What Are My Goals? (Learner Edition)

This is the second in a series of posts about goals for language learners and teachers. The first post raised a lot of questions for myself and others, questions I’m eager to explore in the rest of the series. For now, though, because this is a site for learners as well as teachers, I want to comment on my own goals as a language learner. Even if you are a teacher who isn’t working on learning a new language right now, you might find these comments useful, as teaching a language is best understood as helping others learn a language. And I hope you’ll get to pick up another yourself soon!


I learn languages for pleasure. That’s pretty much the only reason. Even the indirect reasons—travel, for instance, or the ability to read the literature of other languages—largely come down to pleasure: my enjoyment of a trip increases in proportion to how well I know the relevant language(s), and I read literature because I enjoy doing so.

So, in an important way, my only goal when it comes to language-learning is to experience pleasure. Because I experience pleasure in the actual acts involved in acquiring a language, my language-learning goal is continuously fulfilled; it’s not some future thing to which I aspire.

That said, I do have some long-term goals:


Long-term Goals

  • Become proficient enough in Spanish to responsibly teach any Novice or Intermediate learner
  • Become proficient enough in Latin to enjoy any Latin text, from any era, with a small amount of help understanding the context

Two crucial truths about pursuing these goals:

  1. The way to fulfill these long-term goals is simply to keep doing the things I do to build proficiency: consume lots of content in the target languages (TL) and interact with others in the TL whenever I get the chance.*
  2. Neither goal can be rushed. There aren’t alternative language-learning methods that are especially effective when you want to learn a language really fast. The only way to achieve my goals faster is to spend more time per day doing things that promote the acquisition of the language. In times when I care more, relative to other needs and desires, and/or have more time, I advance more quickly toward the goals. In times when I care less, relative to other needs and desires, and/or have less time, I advance more slowly or even stagnate.


Short-term Goals

I sometimes have short-term goals, usually before a trip. These almost always take the form of “Acquire as much Dutch/Italian/Hebrew/whatever as possible, given X amount of time per day between now and the trip.” As with the long-term goals, X is determined by how much I care about learning that particular language, relative to other things I need or want to do between now and the trip.

Note that this goal is phrased in terms of time, not in terms of learning a certain number of words or expressions or attaining a certain proficiency level. This is because it is impossible to predict such milestones with useful accuracy and because the attempt to fulfill such objectives may require wildly different durations of daily commitment, depending on fatigue, attention, difficulty of the task, and other factors. “Learn five words per day” or “complete one lesson in Duolingo” can require four minutes one day and twenty-five the next. This unpredictability easily leads to breaking the habit.


Goals and motivation

For many people pursuing a long-term goal, short-term goals are a way to maintain or boost motivation and to build productive habits. If this is the case for you, you might check out the work of Kris Broholm from Actual Fluency and the work of Jason Slanga. Language-learning motivation is not something I tend to struggle with, but, in those rare seasons, basing my daily objectives on time spent—and keeping the time per day, per language, short—has been the best solution. (I wrote about the benefits and practicalities of building one’s language-learning habits in terms of chunks of time, rather than milestones, in “Limiting Your Language-Learning—on Purpose.”)


Goals and self-assessment

I’ve been asked recently how I assess my progress in the languages I learn. It’s a good question, especially valuable for teachers who are wondering how to assess their students’ progress or help their students self-assess.

My self-assessment couldn’t be more straightforward. It consists of two questions that I ask myself, often almost subconsciously:

  1. Can I understand the things I want to understand?
  2. Can I express the things I want to express?

I can think about things I read or watched or listened to on this very day, and conversations I had on this very day, and recognize ways in which my comprehension and expression have expanded and ways in which I still want them to expand. I can also take note in the moment when I don’t understand something or have trouble expressing something. This is all the assessment I need, and it may be all any self-motivated language learner needs.**


Future installments in the series will surely return to the issues of motivation and assessment. In the meantime, I would love to hear about how you conceive of, use, and pursue your language-learning goals!


*For a glimpse of my language-learning habits, see “The Savvy Language Learner (infographic),” “What Is Your Favorite Thing to Do?“, “Do What You Feel Like,” “Your Language-Learning Happy Place,” “The Multilingual Reading Countdown,” “No Subtitles, TL Subtitles, L1 Subtitles,…?“, and “On the Go, In the Language.”

**If you will have to take a proficiency test for a job or for class placement, you may want to assess yourself in ways tied directly to the test. This may not be possible if there aren’t published samples or if the test is a specific type of interview. Note that a good proficiency test shouldn’t require any specific preparation, but there aren’t many good proficiency tests out there.

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