Foreign Languages: Tips for Keeping Track of Where You’re At

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By Donovan Nagel
Photo credit: Eusebius@Commons

G‘day to all my fellow Language Challenge 180’ers! My name’s Donovan and I run a language learning blog called The Mezzofanti Guild where I share insights and tips on learning languages from my own experience and my background in linguistics.

Corey has done a wonderful job with the Language Challenge 180 and she was kind enough to invite me to share my thoughts with you on what I believe is a vital language learning topic.

I want to start out by saying that this challenge is such a fantastic idea and it’s so good to see that it’s generated great interest from so many enthusiastic language learners and bilingual parents.

I strongly encourage you to stick with it and see the fruit of your efforts at the end, and if you stumbled across this article but aren’t part of it yet then I’m sure it’s not too late to join in!

Planning beyond the beginner ‘honeymoon’ stage of language learning

In the very early stages of learning a new language you’ll experience lots of big, rapid gains. Huge gains.

The beginner stage of the language learning process is the period in which everything is new and exciting (the honeymoon period of language learning), and every new thing that you learn feels like an enormous victory over new language content. At this stage, the gains are obvious and it’s usually the most energetic and uplifting period for us as language learners.

Pretty much every language book and course begins with the same typical structure – the new alphabet, new phonetics and the basics (greetings, basic introductions and so on) and these are the things that we all tend to push through very quickly.

Beyond these basics however, whether we’re learning the language for the first time or reactivating it from a previous attempt, how do we work out and keep track of our progress to make sure we’re consistently moving forward and keeping on track?

It’s vitally important for us to be able to look back and actually see that we’ve continued to make progress and to rise rather than plateau.

No structure = slow progress

It’s very difficult to see the extent of your progress in a foreign language if you’re learning haphazardly without clearly defined goals and structured planning.

Don’t worry. Planning some structure for your learning is a lot more enjoyable and easier to do than it sounds.
It’s not enough to make broad targets like I want better listening comprehension or I want to be able to speak better. These goals aren’t really measurable over the short to mid term.

You need a series of micro goals that serve as checkpoints in your language learning so that when you stand back and take a look at everything you’ve done so far, you can clearly see a progression from where you started until now.

I find the best and most effective way to do this is to create a sequential learning plan based on topics and themes.

Tracking your progress through topics and themes

I’m going to share a method I use that is a very practical way of ensuring and keeping track of your progress which I believe will be hugely beneficial for you and your family during the Language Challenge 180 and in any future foreign language pursuit.

This is something that I, as an experienced adult language learner have had success with many times in my own learning endeavors and I’ve also found this to be very useful as an ESL teacher when teaching English to kids overseas.

It’s applicable to both individual adult learners and bilingual parents learning with their kids and spouses.

Here it is. You ready?

Let’s assume (to use a random example) that you’re a parent with a son who loves baseball.

You, the parent, have decided that both of you are participating in the Language Challenge 180 to learn… let’s say… Arabic together.

He’s mildly enthusiastic about Arabic and you’re finding it difficult to track your progress and keep him interested at the same time.

This is what you do:

Grab yourself a calendar (one with big squares so you can write in them) and a pen!
Write in the topic for the first week of the month: baseball.

foreign languages: keep track of where you are at

This week you’re going to pay special attention to all the vocab in Arabic related to baseball:
e.g. hit, bat, base, ball, run, slide, catch, glove, cap…

Use a dictionary and write up a list of related words or phrases and break them up so you’re learning 3 to 5 of them every day or every two days. Try to mix them up so you’re getting a couple of nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on each day.

Remember that even though you’re focusing on a topic like baseball, many of these words are common and useful in lots of other contexts as well.

Create your own resources! It’s very easy to whip something together as a visual aid to help yourself or your kids learn vocabulary (as an ESL teacher I do this a lot!).

foreign languages: keep track of where you are at

Create your own visual aids!

This is important: focus on only one verb form each week. So for the first week you could just practice using Present Continuous – I am hitting the ball, he is sliding on to the base, etc. The following week (with a new topic), you switch to a different tense and so on.

At the end of the week, you and your son will have targets for speaking, listening, reading and writing around that theme:

  • Have a simple chat to each other or a native speaker (preferrably) about baseball
  • Write a short letter about what you both love about baseball
  • Read something in the target language about sport and look for ‘baseball words’
  • Listen to a sports commentary and try really hard to recognize any of the same words
  • If it’s an activity like baseball you can try to incorporate this in to an actual game of baseball to make interesting and rewarding for kids

You can simplify or increase the difficulty of this as much as you like. This is also something you can do with a spouse or on your own. Each week you’d have a new theme or topic to focus on and a monthly revision to go over the previous four weeks.

Think about getting to the end of these 180 days and being able to look back at all the progress you’ve made and the new topics that you and your family are now able to talk about. You will have also covered a lot of grammar and vocabulary that’s useful in a multitude of other contexts!

Good luck and let me know how it goes!

Donovan Nagel is an Aussie freelance translator, qualified linguist (Masters in Applied Linguistics), ESL teacher and experienced traveller. He is passionate about learning new languages and sharing what he’s learned with others. Before his postgraduate studies he completed a Theology degree and a few tough years translating Koine Greek and Ancient Hebrew. He later specialized in Arabic. His first exposure to foreign language study was in school where he undertook compulsory Mandarin Chinese classes for 4 years. Since then he’s had formal classes in French, Spanish, Modern Standard, Levantine and Egyptian Arabic, and Georgian. Other languages that he’s studied informally are German, Italian and Russian. You can find Donovan at his website The Mezzofanti Guild.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dolly Green April 18, 2012 at 6:56 am

I really envy those who can speak multiple foreign languages. How many can you speak? Read? Write? I am looking at continuing my efforts in learning new languages. Enjoy your day!



2 JenneferJ April 18, 2012 at 7:27 am

I really like this idea. I am going to pick a topic in Japanese and find out some vocabulary for it. Maybe cooking….


3 Aaron April 18, 2012 at 9:13 am

I too find structure so important. You have offered some great ideas here and I know they will be a big help to a lot of language learners. I love baseball too!


4 caleb June 30, 2015 at 5:39 am

Thanks, this helps me a bit


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