Imagine that football was a game played without goals. Perhaps the players would just run on the field and kick the ball from to each other for the full 90 minutes. But what would be the point? If you were the team captain, coach or manager, how would you know that your team were improving? Or getting worse for that matter. So, in football, the goals are important; they give the players something to aim for, and they allow the players, fans, coaches, and managers to see how well (or not) the team are performing. Goals can be considered important for all manner of things: sports, studying, working, starting a business, travel, and many others besides.
Goals are also important for learning a language. I’ve heard many people say they want to learn a language and they buy the materials and make a good start. However, they usually give up pretty quickly. In my experience, it’s because proper goals have not been set. It’s the same with dieting – you won’t stick to a diet and lose the weight you want to if you don’t plan it and set proper goals.
Setting goals for learning a language learning but fortunately, if we set SMART goals, we can achieve a lot. The idea of SMART goals originally came from business, but they can be applied to just about anything, including language learning. Let’s consider each part of the SMART goal.
‘I want to learn [insert language here]’ is far too vague for a goal, just the same way as ‘I want to lose weight’ is.
It’s important to consider what you want to achieve in your language-learning endeavour. Do you want to…
- Learn the basics of a language for a holiday?
- Learn a language because it’s part of your heritage?
- Learn a language because you plan on moving to a country where the language is spoken?
- Learn a language to read literature (either translated or original) in your target language?
- Learn a language to understand songs, movies, or TV programmes?
These are just some of the reasons that people learn a language but there are many more. And of course, some people learn a language because they have learned other languages and they just really enjoy it. Whatever, your reason, it’s important to be specific about where you want to go and what you want to achieve.
Once you have decided why you want to learn a language and set your specific goal, it’s important to consider how you will know when you have achieved that goal. This is why measurable goals are important – you can’t achieve something if you can’t measure it. So, if we consider some of the reasons that people might be learning a language that we gave above, we will know that we have achieved one of our goals because we may be able to:
- Greet people, ask for directions, and ask for food in a restaurant
- Understand all the lyrics to a particular song in your target language
- Read a chapter of a book in your target language without looking up the meanings of words.
- Be able to have a full conversation using a variety of verb tenses with people in your community.
So think about how you will know that you have achieved your goal before you begin learning your language.
Achievable, Realistic, and Timely
I have put the three of these together because I feel that they are all interconnected. Once you have decided on your specific goals and how you will measure them, it’s important to consider whether or not they are achievable, whether they are realistic, and how long it will take you to achieve the goal.
Your language goals are only achievable and realistic if they are a little above your current ability. If your goal is too far above your current language ability, it’s unlikely you will achieve it. if the goal is too low or too easy, the chances are you won’t even try because you’ll know you can do it. Therefore, a realistic goal if you’re a beginner at learning Spanish would be to learn how to talk about things you like and dislike. Trying to read Love in the time of cholera by Gabriel García Marquéz in the original Spanish – not really achievable or realistic for a beginner but certainly possible for an advanced speaker who understand almost everything that he/she hears or reads.
Whether your goal focuses on the basics of a language or on understanding authentic language materials (e.g. books, songs, movies, TV programmes), it’s important to consider how long your goal will take to complete. This will naturally depend on your other commitments – such as work, family, etc. – and your own language-learning ability. So set a realistic timeframe for achieving your goal. Maybe you want to dedicate 6 months to reading Love in the time of cholera in the original Spanish. Or maybe you want to spend three months learning the basics of Spanish for communication. Parkinson’s Law states that a task will take whatever amount of time you dedicate to it – if you plan to spend 1 hour increasing the number of Spanish adjectives you know, or spend 3 days learning the words to Vivo por Ella by Marta Sánchez and Andrea Bocelli (click on the video above to hear this beautiful song), that’s how long it will take you. So think carefully about how long it will take you to achieve your goals and the steps you will take to achieve it.
Putting it all together
At the moment, I’m focusing on keeping my Spanish knowledge as up-to-date as possible – even as a Spanish teacher, I’m constantly trying to learn the language. But I also want to learn Basque – something I wasn’t able to achieve when I lived in Bilbao. For Spanish and Basque, my goals currently look a little bit like this:
|Goal 1: Be able to understand songs by my favourite Spanish groups/singers without having to check the words. |
Already have a playlist of songs that I want to learn. (specific).
Will spend one week learning the lyrics to each song (timely)
Realistic as I already have a good knowledge of Spanish grammar, vocabulary, and can understand what I hear in conversations.
Achievable by sticking to the list of songs (though I can possibly add others)
|Goal 1: Master Basque pronunciation. |
I understand the rules of Basque pronunciation but need to become more comfortable at saying the words.
Will listen to recording and audio of Basque speakers and find websites and Youtube videos that explain and demonstrate the pronunciation (specific).
Will spend 2-3 hours (1 – 1.5 hours a day) working on this (time).
Achievable and realistic as I will be able to keep improving my pronunciation the more I practice and learn about the language.
|Goal 2: Improve my knowledge of Spanish idioms |
Buy a book that teaches specific Spanish idioms or get one from the library.
The book is divided into chapters so will focus one one new chapter every week (timely)
Maybe not realistic to use all of the idioms in the book so will focus on a few per chapter (ones that I would normally use their equivalents in English) and practice those.
Definitely achievable as I already have a good knowledge and understanding of Spanish vocabulary.
|Goal 2: learn the present tense of the modal verbs|
Specific as I have identified a particular grammatical feature of the language and have committed to studying it.
I am used to learning verb patterns from studying other languages so around one week should be enough to commit to memory (timely, realistic, achievable)
|Goal 3: Improve my ability to use reported speech. |
I find it difficult to use reported speech in Spanish and need to work on improving my knowledge of what “say” tenses match which other tenses (e.g. ‘He says that he’s going to Madrid, He said that he would do it’) This is specific as I know what knowledge I need to improve and how this will help me achieve my goal.
Spend 1 day creating a Mind Map showing the relationships between the tenses then a second day doing grammar drills on this topic (timely). Then, find ways to practice this in communicating with native speakers.
Achievable and realistic as I have enough knowledge of tense forms already and simply need to learn to combine the tenses correctly to make reported speech.
|Goal 3: learn the basics for communication|
Specifically, learn how to: introduce myself, ask for directions, order food and drink, how to buy tickets for travelling.
Most self-learning language books cover these topics so I will spend one week learning each topic (timely). It’s also realistic and achievable but Basque is very different from other languages so I may need to revisit this goal depending on how easy or difficult I find it.
|Goal 4: Listen to more authentic content so that my comprehension does not become rusty. |
Achievable and realistic as I already listen to Spanish music and can understand almost everything said in a conversation.
Will measure by checking what percentage of the content of a video/ interview I understand.
Will choose one Spanish Youtube video (such as an interview of about 5-10 minutes) and watch 1-2 each day depending on difficulty (timely and specific)
Hopefully, this helps you think about your goals. You can also see how I consider the different aspects of SMART goals. Feel free to use this as a template.
I discovered SMARTER goals in a book many years ago but unfortunately I can’t remember which one. I did, however, really like the idea. SMARTER goals combine the aspects we’ve already considered (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, timely) and the following:
- Exciting: life’s too short for boring goals so make sure they excite you. Whether you’re learning a language for travel, culture, or to improve your social life, make sure you’ll enjoy not only the outcome, but the process as well.
- Revisit: to paraphrase Robert Burns, ‘even the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry’. At times, you may not achieve the goal you set. It may be because of time or family commitments. Or maybe you underestimated the goal. Or maybe you just needed a break from your language learning. All of these reasons are perfectly valid ones for not achieving the goal you set. Don’t beat yourself up, just revisit the goal. Maybe you just need to give yourself more time, or find a different method. Unlike in football, you can change the goals in language-learning.
- Create SMARTER goals before you begin learning your target language
- You can use the template given above
- We don’t always achieve the language-learning goals we set. That’s ok. You can revisit them.
Feel free to share your language-learning goals in the comments.
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