You have already heard that 80% of New Year’s Resolutions fail. But does that statistic translate into language learning goals or even goal setting in general?
Well, when you consider that only 20% of people actually set goals, we can see the sample pool for success is already pretty small. And even though only 6% say they completely achieve their goals, goal-setters are 10x more likely to succeed—or at least make progress.
And there’s a lot out there on how to set up goals. SMART is the number one go-to recipe for success.
Except, I bet just about everyone and their grandmother uses SMART goals. The moment you search for goal-setting, this generic tool pops up.
And it’s not wrong. But it’s a general concept.
I’ve been trying to set language goals for a long, long time. Maybe almost ten years. And I sucked at it, to be honest.
Before we talk about what I’m seeing success with now, let’s talk about what I did wrong.
My Years of Failing to Set Goals Properly
The first problem I had setting sound goals was, frankly, I had too many things I wanted to do. Not setting primary, mandatory goals or prioritizing based on your desired learning objective is the first step down the path to confusion.
When I first started seeing success with German while self-studying in high school, I got a bit..over-zealous. I began attempting to pick up my Spanish again, French, and Italian. I had guidebooks for Greek and Japanese.
And I burned out pretty fast.
Don’t do that.
We’ll talk about multiple languages later on. But that wasn’t my only issue.
In college, I focused entirely on languages. I took German, Russian, Arabic, and a bit of Japanese. I figured I was paying (and taking out loans) for this degree, I was going to get the most out of it.
Outside of just life stress and general anxiety, I had an issue with over-planning.
I’d set specific SMART goals for every day of the week.
But they were specific and measurable, you’d say!
They were also rigid. And when I feel behind, I create more stress for myself. And in the end, not only did I burn out, but my retention and speaking skills were in the pits. Like, I could pass a test using grammar alone. But vocab? That was another story.
After daily goals, I tried monthly goals.
After monthly goals, I just focused on yearly goals. Maybe that was enough time.
But after college, I had another issue. I didn’t want to take exams, I didn’t want to feel the stress of studying, and as a result, I had little direction.
While I enjoyed language acquisition and learning, I needed a serious break.
So I took one. No exam prep, no lofty proficiency goals, nada. In fact, for a few years, I didn’t have goals at all.
Then, when I started getting serious about foreign language learning again and mostly recovered, I reevaluated my goal-setting process. And, for the most part, it’s worked for me.
5 Steps for Setting Sound Language Goals
Generally, I still don’t use proficiency standards, and by that, I mean I’m not focused on taking an exam. My language learning goals revolve around making time for fun and learning, especially as I use it as a break from work.
Generally, you still want specific goals. Just saying you want to achieve “fluency” in a year won’t do much. But there’s more nuance to setting a realistic goal than setting daily or monthly tasks and then…forgetting about them. You want to ensure that your learning objectives match your lifestyle and need so that you can keep the motivation up.
To get started, let’s talk about timing.
1. Select a Timeframe
I used to try to micro-manage my day. That works for some learners, but it sucked for me.
Monthly and weekly planning had the same limitations. You’d think seven days or four weeks would have enough wiggle room.
Nope, I plan in quarters.
I usually take a sheet of paper that I can fold and then tuck into my bullet journal. On this sheet, I list a few key pieces of information:
- The quarter and included months
- The languages I’m focusing on
- What materials I’m using
- Which sections or chapters that I want to cover
As a reference, the year is broken down into four quarters:
- Q1: January, February, March
- Q2: April, May, June
- Q3: July, August, September
- Q4: October, November, December
This breakdown works best for me for a few reasons:
- It’s a specific time frame.
- It’s long enough to provide ample time to cover a topic.
- There’s plenty of wiggle room for unavoidable life situations.
- You can be flexible.
This works for me, but you may find that daily, monthly, weekly, or some other time frame works best for you.
2. Consider Your Language(s)
Next, you’ll want to select your languages. If you’re learning multiple languages, I have three groups:
- Primary language – Your main language
- Secondary/Pseudo silent period languages – Languages you are actively invested in but are still limited in pursuing. These may be highly focused on one or two skills. (up to 2 languages)
- Peripheral/silent period languages – These are languages you aren’t actively taking lessons in. Still, you may be completing daily app exercises, watching films, and other related activities to focus on listening and comprehension.
For example, my main languages this year are:
- Modern Greek: Primary, I want to get to B1-ish conversational level
- Japanese: Pseudo-silent level for increasing comprehension and internalizing grammar.
- Hindi: Pseudo-silent for reviewing grammar and writing. Maybe 1 lesson per month for motivation.
My silent period languages are:
- Levantine Arabic
Many of these silent period languages, I’ve taken formal courses in before. Some are related to general upkeeping, while others are exploration.
3. Decide How You’ll Track Your Progress
Next, determine how you’ll be tracking progress.
Personally, I don’t recommend using time spent as a good metric. For one thing, focusing only on hours spent using the language doesn’t actually highlight how effective that study session was.
Consider the correlation between language difficulty and hours spent in the classroom. We’ve written about the language tree before and how language difficulty is often associated with these families, with a big fat “hours required for proficiency” sign tacked onto it.
I’ve been working on a Japanese silent period for a few months now, and I’m absorbing far more than I did during my time in a classroom. And I’m spending only two hours a week on it, while in college, I spent four hours a week. Sure, I’d learn faster if it were my primary language right now. But it’s not quite there yet, I need more silent time.
So, what metrics work?
I like to track progress made through textbooks, apps, or courses. It’s simple, it’s effective, I don’t have to think about it. And most language materials are developed with language levels in mind.
So, yes, I did finish an A1/A2 textbook in Greek. Does that mean I’m A1/A2?
Based on my current lessons, I’d say:
- In speaking, I’m about A1.2, early A2.
- Listening A2, solid
- Reading and writing, early B1
Remember, I’ve just started really speaking. And after spending months reading, it makes sense I’d be at a slightly higher level.
By the end of the year, I’d like to be around the B1-ish conversational level. So I broke down my materials into four quarters and I’m tracking books completed.
For Greek, the materials I’m tracking are:
- Q1: Lydia, A1/A2, bi-monthly tutoring, University of Athens Greek course
- Q2: Omilo’s proverbs, songs, and listening comprehension guide. Bi-monthly tutoring.
- Q3: Fygame B1/B2, chapters 1-6, bi-monthly tutoring
- Q4: Fygame B1/B2, chapters 7-12, bi-monthly tutoring
You can get all of these books from Omilo.
My “filler” reviews are Duolingo, Memrise, and LingQ. And I use iTalki for all my tutoring needs.
Outside of these metrics, you can also consider your specific goal. For example:
- What percentage of a text can you read without looking up words?
- How long can you speak for without running out of topics?
- How many sentences can you write spontaneously?
- Can you listen to a recording and dictate it without many mistakes?
- How much of a movie can you watch without subtitles?
- How many topics can you talk about in your target language?
Since I’m simple and have work and other life commitments, I choose to simplify all this and simply focus on completing a certain amount of chapters in a language book.
4. Get Your Materials in Order
Next, I list the materials I will use to meet a language goal. If a textbook itself is the goal, I will list the chapters I want to cover.
Depending on the language, it could be more or less. For Greek, I’d like to finish all of a brief dialogue book called Lydia, to capstone the A1/A2 level with practical, everyday vocab. There are 12 chapters, so about one a week. But the first three were pretty easy for me, so I’m technically starting out the weekly listening and reading sessions with Chapter 4.
Then, of course, I have supplemental materials I can do whenever I have the itch. For example, I do Duolingo for my silent languages in the morning. So even though I completed the Greek course, I went ahead and reviewed it. I also work on a Memrise 5000 vocabulary wordlist after lunch. And I write my bullet journal in Greek, as well as homework from my Greek tutor.
I list them on my sheet of paper with the quarterly language objectives.
If you are tracking your progress through comprehension, words learned, or another metric, I suggest keeping a journal or excel sheet of how many words, etc. you are learning. For reading and listening comprehension, LingQ essentially has that embedded in the software analytics, but they don’t have every language.
5. Stay Flexible
Finally, give yourself permission to deviate. I work in quarters for this reason, but sometimes, even I may miss the mark.
For example, last year, I got a bit tired around Q2, and so I had a backlog for Q3. This is because life was pretty much everywhere, but also, I didn’t consider my personal rhythm.
For me, Q1 and Q3 are high-energy periods, whereas Q2 and Q4 are usually lower.
So, even though you’re making goals, your achievement should be consistency and returning to what you love—your language study. The times may change, and you may get behind, but if you always go back, you’re making progress.
6 Tips for Accomplishing Goals
1. Use a Bullet Journal
I’ve written on this before, but using your target language in your bullet journal will always keep it at the top of your mind.
In particular, I break down my quarterly goals and add the approximate number of chapters I want to cover each month. While I like to keep my quarterly goals pretty strict, my monthly and weekly goals are fungible.
2. Excel for Listing Hours Spent Per Language
If you list hours, words learned, or anything that’s easily tracked by using numbers—use excel.
In fact, if you want to track words written or minutes spent speaking, use excel, too. For writing, you can even create a formula that counts how many words or characters you use in another cell.
It’s just easier.
I used to use an amazing language tracker spreadsheet, but listing hours became addicting, and I started to burn out because I was overdoing it.
3. Don’t Overdo It
Speaking of going overboard, set reasonable limits and goals. Yes, you can burn out doing things you love. And it sucks. So, do yourself a favor and make it easy to attain goals.
That’s one of the reasons I focus on completing books or apps. It’s easy to track, I know when I’ve achieved it, and I can always add more stuff to do later. You want to create a cycle where you are challenged, but you have a decent number of wins. Those wins can boost your motivation, prevent burnout, and keep you on the right track.
4. Give Yourself Breaks
Don’t be afraid to take a week or two off of language learning. Even a month can be beneficial.
I took years off of Japanese, and it really did wonders. Not only did I remember much of the grammar, but I could focus on what I struggled with most—vocab and word order.
Sometimes you need a bit of space to see your target language more clearly.
5. Be Specific But Not Overly Detailed
As I mentioned, be specific. That can help you stay accountable. But don’t overwrite your curriculum or try to take on too much.
Language learning is a journey. You’ll get there when you get there. The point is to enjoy the ride. And the more you focus on tests or immediate proficiency or “what you need to know,” the more you’ll stress yourself out. And the less you’ll learn.
6. Remember to Enjoy the Process
When developing your goals, choose objectives and materials you’ll enjoy. If you’re sitting there reading about Tagore in Bengali, but you really want to be able to play Elder Scrolls with your Bengali-speaking cousins…stop reading the poems!
Instead, focus on smaller, actionable steps to help you achieve your main objective. Can you describe the world of EOS as you’re playing? How would a character say the same dialogue in Bengali? Are there some fun slang phrases you can squeeze in there?
Learning a new language should be fun and exciting—don’t add too much boring stuff to your goal list because you won’t even want to achieve them.