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 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 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 <--

Your survey results are here!

Good morning, readers, today's post is about you. Remember my  survey a few weeks back? To everyone who participated, let me say thank you very much. Your opinion means a lot to me. Congratulations also to Diyandra who wins a free copy of the Ultimate Guide to Language Skills

Here's who you are:

img © ardonik  on flickr

img ©ardonik on flickr

Well, you're largely a group of native English speakers with a few other native languages like French and Indonesian thrown in. As expected for readers of a blog written by a German who teaches German, we are blessed with 1/3 of you being German learners! But there were other favourites in the top 5:

  • French - 26% of you
  • Japanese and Spanish each taking 14%
  • and another sizeable 11% of you studying Italian. Va bene!

Why learn languages?

Surprisingly only 48% said that you want to learn for travel, but way more than half of you left a comment and let me know that you learn for the pleasure of learning. Languages are fun, that's something we all agree on.

Some select responses:

I think my target language is really pretty
Pure Intellectual Pleasure
I learn for personal satisfaction.

Now, about the blog!

You guys love tips, tricks and techniques and you can't get enough of them, and I'll be happy to oblige and focus on sharing even more ways to become a more successful language learner in the future.

I'm also really happy to see that the interviews with Jason and Mickey were popular, obviously to me these guys are inspiring and have approached language learning in a new and interesting way. This can inspire you to consider new ways of learning. I do have another person on my radar already - he's a youtube regular with his fun German learning videos.

Finally, thank you to the 43% of participants who like my opinions. I do, too. You won't miss out.

In conclusion, here's what we'll go for with the blog in the future:

  • More practical posts about German vocab and grammar
  • More tips and tricks for learners of any language
  • More independent reviews of useful language learning tools 

Now it's your turn

Did you miss taking the survey? I am always really open to feedback and questions about how to take the blog to the next level, so please leave a comment if you want to see an article about something in particular. The blog offers a wealth of free resources for you so don't forget - help yourselves!

        Warm-Up for Euro Day of Languages!

        Here in the UK where I live, the European Union doesn't always get people excited. I guess when you live on an island, the benefits of being able to nip over to foreign country for café au lait and then another one for some poffertjes is lost on you. In fact, the language alone is quite revealing: Brits will refer to the European continent as "Europe" and their own country as "Britain", and those certainly don't mean the same thing.

        But now let's just put all that to one side, because we have something to celebrate. This is the warm-up post for the European Day of Languages on 26 September.


        I am planning to get  involved. Apparently there are 225 indigenous languages in Europe. 225! That's LOADS! So for 26 September I am going to make a youtube video and pick 25 of them to greet my viewers in. I'll make my job easy for a start and include the ones I happen to know, but that still leaves 20 slots to fill. Any suggestions?

        Update on 25 September
        As the big languages are covered and I'm beginning to come across more unusual ones, the project is shown a lot more meat to it. We've now hit number 15 with Luxembourgish, and I've had help from kind people all over the world. Still not sure if I can make 25 languages in time, but in the very least you will hear me attempt to pronounce them :D

        Update on 23 September
        Today I put together everything I've got so far and made the first video - 11 languages are in the bag, including BSL, Danish, Spanish and Russian. I'm worried that I may not make it up to 25 languages in time, because it's just difficult to find speakers who are able to help me pronounce all the words. Will you guys accept 24?

        Update on 22 September
        Phew, this is tough going. I think I've got the Greek down now, and more friendly people on Facebook are kindly offering to help me with Portuguese and Galician. I didn't even know Galician was a language, so this is looking good! I'm up to 13 then, which means plenty more languages outstanding but hopefully I'm halfway there.

        Update on 21 September.
        Well, so far I have collected something to say in Polish, Italian and Romanian. I'm seeing a Greek speaker this afternoon as well so I'll make sure I've got Greek covered, and another friend is helping me out with Flemish. That's nearly 10 but I'm missing Scandinavian languages so far. Keep checking back for more updates!