save it, and I don’t touch it for some time. Two months, three months maybe. Maybe a year. Whenever I’m feeling low about my progress, feeling like I just can’t seem to get any farther, I open up the file and listen.

Holy crap. Was I really that bad?

There it is: progress. Proof of improvement. Solid, stone-cold evidence that I am advancing up the ladder of language skill, getting better at speaking, comprehension, calling up vocabulary, working through the grammar, and expressing myself, which is really what learning a new language is all about. The best part is, you can do this at any level! In fact, you should start earlier, so you can truly see your improvement from day one. You can learn a hell of a lot in one year, and this is the way to prove it.

Then, as I did for myself in the Itchy Feet comic at the top of the page, graph your progress! Keep track of each step you take, of each rung you climb. Designate your own checkpoints, so that your only point of comparison is your own goals. (Side note: I would really like to offer an interactive feature on Itchy Feet based on this comic, where people can trace their progress using cartoon characters for each language. I think it would be a fun way for language learners to follow their improvements and stay focused on their goals. Unfortunately I have no idea how one would go about doing this. If you do, and you want to collaborate, shoot me an email at!)

What about you? What do you do to keep track of your language learning progress?

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About the Author: Malachi Rempen

Malachi Rempen is an American filmmaker, author, photographer, and cartoonist. Born in Switzerland, raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he fled Los Angeles after film school and expatted it in France, Morocco, Italy, and now Berlin, Germany, where he lives with his Italian wife and German cat. "Itchy Feet" is his weekly cartoon chronicle of travel, language learning, and life as an expat.


  1. Susan B:

    Excellent suggestion !!! Thank you. Having studied Russian in college 50 years ago, I recently pulled out my old textbooks, signed up for beginner Russian at Transparent and am starting from the beginning again.

    My 2 cats, Bella and Ella, will enjoy listening to my pathetic attempts :-), but… seriously…. recording my attempts is a great idea !!!

    • Malachi Rempen:

      @Susan B Yeah your cats are going to get sick of it pretty soon…

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