How To Learn A New Language With Smart And Useful Goals

For a long time, I had a difficult relationship with goal-setting. As a fully-fledged questioner, I find it hard to take anything at face value, let alone the idea that I must have a goal to achieve anything.

When I was learning languages in full-time education environments like school and university, the goals weren't on my mind. My school sorted that out for me: turn up to classes, write essays, take exams. But since I've started working with independent language learners (and since I became one), goals have taken an entirely different role.

As an independent language learner, you need to know what to do. It's easy to think that you're already doing the work by stating what you want to achieve. But let me have an honest moment with you here:

Those goals don't help you do things.

smart useful goals

In this article, you'll learn about the two types of goals you need for language learning.

Goal Type 1: Vision Goals

Let's have a look at those language learning goals I see online again and again.

  • "I want to become fluent in Spanish"
  • "I want to have a 15-minute conversation in German" Or here is one that I set for myself last year:
  • "I want to speak Welsh at the Eisteddfod festival in August"

I am sure you have often heard about SMART goals. In many areas of life, our goals will only serve us if we make them specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound.

In my mind, these fail the SMART list on a bunch of counts:

None of this is a bad thing in itself. If you are motivated and driven by a vision of your future self speaking a foreign language without hesitating, then that is an amazing image to hold on to. It should be one of the many vague and inspiring concepts you hold dear, and in fact I would even advise you start visualizing your success.

But those visions aren't useful goals, because they just won't help you when it gets down to doing the language learning work. You need that vision.

And for times when you've carved out that half hour to get to business and really learn a language, you need goals.

Goal Type 2: Path Goals

In my Welsh studies, I've been completely independent from the start. I don't have that external structure of tutor, group class, exams, and it took a while before I found a way to use my time for language learning. At first, I tried ideas like "I want fluency" and even "I want to speak Welsh at the Eisteddfod in August". They worked as a motivator, but failed to give me a clear idea of the steps I wanted to take to learn a language.

My current path goals in Welsh

My current path goals in Welsh

I needed something that would help me know what to do when my study time comes. These goals are what I call path goals. They guide you when you're in study mode and mark the milestones on your path.

Here's what you need for making good path goals:

Structure

Structure is the thing that stops you from starting every study session wondering what you'll work on today. It's absolute gold for independent language learners, because you simply don't have the time to faff every single time. Decision fatigue is real, and it's going to paralyze you if you allow it.

  • Schedule the days when you're going to study your language, so you can treat them like any other appointment.
  • Use your path goals as simple "next steps" so you spend zero time deciding what matters.
  • Get some external structure. Follow an established course, work with a tutor, or use a textbook or online course. Even without that, you can be just as successful. Set your goals up to match the four core skills, and this should provide you with the sense of variety and progress you need.

Core Skills

The four core skills are the essential set of everything that makes language learning a success for you. You will want to focus on some more than others, but ultimately you need to put work into all four for becoming that inspiring future self.

The four core skills are listening, speaking, reading and writing. Structure your goals around improving in each one, and you're guaranteed to succeed.

There might be other areas you want to focus on too, such as improving your pronunciation and vocabulary. But if you've got the four core skills covered in your goals, I would advise you not to worry too much about any others. They will come naturally as you improve and respond to your needs in every situation.

Variety

Variety is a key component of the path goals you set for yourself. It's realistic to acknowledge that moods, motivation and focus can vary from day to day. So on one day you might be excited to crack open the textbook and work your phrases, but on another day all you want is speaking practice with a tutor.

Having varied goals (I recommend at least 4 to cover each core skill) allows you to pick from a short, focused list of tasks and make progress in every single study session.

Recap: The 2 Goal Types You Need for Learning a Language

So there you have it. Goal setting isn't the holy grail of productivity. But when you do it right and know your goal types, each step can give you the right support you need to progress today.

1. Set Vision Goals

You can call this an intention, a vision, a goal. This is the imagined, vivid image of your future self that will keep you going. Go deep with this, make moodboards (maybe on Pinterest?), be inspired. Blow that SMART stuff out of the water.

2. Set Path Goals

Path goals are not big visions, they are the structured next steps that will help you when it's time to work on studying. Your path goals should be specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time-bound. They should be anchored in what you can do now, and what you want to do next.

How to Structure Your Language Learning Routine

Do you want to follow the system I explained in this article and start to discover your ideal language learning routine? Then I recommend you check out the Language Habit Toolkit, my hands-on course to help you learn any language with personalized milestones.

--> Click here to learn more about the Language Habit Toolkit <--

11 Short & Sweet Tips To Help You Learn a Language in 2016

Ahh, happy new year to all of you! Even though the last two weeks have been quite busy, I did take a few minutes to note down my resolutions for the next year.

One thing that struck me this year is something I had not realised before. There is this huge difference between goals and resolutions. A goal is something specific, concrete, something that you can achieve and then feel good about your success. A resolution is deeper and comes from your emotional centre. It's about what you really want to change in your life.

learn a language new year

Language Learning Resolutions vs Goals

Resolutions are often ambitious and come out of the desire to improve something and feel better as a result. Here are some great language learning resolutions:

  • To become fearless in the face of talking to strangers in a foreign language
  • To feel comfortable watching foreign TV without subtitles
  • To become less self-critical
  • To build a habit of reviewing vocabulary every single week 

Success comes from combining ambition and goal. So once your ambition is set, think about how to break it down into goals - how much can you do in 3 months, how much can you do in a week? Documenting all those goals will give you a clear roadmap, with the resolution as your fuel and the ambition as the destination.

How to Start Reaching That Language Learning Ambition

The following set of tips is a summary of the best advice that Lindsay and I discussed in Episode 30 of the Creative Language Learning Podcast. You can listen to the episode to find out how we go about learning our own target languages, Japanese and Welsh.

1. Work With a Diary or Calendar

Automating a new habit is such a fantastic way to stop negotiating with yourself. If your diary usually has things like doctor's appointments and meetings with your boss in it, how can you question its authority? So use that rock in your life and start adding little bits of language study time, for example coaching sessions or vocab reviews.

2. Don't Rely on Empty Time

Instead of hoping for that Duolingo-at-the-bus-stop moment, set some time aside as a regular appointment with yourself. Lindsay sets time aside from 7am to 8am so she can enjoy an hour of language learning where she can do what she wants to do. I'm less consistent but have a Sunday afternoon study hour where I work on learning my languages.

3. Don't Be Quiet About Your Resolution

It's too easy to commit to a big resolution without even telling people about it. But when it comes to actually doing stuff, it helps to look out for other people that want to do the same. As language learners, this is more true for us than any other people. You want to learn a language, so you want to talk to people. Get started with the "people" part of it now and find a language learning buddy or a tutor to support you.

4. Build on Existing Habits

If there is a slot in your day that you repeat regularly, you have found a great opportunity to learn your language. For example, I know that every morning I sit on the stairs in my house and drink a coffee. The coffee is already a fixed part of my day, so adding a daily Welsh practice or reviewing one page of my learning notebook won't take too much willpower. Instead of going on Facebook before you drop off to sleep, could you spend 10 minutes with the flashcards?

5. Make Your Chunks Big and Small Enough

When you are studying at beginner level, it's too difficult to aim for passing the big C2 immigration exam. When you are advanced but haven't got travel money for the next 6 months, it's too unrealistic to aim for that in-country conversation with a native speaker. These goals need to be broken down so that you can see the end in sight of your current project. What can you do today so that it's a bit easier for you to get to the vision tomorrow?

6. Be Super Precise

Precision is essential for setting a good language learning goal. You must define exactly what it is that you are aiming for. Fluency is a vague desire, but what you need is more than that. Your goals have to be measurable in precise terms, so try to zoom in on those step-by-step achievements. For example, I tend to avoid putting my goals in terms of "having a conversation". Instead, I may want to finish Lesson 8 in my textbook next week or say 15 new sentences based on what I already know. The key is to DO something that will make you feel good when you've done it. Imagining your success does not count.

7.Once the Course is Set, Do Not Question It

It can be so tempting to set a big ambitious goal and leave a little bit of wriggle-room open for yourself when things don't quite work out. When you are setting your New Year's Resolution, is it so ambitious that you already know you're going to fail? If yes, then revise it. Halve it. Make it achievable so that you know you'll be committed.

This is where writing a goal down and sharing it come in handy. Write it in the comments of this blog article as a first step! Set yourself a reminder to come back to it. Whatever you do, don't just go away and forget what excited you enough to get started.

8. Repeat Your Successes

Meeting a goal doesn't mean that you'll never have to do it again. It is the first step to building an awesome new habit. So once you've had your first Skype lesson, you're one step further along the way. But you're not there. You may never be there.

Last year, my New Year's Resolution was to become a more punctual person. But that is an ambition and not a goal. A goal would have been to say "I will turn up 10 minutes early for every appointment I have tomorrow". And for the first day, I did just that. I was super proud! Now imagine what would have happened if I'd just stopped caring after that goal. I'd be just as late as I always was. But if I met the goal every single day, I'd start building new pathways and habits and become a more punctual person.

9. Identify What's Driving You

Behind all our ambitions for becoming a polyglot, more fluent, a better student, a more productive person, there is an assumption that you have a problem right now. It's extremely important to work out what drives your ambition and to identify this personal issue, so that you can start observing the progress you are making. Even if you don't meet every single goal or milestone along the way, are you learning more about yourself? Are you making progress? Are you trying out a new way of thinking?

10. Observe the Progress

It's very common to feel like you are falling behind within the first few weeks of the new year energy. But could you critique yourself in a positive way instead of being self-critical? Don't forget that failing to meet a hard goal doesn't signal a major failure. I'm reminded of Ron Gullekson's recent blog post where he spoke about failing the German exam he had spent months preparing for. Does that mean Ron is a complete German failure? No! He went through intense preparation, so even he still benefited from a tight learning schedule and improved his written German.

Finally, here is a great tip if you feel like this time is not right for resolutions, but you still want to welcome 2016 in the right way:

11. Set a Theme, Not a Resolution

If you didn't have the energy or courage to set yourself a specific goal, the theme for your year, month, or week can act as a wonderful guide to take its place. It also helps you focus on appreciating what you have got right now without becoming too self-critical. As I am entering a new year in my language studies and my teaching business, my theme will be "Figure it out!", a message to myself that giving up isn't what I'm here for.

What Are Your New Year's Resolutions?

So now it's over to you:

  • What are your plans?

  • How are you going to make sure you stay committed?

  • Have you found a buddy yet?

No matter if you have a language learning resolution or something else, I'm looking forward to reading about what you're planning in the comments below.

For more tips about how to learn a language the right way, check out Lindsay's new course Successful Self Study or my popular books Fluency Made Achievable and The Vocab Cookbook.

Podcast Episode 30: How to Achieve a New Year's Resolution of Learning a New Language

Welcome to episode 30 of the Creative Language Learning Podcast, and as always I can't tell you how excited I am that this show is happening. 30 episodes marks a significant point - the show has been running for two years and brings you regular language love on your commute, in the gym and everywhere else.

How long have you been listening?

Here's what's in the big episode 30:

Creative Language Learning Podcast ep 30
  • How to find the time for language even when you're megabusy
  • Community Classes and Polyglot Clubs have lots in common

NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTIONS!

  • What we think about the resolution that is "I will become fluent in..." or "I will learn the language..."
  • Why "fluency" is an ambition and not a goal
  • The unfailing SMART goalsetting technique
  • Working out what is driving your resolution and "what your problem is" can help you get more motivation to change
  • How can your resolution serve you even if you don't achieve it?
  • Why is excitement essential when fear is destructive?
  • And what are our themes and resolutions for 2016?

THE EPISODE TAKEAWAY

Set yourself a theme for the new year!

WEBINAR ON SATURDAY!

Join Lindsay and Kerstin - that's us! We'll be discussing how to set successful goals in 2016.

LINKS AND TIPS FROM THIS EPISODE OF THE CREATIVE LANGUAGE LEARNING PODCAST

New Podcast: Episode 21 - Why Your Language Learning Goal Sucks and What to Do About It

In episode 21 of the podcast, I'm flying solo! This episode is a shorter version of our usual podcast. A snack size, so to say. I've been so busy creating, promoting and talking about Speak German like a Native that there was little time to do anything else.

But Wait! Here's What I Just Had to Tell You

language learning goals

You language learners and your goals.

You all say you're going to be efficient and effective and committed, and then I ask you what your goals are in the Summer Giveaway and 150 people say get fluent.

Me language learner and my goal!

When I was asked about my short-term language learning goal recently, I wasn't much better. In my language tag video on YouTube, I shared my short-term goal for Welsh..except I had no idea what my short-term goal is! I managed to say "I want to have a conversation", but is that really any better? I don't think so.

So in this podcast, I collected five great tips to help you and me become better goal setters in language learning. Listen to the episode to find out why your language learning goals suck and how to make better ones.

My Improved Goal for Welsh

My next short-term goal for learning Welsh is much clearer now. It is a mini one, nothing particularly large, and it doesn't follow all the rules outlined in the podcast. This is difficult stuff, yo, especially since I seem to have chosen a REALLY unpopular language to learn.

As such, the goal is this:

I will listen to episode 3 of Say Something in Welsh and write down all new vocab in my notebook by Saturday.

I'd love to hear your new and improved goals, especially if you're guilty of "my goal is fluency". Share them in the comments for feedback!