Guess what? It’s almost that time when people start thinking about what they’ll start or accomplish next year!

Yes, it is that delightful time, so laden with promise and possibility: it’s time to start thinking about new year resolutions.

Only… it might be a good idea to not choose learning a new language as your resolution. As great as it sounds – and as great an idea as it is, simply saying you want to learn a language is just too vague.

Which language will you learn? What aspects of it – conversation, business, academic? To what degree? For what purpose?

You see, there’s a lot that goes into deciding to learn a language and it should be a commitment not taken lightly.

If you intend to set yourself on the path of becoming bilingual (or multilingual, if you already speak another language besides English), you’re going to need a plan.

Enter Superprof, who now presents the steps to establishing your language learning goals.

Why Set Goals for Learning Language?

Second language acquisition demands proper progress tracking
When you learn languages, it is important to track your progress Image by skeeze from Pixabay

If your desire to learn a foreign language is rooted in self-improvement rather than any academic or professional need, you may feel that you can afford to learn at your own pace, in your own time and in the manner that best suits you.

All of that is true, but only to an extent.

Just because you have no pressing need to learn how to speak Spanish or German or whichever language you have your heart set on, that doesn’t mean that dabbling in language studies will provide the satisfaction and self-improvement you seek.

In fact, quite the contrary. Failing to make any measurable progress may actually discourage you from making any further attempts to learn the language of your choice.

The human brain is a funny thing.

It takes a while to forge the connections needed to efficiently absorb and learn how to use new information. However, once those channels are established, our brains once again resort to wandering, finding ways to burn the energy it has to spare.

You can read all about the science behind goal-setting in our companion article.

Being thus distracted while learning a second language may cause you to reason that the language must not be that interesting because it doesn’t hold your attention.

Or you might come to believe that your lack of focus is due to the language being too difficult to learn, a truly dangerous idea because it can keep you from trying harder or choosing another language to study.

And, as so often happens, soon you’re coming up with more reasons to abandon language study altogether:

  • I won’t ever use the language (no professional reasons and no going abroad)
  • Nobody around here speaks this language, anyway
  • I have more important things to focus on (family, community, work)
  • There are other things I can learn besides languages
  • Why bother? Everybody abroad already speaks English!

It is true; we native English speakers are notoriously bad at picking up a second language especially for that reason.

Still, just because everyone else wants to learn English, that doesn’t mean that we should cheat ourselves of the many benefits of learning another language.

What you need is a plan. A clear outline of steps to take so that you too can communicate in a different language.

Join the discussion: why do learners need language learning goals?

Step One: Define Your Target

Knowing precisely what you want to do and when you want to do it is the first step in the goal-setting process.

Let’s say you are currently entertaining the idea of learning Mandarin Chinese.

That is a step in the right direction; you’ve already established which language you intend to learn: Mandarin versus Cantonese.

Next, you should establish a purpose for learning. You might say you wish to understand Chinese films without having to read subtitles or that you’re planning a trip to Shanghai for Fashion Week next spring and would like to have mastered basic at least Mandarin by then.

That last sentence neatly encapsulates another aspect of setting a concrete goal: a specific time frame.

Setting deadlines for yourself reduces the possibility of procrastination. After all, if nobody (including you) is holding your feet to the fire, you may find yourself postponing your lessons in favour of some other, possibly more enticing activity.

Next thing you know, it’s been a whole week and you haven’t logged into your Duolingo account…

That is why you need to make your goal as precise as you can.

If you are a student of linguistics, you too might like such a calendar
Some people who study foreign languages like using such a calendar to write down now words or concepts they've learned Image by Andreas Lischka from Pixabay

Step Two: Break It Down

Now that you know precisely what you want to learn, why you want to learn it and by when you want to have learned, it’s time to drill down to the finer details of your admirable enterprise.

Which language skills will you focus on?

If you are indeed looking forward to a week in Shanghai and/or understanding Chinese films, perhaps you might overlook grammar and focus instead of amassing a substantial vocabulary.

Likewise, you would emphasise speaking and listening skills over reading and writing skills.

Once you start your lessons, you may discover that conversational Mandarin is just not enough for you. In that case, you can change your goal to include reading and writing exercises in your language lessons.

Don’t forget about time!

For example, you could say that you will log in to Memrise, Busuu or whichever language learning app that works best for you twice per week and spend one hour studying per login.

You may also decide to contact Superprof language tutors to chat with, face to face or online.

Finally, you should break the overall goal into smaller, attainable segments. You may perhaps envision yourself sitting the first-level Mandarin language proficiency test in six months.

Naturally, Mandarin is only an example. You could study any language that you can find materials for and sit competency exams for them, too.

Step Three: Write Things Down

You may be a very determined person who can get things done without external prodding; if so, we congratulate you.

However, for most of us, sticking to a plan that exists only in our heads is a bit more difficult. Perhaps that is why studies reveal that those who write down their goals and the steps to get there are more likely to succeed.

Curiously enough, writing things down by hand rather than typing them into your digital planner has actually proven to be more successful…

No need to paper your entire kitchen with Post-it notes and motivational phrases; a simple flowchart that outlines the steps you intend to take to reach your goals is enough.

Of course, if you like neon-coloured papers everywhere, nobody here will stop you.

Writing down your goals and, at least in the early days of working towards them, reading them a few times a day is a proven formula for success, as revealed in virtually every self-help book and success manual can attest to.

Naturally, you should write down your goals in their finest detail and every step you should take toward achieving them.

Simply writing down ‘Mandarin lessons’ or ‘Study Mandarin’ on your calendar does little to motivate, especially compared with: ‘Learn Basic Greetings’ one day and ‘Learn How to Count’ the next.

This roadmap you are drawing for yourself not only shows the steps you will take toward your language acquisition goals but, should you get discouraged, you can look back on all of those steps and marvel at how far you came.

Do you need a template for goal-setting? Discover our quick guide to language learning goals.

These days, you can learn languages without travelling abroad
Our digital world makes learning a second language without travelling abroad easy! Image by Jan Vašek from Pixabay

Step Four: Get Started!

For some people, the mere act of deciding that, someday, s/he will start learning a foreign language is enough.

After all, ‘someday’ is a ways away and couching such a momentous decision in such vague terms permits for a lot of wriggle room and so what if four years have gone by and not the first word has been learned?

Someday is not here yet!

The best thing you can do to maintain the momentum you gained while taking the above steps is to get started right away. How to do that?

Start searching for language courses in your area. If none can be found, you may consider online lessons. Superprof tutors shine here, too!

Establish accounts on any or all of the language learning apps available. You may want to search for language exchange platforms so that you can chat with those whose native language is the one you’ve set your mind to learning.

Also, check with your local library for any books they may have in your target language or that will help you learn your chosen language.

Don’t forget to look for other ways to get exposure to the language you are studying.

You can find radio stations and television programmes on the Internet; you may also find films and television shows in different languages on any streaming service you may use.

And, who knows? If you are learning Spanish or learning German or some other popular language, you may discover that there is already a study group or a social group active in your city!

No matter what, keep learning a language at the forefront of all that you do.

Step Five: Don’t Give Up

Inevitably, you will reach a point of seeming stagnation; a time when you feel that, no matter how much you work on your language skills, you are not gaining appreciably.

Or, more likely, you will have reached your initial goals. If that’s the case, it is time to make new ones!

However, if you feel like you’re spinning your wheels without result, you may consider changing your study habits or methods, maybe even finding a more challenging language course.

Remember: learning languages is the work of a lifetime but ‘work’ is really the wrong word.

To learn a new language, you have to have an innate curiosity and an awareness that the world is so much bigger than your monolingual one.

It takes a sense of adventure to embark on such a journey of discovery and a thirst for knowledge to see it through.

Imagine yourself as Sir James Cook. He didn’t suddenly give up, mid-voyage; why should you?

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Jess