New Year’s resolutions for language learners

Beginning of a new year is the perfect time to reassess one’s priorities and set personal goals for the coming twelve months. I’ve been doing my New Year’s resolutions for many years, always writing them down on the first page of my annual planner. Looking back, most of my past resolutions were quite unrealistic (lose 10 kg; learn to play an instrument; master another foreign language…), but over time I realised that resolutions only make sense if they are realistic and manageable; otherwise, they are just a litany of nice but unattainable wishes.

In this post, I’ll offer some advice for language learners: how to define your personal resolutions and use them as an effective learning tool.


SELF-EVALUATE

Look back at the previous year and think: in which areas did you make the most progress (vocabulary, grammar, listening skills etc.)? Is there something that continues to be a problem and that you need to improve? In the context of English, students often struggle with grammar points such as tenses or the use of articles, but it can be anything else—developing writing skills is something that my more advanced students often mention.

Make a list of your ‘problem areas’, and then go through each item and think about it in more concrete terms—be as specific and detailed as possible. For instance, if tenses are on your list, which tenses in particular? Is it their verb forms or the use? If you’re struggling with writing, what do you want to improve: spelling, use of language, formal vocabulary? Or how about listening skills? (Language skills are interconnected, so whatever you need to work on is likely to be a combination of things.)

If you study with a language tutor or a coach, you can also ask them for feedback. It can be of great help, since self-assessment has its limits.

MAKE A COMMITMENT

Once you have a relatively clear idea of what you need (and want) to work on, think of the different ways that can help you make progress over the next year. It looks like you’ll have plenty of time, but time flies. At least it feels that way, because most of us have really poor time management skills.

Break your goal(s) down into weekly or ideally daily tasks. Make sure you write them down in your diary or planner. Start treating them like a regular part of your to-do list. Resolutions are inextricably connected with commitments: if you can’t dedicate ten minutes a day on doing an online exercise or a bit of coursework, you should at least be honest and admit that language learning isn’t very high on your list of priorities. That would actually be a very good start, as it’ll help you come up with more realistic resolutions and expectations.


Here are two simple suggestions on how you can put your resolutions into action. As you’ll see, both are about habit formation: unless you form good habits, you’ll probably never going to accomplish the goals set in your resolutions.

MAKE BETTER USE OF READING

If your grammar skills are not an issue, and you’re already at an advanced level, you’re likely having to deal with more complex vocabulary and more sophisticated use of language. Reading is your best friend and ally: make a selection of books that you’ll read in the coming year, but keep it short. The sort of reading I’m talking about here is the so-called ‘close reading’, where you read slowly, mindfully and analytically. ‘Less is more’, as they say.

The GoodReads social network has a feature where you can set your annual reading challenge, monitor your progress and share it with others. All of that can serve as an additional motivating factor that will help you keep going. In any case, it’s best to choose the reading material you’re also going to enjoy, rather than something dull and boring. If you aren’t into books, find a special-interest magazine or an online publication on a subject you’re interested in.

Take notes, use highlighters and post-its, scribble your thoughts down on the margins of the pages or in your vocabulary notebook. These books and magazines are going to be your learning companions, communicate and interact with them as much as you can!

TRANSFORM TV TIME INTO LEARNING TIME

At the beginning of last year, I came up with only one personal learning goal: to improve my German vocabulary and learn more slang words and expressions. I knew I wouldn’t have much spare time for formal study, so I decided to use the time I would normally spend watching TV. As I love crime series, I committed to watching an episode of popular German TV series each and every day—with German subtitles so I could also write down any new or interesting words and phrases I’d come across. A year later, I can honestly say that my vocabulary and listening skills have improved, and I didn’t do anything other than having fun, watching something that I find enjoyable. Obviously, you can do something similar with podcasts and radio programmes if you wish to improve your listening skills.

As with books, this will only work if you’re consistent and if you actually pay attention to the target language: take notes and make some use of them.


Let me briefly recap the main points about making language learning resolutions (and sticking to them):

  1. Be realistic and build on the skills and knowledge you already have.
  2. Focus on just two or three goals and make them as concrete as possible.
  3. Commit to reaching those goals by doing some interesting tasks.
  4. Build a habit: whatever you decide to do, do it regularly and consistently (preferably on a daily basis).

Think now about your resolutions for the coming year, as well as the accompanying goals and tasks. What would you like to accomplish in the New Year and how do you plan to do it? Feel free to share your ideas in the comments section below!


P.S. Here on my blog you can find more posts with practical advice and suggestions for language learners, such as:

Graded readers: what are they and how to use them

Language learning on a busy schedule

Listening tips: five-minute practice using news podcasts

Using podcasts in English language learning

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