How to Set S.M.A.R.T Goals for Language Learning

I never was anywhere good with setting goals, leave alone goals for language learning. My typical approach to languages was to grab a random one, start learning it with the excitement of a labrador on a playground and deal with problems as they revealed themselves.

Well, it never worked out.

My vaguely expressed desire to “learn Polish” back in 2014 wasn’t helping me to define what I meant by “knowing Polish”, when exactly I wanted to show off my refined language skills and why the heck I needed it on the first place. As a result, my Polish fever never became anything more than a hobby. And, of course, I didn’t end up knowing this language even though I spent a whole year trying to do so.

In 2018, however, after less than a year of learning French, I was able to study in this language at university. My strategy didn’t change: I learned French by myself, same like Polish. The only thing that changed was how I set my language learning goal.

This time I made it S.M.A.R.T.

What are S.M.A.R.T. goals in language learning?

The core of a good goal is logic.

There are a number of elements to this logic, best summarized with an acronym S.M.A.R.T. When they first appeared in print 1, these five letters encoded the following:

S. Specific
M. Measurable
A. Assignable
R. Realistic
T. Time-related

However, as the idea traveled through time and space, the last three letters obtained a couple of new definitions. A is often understood as “achievable” or “ambitious” (I prefer to define it as “actionable“). R – as “relevant”, and T – as “trackable” or “time-bound’.

S.M.A.R.T. terminology now is more than a tool in the hands of C-level executives. It can be successfully used by anyone to transform any type of goal into the driving engine of a project.

Let’s see how to write S.M.A.R.T goals for language learning.

How SMART goals change your approach to language learning?

Each word in the S.M.A.R.T. acronym acts as a filter. No matter how vague your initial idea about learning another language is, run it through these filters and you’ll end up with a working language learning goal on your hands.

Let’s take an example. I wanted to learn Spanish for a long time, and something tells me that this is the right moment to start. But before I can say that I’m serious about it, I have to think about “learning Spanish” goal in SMART terms:

Specific

Specific” is an antonym to “vague“.

It’s often helpful to think about specific goals in language learning in terms of a proficiency level you want to achieve by a certain time. CEFR provided fairly clear descriptions of what you can potentially do at, say, B1 level as compared to C2. If you are learning another language from scratch and aim at becoming more or less functional, B1 may be your choice. If, however, you’re working on a language you already know well, the best approach is to specify the areas you want to improve (pronunciation, particular grammar points, technical vocabulary, etc).

In my case, I calculated that I need Spanish at the B2 level by September. (Next academic year, I’m planning to take courses in Spanish at my university, so I better speak it well.)

Measurable

The next question to ask is “How do I know when I’m done?

Only measurable goals are capable of providing a valid answer. And this is another reason why I’m so fond of defining language learning goals within a frame of proficiency levels. You know that you’re done when you managed to pass a specific language test (such as DELF, DELE or IELTS) at the appropriate level.

So if, for instance, I need a proven B2 level in Spanish, I should probably take the DELE exam. When I pass it, the mission is complete.

Actionable

As David Allen often puts it, “You don’t actually do a project; you can only do action steps related to it. When enough of the right action steps have been taken, some situation will have been created that matches your initial picture of the outcome closely enough that you can call it “done”.”

In other words, you can’t just learn Spanish. But you can learn enough vocabulary, take in sufficient amount of comprehensible input and spend enough hours practicing speaking – after which you can say that you know Spanish.

To make your language learning goals actionable, ask yourself a pro question “What’s the next action?” and continue to do so until you parse this monstrosity called “learn Spanish” into minimal parts.

An interesting thing will happen. You will end up with a set of objectives (short-term goals such as “listen to five levels of Pimsleur language program“) and habits (daily actions such as “listen to one Pimsleur lesson every single day“). Objectives should be treated as mini-goals (the S.M.A.R.T.-er they are the better). Habits should be planted into your daily routine.

Realistic

Setting realistic goals in language learning means evaluating the volume of work you plan to get done against the resources you have. And this is where most language learners either overestimate their abilities or underestimate them.

What do I mean by the volume of work?

Simply enough, it is the number of hours you have to devote to language learning. At this point, you want to review the Foreign Service Institute study on how much time is needed to learn a language and get some raw numerical data.

For example, if I were to start Spanish from scratch, I would need to spend 600 hours to reach a solid B2 level. It amounts to approximately 6-7 months of intensive 3,5 hours a day language learning routine. I don’t have these 3,5 hours right now, but I will have enough time by the end of the term. Moreover, I have already accomplished a similar feat with the DELF B2, so it is clearly not impossible.

All this suggests that the most realistic language learning goal in my case would be taking the DELE B2 in 5-6 months (in July-August).

Time-Bound

A”time-bound” goal sets a clear deadline by which the result must be achieved.

Proficiency tests naturally provide deadlines for all sorts of goals in language learning. But, obviously, they are not the only way of establishing a timeframe. An upcoming trip to another country where you would have to speak your target language may be a great example of a deadline. Depending on your target proficiency level, even a visit of an international friend, a job interview in another language, or any other event where your language skills will be tested may become your personal deadline.

When setting a deadline, don’t forget all other elements that constitute a S.M.A.R.T. language learning goal. Keep it realistic.

As for me, the deadline is certainly the DELE B2 taken somewhere in July-August (as estimated in the previous step). My next action, the, is to land on the DELE website, find the test dates and pick one that approximates this range more closely.

What do you do with your S.M.A.R.T. language learning goal?

By the end of this exercise, you should be able to transform your goals for language learning into something more specific, measurable, actionable, realistic and time-bound:

Learn Spanish – > Pass the DELE B2 exam on July 17th

Now, how can you make this goal to work for you?

Brainstorm

Brian Tracy, the author of the famous anti-procrastination guide “Eat That Frog” recommends to write it down and move on to project planning.

It may sound like another “I never gonna finish that” task, but, in reality, nothing can be simpler. Just grab a piece of paper and write down everything you can possibly need to complete the mission. And, by the way, if you went through each step of setting a SMART language goal, you already have it half done.

My list looked like this:

  • get a DELE B2 preparation guide
  • register for the exam
  • make a list of audiobooks to listen in Spanish
  • complete 5 levels of Spanish in Memrise
  • listen to one Pimsleur lesson every day until I’m done with all 5 levels
  • buy 3-4 Spanish books (choose which ones)
  • find YouTube channels and podcasts to listen in Spanish
  • learn 15 new Spanish words with Memrise everyday
  • go to Polyglot club each week and speak Spanish
  • collect a dozen Spanish articles in Readlang

At this point, it’s a pure draft, nothing concrete. You just need to pinpoint ideas that may be potentially useful for completing your S.M.A.R.T. language learning goals.

Organize

Once completed, this list will serve you a good deal in organizing your workflow.

As you look across and define your objectives, outline what you need to do in order to accomplish each of them. For example, if I want to listen to everything that Pimsleur Spanish program has to offer, I have to buy at least the first level, get it on my phone, ensure that everything is working and plan when to listen to it.

So I list these tasks in order of priority and spend a day on checking off from this list all the “admin” stuff. You know, getting those books, installing the apps, musing upon how listen to Pimsleur without looking like a schizophrenic.

Execute

Execution is probably the simplest part of all this.

It’s not hard to go for a half-an-hour walk while completing a daily Pimsleur lesson. Similarly, it takes nothing to grab Juan Salvador Gaviota, land in Starbucks with a cup of flat white and read a chapter. Solving the DELE B2 guide, although mentally exhausting, is also not hard as long as there is a defined piece of work to complete.

Setting a SMART goal for your language learning project may be mundane and time-consuming. But it has a potential of saving years of wasted efforts.

So do your thinking first. Stay S.M.A.R.T.

Image Credits: Photo by Lonely Planet on Unsplash

Author Details
Polyglot, Author and Founder of Linguapath
Hey! I am Alina Kuimova, and my long-lasting obsession with learning languages led to creation of this site. Apart from being a grammar enthousiast, I enjoy reading smart books in any language available, finding easier ways for the brain to learn things and buffing productivity stats by 180%.
  1. 1981 George T.Doran, “There’s a SMART Way to Write Management’s Goals and Objectives”, https://community.mis.temple.edu/mis0855002fall2015/files/2015/10/S.M.A.R.T-Way-Management-Review.pdf)

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