One of the first questions that students ask us here at ILSC Education Group is how long do I need to take classes to be able to speak Spanish, French, Mandarin, etc. The problem, is that this isn’t the right question to ask. What do students mean when they say “speak the language”? Do they mean being able to order a coffee or do they mean being able to hold a conversation about existential philosophy? Knowing what to expect when learning a language can help to learners to avoid frustration that can result from having an unrealistic or unclear idea of their progress. Check out the following tips below to learn how to sustain your motivation when learning a new language by setting realistic and achievable language goals.
1. Fluency takes years
Have you ever met someone who immigrated to the US 20 years ago and still has an accent or makes simple grammatical mistakes? It’s completely normal because for many people, native-level fluency will never be achieved, especially for people who begin to learn the language later in life. As we grow older, our ability to make, or indeed ever hear, a range of sounds dwindles, so perfect pronunciation may not be something that can ever be reached by many learners. However, the good news is it doesn’t matter! That the vast majority of people don’t care. We expect second-language learners to have an accent and their minor mistakes with articles or verb endings don’t make them unintelligible. Communication still happens with ease and that’s the most important thing.
2. Think about how you are going to use the language
Make a list of the situations that you hope to be using the language in and the skills that you will need in these situations. For example, if you are planning to visit Barcelona, you will probably want to be able to ask for directions, buy tickets, order at a restaurant, and so forth. Think about what types of language you will need to accomplish this (question words, numbers, polite language) and focus on that.
3. Make specific, communicative goals
Try to relate your goals to actual language functions such as “order a coffee” or “understand the main points of a news report” rather than grammatical functions like “learn the subjunctive tense”. This will help you to not get bogged down in mastering the nitty-gritty elements that won’t necessarily improve your communication skills in practice. Relate this list of goals to the list of ways that you think that you will learn the language. For example, if you know you are going to use the language in a restaurant, set a goal for yourself to learn the words for 50 different food items. The more concrete and specific you are, the easier it will be to see when you have achieved your goal. Here’s a link to examples of concrete language goals.
4. Set a schedule and stick with it
Obviously, you will learn faster if you spend more time studying and practicing, but most of us have jobs, families, and other responsibilities that prevent us from being full-time students. Therefore, it’s important to be realistic about how much time during the week you will have to work on homework, review flashcards, etc. Try making a schedule for yourself so that you have a dedicated amount of time blocked-off in the evenings or on weekends. And don’t bite off more than you can chew for the sake of advancing faster. Even 30 minutes a day of review can make a big difference in your progress.
5. Make big goals and small goals
Set goals for yourself over the next 6 months or year and then set weekly goals so that you have little mini-victories to keep you motivated. And check back on your goals often to make sure that you are on course and update your goals if you find that they aren’t realistic.
Using these tips to help you keep up your motivation but always remember that doing anything well takes time. You can gain a lot of language ability in a few months of study, but fluency and accuracy will take a year or more to achieve. Experts say that for languages closely related to English (Spanish, French, Portuguese) it takes about 480 hours of study to gain proficiency. For language that are extremely unlike English (Chinese, Korean, Arabic) is can take up to 1320 hours to reach a High-Intermediate or Advanced level. Remember that all students have different learning styles, aptitudes, needs, and goals, so it’s important to focus on your personal goals and not compare yourself to others.
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