How to build a new language learning habit in 3 simple steps

How to build a new language learning habit in 3 simple steps

Think of one skill that you’ve truly mastered. It can be anything—playing the ukulele, making pasta, even trolling tech blog articles.

What made you an expert in your domain is not your upbringing, or even your motivation, but the habits you’ve consciously or unconsciously formed throughout your life.

Like learning to play an instrument, or getting fit for a marathon, learning a language is a long-term goal that requires regular practice lest you fall behind and give up in due time.


Download a free checklist that will help you define, track and improve your study habits.

Many of us have tried to change our habits, or introduce new ones into our lives, be it eating healthier, having a full night’s sleep every day, or watching less tele. Many of us have also found ourselves back on the old tracks a couple of days later.

We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit. — Aristotle

It’s not that we aren’t motivated enough, or that our habits are so strong that we cannot change. We just don’t know how to approach the task in a way that’s manageable and that sticks.

Below, I describe a simple, three-step process to successful habit forming for language self-learners.

The elements of the habit loop

In the appendix of the New York Times best-seller The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Charles Duhigg distils every habit forming process to three basic elements, which form The Habit Loop:

The Habit Loop

The routine is the the habit itself, the action you’d like to make an unconscious and integral part of your life. The reward is what motivates you to complete that action. And the the trigger is the cue that tells your brain to proceed with the action.

The moment you figure out each of these elements and break the cycle, you become free from your negative habit. The moment you find the right cue and make your brain to expect and crave the reward, the action becomes automatic, and your positive habit is formed.

Read a summary of The Power of Habit

How to enter the loop and instil a new habit

Step 1: Break your goal into tiny habits

Studying a language is a huge undertaking and you’ve probably already broken it up into a set of smaller goals such as learning the 500 most common words, passing the intermediate level of a proficiency exam, or reading your favourite novel in the original.

Now it’s time to go even further, and break these goals into what Stanford University researcher BJ Fogg calls tiny habits. In his email course, he describes it as a behaviour that:

  • you do at least once a day
  • takes less than 30 seconds
  • requires very little effort

It’s really important to start small. For example, you’re much more likely to succeed with forming the habit of ‘reading one newspaper headline’ than ‘reading one page of a newspaper.’

Over the following months, as you get used to your new behaviour and your language improves, you can progressively expand your target to a paragraph, then an article, then a spread, and eventually the whole journal.

Step 2: Find an anchor to trigger the habit

An anchor is what BJ Fogg calls an existing behaviour that is already an integral part of your life.

By linking your new tiny habit to an established behaviour, you create a trigger that will trick your brain into unconsciously following through with a specific action.

After I   existing behaviour  , I will   new tiny habit  .

Here are some more practical examples:

After I turn on the kettle in the morning, I will tune in on the French radio.

After I start the dishwasher, I will read two headlines of a Japanese newspaper.

After I enter the subway train, I will review ten leafs in Fluent Panda.

Ideal anchors are precise events (‘after I wash my hands,’ as opposed to ‘after work’) that you engage in reliably every day (‘after I brush my teeth’) at at the same frequency as your desired habit.

Here’s a power tip: If you’re a real digerati and can’t find any good anchors in the real world, you can use IFTTT to schedule a quick SMS reminder based on recurring events online! This can also be a great way to break out of a negative Habit Loop... Think “After I upload a photo to Facebook, I will Tweet about it in Swahili.” Just don’t try to automate the latter, all right?

Learn how to banish procrastination and develop The Now Habit

Step 3: Celebrate every time you complete the habit

The reward is a crucial component of The Habit Loop which makes your brain to follow up on a habit, and gives you an injection of dopamine, brain’s pleasure chemical released when you bring something to completion.

Fogg recommends making a little celebratory dance or shout out a loud “Oh, yeah! I’m awesome!” every time you complete a task. Although effective, I found this to be a bit silly and awkward to do in public spaces, which led to failing to reward myself consistently.

Instead, you can do something small and inconspicuous like putting on a big smile or tapping a simple tune with your foot. You could also treat yourself with a tasty snack—just make sure that it’s healthy, or you might have to undo this unintentional side-habit later on!

Tiny habits may sound too small to be useful, but what you’re learning is not the habit itself (you likely know how to do it already!), but how to integrate the new behaviour into your daily routine.

It’s important to realise that we tend to overestimate what we can do in one day, but underestimate what we can do in one year. Start with a tiny habit, and you’ll be surprised at the progress you’ll make in a few months time!

To get you started, I created a free step-by-step checklist that you can use to quickly define your tiny habits and track your progress.

Click below to download the free checklist:

Habit building checklist