How to Set Powerful Language Learning Goals: A Simple Guide For Success
Most people who read this article will never learn a new language successfully.
Not because they can’t.
Not because they don’t want to.
But because they won’t stop, think, and take the steps necessary to set themselves up for success.
Let me explain…
To learn a new language successfully, you need a plan. And the foundational pillars of that plan are your language learning goals.
Goal setting is what sets the polyglots apart from the failed language school students.
Take some time to set your language learning goals, BEFORE you dive into the learning…
… and you set yourself up for language learning success and a life-changing ability to connect with people when you travel.
Other hand, jump back into Duolingo and plough on without a clear set of goals in place…
… and I guarantee you won’t be much further along with your language 6 months from now.
So... which path will you choose?
Why Setting Language Learning Goals Is Important
Since you're still reading, I'll assume you've chosen the path of all successful language learners before you... goal setting.
But just why is setting powerful goals so important? Let's look at 4 key reasons...
Your Goals Are Your Roadmap
If someone asked you to drive to a place you'd never been to before, what's the first thing you'd do?
Get a map, probably?
What if they asked to drive "somewhere" without telling you what that place was or how to get there?
Would you just start driving?
This, unfortunately, is more or less what most language learners do.
Without stopping to think about their end goal - their language learning destination - many new learners are surprisingly ready to set off on a long and winding road to some unknown place!
It's hardly surprising they rarely get there.
Know What You Want To Achieve
You might not know how to go about learning a language just yet, but by setting goals for yourself, you'll at least know what exactly you're trying to achieve.
- Is your goal to become fluent? Or do you just want to master the basics before a holiday?
- Is your main aim to be able to read literature in the language? Or is the most important thing to be able to speak with people?
Each of these goals is quite different and the way you go about achieving them should be too.
So your goals part of your roadmap for success.
Without a clear set of language learning goals, you can't create a plan to achieve them.
Goals Help You Track Your Progress
By setting a goal, you make a prediction about where you’d like to be with your new language after a set period of time (1 week, 1 month, 3 months, etc.).
Doing this means you have a way track your progress and see if you’ve been progressing as much as you had hoped.
Did you hit your goal? Or did you not?
And if you didn't, what can you do to get back on track?
By harnessing the power of short-term goals (which we'll talk about below), you can even hone in on specific aspects of a language like grammar or vocabulary and focus on them intently.
This can be a helpful way to keep track of what elements of the language you’ve already learned, what you need to do next, and what you need to review.
Clear Goals Give You Focus
If you're not 100% certain what you're trying to achieve, then sooner or later, you'll just stop learning.
I've been there myself with many languages.
It's partly why there are so many languages I know a few words of but couldn't speak very well.
My curiosity got me started. But because I lacked clear goals for what I was trying to achieve, the spark of motivation quickly faded and I gave up.
On the other hand, the languages I succeeded in learning are the ones I had crystal clear goals and objectives for.
When you set good goals, you’ll know what you need to focus on and when you need to do it.
The sense of purpose that this gives you is what will keep you going when you feel like giving up. And the certainty about what you need to do improve will help you beat procrastination.
If you don’t have a plan and set of clear goals, you’re depending on willpower to drive your learning.
And this is a guaranteed recipe for failure.
The truth is that willpower doesn’t work.
You’ll see countless books and courses online about how to improve your willpower but at the end of the day you can only depend on willpower in the short-term.
In order to create lasting results you need to build consistency and this doesn’t come from willpower, it comes from creating good habits.
Have you ever found yourself thinking about taking a day off from your language learning and just watching Netflix instead?
If you have, you're not alone.
Setting goals and knowing what you need to be working on makes that ‘moment of decision’ easier for your brain. You know what you need to do and you can just sit down and get on with it.
So instead of succumbing to the temptations of Netflix, you're more likely to stick to the language plan you created.
Goals Keep You Accountable
If don’t have a goal there’s no end-point to what you’re doing. Your study will be open-ended, without any real point of focus.
This makes it far more likely that you’ll skip days in your learning plan or just end up giving up.
On the other hand, when you set language learning goals, you add accountability to your learning because you have objectives you need to hit at different points in the process.
If you fall behind where you expected to be, you'll quickly realise and you can correct course.
It's kind of a built in accountability system.
To go one step better...Write your goals down somewhere or share them with a friend.
Research shows that people who write down their goals are about 30% more likely to succeed.
This is because you give yourself an extra little bit of accountability – I’ll learn ‘this thing’ by ‘this date’. Doing this helps you stay on track and always focus on the end goal.
3 Types of Language Learning Goals You Should Set
So know you know why you should use language learning goals. But what should these goals looks like?
In this section, I'll introduce 3 different types of language learning goals you can use to achieve your dreams... whether you want to become fluent or simply learn some basic greetings ahead of your next trip.
BHAGs – Big Hairy Audacious Goals
I think it’s important to start with the big goals, or as some people in business like to call them – the Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs).
This is where ‘realistic’ and ‘achievable’ get thrown out the window. Being realistic and achievable can be useful for short-term goals. Realistic and achievable is what will focus your learning day to day.
But let’s be honest, realistic and achievable aren’t so exciting, are they?
Your BHAGs should be the big unrealistic dreams that you have; the things that motivate you to want to learn a new language in the first place.
These are things like:
- Working or living in an environment where you speak the new language every day
- Speaking fluently with real people and getting complimented on your flawless accent
- Reading your favourite book in the original language without having to translate
One of my BHAGs for French is to one day read Émile Zola's Germinal in the original French.
We’re talking about hundreds of pages of dense 19th-century literature. And my goal is to be able to sit down, enjoy and appreciate it.
I don’t want to be double-checking every second word in a dictionary.
Is this realistic? No, not anytime soon. My French is pretty decent, but this book is another level up.
But what's important is that this vision is specific and it motivates me. It's a BHAG that gets me excited about learning the language and pushes me to keep working at it.
And that’s what BHAGs are all about.
So what's your BHAG? Leave a comment at the end of this post and let me know!
Milestone Goals (1 month, 3-month or 6-month goals)
Milestones are the medium-term goals that help you measure your progress in your new language.
Each milestone goal is like "mini" project you're working, by the end of which you'll have achieved something substantial and valuable.
In language learning, these goals are ideal for targeting specific CEFR language levels. For example...
- I will achieve A2 level German within 2 months.
If you don't know about CEFR levels, you can find out more here. It's basically a standardised system for measuring a person's ability in a language.
Milestone goals are also good for setting specific ‘ability’ related targets. For example...
- After 1 month I will be able to hold a 5-minute conversation entirely in my target language
I believe that milestones should always be considered in the context of your larger goals – your BHAGs. Effectively your milestone goals are like ‘checkpoints’ or ‘pit-stops’ on your way to achieving your big goals.
This means that they should be mapped out to help you eventually achieve that big goal.
So if your BHAG is to reach C1 level (mastery level) in your new language, you might have milestones for reaching each of the other CEFR levels before this.
Short-Term Goals (Mini-Goals)
Short-term goals are your momentum builders. They're the engine of your language learning and they'll keep you focused week to week.
I like to make short-term goals on a weekly basis to keep myself accountable and make sure I have a focus for the week ahead.
Short-term goals are perfect for polishing up grammar points or learning vocabulary about a specific topic. You can also use them to simply build a habit of learning.
For example, as I write this I'm working on my German and I want to build the habit of practicing every day. My current short term goal is to study 50 new German sentences each day with Glossika, the programme I'm currently using.
In the past I've used mini-goals to learn new vocabulary about specific topics, improve my listening skills or tighten up my pronunciation.
Having these kinds of short term goals gives you focus each week and will allow you to make continuous progress.
Mini-goals are also great for helping you beat procrastination. Start with easy goals and use them to build habit and momentum. Then gradually push yourself a little further.
There’s always a temptation to throw yourself into something and do 4 hours a day on Day 1, but if you take this approach you’ll probably burn out and give up within a week.
Focus on setting simple language learning mini-goals and take a few minutes every day to work towards achieving those goals. Very quickly this will help you build the consistency you need to make real progress.
What Are The Characteristics Of Great Language Learning Goals?
Makes sense so far, right?
But you're probably still wondering... what does a good language learning goal look like?
Language learning goals are really no different from goals you might set for any other area of life.
Like all good goals, they have a few key characteristics, which we can easily remember using the SMART method.
You've probably read about SMART goal-setting before. This method works extremely well for language learning goals, especially for short-term goals.
So what is a SMART goal? SMART is an acronym...
All good goals should have each of the 5 characteristics from the list above. But how do we apply them to learning a language?
Let's take a deeper dive into each one...
Start by making your goals specific. Define exactly what you’re trying to achieve.
Don’t be vague!
Here’s an example of a bad, non-specific goal:
Now here's an example of a good, specific goal:
In the first case, the objective is very unclear.
Think about it for a minute, what does ‘fluent’ actually mean?
The truth is that it has a quite a subjective meaning and that you need to be more specific in how you define it.
After all, how will you know what to do to become ‘fluent’ if you don’t even know exactly what being ‘fluent’ means to you?
The second key characteristic of great language learning goals is that they're measurable.
I’ve already mentioned how goals are an important part of tracking your progress in a language. Well, you can only track your progress if your goals are measurable.
You need to be clear on what you will have achieved when you complete your goal and how you will measure your success.
A vocabulary focused mini-goal is a good example of how to make a goal measurable.
Here’s an example of a good measurable goal:
In this case, the goal is specific because...
- It has a clear objective (50 words)
And it’s measurable because...
- You can review your progress throughout the week to see how many words you’ve learned and if you’re still on track to reach your weekly target
The third characteristic of powerful goals is that they're attainable.
Attainable doesn't mean easy. I'm not saying you should make your goals really easy just so you can achieve them every week.
Your goals should challenge you. But they shouldn't be so challenging as to be unrealistic.
Because if your goals are not attainable, sooner or later you're simply going to become demotivated and give up.
A good guideline is to set yourself a goal that you need to be at 85-90% of your best to achieve.
For example, let's say I wanted to set a goal to spend a certain amount of time listening to audio in my new language to improve my listening skills.
If the most listening time I could possibly manage on perfect week is 7 hours (1 hour a day), then my attainable goal should be to do 6 hours of listening a week.
6 hours is roughly 85% of my best case scenario of 7 hours.
This is the perfect number because it's demanding - an 85% pass rate is tough! - but it also doesn't require "perfection", which is the kind of unrealistic standard you need to avoid.
This key element of language learning goals is also probably the most overlooked one.
So many language learners follow textbooks or try to memorise word lists without ever really stopping to consider if what they’re learning is useful or relevant to what they're trying to achieve.
For example, if your big goal is to learn to speak to people in your target language, make sure you set goals that push you to do lots of speaking practice.
And forget about the textbooks and writing exercises. Focus on learning things you're actually likely to use in a conversation. Things that will help you speak better.
On the other hand, if you want to improve your writing skills in a language, set goals that get you writing regularly! Don't waste your time with speaking goals if your main aim is to learn how to write the language well.
Makes sense, doesn't it?
Finally, you need to make sure your language learning goals are time-bound.
Any time you set a goal for yourself, make sure you also set a deadline so that you know when you're going to achieve it by.
This is absolutely essential to staying on track and it can often help give you the extra push you need to achieve something.
Have you ever been guilty of putting something off until the last minute?
That time pressure you experience ahead of a deadline is a key motivator to kick out procrastination and achieve the results you're aiming for.
"A goal without a timeline is just a dream".
So, What Should Your Language Learning Goals Be?
If you have never learned a foreign language before, maybe you’re not sure what your goals should actually be.
You don’t have a frame of reference, after all, and it's hard to set goals when you're not sure what you need to learn.
Start with your big goals - the BHAGs. As I mentioned, your BHAGs will be largely based on what motivates you to learn a new language.
There's no need to over analyse this. Just think of 3 or 4 of things that are inspiring you to learn your target language and create specific targets using these motivations.
For example, if you want to be able to read famous literature in your new language, you might select one book in particular that you want to read and make completing that your BHAG.
Next move on to your "milestone" goals - the key achievements along the path to your big goals. Choose things that would represent a significant achievement and that will take a least a month or two to complete.
Finally, set some short-term goals to keep you going week to week. These mini-goals can be anything, from completing a chapter of your textbook to learning a certain number of words to brushing up on a specific grammar point.
So what are you waiting for? It's time to get started!
What are your current language learning goals? Leave a comment at the bottom of this article and let me know!
Resources Related To This Article
The Anti-Tourist Club
The Anti-Tourist Club is a training and support centre for curious adventurers who want to do travel differently.
It is where anti-tourists like you and I come together with a common mission:
To put learning at the heart of our adventures and unlock the kinds of meaningful travel experiences most tourists never have.
Glossika's method is deceptively simple. You read and listen to new sentences, which get gradually more difficult and complex as you progress. Glossika might not be the most exciting resource you find, but it's a very effective way to internalise the structures of a language without having to learn lots of grammar rules.
Photo of old edition of Émile Zola's Germinal - Wikipedia Commons