14 Tips to Practice Language Skills with Your Peers

14 Tips That Use Your Peers to Practice Language Skills on Panglossity

Tell me if this is a familiar scenario. You walk into your language classroom. You’re somewhat excited, but a bit tired after a day of work and commuting places. You’re thinking you should’ve probably picked up a third cup of coffee before class and instead of that bagel. You’re really not in the mood to do much, but you know that you’ll get in a learning mood once the class starts.

But why wait? Your colleagues are right there. They’re also probably thinking about needing that third coffee of the day. If there was a way you could engage with them while still avoiding the much-dreaded small talk about traffic and how hot it’s been lately, wouldn’t you do it?

The good news is that I’m going to show you 14 ways to do just that.

Why should you aim to work during the classroom downtime?

Because a lot of the learning done in a group is not necessarily done during class time. The interaction with your peers outside the classroom will help you to:

Review the material in a creative way.

Process what you’ve just learned more thoroughly.

Connect what you already know with what you going to be learning.

Keep your levels of energy and interest up.

Turn you into a self-directed learner.

Become an active participant in your own language learning journey.

Help move some of the information to long term memory.

Build a non-judgement learning community and help you bond with your classmates.

Lessen your resistance to the training, if you feel any.

There are four types of activities that you can do to make the most of the interaction with your peers during class downtime:

  • connecting activities
  • sponge activities
  • wrap-up activities
  • adieu activities.


Connecting activities

Connecting activities usually take place before the class begins. Their main purpose is to help you focus on what you already know coming in. They will also help you introduce yourself to the other learners, or start talking to them if you’re usually the kind of person who doesn’t like small talk. How is that different from ice breakers, or just doing small talk? The connection activity is always related to the topic you’re learning in the class. It’s generally used to build up positive expectation about the class, and it will help you ease into learning and focus your energy.

Examples of connecting activities:

  1. Quickly shake hands with two people and tell them one thing you’d like to have clarified by the end of today’s lesson. Ask them what they’d like to have clarified as well.
  1. Share three things you already know about the topic. So if that day the syllabus says you’re going to talk about travel and holidays, share with your colleagues what words and idioms you’re familiar with that can be applied in a traveling situation.
  1. Take a short survey by asking your peers what they remember from last class.


Sponge activities

These are short activities that soak up time that would otherwise be lost. Think of when you’re coming back from a break, and you’re waiting for everyone in your classroom to come back and sit down.

  1.  Ask the person to your left one tip they have for language learning. For example, what’s their technique for memorizing vocabulary?
  1. Ask the person to your right what’s the most useful thing they’ve learned during today’s lesson. How do they plan to apply it?
  1. Compare notes with someone sitting behind you. Is there any important explanation or example that you missed in your notes? Fill it in.
  1. Instant class trivia: make up a question about what you’ve learned so far during the class. See if your colleagues know the answer.

Alternative: tell them the answer. See if they can guess the question


Wrap up activities

They’re useful for the time after the class is over. You’re getting ready to put your books back in your bag, throw your jacket on your shoulder and leave the room. That’s when you can:

  1. Discuss with a classmate what you plan to do with the new information. Is there an article that you can now read using the words you learned in class? Is a new expression going to help you write better emails?
  1. Exchange notes with one of your classmates. On their notes, take a minute and circle three important things that you want to remember from the materials. Put a star in front of what you think you’ll need to come back to in the next class. Ask them to do the same for your notes.
  1. Exchange notes with your classmates. Write the word WOW! in a corner of the page, in a box. Fill in that box with one thing that you learned that impressed you, or that you think is very important. Or super funny.
  1. Think of a way you can hold yourself accountable for your language learning. Share this with your classmate, and ask them if they’ll hold you accountable. Offer to do the same.


Adieu activities

You want to leave the classroom with a (metaphorical) bang! These adieu activities will leave you feeling good about what you’ve learned and energize you for future studying.

  1. On the count of three, ask your classmates to shout: Good job, team!
  1. Tell someone what the best part of the class was for you. Listen to their answer too. High five!
  1. End in TENS : Thanks + eye-contact + name + smile.

You don’t have to do all of these activities every class. Pick a couple of them and  see how they’re received by your colleagues. The most important thing is to try.

Next step? Pick one activity from each category. Try it out in your next class. Adjusts and keep experimenting. And most importantly, have fun!


If you’re a trainer looking for more short activities to incorporate in your language class, take a look at the brilliant and value-packed book The Ten-Minute Trainer: 150 Ways to Teach It Quick and Make It Stick by Sharon Bowman.

Advance Your Foreign Language Skills in Two Minutes

How to Advance Your Language Skills in Two Minutes

There are some things that will only take two minutes to do.

You can slice a juicy tomato in two minutes.

You stir milk into your steamy coffee in two minutes.

You can sharpen your pencils in two minutes. Remember pencils?

You can eat a sticky ice cream in two minutes. (Ok, maybe I can eat a sticky ice cream in two minutes.)

You can also practice and advance your foreign language skills in two minutes.

In this post I’m giving you sixteen ideas that will help you do just that.

 Next step? Set a timer. For two minutes. Then pick one of the activities below and give it your best.

 1. Write as many words as you can remember about a certain topic (weather, food, members of the family, emotions, things that are made of metal, things that taste sweet, etc).

Alternative: shout as many words as you can remember about a certain topic.

Alternative: record the words on your phone. Review them for accuracy and pronunciation.

2. Pick five words. Make up a jingle that includes those words.

3. Practice action words in a foreign language by doing the action.

4. Open your fridge. Name all the food inside in the foreign language.

5. Write a haiku that combines your native language and the foreign language creatively.

6. Doodle five words you want to learn like so: write the word down as you normally would; doodle around it to make it look like what it means.

7. Translate a line from a movie you saw recently into the foreign language. Do an impression of the character.

8. Walk around the house. Look for objects that start with the letter A in the foreign language. Start again with B. And so on.

9. Get a stack of sticky notes and a dictionary. Go around the house and label 10 objects that you don’t know the word for. Look up the unfamiliar words in the dictionary.

10. Write 10 words that start with the first 10 letters of the vocabulary. One word that starts with A. One word that starts with B. One word that starts with C.

Bonus points: Make a sentence using as many of those words as possible.

11. Have an imaginary conversation with your coffee. Practice small talk. Ask it where it came from? Take it from there.

Bonus points: Have the same conversation with your coffee table.

12. Read a recipe in the foreign language. Write down five words that you just learned from that recipe.

13. Go outside. See how many things you can name out there.

14. Compose a text message in the foreign language.

15. Go to a news website in the foreign language. Check the headlines.

16. Grab a piece of paper. Start a list like this: if I had another two minutes, I would … See how many things you can come up with. Reset your timer.

What’s next?

Pick an item from the list.

Type “timer” in Google.

Set it for two minutes.

Hit enter and have fun.

How to Train Your Study Skills

Train your study skills

I don’t know about you, but I’m tired of reading about how limited my willpower is, and how I should use it wisely. Preferably as early in the day as possible. Preferably on something productive, not on abstaining from a run to the bakery.

See, when you’re learning a foreign language, that’s not the only thing you’re doing. You’re probably also working a job, studying full time, traveling or raising children. These are huge drains on willpower. And at the end of the day, or in between multiple tasks, you won’t have a lot of willpower left for a foreign language study session.

This is why, if you want to see some progress, you should focus on strengthening your study skills, not your willpower. What matters is not just how much willpower you have, but developing your skill to get back to the task at hand. So changing your habits (for the better, hopefully) is more about skill than it is about will.

I came across this notion while reading the book Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et Co. I thought it was a brilliant idea, because willpower I do not have. (Remember, I live right up the street from a bakery. My limits are already tested every day.)

Willpower, the authors say, is a concept that urges you to rely purely on a tough-it-out model. While it may be useful and doable to do so, not everything on our to-do list has the same urgency. So let’s conserve the willpower for when we really need to tough it out. For the other tasks, let’s choose to act in key moments.

This is important:

“If you interrupt your impulses by connecting with your goals during crucial moments, you can greatly improve your chances of success.”

What does this mean when you’re learning? And how can you apply it?

It means that you need to learn and practice the following skill: when you feel the urge to stop (the impulse), that’s when you need to intervene with a rule. 

Are you going to accomplish your goal if you stop now? Clearly not! Are you going to get closer to it? Not if you stop. So what is the obvious choice? To keep going.

This strategy works for whenever you feel an “impulse” to do something that might be detrimental to your goal.

The impulse to procrastinate.

The impulse to quit.

The impulse to multitask.

Recognize them for what they are: fleeting impulses. And be equipped with the skills to push past them.

“When it comes to personal change, you don’t have to be pushing yourself to the limit all the time. You need to focus on only a handful of moments when you’re more at risk.”

What rules will you follow when temptation arises?

Establish the rules in advance of facing a challenge, and you’re more likely to follow them when you’re faced with the challenge.

The pattern is this:

When I’m ____________ <key moment>, I will ________________ <trained skill>.

Here is an example of a rule to establish in advance:

Challenge: I feel like I’m procrastinating by just constantly going for snacks when I’m trying to study a foreign language.

Rule: I am allowed to get up once, go for a snack, take the snack to my desk and return right back to work.

Here’s another example:

Challenge: I always get distracted when I’m trying to complete a lesson.

Rule: Every time I get distracted, I will close all the tabs in my browser, and put my phone in a different room. NO EXCEPTION! No resistance! No questions asked!

The skill you’re training is to follow the rule.

It is very important that you observe what your “key moments” are (the ones when your impulse kicks in), and tailor the skills that you train yourself to rules that will make you push through. View this as an experiment in which you’re both the researcher and the subject. Notice the words in italics? They matter.

Every time you have used the skill to follow your rule, is a time you’ve successfully pushed through resistance. You’ve made progress.

The goal is progress, not perfection.


Further reading: Change Anything by Kerry Patterson et Co.

Can You Learn a Language as an Introvert?

I wish my students asked me this question more often. Then, I would tell them about all the ways in which learning a foreign language as an introvert is not only possible, but it can become enjoyable. About ways to turn your introversion into a superpower. About ways in which you can connect with others while still being true to your self.

I’m sharing eight ways to be a successful introvert learner on the Learn Out Live blog.

And yes, I reveal a few of your introvert superpowers. It’s up to you to discover the rest.

Escape the tyranny of deadlines

Escape the tyranny of dealines on PanglossityI love deadlines. I especially like the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.
Douglas Adams

Setting deadlines when we’re learning another language can helpful, but it can also easily turn into yet another artificial pressure we create that commands our state of mind. This, in turn, commands our feelings about the learning process.

Having deadlines sets the pace, but if you let them overtake the process, you will not experience the fulfillment that comes with making progress.

Instead, make a commitment to show up every day, to open that workbook, to log into that app, to notice the progress bar change color. Don’t let the deadline rob you of the experience of learning.

Motivation, sustainable motivation, rarely comes from a deadline. My students come to me desperate to learn a foreign language, or to improve their language skills, because they want that promotion, that job abroad or they need to pass that exam. In other words, they have a deadline. The promotion will not be there next year, the job abroad closes applications in three weeks and the exam can only be taken twice a year.

But the students that are really successful in advancing their language skills are those who see what’s after the deadline; those who show up every lesson with their work done, with a myriad of questions, with the eagerness to learn.

The students who achieve their goals are the ones who, no matter how tight or far away the deadline is, do not put “that date” at the center of their journey.

The students who let their learning process fall under the tyranny of the deadline usually binge-memorize, forget faster and have a more superficial approach. The sad part is that they make themselves miserable in the process. Often a nervous wreck, often procrastinating, often lying to themselves about their progress.

Think about it. Which one would you rather be?

Commit to the process. Show up every day.

Image: A Canterbury Pilgrimage illustrated by Joseph Pennell and Elizabeth Robins Pennell, 1885

Energy Intelligence

Smart Language Learning  - Energy Intelligence

The theory of multiple intelligences, developed by Howard Garner,  is well-known among educators and learners. It states that we all are equipped with a different combination of “intelligences”, and this combination is what enables us to learn in a specific manner. Garner first outlined eight categories of intelligence, later used by teachers to convey the information to learners: visual, kinesthetic, musical, linguistic, logical-mathematical, interpersonal, intrapersonal and naturalistic. He later added existential (spiritual) and moral intelligences to the list.

Loosely connected to Garner’s theory – in its use of the notion of intelligence – is the concept of energy intelligence. I came across it in this article by Josh Allan Dykstra. Based in strengths assessment theory, the energy intelligence is aimed at measuring what energizes a person, rather than what they’re good at. Being good at something does not necessarily imply that we also feeling energized by that thing. For example, you may be fairly good at math in school, but after an hour of working on math problems you start feeling drained and miserable.

The question is: does applying energy intelligence theory work in language learning?

I believe it does, and the reason is simple.  As human beings, our actions are often dictated by our emotions. We don’t feel like learning when we get back home from work, so we don’t. We feel bored when we’re struggling with vocabulary drills, so we stop. Too often when we’re learning, we focus on what we think we should master rather than on directing our attention to what makes us feel energized and joyous.

When you’re energized, you get things done without really feeling like you’re trying. Trying would also imply some sort of resistance, an effort to stay busy or feel productive. Feeling energized, similar to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s theory of flow, is based on the assumption that you do your best work when you’re feeling at your best, while going with your will, not against it.

There are a few things that you can do test out this theory and take advantage of it.

1. Pay attention to what energizes you when you’re learning or focusing.

Is it writing down ideas? Is it freewriting? Is it doing audio lessons? Is it practicing new expressions out loud? Create an “energizing log” and write in it whatever activity you’re doing when you feel at your best without feeling like the effort exceeds the reward.

2. Make sure that you’re energized by something you’re actively pursuing.

Sure, I feel great when I listen to smart people being interviewed on podcasts. But that’s not a product of my brain. My brain just processes information. It does not reflect or act on it. I’m taking that a step further by noticing that I’m also energized when I’m brainstorming and wordmapping around the concepts that I’ve discovered on the podcast.

3. Enable energizing activities.

Enabling good habits is crucial in forming good habits. A simple example would be placing a glass of fresh water next to you if you want to get into the habit of drinking more water. By seeing the water, your brain will be triggered into feeling thirsty and wanting to drink. The fact that the water is readily available eliminates the effort and enables you to take action.

Similarly, we can enable energizing learning habits by making it easier to get into an energizing state. That could mean simply having a dedicated spot or a dedicated ritual for that state.

4. Use energizing activities to get started.

If you know that something feels good, gets you in the flow and helps you get work done, start with that something. Start with it even if it doesn’t connect immediately with what you should be doing. Starting a project is, very often, half the battle, because it builds momentum. Momentum is a learner’s best friend.

5. Use knowledge of what energizes you to get back on track.

You can use energy intelligence to your advantage when you need to refocus. If you find yourself procrastinating and dreading to get back to the work that you were doing, it helps to remind yourself how energized you feel when you’re actually doing it. Again, trick your brain into re-starting (your conversations, your learning sessions, your reading, your classes) and it will only get better from there.

Original image: L’Energie Moderne by Georges Hugnet (French, 1906 – 1974) from The Met online archives

What is Microlearning?

Microlearning and language learning

The What

Microlearning refers to short, easily-digestible pieces of content that learners can use to expand their knowledge, fill a gap in knowledge or just for pure entertainment. It is generally used to refer to digital artifacts (videos, online quizzes, online lessons) rather than traditional ways of learning (lectures, textbooks).

In traditional learning setting, the information is pushed from teacher/trainer to student/learner. Think of your typical classroom. The teacher comes to class with the material already prepared, or follows a textbook. The teacher provides the information, which the learners are required to assimilate, if they want to “see progress”.

In microlearning, the learner has a need for information (often called knowledge gap), accesses a lesson and finds out the answer to their question. The learners take responsibility and decide what they want to learn based on what they need in order to accomplish a certain task or to advance a certain skill. This is called a pull approach to learning.

The Why
If you’re wondering what are the advantages of microlearning, consider this:

  • Microlearning is learner-controlled. You can get topical answers to your problem and learn what you need to fill the gaps.
  • It is not time-consuming. With most learning artifacts taking anywhere from 1 to 10 minutes, microlearning derives instant knowledge gratification, and it is an excellent filler of idle-time.
  • It is measurable. Every lesson has one clear, distinct learning objective, usually followed by a very short review or reflection time.
  • It is flexible. You can easily go back and forth between the lessons if you want to solidify your knowledge, review, or find the answer to a question. This is not something you would likely do with a one hour class. In language learning, spaced repetition is key, and that is something that can easily work with chunks of content.
  • It accounts for levels of knowledge. One of the most time-consuming and motivation-draining assumptions is that all learners start at the same level and have the same interests. Microlearning enables user autonomy, therefore the students can choose the level they start at and the goals that they set.
  • It works with short attention spans. The typical adult learners can focus anywhere between 3 and 20 minutes, if they’re really engaged. Microlearning solves this problem by providing bite-sized learning opportunities that students are more likely to complete.
  • Procrastination-proof. Ok, there’s no such thing as procrastination-proof, but you’re more likely to procrastinate when you’re faced with a twenty page paper than you are when you have to watch a 3 minute video.

The How

Here are a few examples of microlearning techniques and platforms for foreign languages:

  • Mini-lessons

Babbel is a Berlin-based initiative supported by the European Regional Development Fund. It’s a really great tool for building vocabulary and practicing phrases.

BBC Languages features short lessons in over forty languages.

Mango Languages can be accessed through libraries, higher education institutions and K-12 school. It is also a homeschooling platform for learning foreign languages.

Curious has crowdsourced lessons from native speakers.

  • Podcasts

Slow German obviously allows you to listen to a native speaker reading a text in German at a slower speed. It’s useful if you want to learn clear pronunciation.

Survival Phrases teaches the basic conversation starters for when you’re on holiday.

Daily French Pod is a daily dose of real life French as it’s spoken by native speakers.

There is a long list of free language learning podcasts in iTunes.

  • Video language channels

Deutsch fur Euch is a German channel that offers clarifications on certain snippets of language.

Japan Society NYC has a language videos playlist called Uki Uki Nihon Go.

DutchPod101 has a lot of video resources for learning Dutch.

  • Games

Duolingo is obviously the app du jour, that uses gamification and adorable anthropomorphic owls to trick you into learning a foreign language. It is also crowdsourced but it has strict quality assurance.

BaBaDum is a game with well-designed graphics that help you learn 1500 words in 13 languages.

No matter what resources you decide to use, remember that learning a language does not have to be a “only if I have an hour to spare” activity.

Image: Family with a Microscope by Jacob Ernst Marcus (1784 – 1826).

Language Links: German MOOC and Swedish idioms

German Mooc and Swedish idioms

Just for fun, I publish a list of articles about foreign languages and language learning.

Coursera announced that it will launch its first foreign language learning MOOC in October in collaboration with University of Pennsylvania. Auf Deutsch: Communicating in German Across Cultures is a beginner course scheduled to run for six weeks. “The course will be informative and entertaining. People will hopefully be learning something new about German culture. Students will learn about the different lifestyles Germans have. That’s where the entertainment part will come in.” says Professor Edward Dixon, the course developer. I, for one, have enrolled and I can’t wait to dissect the instructional design of the course.

Speaking of fun in German, do you act as if you have fat pants? It’s not an insult, I swear! Head over to FluentU to find out what that means in a list of 10 German idioms. I haven’t lost my mind and all my cups are in my cabinet.

I bet you’re tickled pink by funny expressions in foreign languages. Check out this video of 10 Swedish expressions, unless you have a feeling there are owls in the moss (meaning something is quite off).

What happens when actors are told to speak in their native language for “authenticity”? Using Gratuitous Foreign Language (GFL) is Hollywood’s way of saying “hey, as long as it sounds foreign and exotic, we’re covered”. But is everything foreign-sounding really true to the plot of the film? Salon gives a few examples of native speakers who took a few liberties on camera.

Can you translate your standup routine into a foreign language, and still keep the same jokes? If you’re Eddie Izzard, you can try, but there is no guarantee that your audience will understand. Although the misunderstanding itself can become a source of humor.

P.S. More German language resources here and here.

Image: Nordic Summer Evening by Sven Richard Bergh (1889 – 1900)

Language and … personal development?


A good 70 percent of my students are professionals. A good 70 percent of my students want to learn a foreign language as an extra skill that will advance their career. A good 70 percent of those get something more in return.

How do you feel about made up statistics?

I thought so. But at least my guess is informed by the years of teaching and years of asking all sorts of people “Why do you want to learn another language? What’s in it for you?”

The truth is this: I set out to find research about the effect that learning a foreign language has on personal development. I found no such study. If you come across one, please send it my way. Professional development is clearly impacted by being bilingual or multilingual. But how does learning a new language make us grow and evolve on a personal level? Does it change the way we communicate? Does it change the way we view challenges and set goals? Does it force us outside of our comfort zones? Does it open up new ways of perceiving the world around us?

Let me tell you a few stories. Stories about people that I’ve worked with and the transformations I saw in them while they were learning a foreign language.

Let’s start with Aimee.

I first started working with Aimee in the middle of her two year long maternity leave from a market research position for large hospitality group. Aimee was a hard-working career woman who loved what she was doing for a living (a typical Sociology major), but had found herself stuck at home with a toddler and little intellectual stimulation. She was at an upper-intermediate level of English and always thirsty to learn more.

Honestly, Aimee was, at the time, my most advanced student. She was sharp, quick and confident. I thought the main reason Aimee had for wanting for work on her English skills was just to have some interaction with an adult while being stuck at home during the day.

I loved working with her because she wouldn’t say no to any challenge, and she would diligently do her homework.

Yes, your teacher really cares about these two things.

I started to slowly introduce advanced and proficiency materials into our lessons: a lesson based on a TED Talk here, an article from The Economist there, a “look what British skit I found, let’s see how much you understand” playful email a week all the way over there.

Aimee just took the ideas and ran with them. We spent an hour talking about Jamie Oliver’s TED talk on teaching children about food and how Aimee would apply it to raising her child. We would connect Charlemagne’s blog on The Economist with sociology ideas she remembered from college. Then, Aimee started doing these things by herself. First, she showed me a new British series she was into  (It was Smack the Pony but don’t Google it if you’re at work). She couldn’t understand everything, but she got most of the jokes and if she didn’t, she asked me about it (if you want to make your EFL teacher blush during a lesson, do just that).

Another time, Aimee was really excited that she could watch The Hunger Games in English, without subtitles or dubbing. Her favorite new words in English were “chatterbox” (usually to refer to her now-learning-to-speak-and-will-never-shut-up-but-look-how-cute daughter) and “brick and mortar” (simply because it’s so descriptive).

We continued to work together even after Aimee returned to work. She confessed that studying a foreign language, and going in depth with it, helped her in her job tremendously. Having worked with metrics her entire career made Aimee really good at goal-setting and working through objectives, but studying a foreign language opened her up to new ideas, that she would not have listened to or read in her native language. She took some of these ideas and applied them in her marketing department. She took other ideas and started up a conversation with her new German expat manager. Some of them became seeds for new projects, both personal and professional. Aimee now feels more fulfilled in her career because she has the freedom to explore side projects at work. She’s also the one to start a conversation about Smack the Pony (yes, she still watches that).

I watched her go from a fluent but still insecure English speaker to a fully fluent and can debate anyone under the table confident speaker.

The three short ideas from Aimee’s journey:
1.     Be curious.
2.    Capitalize on your strengths.
3.    Always apply what you learn.

*The names I use are slightly changed, but the stories are 100 percent real.

Image: Charlotte du Val d’Ognes by Marie-Denise Villers (1801), currently on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Language Links: Learning habits, listening skills and foreign beer

Language Links: Learning habits and foreign beer

On Sunday, I publish a list of articles about foreign language and language learning. Let’s keep it fresh!

Are you a serial highlighter? Does your page look like a neon fest when you’re done with it? Do you think this technique really helps you remember more? Think before you highlight and four other facts that will teach you how to learn.

Can you teach an old ear new tricks? Is it possible to learn to distinguish and replicate unfamiliar sounds in a foreign language? It turns out that it is possible, as long as there is feedback. Feedback is an essential ingredient in training our brains to hear new sounds and start to produce them more accurately.

Are you planning a trip to Italy and wondering if you’ll be able to get away with just knowing “Ciao!” You’re not really in luck here. According to the data collected by the Eurobarometer 386, your chances of having a conversation in English while visiting Italy stand at 34%. It could be worse; you could be in Hungary, where only 20% of the population can hold a conversation in English. Czech linguist Jakub Marian compiled a map of percentage of people speaking English in the European Union, divided by country. But, if you want to order beer in the local language, there’s a map for that too.

Speaking of beer (why wouldn’t you, it’s summer), is it pronounced Stella ArtTWAS or Stella ArTWA? It’s Belgian, so ArTWA. Read this list to learn how to pronounce beer names.

Deutsch fur Euch is a Youtube channel that I use to learn little tidbits of German. In episode 42, Katja teaches the vocabulary necessary for talking about your family in German.

Image: From My Studio Window by John Kane (1932) on display at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

4 Ways the Progress Principle works in language learning

Progress in language learning

Dear language learner, when was the last time you gave yourself a pat on the back for learning two new words?

Surely, you would be proud of yourself the first time you held your own talking about strawberry tarts in that language.

But did you consider that just knowing the words for strawberry and tart meant you were making progress?

According to research conducted by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer, you should celebrate every little ounce of progress.

Dr. Amabile, a Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School and the author of The Progress Principle, collected 12,000 daily journal entries from volunteers working in seven companies. She analyzed the responses and found that the most powerful driver of employee performance was whether they had made progress on a meaningful task that day.

The progress principle states that people experience a positive inner work life – a sense of accomplishment which leads to increased intrinsic motivation, positive perception and positive emotion – when they make progress on something that they personally find meaningful.

The idea of doing 10 minutes of language practice a day might not seem very productive, but the truth is that you’re more likely to start a task that requires 10 minutes of your time, rather than commit to a one hour task.

We are less likely to procrastinate when the task seems manageable.

Here are four ways to apply the progress principle and Dr. Amabile’s research next time you sit down with a language course:

1. Don’t think in terms of “too small a progress”.

There is no such thing as small progress. There is progress. Eliminate the scarcity mentality of not enough: I haven’t learned enough. I can’t speak well enough. I don’t understand enough.

Regular, minor accomplishments, what Teresa Amabile calls “small wins”, improve engagement and intrinsic motivation, positive perception and positive emotion.

Take a moment each day to recognize and celebrate the progress that you’ve made. You can do this through keeping a language journal, in which you write down the expressions, grammar rules or new notions that you learned. You can keep it simple and just highlight the day on the calendar to show that you showed up and studied something.

2. Deal with setbacks constructively.

In her study, Teresa Amabile found that negative events have a much greater influence on our mood and productivity than do positive events. On the one hand, we minimize our accomplishments, while on the other hand we tend to blow the setbacks out of proportion.

It’s crucial that you don’t let setbacks interfere with your forward momentum. If you missed your practice time one day, or even more, treat it like it’s no big deal, but resolve to do something about it. Avoid shaming yourself into never practicing or trying again. Teresa Amabile writes:

Given the demands of modern work, it is easy to ignore those small steps forward and focus on what still needs to be done instead. Take a moment each day to celebrate and recognize the progress that you, your coworkers, and your subordinates have made each day.

3. Use nourishers to gain and maintain momentum.

A nourisher can be a language teacher, a language coach or simply a community of language learners, be it a classroom or a virtual forum. It makes sense that in such a long-term and high effort endeavor we need a support group for motivation and ploughing through the difficult parts of language learning.

Nourishers directly support people’s inner work lives and include actions like providing encouragement and recognition. Because they support inner work life, nourishers also lead to better performance.

4. Build on progress

When people have made good progress in a task, that could be an ideal time to introduce new challenges. This is because their inner work lives, particularly their intrinsic motivation for the work itself, will likely be high as a result of their success.

The moral here is to always aim for growth in your language skills. It is easy to fall into the comfort zone trap: I know these words so I will only use these words. I can make myself understood just using the present tense, so I won’t bother with the other tenses. I know the right way of saying hello, so there’s no point in learning all the informal ways.

Yes, recognize progress. Yes, acknowledge progress.

No, don’t dwell too long on past progress.

Do you have any good ways to track your language learning progress?


Teresa Amabile explains more about the Progress Principle and the research behind it on her website and her Twitter account. I also recommend the interview she did as part of the Truth About Creativity virtual conference with David Burkus.

P.S. More tips about language learning: Why learn another language?

Image: A City of Fantasy by an unknown 19th century artist from the National Gallery of Art