Have you ever had great intentions to learn a language only to have your efforts dwindle and fade over time?
Me too, until I discovered what I was doing wrong.
Staying motivated with language learning is all about setting yourself clearly defined SMART goals.
In this article I’m going to explain what SMART goals are, and how you can use them to keep your language learning on track.
Why you need to set goals
Imagine you’ve signed up to run a marathon. It’s in 9 months’ time, and right now you’re not much of a runner.
a) casually have a vague plan to run as much as you can fit in each week until then, or…
b) create a schedule so you know how far you have to be able to run by certain points in the year (goals), and plan training sessions to meet these (tasks) to ensure you can make it around the course on the day?
The answer is pretty obvious.
Language is a marathon, and just like a marathon you need a plan to get you to where you want to go.
What are SMART goals?
Not all goals are created equal.
Just blindly telling yourself your goal is to be fluent by the end of the year isn’t really going to help you get there. In order to keep you on track your goals need to meet certain criteria.
SMART is a goal setting framework originally created for business management, but has been widely adopted beyond that, and is great for language learning.
SMART goals must be:
When you target the wrong goals..
Let’s look at how these apply to language learning.
Goals must be clear and not too broad or vague. “Be able to speak German” might sound like a good goal, but what does that actually mean? Holding a basic 10 minute conversation is speaking German, having an depth academic discussion about global warming in German is something else entirely.
Becoming fluent in German
- To be able to talk to someone on a specific subject.
- To pass a certain test.
- To have a vocabulary of 2000 words.
Each of these smaller, more specific goals, put you further along the path to fluency but are far more tangible and attainable.
To stay motivated and see your progress you need to know when you have achieved your goals. To do this they must be measurable in some way.
Some people might find that setting a time target (study for 15 minutes a day) works better for them than a results target (learn 15 words a day). Use what works best for you.
Improve your vocabulary.
- Learn 5 new words a day.
- Spend 20 minutes a day learning new words.
Setting goals that are too difficult will kill your motivation.
It’s good to push yourself a little, but you must realistically be able to reach your goals otherwise you’ll just feel defeated and lose interest.
Regularly hitting small milestones is the key to eventually conquering the language marathon.
- Learn 100 new words a day
- Get through an entire text book this week
- Learn 10 new words a day
- Learn one grammar point this week
Your goal should be something that has meaning to you, this keeps your interest up and will give you a sense of satisfaction in completing it. Ask yourself if you’d be excited to complete the goal, or whether it would really help you to achieve your longer term goals.
Given the situation that you’re learning Italian for a holiday…
To blindly learn the vocabulary suggested by your text book, that might include lots of irrelevant words. *Even words often suggested for holidays, like words to use at the airport, are not always that useful.
Learn words that will specifically be useful on your holiday. Do you want to have basic conversation with locals? Be able to read menus? You know what you want to get out of it, let that shape your learning.
Every goal needs a target date. No one liked deadlines at school but, be honest, would you ever have completed an essay without them?
Giving yourself a realistic time limit keeps you focused on what you’re working towards. This helps you prioritize time for them over other, easier things, that might get in the way.
- Get to B1 level in Italian.
- Learn 100 new words.
- Get to B1 level Italian in 6 months’ time.
- Learn 100 new words this month.
Failing to plan is planning to fail
Creating a language learning plan
So how do you use these concepts to create your language learning plan?
Just like the marathon you need to start with one main goal and then break that down into smaller more manageable steps and tasks.
Your main goal should still follow SMART principles. An example could be:
Improve from A2 to B1 level in the next 6 months
Be able to have a 10 minute conversation with someone in 6 weeks
3-6 months is a good timeframe for your main goal. It should be an amount of time you can easily imagine ahead of you.
I like to work to 3 month goals, because it feels more attainable and because I’m impatient! It allows me to hit that target before risking losing motivation.
From here you break that down into what you need to do to get there.
In the first example (improve from A2 to B1) this might be:
- Learn 1000 new words
- Learn 10 new grammar points (figuring out exactly what new grammar you need to learn)
- Practice speaking for 1 hour per week
Then, go further to figure out what you need to do per week:
- Learn 38 words
- Learn 1 new grammar point (and spend the following week practicing it).
- Use your speaking time practicing the words and grammar your learned that week.
Initially, write down your monthly goals, and then at the start of each month plan out each week for that month.
Remember that what is attainable in a given timeframe is going to be different for different people, so if you get to this stage and realize you’ve given yourself too much to do each week then just go back up and readjust your main goal (or time frame).
And finally, once you have it written out…
Put it somewhere you can’t ignore it!
I pin my goals to the door of my bedroom, so I’m forced to face them every morning!
What are your language learning goals?