Want to learn a language in 2013? Make a resolution you can stick to!

ImageWell, we’re two days in. How’s the New Year’s Resolution going? Are you planning on picking up a new language this year? Maybe you’re going to brush up that high school Spanish you’ve been neglecting. I know I should! Maybe your goals are a little loftier—conversational Mandarin by 2014? It is possible!

It’s possible, but it’s not easy. You won’t get there if you don’t take definite steps, follow a plan, and check your progress as you go. As an English teacher, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve met who say they really want to learn English, but they just don’t know where to start. Well, this post should help you out. Today, we’re talking about goal setting, and it’s really the first step in doing anything that takes time and effort.

First, what’s a good goal? One test you can use is to ask yourself, is my goal SMART?

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Realistic
  • Timely

Let’s break that down.

A good goal is specific. “I want to learn Arabic” is not specific. “I want to read more books in Spanish” is not specific. You’ve got to know exactly what you’re going to do, when, and why. Here are some specific language goals.

  • I will learn ten new words in every day to improve my vocabulary.
  • I will raise my reading score on the TOEIC by reading one book in English each month.
  • I will learn basic Japanese grammar by doing one unit of Genki each week.

See the difference there? First off, drive this “I want” or “it would be nice if” business out of your head immediately. You will! Youwill complete a specific task to meet a specific goal. With a specific task, you know whether you’re moving toward your goal or not. Wanting to learn Mandarin won’t get you there, but learning vocabulary will.

A good goal is measurable. You won’t learn “a few new words each day”, you will learn ten. You won’t have “more conversations”, you will start one conversation every day. You know if you’re on track, because there’s a number there. Didn’t finish the book this month? You’re not on track; read more next month. Keep track somehow. Mark it on your calendar, keep a journal. Use the “Don’t Break the Chain” method.

A good goal is attainable. You want to be fluent in Japanese? I like your ambition, son, but Kyoto wasn’t built in a day. Pick a goal that you know is in reach, and astonish yourself when you manage to complete that goal and keep going. Break it into chunks. If your target language has a test for attainment, like TOEFL for English or JLPT for Japanese, try to reach for the next rung on the ladder. Passed JLPT N4? Go for N3 this summer. If you manage to go way beyond that, great!

A good goal is realistic. Know your proclivities, and know your interests. I’ve been a video game nerd since I got my first NES at three years old, and that’s just not likely to change. I can’t very well tell myself, “This year, no more video games! I’m exclusively reading books in Japanese in my spare time.” That’s probably not going to work out. I could play more games in Japanese, though, or set aside one day each week where I take a break from slaying dragons and foiling Dr. Wily’s nefarious plans. Don’t set a goal that will make you miserable. If you want to get over a bad habit, do it gradually. If you want to start a good habit, start small and work up from there.

A good goal is timely. When will you achieve your goal? Language tests are great for this, as they give you a clear deadline. “I will learn 300 new words before my next TOEIC test” is pretty good, provided you’ve already signed up for that test. Don’t set it too far in the future, or the deadline won’t motivate you. “I will be fluent in Japanese in 10 years” is not nearly as good as “I will know 500 Kanji by this time next year”. For your New Year’s Resolution, why not set a goal with March 1st as your end date? You can always keep going after that. It’s close enough to motivate you, but far enough that you can make some visible progress in that time.

Learning a language takes time and effort. Don’t spin your wheels working at goals that won’t help you advance. Set a SMART goal this year!

Good luck, have fun!



English teacher, student of Japanese, and aspiring linguist.

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