How NOT to suck at language challenges

failure“Language challenges”, you may have noticed, are cropping up all over the place!

Typically lasting either 30 or 90 days, you come together with other learners from around the world to set goals, learn from each other and make giant strides forward in your language learning.

That’s the theory at least.

In language challenges, as with anything else, there is the potential to waste your time and even set yourself back.

Get it right, though, and you can genuinely catapult your level in your target language into the stratosphere.

In this post, I’m going to draw on my experience in the first Add 1 Challenge (back in 2013) to show you exactly how to make a language challenge work for YOU.

I know this, because in my first language challenge I made a lot of mistakes…despite being a fairly experienced language learner.

Suddenly finding yourself in a new environment can really throw you, even if it does happen to be online!

I worked too hard, tried to outdo myself, took it all a bit too seriously…

…and ended up burning out!

Luckily I managed to turn it around, and wrote about how I did it in this post about learning Cantonese.

I don’t want this to happen to you, so read on…


Note: Starting this week are two exciting new language challenges that you should get involved in if you’re looking to start 2015 off with a bang:

  1. The Add 1 Challenge. Team up with other language learning enthusiasts from around the world to meet your goal of having a 15-minute conversation with a native speaker within 90 days. Exciting stuff!
  2. The iTalki New Year’s Challenge To make progress, you need to speak. As the perfect complement to the Add 1 Challenge, iTalki are paying you to take lessons! Take 20 hours of tutoring sessions in January and earn 400 credits.

9 keys to success in a language challenge

frustrated_with_studying_by_jennyxyoung-d3dywnz1) Don’t aim too high. Small steps forward in the right direction are infinitely better than shooting for an unachievable goal and burning out, or beating yourself up for not reaching it. “Be fluent” is not a good goal. “Have my first 15-minute conversation with a native speaker” is.

Modest goals, by being achievable, create space for you to actually enjoy the learning process, and help you avoid the kind of stress that leads to you becoming demotivated and even giving up.

2) Don’t do things that aren’t sustainable in the long term. Sure, you could study for 3 hours every night during the challenge, but you won’t be able to keep it up for long. Rather than aiming to do as much as possible during the challenge, instead aim to develop habits and routines that you can sustain beyond the end of the challenge.

This means focusing on approaches to studying that can fit around your lifestyle. Don’t try to make your lifestyle fit around your language learning – it won’t last long.

3) Don’t set goals, but do know where you’re headed. I’ve found that traditional goal setting in language learning doesn’t work for most people. Although this is counter-intuitive (goal setting is very powerful for most things) the reality is that you can’t really control what you learn. You can, however, control the kinds of activities that might result in learning.

By focussing on the process, and not worrying about the product, you will get much further along than if you’re constantly obsessing over “Have I learnt my 20 words for today?”

I call this methodology Sprints, and have written a detailed explanation of it here. It has helped a lot of people move forward in their language learning and I highly recommend reading this post if you often find yourself confused about what to do.

4) Aim to experiment as much as possible. It’s by trying new things that you will eventually find what really works for you. I’ve often found that one small discovery can change the way I learn languages altogether.

This is yet another application of the 80/20 principle – most things you do will make no difference whatsoever, so learn to set them aside and keep pursuing those that will.

5) Talk as much as possible with other people also involved in the challenge. We’re social beings and shouldn’t exist in bubbles. You are the average of the 5 people around you. Firstly, there’s the moral support and motivation to carry on that you can get from other people. You can learn so much from what other people are trying, and you should always remember that it only takes one person to give you one idea that can change your direction totally.

6) Take the opportunity to push yourself outside your comfort zone. Try things that you wouldn’t otherwise. Scared of booking that tutoring session on iTalki? It’s now or never, and it certainly won’t get any easier once the challenge is over.

7) Announce what you’re doing to friends and family. Accountability is a big deal. In fact, telling people publicly that I’m learning Arabic has been a huge motivating factor for me in those moments when I’m less than up for it. I know, for example, that when I head to next year’s Polyglot Gathering in Berlin I’ll be quizzed (in a nice way): “So Olly, how’s your Arabic?” If I say that I haven’t got very far with it, I’ll feel rather foolish!

8) Speak with native speakers more than you currently do. A lot more. Speaking is probably the one thing you don’t do enough of, if your aim is ultimately to be fluent in your target language. Let’s be honest, if you did enough speaking you wouldn’t need to join a language challenge. And this means that you need to go into the challenge understanding that the elephant in the room really is speaking – you’re going to have to find ways to speak more, and services such as iTalki really are the best.

If you haven’t started speaking your target language regularly with people yet, it really is much easier and less daunting than you think, and I’ve written a guide to getting started which will help you with this.

9) Don’t ever compare yourself with others. It’s not about how good you get in 90 days. Don’t fall into the trap of comparing yourself to other people or their level. Everyone is at different stages and will end up in different places. That’s fine. What matters is what you learn for yourself, and, ultimately, what you carry forward to the weeks and months after the challenge is over.

As such, don’t worry one bit about “his Japanese is better than mine” or “her accent is more convincing than mine” – it may well be, but it doesn’t matter, because you should only worry about how far you’ve come and what you’ve learnt.


Follow these guidelines and you’ll be way ahead of the pack.

Who knows, you may even win the round-trip ticket anywhere in the world that’s being offered to the person who progresses most in the Add 1 Challenge!

So, just how good is 2015 going to be for you?

Just how serious are you about moving forward with your target language?

If you think you could benefit from a motivational pick-me-up to kick off the New Year, then here’s what you should do right now:

  1. Sign up for the Add 1 Challenge, which starts in only a few days, to make the next 90 days your best ever
  2. Join the iTalki New Year’s Challenge and get paid to speak your target language for 20 hours over the coming weeks

Image 1: alexkphoto

Image 2: jennyxyoung

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  • Awesome post, Olly! About point four,

    I’m doing heavy experimenting right now. The first time I went to a language learning class, I had no clue about mnemonics or Memory Palaces or any of that jazz. So after getting all kinds of traction using mnemonics in different languages, I signed up for a Spanish class here in Berlin to see what will happen if I go in armed to the teeth with Memory Palaces. It’s going to be fun.

    And since I’m a little bit crazy, I just signed up for both the Add1Challenge and iTalki’s challenge. Three streams of education at the same time + memory techniques … Bound to make an impact.

    Thanks for the inspiring post!

    • Great – I love your energy! Just don’t forget about points 1 & 2 😉
      Best of luck with both the challenges. I’ll be there with you!

  • I’m part of the Add1Challenge this time around – starting today! I found this article really helpful. I need to do almost everything you listed. Developing sustainable habits and routines is a big one. I tend to follow a schedule for a while and then get distracted and stop. Or I fluctuate between doing hours of study or do nothing! I also need to get talking more (and to someone other than myself!). Thanks for the advice! 🙂

    • Hi Emma, that’s great – glad you found it useful. Focus is such a big deal! Good luck with the Add1!