Language Learning

How to Use Triggers to Create Great Study Habits and Learn a New Language

How we can use ‘triggers’ to help us create habits? Over time, these habits will begin to happen automatically in your day-to-day life.

Lots of people want to learn a new language. Unfortunately, wanting to learn a new language isn’t enough to do so. It’s too easy to become busy or frustrated and give up on your language learning goals. 

Instead, we need to focus on creating good study habits. 

In this article, I will talk about how we can use ‘triggers’ to help us create habits. Over time, these habits will begin to happen automatically in your day-to-day life. 

That way, you don’t need to force yourself to study. Instead, it will happen naturally and feel strange if you don’t. 

Why creating habits is important

A study in 2014 showed that 40% of our actions happen in the same situation every day. As we encounter these situations over and over, our habits are formed. 

We begin to act without thinking and do the same thing each time we find ourselves in that same situation.

Creating good habits is very powerful. Imagine if instead of checking Facebook each day as you return home from work, you put on a podcast to study Spanish

While spending 20 minutes listening to Spanish isn’t going to make you fluent, doing so every day can have a huge impact. 

By creating the habit of listening to podcasts after work, it becomes automatic to study during this time. However, without having the habit, it is very difficult to study after work. You’re probably tired and would prefer to relax. 

If you try to make the decision to study when you’re tired, it’s already too late. Most of the time, you will skip it and do something easier.

Instead, the decision to study needs to be made ahead of time. As soon as you get on the subway, you should already be pressing the Play button without thinking about it.  

What are your habits?

Spend a few minutes to write down some of your daily habits. What do you do every day without needing to think about doing? 

These could be…

  • Brushing your teeth 
  • Turning on the coffee maker
  • Sitting on the couch after work
  • Etc. 

Next, we will see how using our current habits, along with other ‘triggers’, can help us change bad habits and create new ones. 

Habit triggers

A habit trigger is something that causes a habit to begin. You may not realize just how many of your habits are started by a small trigger. 

  • When you get a notification on your phone (trigger), you check your email (habit). 
  • When you get home (trigger), you kiss your wife (habit). 
  • When you feel bored (trigger) you turn on the TV (habit). 

According to Hebbian Theory, the more often a trigger and a habit happen together, the stronger the connection will become.

By removing or changing the trigger, it becomes easy to change the habit. Likewise, by repeatedly connecting a trigger with a new habit, the more automatic that habit will become. 

There are five types of triggers that you should know about. Understanding these can help us change bad habits and create better ones. 

These triggers are actions, time, place, emotions, and people. 

Actions

One of the easiest ways to form a new habit is by attaching it onto an action, or a habit, that you already do regularly. 

If you make a coffee every morning after waking up, then you can use that action as a trigger for a new habit. For example, if you want to spend more time reviewing flashcards, try doing so immediately after making coffee. 

Then, every day, you’ll have a consistent reminder that it’s time to review. Eventually, it will become automatic. 

Time

Time is an excellent trigger because it’s always very clear what time it is. You can’t lie to yourself about it being 9:00 when it’s really 9:30. 

An effective way to use a time trigger can be by using HelloTalk to practice with a language exchange partner. Set a time to meet and practice together, maybe every weekday at 7 pm. This way, you both know that at 7 pm, it’s time to practice. 

Place

Place can be another useful trigger. If I leave a bar of chocolate on my desk, I’ll eat it very quickly.  But, if I put it in another room, it will last much longer.  

This can be a very effective way to create new habits. If you want to spend more time reading your textbook, keep it on your desk and not hidden in a drawer. 

Emotions

Negative emotions are a common trigger for bad habits. Feeling lonely or angry can often lead to eating more than you normally would. Still, there are ways that we can use our emotions as a trigger to create better habits. 

If you often turn on Netflix when bored, continue to do so but look for something in the language you’re learning. You can even try using the Language Learning with Netflix Chrome extension to be sure that you understand the show you’re watching. 

Next time that you’re feeling upset about something, use that emotion as a trigger to go for a walk. Not only is walking great for your health, but you could also decide to only think in your target language during the walk.

People

The people you choose to spend time with have a large impact on your life. Be sure to explain to them why you’re interested in learning a language so they can support you. Friends, or even online communities, can be a great way to hold yourself accountable. 

Try to find a friend who’s also learning a language and make plans to meet up and study together each week. That way, when the two of you are together at the coffee shop, you’ll know that it’s time to study. 

Final thoughts

Creating good study habits is very important for learning a new language. 

What habits do you have right now? Can you add a new habit onto the end of one of your old habits?

Just like how seeing a bag of potato chips can lead to eating more than you’d like, seeing your textbook already open on your desk can lead to you studying more often.

By focusing on habits, you can create a consistent study routine, and learn a language more quickly. 

About the Author

Nick Dahlhoff runs the site All Language Resources where he helps language learners figure out which language learning resources are worth using and which ones would be better off avoiding. He’s currently living in Beijing with his wife and studying Chinese.