Setting Up Right Goals

We need goals. They navigate us through the chaos of life. They help us to become what we want to be. They organize us. If you decide to learn a new language, you have to set up your goals.

The only problem is that more often than not our goals remain unachieved. Most people start blaming themselves for being too lazy, or for procrastinating too much, or for being disorganized and wasting time reading Facebook instead of learning a couple of new grammar rules. Others start blaming their life circumstances – I work too much, kids take all my spare time, if only I had a helper and were less busy with my household routine… All these are true – we do kill time reading Facebook, kids require a lot of time, and your boss won’t be excited to learn that you failed to meet an important deadline because you’ve been busy memorizing new words in Japanese. Yet, some people manage to learn a new language, and sometimes even more than one, while some just stop learning languages eventually.

I believe that the reason behind most of these failures is wrong goals. Goals equal outcome. Often we consider details about the process rather than setting up desirable outcomes to work toward. For example, if you say “My goal for the next year is to study Russian at least 3 hours a week,”, I bet you’ll fail and feel guilty about it by the end of the year. If you want to improve your Russian, then your goal should be like “By the end of the next year I should be able to have a basic conversation in Russian”. Ideally, you also have to have an actual pragmatic need to communicate in Russian if you truly want to achieve this goal – a new job or educational opportunities, some close friends in Russia that would enrich your life, the love of your life that happens to be a Russian speaker etc. Desirable outcome planning can navigate you through the learning routine. Routine itself, even well-intended and well-planned is simply not a navigation tool.

So, what goals work and motivate? The ones that are relevant to your personal desires. For example, French modern art fascinates you. Your goal could be “Read XYZ books about French modern art (of course, en français)”. Or “Understand what a guide in the Louvre says”. You realize that those books are available only in French, or you suspect that something important is lost in translation, so you anticipate a meaningful reward for your efforts. Actually, you don’t have to feel like it’s a goal. Those books attract and absorb you, so you don’t think about them as you are fulfilling your learning plans. In the long run, language is a means, not a purpose.

Or, for example, if somebody told you about the project “How to Cut Household Waste in Half,” but unfortunately, all the descriptions – the books and videos – about this project are in German, you can set “study German 30 minutes every day” as a goal and get permanently frustrated because there will be days when 30 minutes are impossible to dedicate to studying. Or you can limit your desired outcome to reading those books and understand what those videos are about and work on achieving this simple and practical goal. The next step would be getting to know other supporters of these projects, reading online forums, chatting with other people who are into it – and voila, one day you find that you’ve acquired German without actually learning it on purpose.

I don’t want to make an impression that I know the only right way to learn languages. There are many ways to learn a language. I believe, all of them go through hours of meaningful practice, i.e. using language for some good reasons. However, the ways to failure are all the same: substituting the outcome with the process, and purpose with the routine and schedule. Don’t learn hard, learn smart and have fun! Having fun is mandatory.

Photo by Les Chatfield