New Year’s resolutions for language learners

Beginning of a new year is a good 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 (walk 10km every day; learn to play an instrument; master another foreign language…), but over time I’ve realised that resolutions only make sense when they are realistic and manageable; otherwise, they are just a litany of nice wishes. In this post, I’ll offer some advice for language learners: how to define your personal resolutions and make them effective.

First off, 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 (in the context of English, students typically struggle with grammar points such as verb tenses or the use of articles, but it can be anything else – this is highly personal). Make a list of those, but don’t leave it like that: now go through each item on your list and think about it in concrete terms – be as specific and detailed as possible. For instance, if “English tenses” are on your list, which tenses in particular are the problem? Surely it can’t be all of them! Is it the verb forms or the use of tenses? Which tenses exactly? Do you have more trouble forming sentences about the future or the past? Have you finally figured out how and when to use Present Perfect? If you study with a language tutor or a coach, ask them for honest feedback – it can be of great help, since self-assessment does have its limits.

Once you have a pretty clear idea on what you need (and want!) to work on, narrow it down to just one or two things, and then think of different ways that can help you make progress over the next twelve months. It looks like a long time, but time flies! Break the goal(s) down into monthly and/or weekly tasks: to use our example with the use of tenses, you could focus on a particular tense each month and do online exercises connected with it. Whatever the language and the grammar point might be, there are many online resources that you can access, designed for learners at all levels, so there’s really no excuse. Resolutions are inextricably connected with commitments: commit to doing something, anything, on a weekly, perhaps even daily basis.

If your grammar skills are not an issue, and you’re already at C1 or C2 level, you’re likely having to deal with more complex vocabulary, such as the use of idiomatic expressions or more formal, sophisticated vocabulary. Reading is your best friend and ally: make a selection of books that you’d like to read in the coming year (again, you can ask your teacher for advice on that), but keep it short as the sort of reading I’m talking about here is the so-called ‘close reading’, where you read slowly, mindfully and analytically, and not just flick through your books in a hurry. It’s best if you choose reading material that you are also going to enjoy: genres and writers that you actually like, rather than something boring, written in a style that you hate. It can be just four books, one for each season. Take notes, use highlighters and post-its, scribble your thoughts down on the margins of the pages. These books are going to be your learning companions, communicate and interact with them as much as you can!

To give you another example of effective resolutions, I’ll share something that worked pretty well for me during 2021. In my case, it has to do with the German language, but you’ll get the point. At the beginning of last year, I came up with only one single goal: to brush up and improve my vocabulary. As I knew I wouldn’t have much spare time for formal study, my resolution was to use a lot more media content in German. As I love crime TV, I committed to watching at least an episode of a popular German TV series Tatort every week – with German subtitles so I could write down any new or interesting words and phrases I would come across. Additionally, I replaced the evening news programme I used to watch with the daily 15-minute Tagesschau newscast from the ARD, Germany’s public broadcaster. News broadcasts can be very useful, as the vocabulary tends to be repetitive and thus easier to remember; also, they typically don’t last very long so you can always squeeze them into your schedule – plus you get informed about what’s going on in the world (I’ll write more on that soon, so keep visiting the blog.) A year later, I can honestly say that my listening skills and vocabulary have improved a lot, and I haven’t really done anything but having fun, watching something that I like!

Let me briefly recap the main points about language learning resolutions:

  1. Be realistic and build on the skills and knowledge you already have.
  2. Focus on just one or two things; make your goals as concrete as possible.
  3. Commit to reaching those goals by doing something that you find fun and interesting.
  4. Whatever you decide to do, do it regularly, at a steady pace (once a day / once a week etc.) – build a habit.

Whatever language you may be learning or whichever skill you’re trying to improve, think about your resolutions for the new year – as well as the accompanying goals and tasks – and feel free to share them in the comments sections!

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