Posted on by Peter Rettig

How P.M. Tools can Help Your Language Learning (and my Spanish & Dutch)

Time ManagementP.M. Tools for Language Learning? - updated 2-11-2017

Many language projects seem to fail because of Lack of motivation and Poor Time Management.

This is consistent with the unattributed survey graph we discussed in our previous post, Not enough time? Really? Language Learning and setting Priorities, although the graph had the order reversed: 24% of the respondents had voted for “Not enough time” and 16% for “Keeping up motivation” as their main difficulty when learning a new language.

(We had also speculated that the “not enough time” response may hide other reasons, so the discrepancy matters little.)

Lack of Motivation or Waning Motivation?

Maybe “lack” of motivation is not the right term. Most adult language learners are quite motivated when they start learning a new foreign language. 

The strongest reasons are typically related to immigration, a new lover or family member, travel to or work in a foreign country, job or study requirements, and similar clear needs to be able to communicate in the foreign language.

There are other reasons, such as getting in touch with your family/language roots, religious interests, challenging yourself, or even just a passion for language learning. There is, however, an obvious correlation: The stronger the NEED, the stronger the motivation.

Even if motivation was strong at the start, it can easily weaken as the magnitude of the language project becomes clear.

This is especially true for those learners that get caught by slick marketing slogans and ads. And, motivation may also wane for those who have not learned to manage the essentials of what is really a long-term project. They will discover that learning a foreign language as an adult is not difficult per se, but that they will have to commit time to learn and practice.

My father often quoted a (German) saying: “Vor den Erfolg haben die Götter den Schweiß gesetzt” which translates as “The gods have set  sweat (hard work) as a condition for success.”

Well, learning a foreign language does not involve sweat, but it does require sustained effort. And those who indeed approach language learning as a long-term project could benefit from applying some of the Project Management tools they may already be using in their professional life.

What is a Language Learning “Project”?

While not all elements typically found in Project Management handbooks are present in a foreign language learning project, important ones are: Projects follow a plan and organized approach; they have a beginning and an end and thus need a time schedule; they need resources; they have an end result or achieve a goal.

What is, however, quite different from the typical “project,” which often involves many people, is that YOU alone are all of these in one: the Project itself, its main participant, the Project Manager, both a resource and a resource consumer, the judge of success, etc.

Which P.M. Tools should you then apply?

Schedule – There are really two parts to this: (1) How long you have, and  (2) How much time you can commit. Both are obviously closely related.

If you have only, say, three months to become proficient, you'll have to commit lots of time, take an immersion course, or find a tutor, etc.

(See also our post: 10,000 Hours for Foreign Language Mastery? We state there, for example, that for languages in Group I, Language Testing International (LTI) estimates that it takes a person with “Average Aptitude” 240 hours of training “under the supervision of an instructor and with 1-4 students per class” to reach “Intermediate Mid” proficiency.)

On the other hand, if you have much more than three months, you have many more choices and decisions to make. Such a schedule or timeline does not have to be complicated and is not difficult to create. For my timeline, I use an Excel-type spreadsheet; below, I show my current plan for improving my Spanish and learning Dutch. (More about my reasons for learning Dutch below.)

Resources – Here, money, teaching materials, and human resources come into play. Again, how long you have and available resources are important.

From free to pricey online courses, library materials, books, CDs, audios and DVDs, adult education/community college/university courses, to immersion courses in your country or abroad – the choices and decisions are yours.

The question of “What is best for me?” or “What is the best value for me?” is difficult to answer in general, but, if you google such questions, you can find many blog posts and reviews (including ours) for opinions and recommendations. One note of caution: There is no single “best” program or approach. Money alone does not buy you proficiency in a foreign language.

Nobody can do it FOR you. You have to do the learning YOURSELF! There may be approaches and methods that fit the way you learn better than others. Do some research and try out some approaches.

Most importantly, find the course(s) – in whatever medium – YOU ARE MOST LIKELY TO STICK WITH. But once you have decided on one or, even better, several teaching resources, you should show these and your practice/attendance on a simple timeline. (see below)

A schedule then serves several purposes: It documents your plan visually, you can add, modify or delete activities, it shows key milestones: reading an article; understanding a conversation, an audio, a video; participating in a conversation; writing emails, texts, a journal; proficiency tests, etc.

Accomplishment/Goal – Here, language learning deviates from the typical “project completion” celebration as learning a foreign language as an adult is often a life-long project.

Take my case: I've been in the the U.S. for many years, but have never been able to completely eliminate my German accent – it's not as noticeable as Henry Kissinger's, but it's still there. I took “accent reduction” classes and have to be conscious of how to pronounce “Ws” and “Vs.” I also occasionally find words that I have not heard before.

On the other hand, I read German newspapers to keep up with German as well. As with all languages, German is constantly evolving alongside new social developments. However, by setting certain milestones and targeting your learning to achieve these milestones, you can celebrate your accomplishments and then set yourself the next one.

If your goal is acing a proficiency test you need to take for college or work, it's an obvious one. But as you can see from my schedule example below, I also have a very specific goal for learning Dutch.

Why Learn Dutch?

Dutch is not a language one would learn without a very good reason. (A Google search surprised me, though: There are over 23 million people speaking Dutch, the majority living in The Netherlands (16 million) and the Flemish part of Belgium (6 million).

Islands in the Caribbean (Aruba, Netherlands Antilles, St. Maarten), Suriname (South America), and elderly Dutch speakers in Canada and Indonesia make up the balance.

In addition, Afrikaans, one of 11 official languages used in South Africa, is based on Dutch, and Afrikaans and Dutch speakers mutually understand each other. (This adds another 7 million.)

Now the reason I want to learn to UNDERSTAND Dutch is this: Every couple of years, my wife and I attend a family reunion in The Netherlands. My wife understands and speaks Dutch fluently and with my German background, I sometimes can make out a little.

But that's not enough to really be part of a conversation – even if I were to answer in English or German.

You may know that the Dutch probably speak better English than most of their European neighbors and our relatives are no exception. But when joining a table where everybody speaks Dutch, I often found that making all switch to English seemed like an imposition.

My goal therefore is quite simple: I just want to UNDERSTAND the conversations of our Dutch relatives. This way, when I am sitting at a table where Dutch is spoken, I can participate in the conversation and not force the whole table to switch to German or English. My longer-term goal is obviously to also speak Dutch, but I'll be happy with an interim step by September.

My Plan for Spanish and Dutch

The timeline below shows my current plan.

Gamesforlanguage learning scheduleMy focus is on completing the Spanish Duolingo course, as well as our GamesforLanguageSpanish 1 course (for the second time), before we head to Sevilla in the spring.

During our stay in Seville, we plan to hire a tutor for regular daily practice. My wife and I will make every effort to converse in Spanish and obviously take every opportunity to practice our Spanish while shopping, sightseeing, etc. We'll evaluate ourselves on our Spanish fluency at the end of our stay.

After our return in the spring, I'll increase my Dutch learning efforts, complete the Dutch Duolingo course, and subscribe to one or more online courses, most likely, Babbel and LingQ. My goal is to understand Dutch conversations during our stay in the Netherlands.

I do not know yet what I will do after getting back home. I'll probably start reading some Dutch books, maybe watch some Dutch YouTube clips, and, yes, start talking more in Dutch with my wife. 
As for Spanish, assuming our fluency has further improved, we'll look for conversation partners among our friends and on online language exchanges, continue reading Spanish books and newspapers online, and watch Spanish movies and videos - because we know: "If you don't use it, you'll lose it!"

Postscript: At the time of the family reunion I had achieved my goal of being able to follow conversations. I am continuing my Dutch practice using both LearnwithOliver's and Lingohut's free Dutch lessons.