Learning a Language with Beeminder

Thursday, March 16, 2017
By Alex Strick van Linschoten

Beeminder in Arabic!

This is a guest post by Alex Strick van Linschoten, an ultra hardcore Beeminder fan since 2012. Alex has said he that almost couldn’t have gotten his PhD without Beeminder (which we’re delighted to say isn’t the only time we’ve heard that) and has blogged more than once about Beeminder as the secret to his superpowers related to language learning or getting a PhD. You can check out his gallery of Beeminder goals at beeminder.com/strickvl or listen to him interview the Beeminder founders for his podcast, Sources & Methods. If you like this, you’ll probably like the previous Beeminder blog posts about language learning, namely our announcement of our Duolingo integration and another brilliant post on using Beeminder to learn ancient Egyptian (which includes a similar list of ideas of beemindable language-learning metrics).

The problem with language learning

This is not an inspirational blog post about how it only takes thirty days to learn a language. Learning a language takes serious time and effort! I’ve studied languages and worked with others in their own learning journeys. My experience has been that common problems in this process relate less to language itself and more to things like motivation, accountability, and structure of various kinds.

Luckily for all of us, we have Beeminder! The best practices of language-learning encourage students to be specific in their goals. It’s hard — dare I say impossible? — to make a Beeminder goal without being specific about what exactly you want to do and how often you want to do it. In fact, one of the biggest problems for language learners using Beeminder seems to be too much ambition. (A few too many ‘eep!’ days will cure even the most optimistic of linguists.)

Things to beemind

In my own studies as well as that of my students, I have used Beeminder to track and encourage progress in the following things:

  • Pages read in a specific book
  • Words learnt / added to Anki
  • A boolean goal to zero out or just do something, anything, on Anki every day
  • An odometer goal to work my way through learning a Frequency Dictionary of Arabic made up of 5000 words
  • A TagTime goal to enforce a minimum amount of time studied per day (on average)
  • A goal to work my way through an intermediate-level textbook, one chapter per week
  • A minutes-per-day goal to encourage me to watch more television that used the Jordanian dialect
  • 100 hours of studying (including iTalki lessons four or five times per week) over a period of two or three months prior to an intensive language course
  • Number of newspaper articles / opeds I read in Arabic-language newspapers and online magazines
  • Number of sentences written on / contributed to Lang-8, the fabulous sentence-correction crowdsourcing site
  • Number of pages of a dictionary I’m memorising using the Goldlist method
  • A boolean goal for my Arabic studies for particularly hectic periods when I needed to keep up a consistent habit without pressure of specific targets (usually better to keep specific targets though!)
  • Building CoachBot (more about CoachBot in a future blog post!)

Systems, not goals

One of my favourite Beeminder blog posts to share with students and friends has always been “Systems Not Goals” from 2015. Language learning is certainly an arena where you need to have solid time expectations — this stuff takes time — though it doesn’t hurt to have some short-term sprint goals early on.

In fact, having more sprints earlier on in your overall trajectory is probably a good idea. Once you are at an intermediate level in your language studies, it is far less likely you’ll forget all of your vocabulary or syntactical structures. If you give up earlier on — because you’ve been ploughing along with Duolingo on a backburner-level five-points-per-day rate, perhaps — then you’re more likely to lose all of your progress completely.

Beeminder, like many of the most useful tools, is what you make of it. It relies on its users’ best sense and instincts as much as it relies on a particular design impulse or workflow. The same is true for language learning. You will have to have an honest conversation with yourself about what you specifically hope to do with a language.


Dr Alex Strick van Linschoten is a writer, researcher and language coach. He recently published a guidebook for intermediate-level language students entitled ‘Master Arabic’. He is a co-director of First Draft Publishing, a Berlin-based publishing house specialising in translations of important primary source texts. He lives in Amman, Jordan.

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