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


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  2. Christina Masterman

    So much wisdom and encouragement in this article Mickey, all of which translates particularly well to language learning. I love the notion of doing things in bite-size chunks and appreciating and celebrating the small things, rather than bemoaning that which is yet unfinished. There is a joy in little steps, which fuels enthusiasm for the bigger hurdles. Everything has an intrinsic value.

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