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How to set goals when learning a language (and achieve them)

First things first.

I don’t think that goals are for everyone. Some people are more process oriented or prefer to act on the spur of the moment. That’s okay. But I still believe that in language learning we need something similar to goals, otherwise it’s easy to get stuck in our progress or to get lost in the abundance of available materials, methods and, of course, the language itself. If the word “goals” doesn’t resonate with you, try replacing it with “focus” or “what I want/ need to do next”. It should do the trick as well.

But before I share my approach to goals setting, let’s dissociate goals from achievements and success, otherwise we’ll get stuck with levels, certificates and the number of fancy bits of vocabulary, all of which never seems to be enough.

According to Cambridge Dictionary “a goal” simply means “an aim or purpose”, but “an achievement” is “something very good and difficult that you have succeeded in doing”. When goals are closely connected to achievements, we risk going after challenges way too often and ending up with no motivation or in distress, as we just overload ourselves.

My idea is to make learning as natural and easy as possible, ideally just a part of life, much like work or socialising with friends and family. For languages it also means we need to create an environment that will add to the natural, i.e. effortless, acquisition of them.

So, let’s stick to the goals as a purpose of learning a language. Then the goal setting process will have the following steps:

  1. finding the core reason why learn the language;
  2. specifying the core reason in terms of the four skills and the four systems;
  3. collecting all our ideas into one to-do list and prioritising it;
  4. choosing the areas to focus on and deciding how you can work on them as part of your routine.

Let’s go.

Step 1. Finding the core reason

This step is crucial as it will set the priorities in the learning/ acquisition process right. Ask yourself these questions:

  • What’s the point of learning English (any other language)?
  • What do you want/ need to get from this?

Your answers should be about your life and things that matter in your life, not a variation on the “I want to be a fluent/ C2 speaker” theme. Your answers should help you find the reason for spending time and effort on the language(s) and not on something else when you have that choice.

Language is rarely an end in itself, even if you adore reading dictionaries or setting the grammatical intricacies right. Being with the language or in the language puts us in a certain emotional state, ideally the one you’d like to find yourself more often in, so looking for this state and underlying emotions will help identify the core reason.

Here are some examples with the emotions and states in the brackets:

  • “Learning a language makes me slow down, relax and enjoy interesting things. I switch off work and it’s like a rest for me.” (rest, interest, curiosity)
  • “I need English to read professional literature that’s not always available in Russian, because I want to keep up to date in my job and improve my career opportunities.” (confidence, freedom to choose, autonomy self-esteem)
  • “I want to feel safe and comfortable when I travel, so I can understand what is going on around or solve any problems if they arise.” (safety, feeling in control)
  • “I want to have access to learning materials online to learn new skills.” (novelty, interest, development, new opportunities)
  • “I want to find friends all over the world and enjoy different cultures through talking to them. I want to travel the world, visit my friends and be able to adapt to the local environment.” (feeling of belonging, conviviality, fun, sociability)
  • “I’m a big fan of such and such football clubs/ actors/ singers etc and I want to know more about them.” (fun, entertainment, curiosity)
  • “I want to/ need to communicate with my friend’s/ partner’s/ colleague’s family and share good moments with them.” (feeling loved and accepted, having close relationships)
  • “I enjoy speaking in a different language, it adds another dimension to myself-expression.” (self-expression, self-esteem, freedom)

And so on.

I believe it’s really important to find that deep, fundamental reason, something that really matters and makes your life better. Until you’ve found it, you might be pursuing wrong goals all along. Like I did.

For many years I felt really bad about not having enough speaking practice. After all, doesn’t one learn a language to communicate? I constantly felt that I had to look for natives to talk to but I could never find enough time or energy to do so. I also pushed myself to go to different language courses to make up for the lack of everyday conversations in English and French.

Then I asked myself these questions and in my heart of hearts I knew I didn’t care that much about communication in general. I often prefer being on my own, exploring something quietly. I definitely prefer texts to phone calls. And I quickly get tired at social gatherings, especially of all the chit-chat going round. I do enjoy meaningful conversations but even then I’m not ready to have them all day long. Is it then so surprising I didn’t actively seek out communication in other languages? Well, not at all.

But what I really care for is being able to learn more about the world through the prism of different cultures and languages. Reading news in Russian, English and French is literally like living in three different worlds. The main themes, attitudes, styles, topics, everything is different. This is what I really enjoy, the access to the world’s richness, not daily small talk. Once I realised that, I felt much better. And I allowed myself to focus on Reading and Listening first, without feeling guilty about not activating some grammar or vocab.

Step 2. Clarifying the core reason

So, as soon as you’re done with the main reason, you need to clarify and specify it in terms of the four skills – Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing, and the four systems – Grammar, Vocabulary, Functional Language and Pronunciation, if possible. However, I would suggest you make sure your receptive skills are developed enough first, as if you don’t understand the language well, it makes it very difficult to communicate. Also you need to decide on the amount of time and effort you can afford to spend, as you can easily have too much of a good thing as well.

Let’s have an example as usual.

“Learning a language makes me slow down, relax and enjoy interesting things. I switch off work and it’s like a rest for me.” (rest, interest, curiosity)

Here we understand that the person is process oriented and enjoys being with the language. But even so, lots of clarification is needed. What is meant by “it slows me down”? by “enjoy interesting things”? For some people this may be reading and checking new words in a dictionary. Somebody likes doing grammar or writing stories. Somebody enjoys podcasts even if they don’t understand much. We need more information.

Because it’s the case with my French, I can both suggest further questions to explore the needs and at the same time answer them, to give you an idea of what I mean by clarification and detalisation:

  • Can you give an example of what you do that slows you down? What do you mean by “enjoyable things”? (=the core activity)

I like watching travel programmes. They are long and that means I can sit for a while and relax looking at magnificent scenery. I also like listening to Easy French podcasts, I like the atmosphere of friendship the girls create with their banter.

  • What exactly do you find enjoyable? (=the preferred language aspect)

The sound of the language and being able to speak it and to create that beauty.

  • What do you read, watch / listen to? How do you practise speaking and writing? What would you like to change/ improve in the near future? Where are your priorities? (=by skills)

Reading/ watching: I like reading classics. Nothing to change there, as I already have the books I’m planning to read soon and I understand them well enough. But I’d like to add blogs or interesting magazines with modern/ more informal French and I can’t find any.

Listening: Easy French is great, but I’d also like to find podcasts with “faster” and more informal talk, something not for learners. Watching – travel and culture videos. These skills are probably my priority as I want to immerse myself more in the language and learn more about everyday life and culture. I can understand documentaries pretty well, so I need something where the language is more casual. Movies are difficult – I’ve tried and sometimes I can’t even catch words, I have to guess, but they are what I want to understand in detail.

Speaking and writing: I speak to my study buddy once a week – we exchange our news, explore A2-B2 topics, sometimes do a bit of grammar and summarise videos or articles. Here I’d like to be more precise in sharing my news, which means I need to prepare a bit in advance and look up the necessary vocab (which I’m too lazy to do). Writing is almost nonexistent, which is a pity. Ideally, I’d like to do writing tasks from Alter Edo B1/ B2 to develop my skills.

  • What about Grammar, Vocabulary, Functional Language and Pronunciation? Do you practise these? Any problems there? Anything you’d like to improve? (by systems)

Grammar: It’s not bad, but I sometimes mix up conjugations and forget feminine endings in adjectives, I’d like to revise them. I also have a problem with articles and I want to use en and y more confidently in my speech. And of course, the subjunctive mood is still difficult to use spontaneously.

Vocabulary: I think I repeat myself too often, even if I can express my ideas on a variety of topics. I’d like to know how to say things more precisely and use more synonyms. I guess writing might help a lot here. And doing some units from vocabulary. But it seems like too much effort for now.

Functional Language: I have never really studied it for real, but I enjoyed listening to dialogues in Expression (ou Conversation) Orale. I don’t really need it right now, maybe only the language for expressing my opinion and agreeing/ disagreeing, but I could use those dialogues for shadowing, to practise the phrases and the intonation, even for passive use.

Pronunciation: Over the years it’s become easier to pronounce words, so probably I don’t want to work on it right now.

  • What topics do you find interesting? What other topics would you like to explore? (=interests)

Travel, music, history, culture, literature, everyday life, restoration projects (chateaux), interio design, biographies. Maybe technology. Not politics or economy.

  • Are there any aspects of the language they haven’t explored yet and would like to tackle?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Delf/Dalf exams. Maybe I’m not that interested in taking them, but I probably need the skills they test (summarising arguments, developing my own arguments and so on).

After you’ve asked and answered similar questions, you’ll have lots of information. Now it’s time to structure it and set your priorities.

Step 3. To-do list and priorities

Now you simple make a to-do list of what you’ve already mentioned and order it according to your priorities (that’s why setting goals is more convenient in writing)

So I would like to (already sorted by priorities):

  • need something to watch/ listen to where the language is more casual,
  • find podcasts with “faster” and more informal talk, something not for learners,
  • understand movies in detail,
  • prepare for language meetings in advance and look up the necessary vocab to share my news,
  • try writing to activate vocab,
  • try shadowing dialogues from the books focused on functional language,
  • use more synonyms, not to repeat myself,
  • do writing tasks from Alter Ego B1/ B2 to develop my skills,
  • do some units from vocabulary books to extend my active vocab,
  • add blogs or interesting magazines with modern/ more informal French,
  • practise the language for expressing my opinion and agreeing/ disagreeing,
  • revise articles,
  • use en and y more confidently in my speech,
  • use the subjunctive mood spontaneously,
  • revise conjugations and adjective endings,
  • find out more about the skills tested by Delf/Dalf and choose the ones I might need to develop.

As you see, the list is long and maybe even discouraging (so many things to do to «improve French»! and I just wanted to rest…) Also all things connected to learning with the books are at the bottom of it, which is not surprising because that is not a rest for me. That’s why we need to always remember the core reason we’re learning a language.

Step 4. Choosing the areas to focus on and deciding how you can work on them as part of your routine

Finally, you decide where to focus for the next month or so depending on how much time and effort you can allocate to the language. The questions to answer here are:

  • How much time can you realistically spend with the language so that you do it week after week?
  • How much effort will you be able to afford?
  • How can you make your studies part of your daily life?

That will determine what you can really do. It’s good to set ambitious goals, but if all you can offer your language is an hour a week, well… you either risk losing your motivation pretty soon or overstretching yourself, neither of which are especially welcome, really.

Every item on the list above is a direction with a certain destination point which we may not fully envision at the beginning of our journey, but with every step it will get clearer and clearer, and then we can better understand whether it’s really what we want. You might want to choose to work on a particular area or to try to find a balance between working on several ones, that depends on your learning style.

Anyway, I suggest you choose 2-3 areas to focus on (= items on the list) for the next 2-4 weeks and then brainstorm what you can do there. Then you start implementing your plan and adjust it if needed.

In a month you review your progress and decide whether to stick with the same areas or to choose something else (just don’t lose the list you made at the previous step=)). Do you still want the same thing? Or do you want/ need to pivot and do something else? Such an approach gives enough room for manoeuvring and seamlessly combining your studies with your life (with all its surprises).

For example, if I decide to focus on understanding movies in detail, I need to remember that I still want something enjoyable and something that helps me to rest, and not just any movies.

I can definitely try watching some, but if they prove to be too difficult to understand, it doesn’t make sense to continue. Then I’d better find something similar to movies, or just short scenes on YT and focus on shorter videos for a while. Maybe I can find videos with film reviews, where I’ll get both scenes from movies and commentaries on them. Just by keeping two things in my head, “being with language to rest” and “want to understand movies better so that I enjoy them more”, I can keep looking for ways to implement it into my routine and make language learning part of my life.

There you have it! Now you know how to set language goals =)

Photo credit: Photo by Markus Winkler on Unsplash

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