Though not a hard and fast rule, generally, when someone sets out to learn a language, they have a reason for doing so.
These days, more often than not, one learns foreign languages for professional reasons. Less frequently, people will study a language because they have a familial connection to it; maybe their ancestors came from the land that tongue is native to.
And then, of course, we have secondary school students who set their cap to learning any of the most popular languages tested on their GCSE – French, Spanish, German and Mandarin, to name a few and A-Level candidates who sit language exams too.
Most often, they are motivated toward language study for the same reasons that professionals are: to build a career on their language skills, possibly even living and working abroad.
And then, we have another type of language learner: the kind who learn just for the fun of learning – yes, that really is a thing!
Regardless of which category you fall into – academic, professional or personal, framing your goals in such a manner that they are conducive to achievement is your number one priority.
Your Superprof now outlines the science behind the decision-making process that influences not only how we set our goals but how we work toward – or, conversely, talk ourselves out of achieving them.
What Are SMART Goals?
You may think that learning a language is a smart goal; you may also aim to update your wardrobe with the aim of looking smart.
While both of those statements are (or could be) true, they miss the point: there is a difference between ‘smart’ in every sense of the word and SMART, which is an acronym for something far more impactful.
That acronym stands for:
- S: specific (and strategic)
- M: measurable (motivating)
- A: achievable (attainable, assignable, action-oriented and others)
- R: relevant (realistic, reasonable, results-based and others)
- T: time-bound (time-limited, trackable, time-oriented, time-sensitive and others)
A quick glance at these adjectives proves them all to be primarily business-related. If that was your initial assessment, you are not too far off the mark.
Peter Drucker, a business philosopher and management consultant, postulated that it is easier to understand an objective and know when it’s been met if one takes reasoned steps towards it.
In the list above, the words outside of the parentheses are the original adjectives to define parameters for goal-setting; the others have been added as needed to expand the philosophy to other areas that use goal-setting as a foundation for its progress.
Today, subscribers to this idea cherry-pick the adjectives that suit their purposes the best.
Now join the discussion: why do languages learners need goals?
SMART Goals: The Scientific Approach
Now that you know a bit about SMART, let’s discover what happens in our brains when applying this philosophy to our goal-setting.
Very few people fall out of bed on any given day with the idea of learning a new language just because.
We established in the article’s introduction that, for the most part, people set out to learn a new language with a specific purpose in mind. In tactical terms: those people’s objective is to learn a foreign language.
It is important to not confound the overall objective – language learning, with the milestones (goals) one sets to get there.
Are you thinking that we’ve devolved into hair-splitting? Not at all! Let’s apply SMART to the ‘learning languages’ objective.
How can one be specific about learning a target language? When you consider language aspects such as grammar and vocabulary, to say nothing of fluency – being able to communicate in the new language…
How, specifically, would you claim success?
You may learn conversational French (as an example), meaning you can easily conduct daily transactions and navigate social situations, but by no means could you claim to have mastered the language.
If you are more of an academic bent, you might study the grammar and vocabulary – the etymology of words and how they came to mean what they did… but not be able to string a sentence together, let alone speak it with proper inflection and tone.
When seen like that, learning a foreign language is an overwhelming proposition; one that may well cause you to turn away from the initiative before properly getting started.
Applying SMART to your learning process gives your brain time to take small bites out of the overwhelming task. It permits the organisation of learning methods and ideas, and helps to keep you focused on the overall objective while toiling away at one particular phase of the learning venture.
Also, learn more about training your brain to work with you in our quick guide to language learning goals.
What Happens in Your Brain as You Learn
For the longest time, the scientific community believed that, once a person stops going to school and falls into a job that may or may not involve rote repetition, the brain stops ‘growing’. That was proven incorrect a long time ago.
Today, we know that the brain draws on several types of memory – muscle memory and rote memory to name just two, to function every day. That is why one never forgets how to ride a bike or speak; those skills are so ingrained that they are nearly automatic.
What happens to our brains when we learn something new?
The neurons in our brains, those that convey information – say, from the memory sector of the brain to the language centre become more efficient at gathering, processing and storing information.
As we learn different languages, our brains cannot use the same pathways to transfer and store information as they use for our first language. New neural pathways must be established.
At first, it is a strenuous exercise as the chemical messengers that carry said information must make a leap from one nerve ending to another.
However, as we continue to learn, those pathways become more travelled, meaning that new words you learn are absorbed and stored much more efficiently.
The plasticity of our brains – the fact that it continuously changes to process information more efficiently is what allows us to spend all of our lives learning new things without losing anything we’ve already mastered.
How does SMART fit into all of that science?
One unfortunate downside to all of that efficiency is that, once the new neural pathways are established, our brains have energy to spare. They spend it on daydreaming, worrying and entertaining.
Before you know it, you are more worried or distracted (or entertained) than focused. Soon, any ideas of mastering a second language are relegated to the ‘it would be nice’ boneyard and you remain woefully monolingual.
How to Set SMART Language Acquisition Goals
Pairing SMART philosophies with continuous learning – whether you want to learn Spanish or learn German, is a way to guarantee you won’t lose your drive to learn. That is to say: you won’t let anything distract you from your learning goals.
Here we go, step by step...
Specific and Strategic
Declaring that you want to learn languages is a lofty goal… perhaps too lofty.
Which language do you want to learn? To what degree? For what purpose? These are all questions that will help you target your language learning efforts to the specific area you need.
Let’s drill down deeper by saying you have your heart set on learning Spanish: Castilian Spanish? Mexican Spanish? The Spanish spoken in the Caribbean?
How will you learn it: by taking classes? By hiring a private tutor? By going to the Spanish-speaking country of your choice and immersing yourself into the language and culture?
How will you measure your progress?
If you are learning independently – outside of any classroom and without any language teachers or a tutor’s help, you may use learning apps like Memrise and Duolingo, that help you measure your progress by keeping track of what you’ve mastered and what you still need help with.
If you are taking language courses, your progress will likely be measured through periodic testing but you should be aware that such exams measure your retention of new language, not necessarily your ability to use it.
To get a handle on how well you’re progressing in that respect, you could find an online language exchange platform to chat with a native speaker of your target language.
Superprof language tutors are also a great way to work your speaking skills in your new language!
Achievable and Attainable
Forget the online adverts that tout second language acquisition in 15 minutes per day: learning a second language takes commitment, work and dedication.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with spending your daily commute listening to Pimsleur or Rosetta Stone but it shouldn’t be your go-to method for becoming multilingual.
Forget becoming fluent for now; you may consider being able to hold a conversation in your second language an attainable, entry-level goal.
If you aim for conversational Spanish, you probably don’t need to spend a lot of time memorising that language’s many verb tenses; it would suffice for you to focus only on the most-used ones.
Conversely, if you are but one language course away from a fantastic business opportunity, you may pass on learning more lighthearted conversational gambits in favour of studying business phrases.
Even if you are learning for pleasure – if you don’t have a job offer waiting for you to finish your language course, it is still essential to set time limits.
Remember: once your brain has gotten good at absorbing the material from your language lessons, it tends towards distraction which could lead to procrastination and possibly giving up on other languages altogether.
Keeping yourself on a firm study schedule is an excellent way to train your brain to expect new knowledge; to form a habit of learning that will serve you very well indeed!
Now, read on to see how you can create your language learning goals...