In the early stages of learning a new language, what you do and how you do it is almost inconsequential. The larger hurdles are to have the right reasons for doing it and to do things which will keep you curious and interested enough to keep coming back to your study consistently.
One of the most important attributes that language learners can possess is self-awareness. This becomes even more important the farther you get in a language due to the diminishing returns you experience at upper intermediate stages and beyond. In order to continue to make progress, you have to be keenly aware of the quality of your output, measure that against some objective, and make distinctions to help you decide what to change or do next in order to improve.
One of the greatest challenges this presents for the independent language learner is how to know if you’re making progress!
The easy answer, of course, is to get a coach who can provide this feedback for you. However, I’m going to provide a framework for you to do this assessment yourself on an on-going basis, because I believe that you can develop this ability even with limited knowledge and experience doing it.
Setting a Language Learning Goal First
So, first things first: you need to get clear about your goal.
In my estimation, there are four over-arching categories of language learning skills, and those are: reading, writing, listening, and speaking. That means that there are two input skills and two output skills.
Now, myself and everybody else on the internet has their opinions about which order to develop these skills in. I would instruct you to choose the one which is most meaningful to you by asking yourself what you want to do with the language.
For example, do you love literature and want to read a lot of books? Do you plan to travel to a country where this language is spoken natively and just need to navigate daily living? Do you just want to check out some new series on Netflix or YouTube? Understanding your goals on this level first will help direct you into which skill category to go deep in.
Once you have thought about that for a while and feel determined, write it down. Trust me here: the temptation to stray from your chosen path when it gets “boring” or “difficult” will be too great, and you will begin to practice in areas that will not get your closer to the goal you’ve committed to.
Setting Up a Measurement System
On a high level, there are two different ways you can attempt to measure yourself: quantitatively, and qualitatively. They are both important, and I am going to share some ideas on the quantitative side first, because it’s more straightforward and keep you accountable for the basics. If half the battle is showing up, then these measurements will tell you how much and how often you are getting practice in.
The Language Learning Scorecard
Measuring your language learning progress quantitatively is all about numbers and volume. We need to set up metrics that can tell us the amount of activity we have generated for both the input language activities and the output ones.
Let’s make an example out of the speaking language skill, which is an output activity. On a base level, the metric should be how much speaking you have done. Recognize that based on your circumstances, speaking could come in different forms. For instance, it could be number of sentences spoken in a mass repetition method program like Glossika. It could also mean number of conversations of a certain duration you’ve had, or number of words read aloud. The bottom line is that if you want to get better at speaking, you need to speak, and so you need to measure speaking-based activities that are within your control. I repeat: your metrics must be things that you can actively do and influence, not things outside of your control.
I encourage you to not only select a metric, but to also set an associated daily or weekly goal for that metric. If you want to use 5-minute conversations with a native-level speaker as your metric, you could set “3 per week” as your goal target. I track all of my metrics and targets on a scorecard spreadsheet in my Google Drive so that I can access it anywhere. I update it constantly for the psychological boost I get from crossing another target off. No matter if you use a spreadsheet or a pen and paper, keep the scorecard highly visible in your day to day life and reference it consistently.
If you want to take your accountability to practice to the next level, make the scorecard transparent to others and encourage them to enforce negative consequences if you don’t hit your weekly metric goals. If you are disciplined enough, you can attempt you simulate this on your own.
To recap, here are some example metrics for the four language skills:
- Number of words or pages read
- Number of words known
- Number of words written
- Number of journal entries or blog posts written
- Number of mistakes made
- Minutes of audio listened to
- Number of repeat listens of the same piece of audio
- Number of sentences repeated
- Number of conversations of X duration held
- Number of words read aloud
Measuring the Quality of your Input and Output
This is far and away a much harder task, because some qualitative measures can seem highly subjective. However, I will share a simple and therefore useful framework to measure the quality of your foreign language input and output, even in cases where “you don’t know what you don’t know”. My definition of “quality” in a language learning context is tied to assessing difficulty of material and ability – what you can actually accomplish with the language.
First, for the input language activities of reading and listening, you should try to assess the level or difficulty of the content you are assuming. Over time, you will be able to understand more challenging audio and texts. In some cases, as in the LingQ platform or with graded readers, this is very easy to determine. LingQ gives you the number of unknown words per lesson, and graded readers are usually listed at particular “levels” at least as specific as beginner, intermediate, and advanced.
In other cases, you may have to estimate difficulty on your own. You could determine how many unknown words there are in texts, or what % of the audio was incomprehensible to you. You could use either new texts and audio files, or continue listening and reading the same ones repeatedly, measuring the number of unknowns with each pass or each week.
For measuring your ability in a foreign language, you could start by looking at language frameworks like the CEFR which provide skills and corresponding levels. You could keep a running list of which ones you are capable of and which ones you would like to work on next. As you become able to do things that you couldn’t do before, you will be able to take note of your progress.
To tie everything back together, you need to start with a goal of what you would like to be able to do with the language. From there, make sure you are measuring how much practice you are getting in the activities that matter most for your goal, whether they are input or output goals, or both.
From there, determine some metrics you can set for the activities in question, and set a target goal you would like to hit weekly for that metric.
Once you have the basic scorecard in place, it’s time to look at the quality of your efforts by determining if your ability and the difficulty of your inputs are increasing.
If you do this quantitative and qualitative measurement consistently, you will have a wonderful feedback loop that will guide your practice. Noticing these things are going to ensure that your time spent is productive, and seeing your progress should motivate you to continue on your path toward your ultimate goal!
If you have any questions about the system of setting up a scorecard, setting up goals, or becoming more self-aware in your language learning efforts, please leave a comment below or tweet me @languageascent.