When undertaking the exciting task that is learning another language, there are many important choices to make.

Like, which Parisian heartthrob am I going to impress with my French?

Or, what anime film am I going to voiceover for after picking up Japanese?

Whatever your goal may be, realistic or fanciful, the most important thing is that you have goals in the first place. Not only do they provide structure, but goals also allow you to track your progress from first timer all the way to fluent speaker. Who doesn’t love a reason to feel proud of themselves?

So stick around as we share our five-step method on how you can define your very own language goals.

What Are SMART Goals?

If you’ve ever taken a business management course or read a self-help book, you’ve likely heard of SMART goals. SMART is the acronym used to guide people when creating their objectives, in whatever setting it may be.

Specific: which aspect of which language, and why?

Measurable: what level of fluency do I want to reach?

Assignable: who is going to help me do what?

Realistic: what resources can I allocate?

Time-related: how many hours a week can I dedicate?

When applying the SMART method to language learning, it’s important to take some time and really put this mnemonic to the test. And if you’re thinking that a simple catchphrase such as “become conversational” is going to prove successful, think again.

This article from PositivePsychology.com covered some groundbreaking research from Edward Locke and Gary Latham, two leading scientists in goal-setting theory. In addition to their discovery that having measurable metrics affects behavior and job performance, Locke also found that:

over 90% of the time, goals that were specific and challenging, but not overly challenging, led to higher performance when compared to easy goals or goals that were too generic such as a goal to do your best (or, ‘become conversational’).

Now let’s get into defining that strategy for success.

Step One: Define Your Purpose

Not to get all meta, but taking a step back and pinpointing the exact reason you want to learn a language may be one of the most important decisions you make before your journey even begins.

Defining your purpose for studying Russian, for example, will shape your entire experience. Whether you hope to end up diplomatting in the Kremlin or mountain climbing in Kazakhstan will certainly influence what vocab you’ll need to know.

Basically, you need to answer one question: why? The more specific you are with your reasons, the more rewarding and useful the outcomes will be.

For example, my reason for learning Spanish was because 1) I wanted to make my grandparents proud and easily have a conversation with them about my life 2) I wanted to travel and be able to relate to people and make friends in Spanish-speaking countries and 3) I wanted to live/work in another country and truly experience it, so I needed to be comfortable speaking on any topic fairly comfortably. This means I would need a level B2 or above to accomplish these things. B2 is professional proficiency. Would I know every word in the language? No. (I don’t know every word in English either). Would I be able to express myself, on any topic, clearly and confidently? Yes. Would there be some hesitation or mental block as I try to explain myself sometimes? Yes.

Define Language Goals

Step Two: Make Language Goals Enjoyable

Although it is a study and you may have outside of class ‘work’ or exposure to the language, language learning doesn’t have to feel like a chore. And passion can only take you so far. After a few stressful sessions of confusion as you try to understand your instructor, that excitement of learning a new language may be starting to wear off.

So in the process of defining your language goals, try to consider other hobbies or interests that you could incorporate.

Are you a guitar player? Find some songs in Spanish to strum along with.

Maybe you’re into painting. Listen to a landscape tutorial in Italian.

Or perhaps you’re an aspiring sushi chef? Try sourcing your ingredients from a Japanese grocer.

Whatever your craft, make sure your target language has a place in it.

For example, I love to read, so as soon as I could, I found an entry-level adult Spanish reader. This served me because I am a visual learner, and love to see the words (although this can hurt your pronunciation) and I love stories (stories help you remember!). And of course, music. I love to sing. So, I found some bands from Spain and Mexico that I really loved and printed out their lyrics, learned them and now I can sing along in the car. Why learn grammar when you can learn a song?

Step Three: Create a Language Learning Budget

Creating a budget is an essential step in defining your language goals. We know that money isn’t everybody’s love language, so we’ll keep this quick.

Figuring out how much language lessons cost will help keep your goals relevant. It may be tempting to immerse yourself in a small Portuguese fishing village for a summer, but that’s not always in the budget. After you’ve decided how much to set aside for studying each month, you’ll be able to better choose a plan that works for you.

For example, I am single, without children, so I signed up for 1 month of 5 hours a day Japanese school in Tokyo. I worked at night (the time difference for the USA) and early morning, keeping up with all my coworkers, and was immersed in 5 hours of Japanese conversation class during the day. This gave me 80 hours towards my goal and cost about $1000 for the Airbnb, $1000 for the flight, $500 for food, and $1000 for the school. For those who cannot take a trip for a month, the other 11 months of the year, I take hour-long conversation lessons online for 3 – 5 hours a week (less expensive and more convenient and just as effective as in person classes). Those cost anywhere from $25 – $45 per hour – I have 4 different teachers so that I hear different accents and vocabulary, and also because they provide different schedules. There are also group classes I could go to locally (Saturdays at 10am to noon, for roughly $20 per hour), but I prefer private because it is not that much more costly, and because I will progress more quickly the more I am speaking. In a group, I would have to share this time and it is less customized, meaning less interesting to me.

Step Four: Craft a Timeline

As with most plans, you’ll need a timeline. And no, this isn’t just for our Type A learners.

You’ll first want to employ the CEFR guide to language levels to decide which level of fluency will best suit your needs. Maybe you just have 100 hours to spend, which will get you to the A1 level. Professional proficiency is reached at level B2, which will take around 500 to 600 hours of practicing (if you are an English speaker learning a romance language – this is different for Russian, Arabic, Japanese, etc). That may seem like a lot, but with nearly 9,000 hours in an entire year, we bet you can spare some.

The next step is to break those hours into smaller chunks to make the task less daunting. Try using hour packets, which allows for a reward after X number of hours. For example, each 100 hours of Mandarin Chinese taken permits you an indulgent trip to the spa. Sounds enticing, right?

My goal is a minimum of 150 hours a year for Japanese. The year I went to Japan, I took 10 hours a week for the 8 weeks leading up to my trip to give myself a challenge. it gave me a much needed push, and I got in 350 hours that year. Japanese takes 2000 hours to reach B2 level – professional proficiency. So unless I want to get there when I’m 50 (I started at age 32 and am 39 years old now), I have to get the hours into my week somehow. After 7 years (and many breaks from Japanese, which I highly discourage), , I have averaged 120 hours a year for 7 years, which means I have taken roughly 800 hours total. Just 1200 to go! Grrrrrr. Currently, I am doing 3 hours a week, which means 150 hours a year, so next year I’ll reach 950 hours. It’s slow, but I’m getting there. I take these classes at 8am right before work starts, so that I know I won’t be interrupted.

For French, I am already at a low B2 level, so to maintain this level, I take 1 hour of conversation class a week.

For Spanish, I have already had thousands of hours, and maintain a C1 level, and I hear it daily, and work in it, so I do not pay for lessons.

Step Five: Who is Joining You?

Looking back at the SMART goal framework, let’s consider the assignable aspect. Which roles can best support you when learning a new language? Or, in other words, who would you want on your team when aiming to beat the beast that is monolingualism?

You’ve got some options, each with their own pros and cons.

College courses have the benefit of structure and teamwork, but can be costly and time consuming – not to mention you could learn a lot of things you’ll never use. I took 8 years, and I could not speak at all because we read literature from the 1600s. Conversation partners are great for small talk, but you’ll need to find one that will be consistent for years. Pen pals let you practice your writing and reading skills, but don’t offer much opportunity for real time speaking or computing – and no, writing does not lead to speaking and listening.

Conversation classes (casual – not university) with others in small groups, and private lessons will be your best bet.

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