The road to language mastery is a long one. So long, in fact, that it's often easy to wonder if you're really making any language learning progress at all.
When you first start, the wins come fast and easy. Everything is new, so you can double and triple your language knowledge in a matter of days.
It doesn't take long, however, for things to slow down. It's still easy to learn new words and phrases, but like drops in a bucket, they don't add much to what you already have.
You wonder when you'll finally cross over from the beginner stage to the intermediate one; maybe you have already, but it's hard to tell. There's no roadmap that tells you where one level ends and another begins, and that can be seriously discouraging.
The solution, of course, is to develop your own roadmap. To create habits, systems, and frameworks that allow you to track not just where you've already been in your language learning, but where you want to go.
Read on, and I'll show you just how to do all this, so you can track your own language learning progress, and stay motivated for every step of this journey.
1. Prioritize Building Systems Over Setting Goals
We live in a society obsessed with goals.
Surely you've noticed this. At the end and beginning of every year, there's endless buzz about New Year's Resolutions, making serious changes, and setting those big, hairy, audacious goals.
For lots of people, this is the time of year when language learning goals come to the forefront.
They say things like:
- By the end of the year, I want to be fluent in Spanish
- I must pass the TOEFL (English) test in April
- 2020 is the year I will finally reach the intermediate level in Mandarin Chinese.
Now, there's nothing wrong with these goals, per se. I, too, have had many similar ones. In fact, I have vivid memories of spending many hours of a school day scribbling down lists of all the languages I wanted to learn, and exactly how skilled I wanted to be in each.
Where these goals falter is in the execution. Though I did certainly become fluent in a generous handful of the languages I wrote down on those lists, I didn't do it in all of them, or even most of them.
Though my goals gave me something to point towards, they didn't guarantee that I'd actually make progress in that direction. Progress, in fact, came from somewhere else.
But if progress doesn't come from goals, then where does it come from?
I wasn't sure of the answer to that question until I read the book Atomic Habits by author James Clear.
2. The Quality of Your Learning is the Quality of Your Habit Systems
In Atomic Habits, Clear maintains that the true catalyst of behavior change is not goals, but systems. Put simply, if your habits and lifestyle are built in support of a certain identity (i.e. being physically fit, being a non-smoker, or being a Japanese learner), then you will naturally move towards those goal states, even if you never explicitly set that goal in the first place.
Throughout the book, Clear repeats a key phrase:
“You do not rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.”
Now you may be wondering why I, Luca Lampariello, am mentioning all of this, in an article not about habits, but about tracking progress.
It's simple, really: if you want to evaluate how well your language learning is going, you need only to reflect on the quality of your language habits.
For example, are you:
Though these are certainly not the only good language learning habits out there, many of these habits are shared by some of the world's most accomplished language learners.
Together, these habits constitute a system that can reliably move anyone in the direction of language mastery, goals or no goals.
So if you want to track your progress, don't obsess over how close or far you are from being intermediate or advanced. Instead, reflect upon the daily "system" of habits you have in place that will inevitably drive you towards the level you seek.
3. Create Your Own Language Learning Framework
Your system of learning habits is like the engine that moves you forward on the language learning journey. That's great, but as we all know, a working engine is no good if you don't know where to steer the car!
The clearest way to visualize the progress you're making on your journey is with a map. In our case, it's not a literal map, but a figurative one that tells us two things: where we've been, and where we're going.
In the language learning world, these "maps" are called frameworks. Essentially, they're charts that divide the entire language learning experience into discrete levels and skillsets, ranging from absolute beginner, all the way to native-like fluency.
The most popular of these frameworks is the Common European Framework of Reference, or CEFR. It contains six alphanumeric levels, starting with A1, and progressing through A2, B1, B2, C1, and C2. Many countries offer language exams in accordance with each level.
I would like to recommend that you measure your progress by the CEFR scale, but the truth is that the scale itself is almost too complicated for the average person to use.
Instead of relying on the CEFR, then, I'd like to suggest that you develop your own learning framework, that will help you divide the language learning experience up into meaningful chunks that will help you figure out how you should learn at any given point in your journey.
(Don't worry, this isn't as complicated as it sounds).
What I normally do is divide language learning into three main phases: beginner, intermediate, and advanced.
Then, I ask myself:
To me, each one of these phases means that I have developed certain skills in my target language. So I start to assign specific "goal skills" to each phase.
Then, for each level, one question remains—how do I develop the specific skills I'm looking for?
The answer lies in three things:
Using the above, here's an example of how I describe the beginner phase of my learning:
Being a beginner means:
Next, we have the system I put in place to make those things possible:
It's important to note that this is only what I do for the beginner phase. For the intermediate phase, I follow a completely different system, and for the advanced phase, I follow yet another system entirely. Altogether, these three systems comprise my very own language learning framework.
To truly be able to track your progress in a foreign language, you need to develop a framework of your own. It can be similar to mine, or completely different.
The important thing is that it helps you navigate the language learning landscape as your skill level improves, so that progress is clearly visible at all times.
4. Celebrate Victories, Both Big and Small
The last lesson I want to share about tracking your progress well is the importance of celebrating progress in all its forms.
Language learners, like lots of people, tend to only celebrate progress when it comes in major milestones, like having your first target language conversation, or passing a major certification exam.
These are great things that should by all means be celebrated, but the issue with major accomplishments like these is that there aren't really that many of them. If anything, you'll probably only reach major goals like these once or twice a year, if not less often.
When you're celebrating achieving major language goals, you'll feel confident and well-motivated, but in the lengthy gaps between, you might find yourself feeling discouraged, or even close to giving up altogether.
The solution, in this case, is to lower the bar of what constitutes a "major language learning achievement".
The truth is, there are many smaller moments throughout your journey that are just as worthy of celebrating as the big, landmark moments. And best of all, those small moments come far more often than the bigs ones do.
What you need to do is make a list of all of the small language learning "wins" that are important to you, so you can look out for them on your journey, and celebrate them as necessary.
For example, you could celebrate:
Exactly how you celebrate these small wins is up to you, but I'd recommend developing a system of rewards that keeps you happy and motivated to keep going.
Even something as simple as having a piece of your favorite candy every time you achieve one of the above "wins" can be helpful.
The steps and strategies I've taught you above will help you track your language learning progress, and make it more visible and more tangible than ever before.
It is important to make progress visible and tangible because if you can't see or feel yourself advancing along in your language learning journey, you'll begin to lose motivation, and even risk giving up the journey altogether.
And believe me, that's something that can happen to you no matter whether you are an absolute beginner or a seasoned language learning veteran.
With strong habits, a clear framework for progress, and a healthy rewards system, you can transform the long and seemingly dark road to language mastery into a well lit pathway on which you have a clear, confident sense of direction.