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How to Create a New Language Learning Habit That Sticks

Struggling to create a new language learning habit? Often a simple change in approach is needed. We show you how to build a new habit in five simple steps.

How often have you set New Year's resolutions, and failed to achieve any of them? Quite often, am I right? Hell, we’ve all been there. We have this big goal. We launch into it full throttle. But we cannot sustain that pace, and so we lose motivation and quit.

Our inability to achieve our goals stems from our inability to change our behavior to form a long term habit; amplified by a lack of patience and desire to achieve instant results. And our inability to change our behavior long-term is because we're taking the wrong approach.The same principles apply to language learning. So, to build a new language learning habit that sticks, you need to change your behavior. Failure to do so will cause you to spin your wheels, over, and over, and over, again.

But how do you change your behavior and form a new language learning habit?

Firstly, before we get into that, it’s important to note that to change any behavior three things need to happen. You need the motivation, ability, and a trigger. A trigger is something that will remind you to complete a task, but more on that later.

Secondly, instead of trying to do everything at once, you should focus on smaller actions that are easy to complete. Over time these small steps add up.

The problem with these small activities is that even though you may have the ability to complete them, you often lack motivation. And that's the thing; motivation is fickle. So, finding that trigger becomes even more important.

What I discussed are important points I took out from the TedTalk by Stanford Psychologist BJ Fogg, titled: "Forget big change, start with a tiny habit".

Fogg developed the Fogg Method - a method used for changing long-term behavior with small habits. His method involves systematic steps. It is this method I will tailor toward forming a new language learning habit.

Step 1: Decide on Your New Language Learning Habit

Decide on your new language learning habit. Think small. For example, you may want to learn five of the most common Spanish words daily. Starting with the most common words is a good idea because 1000 of these words account for 88% of comprehension. In 200 days you’ll know 1000 words. You can change this for fewer words if you want; whatever you feel like.But because relying on doing something when you feel like it increases the chances of quitting, you need to find that trigger.But not just any old trigger...

Step 2: Choose Your Language Trigger

Your language trigger should be an existing habit; something you do daily without even thinking about it. Triggers are personal and will differ between people. Triggers may include: brushing your teeth, going to the toilet or even having a cup of tea. I drink a lot of tea - so this could be a good trigger for me.There’s no right or wrong answer but there are guidelines to follow:

  1. Your trigger needs to be something that is so ingrained in your daily activity.
  3. Choose your trigger based on how often you want to do the activity. If you only want to do it once,  choosing "going to the toilet" as a trigger may not be wise. Instead, opt for "brushing your teeth before you go to bed".

Step 3: Create Your Language Recipe

Combine your new language learning habit and language trigger to create a sentence or recipe. The beauty of this is that you can follow the same process with any other habit you want to create. A simple recipe may read as follows:

After I [insert current habit e.g. brush my teeth], I will [insert new habit you want to create e.g. learn five Spanish words]

Research by Dr. Maxwell Waltz suggests that it takes a minimum of 21 days to form a new habit. Yes, a minimum, not exactly 21 days - a popular myth today.

So, do that for at least 21 days, and see how it goes? Because you have a small task to complete that's linked to a daily habit- you're more likely to follow through.

Step 4: Reward Yourself

As you complete each task, reward yourself. The reward could be congratulating and telling yourself how cool you are. Or maybe you want to sing a little verse? Regardless, rewarding yourself is important as it re-enforces the habit.

Step 5: Take Things to The Next Level

As you repeat the task, daily - soon you’ll be on a role. If you want to take things further, why don’t you ramp things up a little and move on to six, seven, eight, nine, or even ten words. That’s the beauty of starting small, over time it becomes second nature.

As you continue adding layers, it won't be long before you're a language guru. In his TedTalk. BJ Fogg mentioned that he started doing push ups each time he went to the toilet. First one, then two, and eventually, eight.Or even better, replicate your success with one habit and create other language learning habits. For example, watch a video or write a sentence in the foreign language after brushing your teeth. The sky's the limit.

Wrapping it Up

We often don’t achieve our goals in life because we try to do too much at once and don’t focus on that which really counts: behavior. The same principles apply to language learning. By focusing on small habits linked to a trigger, we’re more likely to create a language learning habit that sticks.

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