Posted on by Ulrike Rettig

7 Key Ingredients of a Foreign Language Practice Plan

Child playing the piano If you want to get better at something, you have to practice. That goes for sports, yoga, singing, playing an instrument, etc. It also holds true for becoming fluent and proficient in a foreign language.

I belong to an online group of polyglots. The enthusiasm and talent of most of the members is high and I find this very inspiring. Many of us are fluent in several languages and are shooting for several more.

It's a great goal to have, but even talented polyglots need to practice in order to learn and get better.

Practice takes time, which is a limited resource. So it's a good idea to have a plan to make your learning most effective. Some, but not all of the seven “ingredients” below are typically provided by traditional classes, online or self-teaching courses, CDs, books, etc.

You can greatly enhance and accelerate your learning, if you include them in your own, personal Foreign Language Practice Plan. Generally speaking, these three (3) basic ingredients belong to "practicing" a skill:

- doing something regularly
- doing something with focus
- doing something with the goal to improve over time

And then there's the whole question of how practicing can be both fun and effective. Here are my 7 ways which I've been using for my fifth and sixth languages:

1. Practice in Small Chunks

Devote some of your time to practicing your new language in small chunks (also called "chunking").

Take individual words, phrases, idioms, set expressions, and go over them with focus and intensity. Do them multiple times and use different ways to practice: listen & repeat, see & say, listen & write, say & record, listen with eyes shut, etc.

2. Practice All 4 Language Skills

It will come in handy to know all four skills - reading, listening, speaking, and writing.

If you connect with others on the internet, you'll be using all four skills. And, interestingly enough, with time the individual skills will begin to boost and strengthen each other. [See also our blog post: How the 4 Language skills boost each other]

3. Practice at Different Levels

Vary the level of difficulty. What you learn with easy texts is different from what you learn with texts that are highly challenging.

So, for example, alternate between reading a simple text and puzzling out a tough grammar structure. Or, listen to a basic audio after practicing speaking and recording yourself. Changing around is also a way to keep things interesting.

4. Engage Your Senses

The more senses you can involve when you're acquiring a language, the more effective you'll be.

Listen to the audio of a story or song, watch a movie or YouTube clip, read aloud or record yourself, write things out by using the motion of writing or typing, play interactive games on touch screens, etc.

5. Always Think of the Context

Why the context? Because in communication words take on different meanings in different contexts.

Even when you practice your small chunks, you should have the context in mind. For example, is it a formal or a casual situation? Is the tone serious or humorous? Does the word have another meaning that doesn't fit the context? To communicate effectively, you need to practice with more than simple word lists.

6. Practice often and regularly

We may not all have the time and opportunity for long daily practice sessions.

But, if you can set aside some 10-15 minutes for language practice every day, you'll progress faster than committing the same 60-90 minutes every week. The reason may be that daily practice helps move foreign words and phrases from short-term to long-term memory.

7. Reward Yourself

Practice takes discipline and isn't always fun.

You need to keep your focus, challenge yourself, as well as tolerate a certain amount of boredom. Rewarding yourself after a good practice might just help you stay motivated.

For some people, a gamified program works nicely. Others may want to give themselves points that add up for a special treat. For those with a serious goal in mind, the ultimate reward could be a trip to the country where you can experience the language and culture first hand.

The seven practices described above overlap in many ways, similar to what a physical exercise plan may do to the muscles in your body.  Keeping them in mind as you develop your personal Language Practice Plan will help you select your practice materials.

In fact, just as you may use various exercise equipment and activity - weights, machines, running, etc., you should experiment and try out different practice materials - books, audios, online programs, CDs, or traditional courses, apps, etc. For the best results, you need to tailor your Personal Practice Plan to your own needs and goals.