In 2001, 17 software developers met and wrote a manifesto describing a lightweight software development methodology known as Agile. In the following decade, this methodology had a huge impact on the software development world. It was a departure from the typical methodologies of the time. It emphasized individuals, working software, and collaborating with the customer to ensure that changing ideas about what the customer needed could be taken into account so that the right thing was built the first time. You might wonder what the heck that has to do with language learning and you’d be right to. You see, I think that many of the same philosophies and ideas that are the cornerstone of Agile Software Development can actually be adopted by the individual language learner. I also believe that they represent the best method for organizing, tracking, and verifying both the learning process in general and the individual skills language learners need to develop to achieve their goals. Here is my manifesto for Agile Language Learning:
Value people and interactions over process and habits, processes and habits over goals, and goals over materials/tools.
What does this really mean? It’s an inversion of the usual way that people approach language learning. Most people, and you will see this a ton on the Internet, focus on making sure that they have the “perfect learning resource.” Then, they set their goals and get to work. 12 weeks later, if they have not already given up or gotten completely sidetracked, they are burnt out and simply don’t see the improvement they expected. Just like the crowd of people that gluts every gym in January, three months later almost all of them have quit. It didn’t happen in a single moment where the person just looked in the mirror and said, “I’m done.” In most cases, it happened over a series of weeks. Motivation waned and due to a lack of accountability, that waning motivation eventually turned into no motivation at all.
Most of these people never bothered to engage with even a single native speaker of their target language. Or, if they did, the experience was 10 weeks in and they were astounded that they not only couldn’t understand hardly a thing the native speaker said, the native speaker found it just as hard to understand them. The learner is left asking herself, “What the hell did I just waste all of that time for?” There is no better way to kill your motivation or your self-esteem.
People and Interactions First
We don’t have the space to go into motivation as a skill in this article. Suffice it to say that I believe forming relationships with tutors, language partners, and other native speakers is crucial to staying committed to your learning. It’s these interactions that will keep you going when your motivation inevitably wanes.
Recently, I had a nine-month period where I did almost nothing in the way of real learning. Work was ruining my personal life. I was working 55 to 65 hours a week and, when I got home, I had no desire to do anything that was more difficult than watching TV. My relationship with my language partner is what kept me in contact with the language and was also what helped me to see that I was losing my edge. Without that relationship, I am certain that I would have completely fallen off the wagon.
Learning Processes and Habits Next
Another thing that can help you get through valleys in your motivation is establishing habits that relate to learning your target language. These might be rituals that you perform like getting a cup of coffee and drinking it while you review your SRS work, studying before you allow yourself to watch TV, or going for a walk on your lunchbreak while using Glossika. The important thing that is that you manipulate your life in such a way that it seems to be easier for you to do these things than it is not to do them.
One thing that I’ve heard from people in different fields, not just language learning, is that you should commit to doing just 5 minutes of something every day. For example, you might commit to just doing 5 minutes of reading in a magazine or book per day. When you get home and you’re tired, you have a wedge to use to get yourself reading: it’s only 5 minutes. Once you start reading, it’s really easy for 5 minutes to turn to 10 or 15. The problem is the feeling you have before you get started, once you’re past that, though, it’s easy to keep going.
The Rest is Just Icing
Let’s face it, a cake without icing is not really a cake. It may not be the most important component but it’s still pretty much essential. So is goal setting and so is having high quality resources. But, even without setting goals, if you have strong relationships with native speakers and you have put learning processes and habits into place in your daily life, you are going to make progress. How many people have we seen who spend time setting goals they never actually achieve or waste time searching for the best resources when actually using the decent tools they already have could have gotten them past the beginner level?
Themes and Tasks, Challenges and Sprints, and the Bullet Journal
The fundamentals of this methodology are simple. There are two classes of things that you will worry about: the linguistic skills you want to improve and the time you are going to use to do the improving. These are then broken down into strategic (broad) and tactical (detailed) sets to make them easy to manage. We will use the bullet journal as the management tool to keep track of our time and the tasks we wish to accomplish.
Learning Themes and Tasks
Themes are strategic, meaning broad, learning goals such as improving pronunciation/accent reduction, mastering verb tenses, or understanding news broadcasts. Themes should not be things like “complete 25 exercises form X grammar book”. That would be a learning task. If I have picked “mastering verb tenses” as a theme, then I would have individual exercises from grammar books that I will use to accomplish my theme. A really good set of themes could be taken from the CEFR levels. In short, themes are skills and tasks are the things you are going to do to develop those skills.
A challenge is a strategic time-box in which you will put your highest priority learning themes. A challenge should be no longer than 16 weeks and no shorter than 8 weeks. In my experience, 12 weeks is generally optimal. The purpose of having a challenge versus just having sprints is that it allows you to prioritize your learning themes. You can say to yourself, “For the next 12 weeks, I am just going to work on these 3 items and I’m going to into a lot of depth on them.”
Sprints are smaller time-boxes (one to two weeks) in which you will put the tactical-level learning items that you will perform to complete the themes you have selected for a given challenge. Sprints are periods of intense, focused learning. This is why you need to keep them short. If you take on too much over too long of a period, you will only get burnt out. You need to have time to plan, build/gather your tools/resources, and evaluate your learning. It is also important that you keep sprints short so that you can react to changes you might need to make in your learning process.
In the week before the sprint begins, you should gather your material. Everything should be ready when you start (see Retrospectives below). Once a sprint has been planned and started, you must stick with the plan for the duration of the sprint. You may not start using a different book that you just got in the mail, for example. A resource being boring is not a good excuse to go off plan. It’s only two weeks! Do not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. If we are being honest, most progress is made through daily mediocre effort and not through herculean spurts of perfect study. A resource containing many errors, however, is a good excuse to break the sprint.
Once your sprint is complete, you will need to look back on your efforts and decide what worked and what didn’t. This time of thinking, planning, and collecting resources for the next sprint is called a retrospective.
A retrospective should be roughly ½ the time that you spend in a sprint. You need to use this time to evaluate your learning over the last sprint and also to plan your learning for the next sprint. I have historically done this by self-testing using CEFR based exams. You will still be performing your bare-minimum learning (discussed in the Getting Started Section) and you can read and watch TV for pleasure but your study load should be a lot less in this time period. Make sure that you are reflecting on what you have been doing and how it is working. Try forming new ideas about techniques and strategies that you can use in the next sprint. Then you should begin planning it and gathering any resources and tools you will need before you get started. You should not select anything for a sprint unless the resource is available and ready to use before the sprint starts. The sprint is no time for you to be trying to figure out what to do because the book that you ordered didn’t arrive on time.
Here is a simple retrospective template.
The Bullet Journal
I’ve never been able to organize my learning in a way that I could sustain in the long-run. Either the systems that I used were too complicated or they didn’t really provide a good fit for how I liked to learn and study. I began using an approach based on Agile about a year ago but I ended up falling out of the practice. In the software engineering world, they use sprint boards (software or real) to visualize the flow of work being done and to help signal roadblocks and bottlenecks in the work they do. For an individual learner, this is likely not going to work as it’s geared towards teams, not individuals. When I first started trying to implement this methodology, I tried using post-it notes like this on a board but it was physically cumbersome and too time consuming to maintain. Then, I tried to plan my sprints by printing material and putting it in a folder for each day. This didn’t really work for me either because I had a lot of learning tasks that did not have physical artifacts like exercise sheets. Some of my tasks were things like transcribing news broadcasts or listening to a podcast and then writing a summary. A folder didn’t provide me with a good method to organize all of the types of learning tasks I might be doing. Using a standard calendar or day-planner was far too restrictive. A day planner could not handle the ideas I had developed about learning themes and sprints. Enter the bullet journal!
The concepts involved in a bullet journal are simple but they are very powerful and easy to extend. Other people have explained what a bullet journal is better than I ever could, so I’ll link to their explanations here.
The Themes Spread
Use this spread to keep track of when you complete a specific learning theme and then schedule its review. Using this methodology, you inherently acknowledge that your learning is imperfect and that you are going to have to go back and revisit certain skills. This might be simply to review the material or it might be to try to take your performance form good to excellent. For an example, you might have some phrases that you have learned. You can recognize them and produce them when prompted but you still have not integrated them into normal, conversational usage. Scheduling something for another challenge gives you the flexibility to tell yourself: I have done good enough for now. I need to move on to something else but I’ll come back to this to make sure I have really mastered it.
The Challenge Spread
The Challenge Spread is your place to put the list of themes you wish to cover in the current challenge and to flesh them out into actual learning tasks. This is what you get to choose from to populate your sprint backlog. Only put your most important learning themes here and space them enough that you can list exercises, books, and other resources that you will use as actual learning tasks in the sprint. When a learning task is moved to the Sprint Spread, you cross it off here.
The Sprints Spread
Remember, nothing that goes into your sprint as a learning item can have any sort of dependency. You can’t be waiting on a book or even expect yourself to print exercises or other materials during the sprint. The time for finding and printing exercises is during the retrospective. You need to have everything necessary to complete a given learning task the day before the sprint begins.
How you plan the sprint is up to you. For me, I select the items I will be working on the day of. I don’t try to force myself to complete X, Y, and Z on a specific schedule. Instead, when it’s my study time, I just look at my sprint spread, find some learning items that I have time to complete, and then I do them. I don’t like the idea of trying to plan out every hour of learning. My life is just too complicated for me to try to schedule things at that granular of a level. Keep in mind that this is also how things are done in Agile for software. Developers commit to work items in the morning of the day they will complete them. This makes planning much simpler and much less prone to disruptions that can throw you completely off track.
The Habit Tracker is one of my favorite components of the Bullet Journaling. It’s a simple grid with the habits you wish to track on the left and the days of the month across the top. I track two distinct types of habits: daily habits and infrequent habits. Daily habits are of the type I want to perform on a daily basis. These represent my bare minimum study tasks. Infrequent habits are things that I want to do frequently but if I have to skip a day or two, I’m not concerned. The reason why I track these at all is because it’s very easy to omit them when my life gets busy. If I don’t have a way to track them, it’s very easy for me to forget to do them for 4 or 5 days straight. That is not the type of behavior I wish to encourage. Recording these things in the habit tracker lets me see the pattern as it’s developing so that I can react to it before it becomes a problem.
All you need to get started with this method is a blank journal, a pen, and your learning resources. First, take some time to prep your bullet journal for your challenge period. You don’t need to build out the spread for each month but you do need to build the spread (Challenge, Habit tracker, etc) for the current sprint period. If the sprint spans more than one month, then you should also complete the spreads for that month. Migrate any themes that you will be working on form the Themes spread into the current Challenge spread. As you build your Sprint, consider the resources you will be doing carefully. There is a reason why you have so little room to include things on your monthly spread: to encourage you to be realistic about how little time you actually have.
Tracking your Sprint
Once the sprint starts, your only responsibility is to complete the tasks you have set for yourself and fill in your habit tracker. Remember that once you start the Sprint it is sacred and items can only be removed form it not added. Especially when you are first getting started, it can be very easy to include too much work. People rarely overestimate their amount of free time. They usually do the opposite and try to cram too much into the little time they do have. Another tip that I have is include all of your schedule in your journal, not just your language learning activities. If you don’t use a task tracking or other time management system at work, you can even include your work tasks in the journal. You only have one pool of time and it should all be managed in one place to the degree that it is practical. For this reason, some bullet journalers include a daily spread to track all of your daily work. I found this level of granularity to be of little use to me as we use a task tracking system at work and I see no use in duplicating it. My workday is fixed, so managing it in the journal doesn’t make sense. I only include things from my job that are out of the ordinary or may get in the way of my other tasks, be they language learning related or household maintenance.
Once your sprint is complete, make sure that you have marked off any themes that you have completed and find some time to do your self-testing. Self-testing is absolutely critical to improving your learning methodologies and you’ll be cheating yourself if you don’t use it.
Soon I will be writing up a real-world example of how I am using this methodology to prepare for the CILS C2 exam that is scheduled for June, 2018.