How You Can Set Functional Language Goals

Hitting your goals

Everyone always says that the first thing you need to do with any new long term project is to set goals. Unfortunately they don’t always explain how exactly you’re supposed to do that.

One of the most effective methods used for setting goals is the SMART system. “SMART” is an acronym for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-bound and is a reliable strategy for planning your objectives in the pursuit of a new language.

Here I’ll walk you through everything you need to do to launch your new language project with simple, actionable goals.

Before you do anything:

  • Why did you choose this language? This is key because without ample motivation you stand a good chance of losing interest. Are you visiting a foreign country? Trying to land an industry specific job? Want to understand Rammstein lyrics? It doesn’t matter why you chose this language, just that you know why and that your reasons are powerful enough to motivate you through what will likely be a long, sometimes grueling project.
  • Is fluency important to you? Are you looking to spend an extended period of time abroad? Want to become a certified translator? Or are you just looking to know some survival or mid-level conversation skills? Just interested in reading the original translations of your favorite books? You should know how far you want to take things currently. This might change later, but for now, pick a target proficiency and hone in.
  • What, if anything, do you already know about your target language? Most English speakers know more French than they may be aware of, and most of us in the US have probably experienced our fare share of Spanish as well. You’d be surprised what you do know, even if you haven’t ever studied the language before. Many of us had language classes in high school, and for many of us, they probably didn’t work. However, you’d be amazed by how much your brain does retain from these classes, even after years without practice.


SMART goals are:

Specific – Saying “I want to be a fluent Thai speaker” is not a very specific goal.


It’s more of a dream, and not a very helpful one at this stage of the game.

Most importantly though, fluency is very much a long term goal and we need to think about something a little bit more immediate and a lot more specific.

It’s okay to know you want to be fluent, but a more precise goal would be something like wanting to be able to find your way around Bangkok without excessive difficulty. Or maybe you just want to watch Ong Bak 2 without subtitles.

Perhaps you are in a relationship with a native Thai speaker and are faced with meeting his/her monolingual Thai speaking family at a reunion two months from now. You’re not going to be fluent by then, so put that out of mind.

Focus instead on the things you’re likely to be asked about or basic conversation topics. Food is always a good one.

Even something as simple as memorizing the lyrics to a song or the words to a poem works. It does not need to be complicated! The great thing about the SMART method is that it’s scalable.

Measurable – You want to be sure that you are able to see your progress in some meaningful way. It can be hard to assess whether you’re learning or not unless you have a point of reference.

Try recording your pronunciation early on in your project and comparing yourself to it a few months later.

You should be attempting to speak the language as much as possible as you go, so be sure to fit in some conversation time with native speakers. Interaction with real people is the best way to know how well you’re progressing. It is essential to have this kind of feedback.

Measurable also plays into Specific.

When you design your goal try to use numbers, not only to make things more specific but to improve the visibility of your progress.

A few examples of measurable goals:

  • Finish one new Memrise course per month.
  • Learn 200 words in your target language per month.
  • Go an entire 1 hour in conversation with a native speaker without reverting to your comfort language.

Each of these goals can be tracked fairly easily.

Memrise, for example, shows you your progress on a simple dashboard. You can write down the words you learn and easily count them or use a learning system that numbers them for you. And you’ll know pretty quickly if you slip up in conversation.

Attainable – Don’t go insane. Unless you’re Benny Lewis you’re not going to be fluent in a few months and anyone who tells you otherwise is selling something.

If you’re serious about your new project you’re going to be at it for quite some time, so make sure that you set reasonable goals such as: “I want to be able to read the original version of Don Quixote” rather than unreasonable goals such as: “I want to be a medical translator in Colombia next year, but I don’t speak Spanish….yet!”

You don’t want your goals to be too easy though, otherwise you’re not going to be pushing yourself hard enough and you won’t be getting as much mileage out of your study time.

It can be hard sometimes to find a nice balance between too hard and too easy. When this happens it’s okay to err a bit more on the difficult side of the fence.

A goal is just that; a goal. It isn’t supposed to be something you can do right this second. It’s something you work for – and sometimes fail at achieving a few times before really managing to hit the nail on the head.

If you choose goals that are too far inside your comfort zone your progress will be minimal and your sense of accomplishment less real. If you choose goals too far outside that comfort zone and you risk becoming disillusioned with your struggles and giving in prematurely.

Relevant: Your goals need to be relevant to your project. This may sound obvious but it’s easy sometimes to set short term goals that don’t really add up to longer term aspirations in the most effective way.

If conversationalism is your long term goal then your shorter term goals should lead you towards conversationalism. Your overall, end game goal might be a general fluency in your target language but for now you need to concentrate on things that get you closer to conversationalism.

Reading is great, spending time learning to improve your reading comprehension in your target language is a perfectly reasonable way to spend your time, but it isn’t going to help you overcome your fear of speaking your language in front of real people – that is something that can only be done through real application.

On the other hand, if your goal is to become a professional translator, focusing on your reading comprehension is going to be a mite more important and relevant to your goal.

I’m not suggesting that reading is less important to fluency here either – simply that when you set a goal you need to choose the most relevant steps to achieving that goal.

It doesn’t mean you can’t spend any time working on your reading!

Time-bound. – Your goals should have a predetermined time frame to help keep the pressure on.

Consider goals such as mastering conjugations within a month or two, or carrying on a basic conversation with a native speaker without too much trouble each week.

This gives you something to work towards and will give you a real feeling of accomplishment when you get there! These small victories maintain motivation and keep you working on the bigger picture.

Making your goal time-bound also contributes further to the measurable attribute of a solid goal. Time is quantifiable and easy to observe making it an ideal bracket within which to mount your aspirations.

It is also highly flexible. Interpretation of what a “short” term goal means can vary tremendously and is really for you to decide. I like to think of short term goals as anything shorter than 3 months and everything beyond that is a “long” term goal, though these as well can vary from several months to several years.

Making goals time-bound allows you to cut them up into chunks that you can then assign to other, shorter goals. For example if you your goal is to learn 600 words over the summer you could subdivide that goal into 200 words per month over July, August and September.

My own goal

To give you an idea of a SMART goal I’ll explain my own aspiration for 2015 and show how it fits this model:

In January I started studying French. I knew almost nothing about the language and have had no prior experience with it save for the vast similarities and loanwords that are shared between French and English.

My goal is to reach a basic level of conversational proficiency by the end of 2015. I’ve resolved to learn 100 new French words every month.

This goal may not seem especially difficult – and it isn’t. It wasn’t designed to be but it fits my current lifestyle, work schedule and other obligations quite well and it should be sufficient to achieve by year’s end.

My goal assumes that the vast majority of a spoken language used with any sort of regularity is going to consist of the same 1,000ish recycled words. By year’s end I should have surpassed this considerably.

This goal is:

  • Specific. 100 words per month, that’s 1200 words in a year.
  • Measurable. Number of words, number of months. I can easily write them down or count my progress using various tools such as Memrise.
  • Attainable. 100 words may sound easy, but it’s actually a lot of words to compound onto what I already know while retaining words from each prior month. The difficulty will add up but it shouldn’t be too much to handle.
  • Relevant. My monthly goals add up quite nicely to my longer term goal for 2015.
  • Time-bound. My long term 1 year goal is broken down into a series of 12 monthly goals. It isn’t left open ended such as “learn French!”

By 2016 I see no reason why this goal cannot have me at a basic conversational proficiency in French. Yes, some might call it a very modest goal – and it is. I’m in no great rush and I’ve got other languages that I still wish to upkeep. I’ll also almost definitely end up with a larger vocabulary than 1200 words. That’s just my goal, kind of a minimum – I fully expect that I’ll end up overshooting it some months, which leads me to my next point.

What to do if you don’t reach your goal

First of all; don’t freak out. As I said before a goal is supposed to be something of a challenge, not necessarily something you can just do right now.

There are a few ways to approach this question.

I would suggest approaching your goals with a certain degree of strictness. If you’re too lax on yourself you won’t reach your goals, you’ll become complacent in your mediocrity and your progress will suffer.

But neither should you be too hard on yourself. Things happen, life changes, your studies can be interrupted and there’s nothing that can be done about that. Sometimes it’s better to just gloss over the mistakes and not put additional pressure on yourself.


Using myself as an example again, if I don’t manage to hit 100 new words in one particular month I could do one of two things:

  1. Impress upon myself a harder goal the following month. Perhaps adding on the words I missed to make up for lost time. The obvious problem with this is that I’ll be placing more stress on my shoulders and run the risk of compounding my failures and starting a snowball effect wherein I continually fall short of my goals and losing motivation as a result.
  2. Continue on without worrying about it. Things happen. The problem with this is that I could become complacent; deciding “ehhh, 80 words is good enough…” Complacency can also ruin a goal. If you start becoming content with mediocrity that too can snowball into you falling far short of your goals.

If you find yourself repeatedly falling short of your goals it might be time to sit down and reassess them. At the same time, if you’re meeting them too easily without feeling any sort of burn, you likewise need to readjust your aims to be more appropriate.


If you follow the SMART goals method, and give it some serious time and effort, you cannot fail. Remember to continue to formulate new goals throughout your learning experience as you accomplish them.

Learning a new language is rarely going to be easy. Setting goals is the first step in what is always going to be a lengthy process and is necessary for giving yourself a starting line and trajectory for your new project.

Most people that I talk to get hung up on the “where do I even begin” phase and often never make it past that point. This is sad. It only takes a little bit of time and thought to hammer out your goals and you may find your excitement and motivation building as you plot your course of action.

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  • The problem I’ve got with SMART goals are…

    a) language learning isn’t generally specific (“S”)
    b) for anything beyond “x number of words per week” it’s very difficult to quantify what you’re learning, and therefore measure it (“M”) , let alone in any kind of time-frame (“T”)
    c) and more generally, even if you can articulate a goal, it’s very difficult to say exactly how you’re going to achieve that, unless you’re pretty experienced at language learning yourself and know how you learn.

    I always tend towards “process-oriented” goals, which would say something like: “for the next 2 weeks I’m going to spend 30 mins per day doing x,y,z” – where x,y,z are the types of activities that are likely to result in learning. (There’s then no need to quantify what you hope to learn…which is difficult to do anyway)