I was talking to a fellow coworker recently named Andrew, and we were discussing what makes someone successful at learning a language. We had different concepts about what makes a student successful, but they have a common idea that links them together; mandating urgency.
So what does that mean?
Mandating urgency is built into a lot of different learning programs, curricula, and other systems designed to help learn a language (check out my previous post on learning apps and programs). The idea here is that you create pressure for yourself to use the language wherever you are.
Think of it like demand. Demand is a term used to describe the desire to have a certain product, service, or thing. If something has a high demand, you pay a lot for it. If it has low demand, you will pay very little for it or even try to avoid for another similar but better product.
Building urgency: how do you create demand?
So how can you create urgency for your language learning? One very important principle is to create a daily quota for yourself. This should come first and foremost. This might be doing one work page from your grammar book, or memorizing 10 new words, or speaking for 2 minutes in English and/or new language (not to do this again, but read my other post about 5 minute exercises that help you improve your language). You have to give yourself a goal that can be accomplished. And you have to keep to it.
The goal here is to think small. Why? When you’re setting your daily quota, you might try to set an ambitious goal. You’re ready to learn! Let’s do it! If you do that, though, there is a very good chance that you will crash and burn. The thinking here should be rather do less than you think you can, especially at the very beginning. This is an idea I’ve taken from Tim Ferriss, a writer, entrepreneur, and public speaker who was the angel investor for companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Evernote. While not directly talking about language learning , Ferriss, talked about this idea back in December 2016 in an video for bigthink.com. As he explains,
you want to make it as easy as possible to develop [your daily goal] as part of your routine, to make it as automatic as anything else that you do consistently. And you could borrow from the say BJ Fogg who’s done a lot of research at Stanford and elsewhere, make it as small as possible, meaning in the beginning do less than you’re capable of doing. So this is another key when you think something is too big or onerous, so it’s too intimidating or it’s too much of a pain in the ass.
The idea here is to start small and think small, and to incorporate it best into your daily life. Your studying will be compounded and these small bite-sized study goals will build over time. Learning a language is not easy, and if you attack it head on with an ambitious daily goal, there’s a very high chance you won’t reach it. You might miss a day, which will lead to you becoming frustrated, and most likely giving up. And that for obvious reasons is the number one thing to avoid.
However, if you start small, there’s a higher chance that you will actually do more than your daily urgency requires; hey I just learned 10 words, why not one more? Grab the bull by the horns, but start with the very tip of the horns, especially if you are not used to grabbing bulls. Whatever the case may be, you cannot make excuses. As you continue studying, you can increase the amount you need to study.
The Short, Medium, and Long Terms: Building your studying scheme
The idea of mandating urgency is vital for your daily improvement, but what about for you longer term goals in English and/or other language learning? This idea of urgency that Andrew brought up is closely related to a pattern I have also noticed about English learning specifically and language learning as a whole. The most successful people language learners I have seen have something in common. They have a short, medium, and long term goal with their studying that are well defined and within the range of possibility. And we are going to break down what exactly that all means:
- your long term goal varies in time, but should see progress in a few months or years. What is the ultimate goal of your studying? Where do you want to end up? For this I don’t mean “I want to speak English well”. This is not well defined and too broad. And if it’s too broad, you’re likely to not reach it and have the same problems of having a too ambitious goal. Give yourself more details; how will you know you have mastered you English? Is it by watching a movie with no subtitles? Is it getting that perfect score on the IELTS test? What is it? Once you have a general idea of what you want to accomplish with English, you’ll be better able to tailor your medium and short term goals to successful language learning.
- your medium term goal can also vary in time frame, but it is about where you want to be in about a two weeks to a month. How many words do you want to use? What do you want to master? You’re medium term goal should include things that are not focused on in your daily goal. For instance, if your daily goal is 10 new words memorized each day, your medium term goal should be producing those words in either speaking or writing; maybe writing a page in English every other week or every other month using the vocabulary words you have studied. That could be up to 300+ words to choose from and practice with.
- your short term goal is your daily goal, which we have talked about as mandating urgency. This should be a daily minimum, and target any area of study that is very broad (I suggest focusing on vocabulary because the amount of new words are almost infinite).
Ultimately, with all of these goals setting techniques, the aim here is to define your progress so you can know what you need to hit as well as figure out how you can hit that target. Starting big and starting small is helpful, but maybe you’re someone who likes to start with the immediate things you need to do and then work your way to bigger projects. Whatever it is, try to figure it out and do it and start small, particularly at the daily level. From there, you will make your urgency.
demand – (n.) (economics) a desire for certain products, services, or things that can be purchased in some way.
quota– (n.) a fixed, limited amount of something, a threshold.
onerous– (adj.) something difficult or needs a lot of effort to do.
pain in the ass (butt) (idiom) – something frustrating, difficult, or annoying. Tends to be more informal, should not be used in a formal business situation. If you are worried about using the word “ass,” you can use “butt” instead.
to compound (interest) – (economics) (v.) to build value or amount by adding more value or amount to it slowly over time.