What are your language learning goals? Are they what you need?
Welcome, aspiring polyglot! As the new year approaches you may be evaluating how you want to approach your language learning goals. With how many options there are out there, the noise can often be deafening and it can leave you feeling incapable of progressing with your target language. Without a target to aim at it can feel next to impossible to move forward. If you plan to take your language learning seriously, there is nothing better you can do than set goals for yourself.
Whether they are long term or short term goals, having them will ensure that you are able to stay the course even when you feel stagnation beginning to set in as all language learners inevitably experience. If you are an independent language learner, goal setting is absolutely necessary. However, even if you are in the public education system, having your own goals is likely to keep you more motivated than attempting to stick it through with the artificial, standardized goals of the school or instructor.
Choosing goals as an independent language learner
The primary reason goal setting is necessary for independent learners is because it helps in managing consistency. When you are working alone there is no one there to ensure you are doing your "homework" which makes it more difficult to stick to a schedule, but it is not impossible by any means. All that is really necessary is that you have a plan, though having a way to keep track of it is also important.
Tests are a decent way to keep track of progress, but there are far better ways and, since you are in control of your education, you get to choose how you keep track of your progress. As far as choosing a specific goal, there are a multiple steps to doing this effectively and you can check out this article for a better idea on that:
Keeping track of your progress with your target language is important because you will be able to see how far you have come every time you look back. Setting a time frame in which you will habitually revisit your previous works is also necessary. If you do not plan to do it, you will not do it. You can have the best possible intentions, but when it comes to learning a language or anything really, failing to plan is planning to fail.
A deadline is a powerful thing, but having many that signify different points in your language learning journey is ten fold as powerful. That is where choosing the ideal proficiency level comes into play. Many people think that fluency is the ideal goal, but there are many other steps along the path and aiming at fluency can often be detrimental. Rather than trying to start by writing an entire book, start by writing a paragraph.
Unfortunately, or perhaps fortunately, there are many ways to assess proficiency and, unless you are doing it for a promotion or for school, there truly is no "right" way to do it. Proficiency tests have been created by almost every government and choosing which is most important to you will depend on what you plan to do with the language. Some people choose the CEFR simply because it is the most broad and encompasses the most languages.
If your target language is not available within the CEFR proficiency tests, then you may choose to look elsewhere. Whatever it may be, having at least a cursory idea of what the proficiency guidelines are for your target language will aid you in setting goals for the short and long term. Once you understand more or less what the guidelines are, you can decide which proficiency level you wish to target with this new language.
Understanding proficiency levels
Unfortunately, many of the proficiency standards fall short in that they focus on things most people will find difficult to track and even more difficult to re evaluate without a structured course. When you are always questioning whether or not you are on the right track, it can be difficult to build a cohesive learning environment.
No matter what your definition of success is when it comes to language learning goals, the most important thing is that you have a realistic idea when you are getting started. The greatest killer of motivation is a goal that is far too lofty, like general fluency, for example. Here are the most popular language proficiency exams/organizations in the western hemisphere:
As mentioned above, however, even a native speaker may struggle to attain the highest level of proficiency when taking these exams. Foreign languages differ and depending on which standard you attempt to follow, you may find that irrespective of your ability to maintain conversations with native speakers you fall short of the standardized proficiency level you are seeking.
Do not let this deter you. Standardized tests are great, but they in no way have a monopoly on determining someone's ability in a foreign language. Setting goals should be conducive to your long term success, not detrimental. But not all goals are created the same. Focus on the ones that fill you with motivation and the rest will come.
Using goal setting to stay motivated
You language learning goals should be such that you are able to feel secure in your progress without having to go overboard and get burnt out. Ensuring they are specific and timebound is a perfect way to do this. However, learning a new language is no easy feat and when you fall short of your goals you need to be gracious with yourself.
So long as you do not stop, all progress is good progress. This is especially true when you are just starting and when you are nearing fluency. During these times your progress will be slower than you may like and even if it takes you six months to become conversational, the first time you speak in your new language you will forget all the pain you experienced getting there.
As a general rule, once you are able to understand 80% of a given stimulus, it is time to move on, so having the general goal of reaching 80% reading comprehension of a certain book or 80% understanding of a certain television series is a fantastic place to start. At 80% you will be looking up 20/100 words. This seems like a lot, at first, but the more you do it the easier it will get. Not only that, but if you write these words down you will be able to go back and use them again.
You will be more likely to recall them when you are speaking and your language skills will progress more rapidly than you may have thought possible. That said, if you only look the words up on your phone or tablet or computer you may find yourself frustrated as you search up the same words time and time again.
When you place your focus in the right places during your language studies, your proficiency will increase. Whether that is listening comprehension, speaking, reading, or writing, if you are working through daily tasks that are progressively more difficult, you will achieve your goals.
This brings us to the topic of progressive overload. In the right learning environment you will be placed in a situation where every day the input is slightly more challenging. Of all the language learning tips out there, this is probably the one that will move the needle the most. It certainly is possible to start with something that is extremely challenging, but unless you have done it before and are certain that is the path for you, it may do more harm than good. Most language learners try to stick with things that coincide with their current language proficiency, but that also is rarely beneficial. Duolingo is great at that and it is why people end up walking away after months feeling like they are progressing at a snails pace. If you want to read our Duolingo review, you can find that here:
Most language learning apps do not set people up for long term success because, while it is advertised that you can go at your own pace, there is usually a catch. Often that catch comes in the form of a pay wall which means you can go at your own pace, if you are willing to pay for it. On the other side of things, speaking with native speakers will help you progress quickly, but you may be demoralized by a lack of understanding the language fluently or the incredible amount of mistakes you will make in attempting to hold conversations. While mistakes are part of the language learning routine, they are still not enjoyable.
A perfect balance you should seek when setting your language learning goals is that of progressive overload. A pace at which you are making mistakes, but only 20% of the time. When you need to look up words, but you can ascertain the majority of the meaning of a given sentence simply through the context in which the words unfamiliar to you are said or written. Learning languages is eerily similar to fitness in this way.
The you get further you get, the more important this incremental progression, or progressive overload, will be. Fortunately, this means you can almost completely disregard the things that other language learners are doing. This form of progress should be entirely tied to you, your learning style, and the amount of time you have to dedicate to language learning progress every day. You control your education, you control your goal setting, you are responsible for setting yourself up for success.
Whether you choose to undertake SMART language learning goals or some other form of goal setting, there are few things that will serve you better in achieving your desired level than having goals that are timebound and specific. Adding progressive overload to the mix will ensure you are able to maintain your momentum. Learning languages will challenge you in ways you may not have known were possible and having goals to maintain your motivation is powerful. However, tying your goals to state controlled standardized tests may do more harm than good to both your long term and short term goals.
Second language acquisition is no easy feat, it will be difficult irrespective of how you approach it. Using the strategies listed here can and will enhance and accelerate your language learning experience, it will not be easy. But you can do difficult things and be great, so continue to do difficult things and be great. I will be here by your side endeavoring to do the same.
Be sure to check out Second Language Strategies to catch up on anything you missed, find me on Twitter or Instagram for some short form content. For access to all the guides we have to offer, be sure to check out the "guides" section of the website. There is a mixture of free and paid guides that is constantly being updated with new content to enhance and accelerate your language acquisition. I look forward to seeing everyone’s progress in the months and years to come.