One of the most common excuses for not learning a language is, "I'm too busy! I don't have enough time to study a new language." In many cases, the would-be student knows exactly what he should do to practice: make and review flashcards, watch videos in the target language, and practice conversations with a native speaker. And it's true, these activities do take time. But sometimes the bigger problem is a lack of organization and inefficient time management. Many of us have more free time for learning a language than we realize. Analyzing the time you spend on each of your daily activities can help you identify pockets of time which you might currently spend scrolling social media or staring out the window. Why not repurpose those for learning Mandarin?
Steps for Organizing An Efficient Language Study Routine
Sometimes the first hurdle for language learners is knowing where to start. This uncertainty leads to inertia, which the language learner might justify by saying, "I don't have enough time." Luckily, there are some easy steps you can take to set language goals, make a plan for reaching them, and stick to that plan, even within the busiest of schedules.
1. Make a List of Goals for Your Language Study
There are lots of ways to study Chinese, or any language, and it's easy to get overwhelmed. Should you spend more time reading, listening, speaking, writing, or practicing flashcards? Writing a list of goals will help narrow your focus to those activities that will be most helpful for reaching your goals. For example, do you want to pass a specific test, or qualify for a job or degree program? If so, look up the requirements and tailor your study accordingly.
Even if you are studying Mandarin for fun rather than to pass a test or get a job, make sure you write down specific, measurable goals. For instance, you might set a goal of being able to hold a conversation with a native speaker about your vacation plans. To reach that goal, you'd need to practice speaking and drill vocabulary related to the topic. Or maybe you want to be able to write a blog post in Chinese. In that case, you'd focus your practice on grammar and writing.
Next, prioritize your list. Anything with a hard deadline should go at the top. After that, focus on goals with specific requirements, because it will be obvious once you achieve that goal and you can check it off your list. Finally, determine which study activities will help you reach your top-priority goals the fastest.
2. Make a List of your Favorite Study Resources
Now that you know which activities will help you reach your goals, create a library of resources you can use to practice. Focusing on topics or creators you enjoy will help studying feel fun rather than draining. For example, if your goal is to be able to read blog posts in Chinese without checking a dictionary, make a list of resources to practice your reading comprehension. If your resources are on-line, include the links in your list for easy access. Make sure you have at least a couple of links for each study activity: reading, listening, etc.
For extra accountability, consider working with a language partner or tutor like those available through Speechling. Working one-on-one with someone else can encourage you to practice more than you might otherwise, so that you can demonstrate your progress to your tutor each session. You also receive feedback so you know you are on the right track to reach your goals.
3. Analyze Your Schedule by Putting Your Regular Activities into a Calendar
One common complaint among language learners is, "I just don't have enough time to study!" But while most of us are undeniably busy with jobs and families, you may have more time than you think. Putting your regular activities into a calendar can help you pinpoint downtime, which you might be filling with scrolling social media or watching TV. You can put those pockets of time to better use by devoting them to language practice. You don't have to give up all your leisure time, but you could probably repurpose some, right? Even 30 seconds is enough time to review a few flashcards or your notes from a previous session. Check out the end of this post for tips on what to do with specific lengths of time.
Now take it one step further: can you create even more time for language practice by optimizing your other scheduled activities? Some productivity experts recommend the Pomodoro technique, where you break your workday into 25-minute increments separated by 5-minute breaks. The idea is the time constraint encourages you to be more productive. Or, if you're like me and love sleeping, try limiting yourself to 8 hours of sleep and waking up a little earlier to get some things checked off your to-do list first thing in the morning. Do your best to keep your non-language tasks on a set schedule, so that the time left over for language learning is consistent and predictable.
4. Make a Study Plan
It's easy to take the "just wing it" approach to language study, especially if you're pursuing it in your free time. But if you want to master your target language quickly, consistency is key. A written study plan can act as a commitment mechanism to help keep you on track. Check out this post for ideas on how to tailor your study habits to your learning style.
Revisit your prioritized list of goals and determine how often you need to do each study activity. For example, if your top priority is preparing for a job interview in your target language, you'll probably want to practice listening comprehension and speaking multiple times each week. Meanwhile, reading and writing might take a backseat with only one practice session a week. Add your language-learning links to your study plan for easy access.
Aim to complete one short practice session every day if possible. Even if you don't have a set time for it, commit to practicing flashcards or reviewing lesson notes at least once a day when you have downtime instead of scrolling social media. You can also associate your language learning with another activity you already do. For example, practice flashcards for ten minutes every morning after breakfast, or listen to a short podcast episode as soon as you get home from work.
Plan longer study sessions regularly as your schedule allows. I like to devote a couple of hours on Saturday and Sunday mornings to practicing Chinese because I don't go to work on those days and because I'm more productive in the mornings. However, make sure to schedule breaks into your longer sessions to improve retention and prevent burnout.
5. Put Your Study Plan into Your Calendar
Here's where it all comes together! Once you've developed a study plan to help you hit your language-learning targets, enter your study sessions into your calendar. I recommend an on-line calendar because you can set up reminders so you never miss a session. You can also paste the links to your language resources directly into each appointment. Using a calendar will help you hold yourself accountable: if your plans change on a given day, commit to rescheduling your language study session so you stay on track.
6. Develop Study Habits that Reinforce Each Other
When learning a language, reviewing a word or grammar concept once is not enough to get it to stick in your memory; it takes repetition and repeated exposure. You can speed up this process by choosing language resources that build on one another. For example, if you listened to a podcast about the Olympics yesterday, see if you can find an article on the same topic to read today. Chances are, the two sources will share some of the same vocabulary, and your practice today will reinforce what you learned yesterday.
Every time you review a new study resource, make a set of flashcards and practice them regularly. In addition to drilling the meaning of words, be sure to practice using them in a sentence, either written or out loud. Make note of words that appear in more than one context, and review the different ways the vocabulary can be used. And even once you've learned a set of flashcards, be sure to revisit them a few weeks or a month later, to see how well you've retained them.
7. Cut Out Distractions During Your Study Sessions
Studying on-line can be a double-edged sword: there's a vast number of language resources available, but also a vast number of distractions! To ensure you get the most out of each study session, minimize as many of those distractions as you can. Set your phone to Do Not Disturb, and make sure to close any browser windows with social media or email. If you need extra help committing, install a browser plugin to block access to distracting websites during study sessions. Finally, if you find yourself staring mindlessly at your screen without absorbing anything, take a break! Taking a walk around the block or listening to a favorite song will help reset your focus. Adopting these habits can also help make other parts of your day more productive, which may free up additional time for language study.
You Control Your Schedule
Sometimes our lives get so hectic, we feel like our schedule controls us instead of the other way around. But the reality is, you are in control. You decide what to prioritize and how to spend your time. If learning Mandarin is a priority for you, go ahead and treat it like one! Make a list of specific language-learning goals and hold yourself accountable to them. Figure out what language activities will help you reach those goals and schedule them in your calendar, a little each day if you can. Finally, commit your full attention to each study session by minimizing distractions. If you can master these habits, your Mandarin ability is sure to benefit.