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.
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:
- They're not specific and realistic enough because they are your inspiration
- They aren't measurable, because concepts like "fluency" or "fluent conversation" just aren't
- They aren't time-specific either, unless you want to make yourself sad by setting a painfully ambitious deadline
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.
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.
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.