How To Set Goals That Actually Work

Goal setting can be an incredibly powerful tool, not just for language learning but for anyone trying to improve a certain skill. If done right, it can increase motivation and efficiency, and have you progress must faster than if you just did random bits of study. So why is it that goal setting, remains one of the most underused tools in our arsenal?


why traditional goals don't work

Whenever we think of goals in language learning, a lot of people will no undoubtedly think of something along the lines of "I will be fluent in Spanish after 1 year". When setting goals, it's all to easy to focus on the end result, sure we all want to be fluent, and it can be motivating to think about as a long term goal, but in order to break it down into steps you need to be more specific.

It's way too vague. First off, there it's completely ambiguous what fluency actually means. Setting vague goals make it impossible to break down into smaller steps, because there isn't enough clarity in what needs to be done, or even when you have reached your goal.

The other problem is that the goal is too big. Fluency, whatever definition you use, requires a deep understanding of the language, and requires a massive amount of time invested. When first starting a new language it can be incredibly overwhelming, you wouldn't even know where to begin. With a good goal you need clarity about what you are aiming for, and it needs to be able to be broken down into smaller steps.

The other major problem is that you can't control it. We all progress at different rates, and language learning is not a linear process. It's not quite as simple as putting in x amount of hours and then you will be fluent. Concentrating on goals you cannot control could just result in frustration and demotivate for the learner. Instead it's better to focus on things we can actually control.

Taking this on board, I have seen people say things like "I want to reach A2 level after 3 months". While this is better, the goal is smaller, better defined and over a shorter time frame. There is still ambiguity on what A2 actually is, it's just too abstract.


So what does a good goal actually look like?

The first thing is to focus on things you can control. By not focusing on achieving some loosely defined level, and instead focusing on the process, you remove the stress and uncertainty, and this will help you gain clarity and structure to the learning process.

There are two main ways in which I do this, but first you need to define what it is exactly that you want to improve. If you are starting off in a new language, your target should be to build up your comprehension of the language. For me right now, my current medium term goal is to improve my reading & writing in spoken Cantonese. I want to get it to a level where I can comfortably read one of my comic books without having to stop and use a dictionary every other page.

This in itself, is still quite vague, but now we know what skills we are aiming to improve we can set a series of short term goals to achieve our more long term ones.

The best thing to do, is to pick a book or resource of some time and aim to complete it in a set time frame. You are not aiming for perfection, you are aiming to go through and finish. For example, when I first started to learn how to read and write Chinese, even the most common characters looked way too complicated to remember, and I had no idea how to break them down.  Therefore, a good starting point was remembering the Hanzi and learning how to break complicated characters down into their smaller parts in order to remember them. I set a goal of going through and learning all 1500 characters from the book in 3 months. Because it's a specific target in a set time frame I can break that down into learning 50 characters every 3 days.

Another good target for beginners is aiming to be able to hold a 15 minute conversation after 3 months, and enrolling in something like the add1challenge.

Once that was achieved, the next step is to learn how to use everything, and this is where I set a series of new goals. Firstly, to complete the textbook wedding bells in 2 months. I know the book consists of 20 chapters, so I can figure out exactly how much I need to do each day in order to meet that goal.


Focus on Routine

In contrast, the other type of goal I implement is routine based. You aim to put a solid routine in place, and do something X amount of times per week. A good example is when you are ready to start speaking your target language, you can aim for 3 lessons on italki per week. Another example for me right now, is I am aiming to write two entries by hand in my Diary every week and post it on lang-8 for corrections.

This could also be something as simple as watching an episode from your favorite tv drama every night in bed, while you relax.

This may seem simple but don't underestimate the power of a solid routine. Setting a goal like this, allows you to turn up every week, over a long period of time in order to get serious results. You focus on the process, and not the results to make consistent progress without the stress of focusing on whether or not you are "where you should be" in your learning.



The key to setting a successful goal is clarity. You should know exactly what you need to do, and how much you need to do each day in order to achieve your goals. If you can't deduce this, then your goals are too vague.

With a series of small shorter goals, another important aspect is it has to be progressive. You can't jump straight into trying to read a novel over a period of a few months, you have to start with something much simpler. In my case a text book, then onto comic books or Children books, and finally onto more complicated and interesting content.

Setting the right goals can do wonders for your language learning, it can increase your motivation, hold you accountable and keep you on the right course. What kind of goals do you set in your language learning? Do you prefer specific targets, or more routine based goals? Let me know in the comments below!