Learning a language on your own presents a whole slew of advantages and disadvantages. On the one hand, you don’t have a learning structure pushing you forward. On the other hand, you can do everything on your own terms and skip the parts of that “structure” that were holding you back. How do you find a way to embrace the pros and avoid the cons? You’ll need to create a self-directed learning plan.
While it would be nice if you could just decide you want to learn a language and then naturally go about it, that doesn’t work for most people. Having a self-directed learning plan is a way to hold yourself accountable while still providing yourself enough flexibility to have fun. Every person’s plan is bound to look different, and you should try to make a plan that fits with your current lifestyle and interests. But if you’re unsure where to start, we’ve devised a step-by-step method for creating a plan that can work for you. Whether you’re striving for multilingual fluency or just need enough of a new language to get by, these steps will help you find your way.
Step 1: Set Your Goal
If you took a language class in school, at one point you probably heard a student complain, “Why do I need to even learn this?” If a person doesn’t know the reason for learning something, they’re less likely to put the effort in. While this may sound obvious, you really need to find your motivation, whether it be reconnecting with roots, preparing for travel or learning for the sake of learning. Whatever it is, it should be a concrete goal and something you can actually accomplish. If all you want is to “learn a language” generally, it might feel like you’ll never arrive at your destination.
Once you have your goal, you should find somewhere to prominently display it. That could be in a notebook, on a post-it note or on a poster above your bed. Whenever you’re feeling a little lost as you struggle through a subjunctive case, you can look back on your goal and focus on what’s important.
- I want to learn enough Italian that I can prepare a dish using an all-Italian recipe.
- I want to reconnect with my Portuguese roots.
- I want to have conversations with my friend entirely in German.
- I want to visit Paris and speak to people in French.
- I want to list Norwegian with working proficiency on my resume.
Step 2: Break Your Goal Down Into Parts
Imagine you’re making a to-do list for a massive, multi-year project that you want to complete. Would it make more sense to just write “complete project” on the checklist, or to break the project up into lots of smaller tasks you’ll complete over time? That’s a leading question, but we think that the answer is clear: lots of smaller tasks. Learning a language is the same way. By breaking down your one big goal, you’ll be able to celebrate your accomplishments on a much more regular basis, as well as track your progress in the language.
Figuring out how to break down your goal is not easy, but there are resources out there for you. One of the most useful might be using the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, which is a system devised by the Council of Europe to determine language-learning progress. It’s a set of specific guidelines that can determine where you are, from A1 (beginner) to C2 (advanced). While not the only assessment tool out there, it’s one of the most common, and you can use the guidelines to break down your goal and choose which skills you most need. Below, we have an example of a pretty simple goal, but your to-do list will be longer depending on what level you’re striving for.
Example Goal Breakdown
Primary Goal: Cook something in Italian.
- Learn the most common nouns and verbs in Italian.
- Learn verbs related to cooking.
- Learn food vocabulary.
- Learn numbers up to 100.
- Learn the imperative case.
- Learn the stories behind some of the culture’s most iconic foods.
Step 3: Choose Your Learning Tools
How you’ll learn is as important as what you’ll learn, and there are more tools out there than ever. We would of course recommend using Babbel as a major tool in your arsenal. The lessons are organized in a way where you can both advance your basic skills while also focus on the vocabulary you’ll need most depending on your goal. Babbel can help you structure your learning plan without tying you to a single mode of instruction.
But one tool does not a toolbox make, and we think that you should find several different tools to help you out. While one resource might be great, it’s bound to be limiting. Before you even start learning, you should consider all the options you have. Also remember that learning a language isn’t just about vocab and grammar — it’s also culture. If you’re learning Dutch, it’s worth it to also find resources that dive into the history and culture of the people who speak Dutch.
- Classic language textbook
- Podcasts, TV shows and movies
- Bilingual dictionaries, either physical or online
- Language-learning journals
- News articles
- Social media
Step 4: Manage Your Time
Once you’ve figured out how and why you’re learning, it’s time to figure out when. This is one of the biggest decisions you’ll make, because you need to figure out something that is going to work for your schedule. You’re only accountable to yourself, which means you don’t want to set your goals too high or too low, which might end up hampering your progress in the long run.
Tips For Managing Your Time
- To help you remember more, it’s better to schedule short, frequent learning sessions rather than long, infrequent ones. While it might not seem that way, studying for 15 minutes a day will be far better than an hour every week.
- Build the habit by studying at roughly the same time every day. You might want to do it while you’re drinking your morning coffee, or right after you brush your teeth, so it’ll become a part of your routine.
- Make sure it’s flexible. While in an ideal world you’d be able to study the language for the same amount of time every day of the week, that’s not always possible. Giving yourself a day off every week will make it harder to break the habit.
- Don’t do the exact same thing every day. Yes, regularity is great, but it might make the whole experience too boring. While you might do Babbel lessons most days, maybe you’ll want to make Fridays a day to listen to a podcast, or perhaps you’ll spend your Saturday night watching a movie with English subtitles. This doesn’t mean abandoning study time, but it does mean shaking up your learning every once in a while.
Step 5: Decide How To Assess Your Progress
Perhaps the most difficult part of learning on your own is that there’s no one to check how your progress is going. But assessing yourself is good both to review what you’ve already learned and to make sure you’re not hitting a learning plateau. Language skills can be particularly difficult to self-examine because flashcard mastery doesn’t necessarily reflect real-world ability.
The way you assess yourself will likely have to change as you get better at the language you’re learning. Fortunately, you have lots of options to choose from.
Examples Of Self-Assessment
- Flashcards, whether they be physical or online
- Babbel’s Review Manager
- Online quizzes
- Reading passages in your learning language and checking comprehension
- Native speakers on the internet
Step 6: Reward Yourself
It’s nice to say things like “learning is its own reward,” but sometimes a reward needs to be its own reward. No one is around to give you a good grade or a gold star, so it’s important to step back and recognize your accomplishments every once in a while. While it might sound superfluous, we really think this is an integral part of a learning plan that keeps your motivation high. And if you can find a way to tie your rewards into your goal, that’s all the better.
Examples Of Rewards
- Take a nap (you deserve it!)
- Give yourself a day off from studying
- Watch your favorite TV show with subtitles in the language you’re learning
- Read a book originally published in the language you’re learning
- Go out to eat at a restaurant based in the culture of the language you’re learning
- Book a flight to a country that speaks the language you’re learning
Step 7: Reassess And Reorganize Your Self-Directed Learning Plan
How you learn your first few words of a language is bound to be different from how you learn months later. Making sure that your learning plan has ways to reassess is going to be vital to pushing yourself forward. If you ever reach a point where you feel like your learning plan isn’t working anymore, that’s a perfect time to sit down and think it through. Even if it seems like it is working, you still might want to pick a time every three months or so to self-evaluate and see what needs work.
Questions For Reassessing Your Self-Directed Learning Plan
- Am I hitting the goals I set out for myself at the start?
- Have my goals changed in any way?
- Are there other tools that might help me push my learning forward?
- Am I spending enough time learning? Am I spending too much?
- Am I being challenged enough?
- Do I still feel excited about learning? If not, are there ways I can get excited again?
- Does my self-assessment still work for the level I’m at? If not, are there other ways I can test my language skills?
- Am I appreciating my progress in the language?
Based on your answers to those questions, you can revisit the different aspects of your original plan and improve it. The most important thing to remember is that you need to work for your self-directed learning plan, and your self-directed learning plan needs to work for you. Finding the right balance of structure and flexibility isn’t easy, but it’s what will keep you on track as you learn your new language.