“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”– Aristotle
People wanting to learn a foreign language usually do so quite haphazardly.
They see an ad for a new language learning app and they jump straight in, already imagining ordering cappuccinos in Italian, or croissants in French.
Because of the novelty and gamification of the apps and software out there today, it's a natural inclination to tend to overdo it in the early stages.
You might find yourself spending 3 hours on Duolingo for a few days in a row, making excellent progress, but then the dreaded burnout comes.
Ugh, this is boring!
You might be opening up the app after this, but most days you'll probably glance at the app and say to yourself: I don't feel like doing this today.
Eventually you just quit completely, saying things like: “I'm not a language person”
The typical learner gets to this point because they fail to do two extremely important things:
- Set the right kind of goals for their language learning (how can you work towards something, if you don't define what that something is?)
- Plan and Schedule a REALISTIC weekly plan of when, and how much learning they will be doing.
With that all said, let's dive into your 3 action steps.
Plus, at the end I've included a few resources that may be perfect for you to continue with afterwards.
To your success,
Set the Right type of Goals for Success
Most of the new language learners that I talk to generally don't have any goals for their learning, or it's not clearly defined at all.
Before I get into this, I just need to mention that I have a whole course on setting goals and building long-term habits in language learning called Language Motivation Mastery, so it's not a small topic to quickly master.
But I'll give you the main points here, so you can get started and get 80% of the benefit of better goal-setting.
IMPORTANT: WRITE DOWN YOUR GOALS!! Studies have shown that people who wrote down their goals were significantly more likely to achieve them than those who didn't.
First: Find your why
Why are you learning this language? Is it for your Grandmother, your heritage, or your partner/spouse, or something else entirely?
The more specific and emotionally attached to your “why” you can get – the stronger it will be, and the more it will help you.
Second: Set your long-term goal
I focus on two different types of goals.
One is a process goal (about your day-to-day activities) and the other is an outcome goal which is more your long-term and “dream” goal.
Let's set the outcome goals first.
Here are some ideas to help you fine-tune your outcome goal.
What level do you want to reach in the language? Is it conversational fluency, complete mastery, or do you just want to be able to order a coffee?
Do you want to be able to read and write as well? This is particularly important for languages like Mandarin Chinese where the written system is notoriously different from other languages.
Or maybe, you want to ONLY learn how to read and write because you're interested in the literature, but have no plans to speak/listen in the language.
When do you want to reach this goal? For similar or related languages I would aim for about 6 months for lower intermediate, and about 12 months for mid-to-upper intermediate.
This naturally assumes you're able to dedicate a fair number of hours per week. If not, then be sure to adjust your outcome goal accordingly.
Now, write down your outcome goal. The more vivid and detailed you can be the better.
Example: By January 1, 2023 I will be able to have extended small-talk-like discussions in Portuguese. I will be able to understand most of what people say to me in shops, cafés, and restaurants. I will be able to live most of my life in Portuguese with some occasional stumbles and use of English in a pinch.
Third: Set your Process goals
Now that you have your outcome goal written down, it's time to set goals for how to actually get there.
Process goals are about your day-to-day activities.
Which books, software, courses, or websites do you want to use and for how long?
The most important aspect of process goals is that they MUST BE MEASURABLE.
If your process goal is not measurable (like: I want to do 1 page of “Book” every day from 1:00-1:15) then how can you know if you're progressing towards your outcome goal?
A simple recipe for process goals is the S.M.A.R.T philosophy.
Write down your process goals. You might just have one, but it's totally fine to have a few.
15 minutes of Duolingo Spanish every day at 3pm
3 pages in my textbook every Wednesday
Make a Plan for Studying
Now that we have our outcome and process goals written down it's time to actually put them into your calendar.
Schedule, at least one process goal learning sessions per day.
Once you've found the time(s) – put them in your calendar to recur every week.
I recommend no more than 15 minutes per session, but if you find this hard to do then you can start by scheduling just 5 minutes and progressing from there.
The important thing is that you feel like the session is so “easy” that you're never skipping it.
And you know the best thing?
Once you've started the session it's SOOO easy to do 10-15 even 30 minutes more than you had scheduled.
But, if you had scheduled 30 minutes in your calendar to begin with you might have never started the session.
Keep Going and Don't Worry
As you continue to track and update your process and outcome goals (review your goals once a month)
For tracking I recommend a good old-fashioned journal, or the digital version: Notion.
Finally, you have to have patience.
Rome wasn't built in a day, and learning a foreign language is a big project to undertake.
Even if you're just looking to get tourist-fluent or being able to have friendly small-talk about limited topics.
Language learning, just like any meaningful activity always has its ups and downs.
That's why we rely on the system we've built using steps 1 & 2 rather than relying on willpower or “feeling” like doing some studying.
And my favourite part of this whole thing?
“If you don't quit you'll never fail.”
Stick with the system, and you'll see the habits building automatically.
Recommended Resources for Further Study
There you have it.
A very quick look at goal-setting, which will help you tremendously towards staying motivated and greatly reduces the risks of burnout or failing at your language learning dreams.
Here's a few recommended resources that you might find interesting.
Language Motivation Mastery
My 6-week flagship programme goes into way more detail than here, dealing with a wide range of topics, so you build unstoppable habits for your language learning.
AFP 140 – Kerstin Cable on Goal-setting and New Year's Resolutions
AFP 61 – Michał Grześkowiak: Find and maintain motivation
AFP 47 – Dealing with burnouts in language learning
AFP 42 – Goals and Goal-Setting
AFP 33 – Alberto Arrighini: Self-development and motivation
Is your mindset holding you back from language learning success?
Ramblings From An Imperfect Language Learner
Hope that helped you out!
Founder, Actual Fluency
PS: Look out for the official welcome to the Actual Fluency Email Club in your inbox, my weekly-ish newsletter, where I share language learning tips and lots of other cool stuff!