How do I set good language-learning goals? Setting SMART Goals

How do I set good language-learning goals? Setting SMART goals:

You can have all the motivation and determination in the world, but it can be easily wasted if you do not take the time to set a good goal for yourself and your language learning. Often, people fail because they are unclear about what it is that they really want and don't consider the necessary steps to get there.


Let's take a look at why this goal will probably fail:

"This time, I'll study really hard and be better."


But, this goal will probably succeed:

"By the end of the month, I will have learned 260 new words and phrases to go with them, and I will be able to use all those words and phrases to talk about my job with a native speaker for at least 5 minutes."

By the end of this article, you'll be able to identify what sets these goals apart, and have the tools to make one for yourself!

Different Types of Goals:

Your goal could be product-oriented, meaning that you are aiming for a specific result, or it could be process-oriented, meaning that you are committing to specific actions that you know will help you.  In fact, it may be best to combine both, using a product-oriented goal to motivate yourself and then defining and committing to process-oriented goals to improve your discipline and study habits.

Polyglot Olly Richards describes his experience of product-oriented vs. process-oriented goals for language learning here:

Whichever you do, it's best to be clear about your goal or else you'll never really know if you've completed it.  Let's get started:

SMART goals

A mnemonic that people commonly use to determine whether they are setting a good goal is to set a SMART goal.  SMART stands for:








Let's look at each one of those briefly:


If your goal is unclear, then there will be no clear path to get there.

If your goal is to become "fluent", this is impressive, but it doesn't tell you how to get there.  Think about what "fluency" means to you.  Specifically, what would you like to do with your new language?  


Would you like to talk with a friend about a certain topic? Read a book?  Pass a test?  Give a presentation at your office?  Once you make your choice, it will be clearer to you (and, to your teacher!) what you need to do in order to get there.


You know the feeling of accomplishment you get when you can check an item off of a list?  Even if it's small, it feels like progress.  Find a way to break your goal down into small achievements that you can check off to show your progress.  Learning "more" and getting "better" are not measurable goals.


Pick something with numbers: memorize a certain number of vocabulary words or phrases each day, spend a certain amount of time studying, speak without using your native language for a certain number of minutes, or even a score on a language proficiency test. All of these are helpful for letting you (and your teacher) evaluate your progress.  


It's good to aim high and stretch your abilities, but if you aim too high, it can backfire. Ask yourself, "Where am I now, and where can I go next?" It's better to make a small amount of lasting progress than to waste your time and effort on something that doesn't pay off.


For example, 100 words every day is not achievable for most people.

5-10 words per day is.


Experienced italki teachers have helped many other students before, and they can help you choose your next step.  Talk about your goals with your teacher, and with a realistic expectation of the amount of time and effort you can put in on a regular basis.  Push yourself to grow, but don't set an impossible goal.  


Your goal should be something relevant to you - this is how you'll be able to take interest and personal satisfaction in the results.  Ask yourself, "How will I feel about accomplishing this goal?" This is a way of asking yourself what the goal really means to you. Do you feel excited? Does thinking about your goal inspire you to work towards it?  If so, then the goal is relevant to you and your needs or interests.  


If thinking about your goal seems dull, boring, or a chore, then it might not be relevant.  Don't give up yet, though, if it's something you know you want, then maybe thinking about it in a different way will make it interesting to you again. Try being more specific - What is something you'll be able to do that you couldn't do before?


Goals don't make much sense without deadlines. Sometimes it seems like reaching your goal will be a lot of work, so you must need a lot of time.  But actually, if you give yourself some deadlines, you might be surprised at what you can accomplish by then!  

"Checkpoints" or "Mini-goals" are stepping stones to big goals


If the goal is a big one (and, most language-learning goals are), use all the other Goal-setting skills we've looked at so far to be realistic and break your final goal into a series of "mini-goals", each with it's own deadline.  You might find that carving up a large goal like this is not only a fun and creative way to approach it, but really helps you see your own progress as you check off one mini goal after another!


Here's some great advice on setting mini-goals from those who use them!

Benny "The Irish Polyglot" Lewis on setting "mini goals"

Lindsay Does Languages on how mini goals helped her complete the World Cup Language Challenge, and what she'd do to improve.

Olly Richards on setting effective "5-minute" process-oriented goals

Choosing Good Habits

Goal-setting is great, but even for small goals, how do you get from here to there?

Consistent commitment to good habits are the key to making progress.

With your goals in mind, choose a simple, easy habit that will help you get there. Even just committing to read out loud for five minutes or to write one good sentence every day can go a very long way.

This advice from James Clear is excellent for determining how to choose a habit that won't burn you out: How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide

The basics are:

  1. Start with something that's very easy. Too easy and you won't gain anything. Too hard, and it will take too much effort to maintain. Start small though; you might be surprised at how much work is just remembering and showing up! If you are able to do one small thing consistently, you'll find you eventually become able to do more.
  2. "Never miss twice". If you forget or fail, don't give up. Mistakes might happen, but resolve not to let them happen twice in a row. Take charge and get your habit back.

There are no quick solutions to real growth, but there are many many small ones.


If you really want results, it's always a good idea to share your goals, your specific challenges, and your deadlines with friends, family or other supporters. They can encourage you when you get stuck and remind you of your deadlines to keep you on track! At the very least, you should tell yourself and your teacher!


(Scroll to the bottom to find some articles and blog posts with good examples and inspiration from other successful language learners, especially for some good advice on building up to your goals)


If you are a student, contact your teacher with your ideas.  Your teacher can help you turn those ideas into a solid goal with specific steps to help you reach that goal.  Depending on the time required, it may be helpful to book a package and schedule your sessions in advance. Invest in the things and the people that will help you commit to your goal.


If you are a teacher, make sure to talk with your student about what they want to get out of their language studies, why, and on what timeline.  Based on this, you can recommend which class or package the student should take, and help them stay on target with their progress and their deadlines.


Setting and then going through the steps to reach your goal can be a lot of effort and sometimes, it will be tiring.  But, if you have set a goal that you care about and talked with your teacher (and your friends!) about the steps you must take to get there, you will have the confidence and support you need to stick to your plan and get through the difficulties.  


And, along the way, don't forget to congratulate yourself on your many small accomplishments.  Ask your teacher to let you know how you are improving!  Don't have a teacher yet?  Find a teacher >>


If you'd like more ideas for goal setting:


If you'd like more ideas for habit forming:

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