How to Set Better Language Learning Goals
The English version of this article was written by Kevin Morehouse, language coach and teacher and member of the LucaLampariello.com team.
"I want to be fluent in Spanish"
"I want to speak Norwegian like a native"
"I want to know Thai"
While these language learning goals are definitely admirable, they are missing a few key characteristics that keep them from being really and truly useful to you.
What is fluency, and when do you know you've reached it?
When we say native-like, what kinds of natives are we talking about? University scholars? High school students? Toddlers?
And what is "knowledge" of a language, anyway?
In my opinion, I believe that the worst thing about goals like this is they don't give you any indication of how to reach them. They lack directness, which means that following these goals will get you lost in your learning, more often than not.
The High Cost of Vague Goals
Let's look at the problem in some more depth:
Say your goal is to become "fluent in Cantonese".
Where do you start?
- Buy a Cantonese textbook and study it on your own?
- Take a Cantonese class at the local community college?
- Download and work through the Memrise Cantonese decks?
Which of these things will get you closer to your goal of being fluent in Cantonese?
The answer is that, in a way, all of these activities could realistically help you become fluent in Cantonese. And while that might sound encouraging, it actually creates a problem.
If almost anything can move you towards your goal, how can you realistically pick between all of your options? And how can you tell which options are more efficient than others?
And that won't do. You're a busy person, after all. You've got a limited amount of energy, and money, and there are only so many hours in a day you can devote to language learning. You can't explore all of these routes.
The Value of Directness in Language Learning
In his book
"Directness is the practice of learning by directly doing the thing you want to learn. Basically, it’s improvement through active practice rather than through passive learning. (...) Passive learning creates knowledge. Active practice creates skill."
Think: What Do You Want to Do With Your Target Language?
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not saying you should forsake potentially useful things like foreign language textbooks, apps, and classes just because natives don't use them for their own language.
You should have a specific, well-defined purpose for everything you do to learn a language. But how do you do it? How can you figure out what that purpose is?
"If I were fluent in [my target language> today, what would I do with it?"
This question will help you immediately tie your language learning to an actual thing you want to do, or skill you want to perform. It frees you from the vagueness of just wanting to "know" a language or "be fluent" in it, and forces you to acknowledge that languages are tools—just a means to an end.
You could use it to:
- Watch movies and television shows
- Read novels and short stories
- Educate yourself on a particular topic (e.g. science, history, economics, math)
"Oh, but I want to do all of those things", you might say.
I'm sure you do. I'm like that, too. I like the idea of being able to do everything I want in a language, no matter what it is.
The real truth is that even if you and I are interested in doing lots of different things with a language, there are some things that interest us more than others.
Using Direct Goals to Streamline Your Language Learning Routine
Let's make things simple. As an example, we'll say that you're learning Cantonese.
Well, film is an audiovisual medium, so you'd primarily need to work on your listening skills. Secondly, as you gain familiarity with both Cantonese movies and the Cantonese language, you'll want to be able to read written Cantonese, so you can do things like:
- Read film titles and on-screen text
- Read reviews of Cantonese films online
Thinking about it further, you realize that writing could come in handy as well. It'd be less important than reading for your film-watching purposes, but you could still use it to:
- Communicate with Cantonese-speaking film lovers online
And lastly, there's speaking. Truth be told, speaking ability isn't required to be able to process and enjoy movies, but you could use it to:
- Make YouTube videos in Cantonese reviewing your favorite kung fu movies.
See how having a direct goal in mind suddenly makes your language learning path much clearer?
Redirect Your Language Learning Goals Today
One benefit of knowing the value of direct goals is that you can apply them at any stage of the learning process.
If you ever find yourself lost along your language journey without knowing what to do next, the culprit could be a series of vague, indirect language learning goals that don't help you do what you want to do.
The solution to this problem is directness. By setting tangible, direct goals that are tied specifically to the skills you want to have in the language, you can, at any moment, figure out the next steps to take along your journey.
- How many languages can we humanly learn?
- Why is reading in English so important to improve?
- Should a child learn more than one language?
- How I Became Fluent in Spanish Without Living in Spain (and How You Can Do it Too)
- From B to C: How to Become Proficient in Any Language (part 2)