In 1989 Stephen Covey published his book – The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. Habit #2 was “start with the end in mind”. Sound advice. Let’s follow it!
I don’t start learning a language until I have a plan in place to maintain the ability I am going to acquire. What happens if you don’t have a plan? Well, I am not aware of any research specific to language learning that addresses this point but I do remember a study conducted in America back in the 90’s that I am sure is pertinent to our current question. The study concluded that only one third of the students who completed a 4 year university degree course and passed the exam were able to still pass the exam with any grade when tested just 90 days after their examination date. Remember this group was 100% comprised of people who had just passed the exam – the others were not invited. What a waste of time and effort and human potential! What a self-serving thing the education system has become.
When learning languages I do follow Mr. Covey’s advice – I do start with the end in mind and therefore I do have a plan because I don’t just want to get better, I want to get and stay better.
Because I started knowing my goal would be to maintain my peak fluency in Italian as efficiently as possible, doing so will require about 10 minutes per day each day for the next several years. That is part of the price I have to be willing to pay before I begin. If I am not willing to pay that price then best I don’t start. That comes to about one minute per day per thousand words of vocabulary. If you were happy to have a B1 level ability then the time per thousand words is a little different – that would require about 5 minutes per day. This is about as efficient as I know how to be and is only possible because from the first day of my learning, everything I do is organised in light of being able to maintain my ability in this little time each day.
I have structured those 10 minutes to be very enjoyable and convenient. I am often able to do them while waiting for something to happen, so I have turned “bored time” into “fun time” so I really don’t mind the time I apply. In one way the “cost” is 10 minutes, in another there is no cost at all, often a negative cost.
What’s your plan? Do you have one? Does your university, school or tutor have a plan for maintaining the ability you plan to acquire? Is it a good plan? How long will you need each day? Are you willing to pay that price? Have you discussed together the final vocabulary size you want in order to reach your language goals and maintain them.
I once worked with some school teachers in Canada who were teaching 5 year olds. The school year is only about 200 days. But it’s far worse than it looks. During the summer holidays each year kids forget much of what they learned during the last 3 months before the holidays – so every year the kids would return and the teachers would have to go over old ground. I taught the teachers at this particular school how to get the kids to enjoy using 3 minutes per day during the summer holidays to retain what they had learned. The reaction was interested but cool – they were unable to imagine what a difference this would make. What good could 3 minutes a day really do compared to the hours invested each day in the year learning up to the summer holidays. They continued to feel this way until the kids returned. Then no imagination was required. Teachers and students were able to move forwards from where things were left before the summer holidays instead of going back over old ground for the first 6 weeks of the school year. The teachers found their lives more interesting and felt more productive. They were ahead of schedule – which reduced their stress. Parents were delighted with progress and the kids had fun over the summer holidays and enjoyed all the praise on their return. What had we done? Just started a little bit with the end in mind. The learning was structured to take into account the reality that knowledge recently acquired decays rather rapidly without the correct reinforcement.
Today’s take away – start with the end in mind. Have a plan for retaining your peak fluency before you start and make sure the people you pay to help you have one too – if only to show they care about you.