give yourself a project

If you’ve been learning a language for any length of time you’ve surely come to realize how amorphous and hard to measure your progress actually is.  Sometimes you get a bunch of notable insights in a row but just as often, probably more often, you can go weeks without noticing all that much difference in your skills.

This is where it might be time to take focus off your creeping language XP bar and focus on some quest chains – er I mean projects!

I have found this to be notably useful.  For me, a good project is something with a very clear end point, and a time span of around three months.  That’s short enough that you can see measurable progress every day and feel that your goal is inexorably drawing near, while being long enough to give a big shot of satisfaction at finishing it.

Going through Remembering the Kanji volume 1 is maybe the first such project that many people start with, and it’s a great example.  Averaging a very doable 30 or so a day, this will take a little over three months, and once you’re at the end you have laid a tremendously useful foundation for reading and writing.

Another project I benefited from was taking Naoko Chino’s All About Particles, mining all the sentences, and SRSing them until I knew those particles cold.  You can do this with a lot of different grammar books, or even phrase books, shadowing example books, etc.

Right now I’m about a month away from “finishing” (that is, having no more unseen words) the JLPT 1 list on  Again, an easily measurable, highly defined and structured activity that will take a few months but well under a year.  I think a year is too long for this sort of thing to be really motivating.  If you want, you can define a long term goal – “I want to read Heian poetry” – and break that down into several sub-projects, each of which will take you a large part of the way through.  Think of it as timeboxing on a very long scale.

The next project on my list is an incremental reading deck with audio, made from Miki’s audio blog on  I think this will bring a lot of things together and greatly aid listening comprehension. (I do have this Anki deck available for download as I mentioned before.)  There are about a hundred cards, so if I add two a day I can get through in a bit less than two months.  Perfect.

In a way language learning is like the easiest MMORPG ever.  As long as you stay logged in and doing something, anything, you’ll level up and get rewards.  The time put in is the single biggest factor in your language skill, so as long as your method(s) makes even remotely some kind of sense, if you just keep at it you’ll win, no need to worry about your eventual success.  However, the process can easily start to feel endlessly long, and that way lies burnout.  Giving yourself concrete objectives that you can finish gives you that sense of progress, and gives you things you can point to and say “I did that, so I can do more”.

3 responses to “give yourself a project

  1. Lately I have been trying to create S.M.A.R.T goals all wrapped within larger goals of course.

    I’m currently working on one project with Korean and trying to salvage my Japanese one. I always try to focus on one thing at a time, although it can be hard to manage several different projects all going on at the same time.

  2. Haha, I always think of learning Chinese as a mammoth RPG. (Especially when there are easily countable things like Hanzi to serve as progress indicators.)

    My reading’s got to the point where I only have to look up subject-specific words (e.g. 廣義相對論, “general relativity”) which I’d do anyway in English.

    So, my projects at the moment are just to learn vocabulary related to subjects I’m interested in. It doesn’t take very long – just have to read a Wikipedia article a few times and then dissect it for new words/characters. I’m trying to structure it by topic: right now, I’m learning about the different parts of the body…