Often, when people start learning a new language, they jump right into it. They’ll download an app and start swiping and typing away to fluency. Or so they think. But jumping into language-learning with this mindset can not only lead to wasted time, but it can also prevent you from actually learning a new language.
If you’re going to learn a new language, then you need goals. Without them, you’ll get lost in the forest, looking for the trees. To help you make the most of this process, you need a guide to creating language learning goals that will help you rapidly reach fluency.
What to Avoid When Setting Language Learning Goals
Some people might say it’s best to “aim for the stars” when setting language learning goals. Yet, that can be problematic. Sure, it’s okay to day-dream about reaching fluency fast, but often, it sets people up for disappointment. And that can ruin your efforts. Instead, it’s important to first understand that language-learning is a process.
You can only learn so fast. There are a lot of people out there offering “short cuts” to language learning success. While it’s true that you can streamline the process and rapidly reach fluency, you brain limits you.
Strangely enough, forgetting helps you learn a new language. When you study anything, you put that new knowledge into short term memory. The more you keep going back, trying to remember what you’ve learned, the better chance you have of remembering it. But you’ll forget plenty along the way. That’s natural, normal, and all part of the process.
You need to give your brain time to process and store new knowledge. As a result, any language-learning goals should be built around how your brain acquires and stores new knowledge. In short, keep your language-learning goals realistic. Learning a new language will take some time.
How to Successfully Approach Language Learning
You may have heard or even believed that cramming works. Science says otherwise. You may be able to stay up all night and push everything you need to know for a test into your brain. But that’s not actually learning. Soon, you’ll forget those topics you crammed in the night before. Worse, while that may “work” for the occasional test in school, it doesn’t work for learning a new language.
Language is a tool. It’s something made to be used. There are also a lot of components at play when you’re learning a new language. Every language has 4 domains: reading, writing, listening comprehension, and speaking. And speaking can be further divided into presentation and conversation (speaking at someone and with someone). Once you see how complex languages are, it becomes clear just how problematic cramming and retaining all that knowledge would be.
Language Is Complex
Because it’s a tool with so many complex categories, you’ll have to work hard to master each category. While reading and writing can be achieved in some aspects (though not effectively) through repetition and memorization, you’ll need to practice speaking and listening in a foreign language A LOT.
Speaking requires learning how to pronounce, and that means teaching your mouth to speak in a new way. Hearing involves training your brain to hear distinct sound differences unique to your target language. It’s not something you can rush either. You have to expose yourself to the language regularly over time to get better at hearing it.
Each domain of language takes time to understand and master. You can work hard and consistently towards it, but you can only go so fast. Because it takes time and because you can only go so fast, you need to set realistic goals to reach fluency fast.
What Is a Goal?
This may seem like a very easy question to answer. A goal is simply something you set your mind to and you make happen. Right? Except, goals are a bit more complicated than that. A lot of people underestimate what goes into creating effective goals. And that’s probably why so many people fail to achieve their goals, especially when learning a new language.
At the start of your language learning journey, you might say something like, “I really want to be fluent in German!” Great. That’s an admirable goal. But what does it mean to be fluent? That’s a debate that many language-learners and multilinguals go back and forth on. In fact, fully fleshing that out would be a post in itself.
For argument’s sake, let’s say fluency is being able to function at a B2 level according to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) in German. This means you can interact with locals and talk about a range of familiar topics. You may struggle from time to time, but it’s no big deal. That’s a great language learning goal. But how do you get there?
And that’s where defining a goal gets tricky. With large, overarching goals like “I want to reach fluency in a foreign language”, you’re not really looking at one goal. You’re looking at several.
How to Break Apart Your Language Learning Goals
As mentioned before, you can break any language down into 4 domains: reading, writing, listening and speaking. You can even break speaking down into both presentations and conversations (when you speak at someone versus with them). Sadly, most people focus mostly on one or two domains. Little do they know that that can hold back their progress.
There are a lot of ways to further breakdown languages, and the CEFR makes that easy. It’s a standard reference for breaks the levels and categories of language learning down. They also offer tests on it, granting certificates that illustrate one’s ability in a foreign language. You don’t need to take the CEFR, but it provides an objective metric for language learning.
The most important thing about the CEFR is that it shows you how complex each category of language learning is. Speaking itself breaks down into the ability to do several different tasks at each level from A1 to C2. As a result, you get a clearer picture in your mind of what you need to be able to reach your goal of speaking at a B2 level in German.
Taking a step back, you can see that while goals seem pretty straightforward on the surface, it’s actually quite a complex process. Several smaller steps (and as a result, smaller goals) lead to larger goals. These, in turn, push you closer to your ultimate goal of learning a language.
The more you know about the components of your target language, the easier it will be for you to understand where to start your journey. And once you know that, you can set realistic goals, the S.M.A.R.T way.
How to Set S.M.A.R.T. Goals
If you’re going to stay on track with your language learning progress, then you need S.M.A.R.T. goals. S.M.A.R.T. goals provide structure and clarity, so you can better plan out how to achieve them. They’re not static, like standard goals. They also take a bit more work to set up in the beginning. But once they’re in place, they’ll help keep you on track to reach fluency fast.
S.M.A.R.T. stands for: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Timely.
Here’s what that looks like:
- Specific: In detail, describe what you want to achieve. List out why, how, and under what conditions you wish to achieve them. The more details you can provide, the better.
- Measurable: In what objective way can you measure your progress to gauge success?
- Attainable: Is your goal realistic? Analyze yourself as a learner and make sure that you’re not creating unrealistic expectations for yourself.
- Relevant: How does this goal relate to your overall goal?
- Timely: Set a specific and reasonable deadline to achieve your goal.
What’s An Example of a S.M.A.R.T. Goal?
A general goal would be saying something like, “I want to speak German.” A more specific goal would be saying something like, “I want to speak German at a B2 level.”
But a S.M.A.R.T. goal goes much deeper and more specific:
“I want to speak German at a B2 level in 1 year so that I can travel to Germany for 2 weeks practising my language skills on a language holiday. I’m going to do this by sitting down every day for 45 mins and working on my language skills using my favourite languaging program, YouTube, and Netflix.
Plus, I’m going to reach out to friends that I know speak the language and ask them to help me practice. I’ll make sure to spend time on each domain as well, but because my goal is to speak the language, my primary focus will be on listening comprehension and speaking. I also plan on taking the B1 Test at 6 months and then the B2 test before I go on my trip.”
Keep Your Language-Learning Goals Realistic
This point bears repeating and revisiting. While some language-learners will promise unrealistic progress with various programs, the key to success is being realistic language learning. Know who you are, how you learn, and why you want to reach fluency in a foreign language. Then take the time to layout your specific, detailed goals.
With a clear plan and focus, you’ll achieve results much faster. With achievable goals, you’ll also have far more moments where you can take a step back and reflect on your success, giving you the motivation you need to keep going until you finally reach fluency.