Why you should have audacious language learning goals (even if you don't reach them)

31st October 2017

Dreaming of speaking a foreign language fluently? Setting a big, exciting goal can speed up your progress (even if you don't reach it).

I’m a fraud. I write articles about things like "how to reach your language learning goals". But half the time, I don’t actually reach my goals for learning a foreign language. If you’re someone who gets enthusiastic about learning new things, this might sound familiar:
  1. You get excited about a big goal, like learning fluent Spanish in 1 year.
  2. Reality hits and you never do it.
Conventional wisdom says you failed because your goal was too unrealistic. By setting a difficult goal for learning a foreign language, you “set yourself up to fail”. You should have gone for something easier, like “learn how to have a basic conversation about myself and my family”. But it’s not very inspiring is it? It’s also not very effective. Research shows that people who set themselves easy goals are less likely to perform well. Which makes sense. When you aim high, the reward is usually more exciting. And it’s much easier to motivate yourself to work towards goals that feel exciting. The problem with audacious goals is that by their very nature, they’re harder to achieve. You’re more likely to fail, which makes them intimidating to pursue. But that doesn’t mean you have to settle for uninspiring goals. You can make big language learning goals work for you by following a few simple principles. In this post, you’ll learn:
  • Why audacious language learning goals help you learn a language faster (and enjoy it more)
  • Why it’s OK not to reach your goals all the time.
  • How to set goals that help you make loads of progress in your target language (whether you reach them or not)

The moonshot factory

“X” is a radical research and development lab at Google, also known as the “moonshot factory”. It’s a place where scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs get together to work on far-out projects, like reducing road accidents with self driving cars, or “project Loon”, an attempt to bring balloon-powered internet to 4 billion people who don’t have access. Projects they describe as “uncomfortably ambitious”. But the team at X aren’t worried about the fact that their projects are unrealistic. They know that to drive dramatic change, they have to aim high. Or “shoot for the moon” as it were. Of course, the audaciousness of these projects means they’re likely to fail. A lot. So how does the team at X motivate themselves to work towards big dreams, when they know that failure is almost inevitable? By celebrating failure. Astro Teller, the head of Google X, explains that to make progress, it’s essential to create a company culture where staff feel comfortable taking risks. At the moonshot factory, they make it "safe to fail" by promoting and giving bonuses to people who contributed to projects that didn’t work.

Project Loon at google X, where the team tackles ambitious projects and actively embraces failure.

Why it’s OK not to achieve your language learning goals

There’s an idea in motivational psychology that you should always set achievable goals so you can “set yourself up to win”. Because if you lose, you’ll get disappointed and decide you don’t want to play anymore. Like a spoilt child losing at a board game. Give yourself more credit than that. You can handle the slight inconvenience of not reaching your goal for learning a foreign language. When you go for an audacious language learning goal, there are 2 possible outcomes:
  1. You’ll reach it (which would be amazing)
  2. You won’t reach it, but you’ll have pushed your limits and achieved way more than you would have otherwise.
Surely it’s more satisfying to work towards something exciting and challenging and miss the target slightly, than achieve a goal you knew was going to be easy all along? The view that big goals are demotivating is linked to the idea that failure is something to be avoided. If we think we might fail, we’d rather not try at all. But wouldn’t it make more sense to change the way we see failure, rather than changing the goal? What if the solution, instead of settling for uninspiring goals, was to throw all your energy at exciting projects, without worrying if you fail? Not the trite “aim high and all your dreams will come true” philosophy. More of a “dream big and you’ll probably fall flat on your arse but it doesn’t matter” kind of philosophy.

If you set an audacious goal, there's a risk you'll fall flat on your arse. But does it really matter? You'll still have learnt loads in the process!

The all or nothing trap

The idea that you should only set goals you know you can achieve creates an oversimplified view of success: Reach goal = good Don’t reach goal = bad But this all or nothing view ignores all the good stuff in between. Imagine you wanted to learn Spanish to an advanced level in 1 year, but you ended up at intermediate level instead. You’ve got 2 options:
  1. Feel disappointed because you didn’t reach your language learning goal.
  2. Crack open the Cava and celebrate the fact that you still learned loads of Spanish in a relatively short time.
Not reaching your language learning goals can be demotivating, but only if you decide to see things like number 1. If you take the second approach, you’ll get the motivation boost that comes from having an exciting language learning goal, and the satisfaction of celebrating your progress. The fact that you fell short of your original objective doesn’t matter that much.

Crack open the Cava, it's time to celebrate all that stuff you learnt. Who cares if you were a bit off target?

The power of close enough

The importance of setting “realistic” goals is so well accepted that I’d always seen my inability to do it as a shortcoming, something I needed to change if I wanted to be successful. Lately, I’ve been questioning this idea. Yes, I usually fail to meet the unrealistic goals I set. But does it really matter? At University, my study plans were so over ambitious, I can’t remember a single day when I stuck to them. But I followed them as closely as I could, and that was good enough to get into Cambridge and win a prestigious scholarship for graduate research. When it comes to learning languages, I never manage to do everything I had planned. Yet somehow I end up learning the languages anyway. It’d be nice to say that I did these things thanks to a well organised and executed plan. But it’s not true. Everything I've ever achieved is the result of loads of messy near (and often far) misses.

I don't think I've ever met any of the silly, over ambitious targets I set myself. But they let me hang around Cambridge and dress up like Harry Potter anyway.

If you always followed goals you knew you could achieve, life would be like a game of tetris, where the pieces fell so slowly you never moved off the bottom row: it would get very boring very quickly. The key to making audacious goals work for you is to pat yourself on the back for your “close enoughs”. This way, you’ll stay motivated to keep chasing your fun goals and make lots of progress on the way. Of course, this philosophy does have limits. If you perceive something as so unrealistic you don’t stand a chance, it's almost impossible to get motivated. Don't deliberately set out to fail. Just know that everything will be OK if you do. Next, let’s learn 9 keys for setting audacious language learning goals which will:
  • give you the best chance at reaching your big language learning goals.
  • help you learn as much as humanly possible (whether you actually reach them or not).

9 keys to setting audacious language learning goals

1. Choose something exciting

The first step is to choose a goal that gets you excited about learning your target language. Some people like to aim for an exam, so they can confirm their level, but if that makes you yawn, there are plenty of other options! If you’re a beginner, how about aiming for a 15 minute conversation with a native speaker? If you’re lucky enough to be able to travel to the country of your target language, how about being able to do everything you need on your trip, without reverting back to English? If you’re a higher level, why not try making a native speaker friend with whom you communicate entirely in your target language?

2. Keep it short

Next, it helps to make the goal relatively short term (6 months or less). Anything longer and it’s tempting to slack off: the lazy part of your brain will always try to convince you that you can do it later.

3. Make it very specific

Research shows that the more specific a goal is, the more likely you are to achieve it. Goals like “be able to speak for 30 minutes without reverting back to English” are better than “learn fluent Spanish”.

4. Break it into concrete actions

Remember at the beginning of this post when we talked about wanting to learn Spanish in 1 year but “never actually doing it”? Usually the problem isn’t the audacious goal, it’s the fact that people forget to think about the concrete actions they need to take to get there. It’s great to have an ambitious goal, but unless you break it down into little, actionable steps, it will remain a vague idea that you keep putting off to “someday”. Now you’ve got your big goal, take some time to think about how to break it down into concrete actions. For example, if your goal is to learn to speak quickly, you might decide to do 3 online conversation lessons a week with an online tutor on a site like italki.

5. Plan for failure

When I set audacious goals, I always imagine that Super Future Katie, who goes to bed early and always does her homework, will do all the work. Now I’ve never met this woman, so I’m not sure why I keep expecting her to swoop in one day and solve all my problems. It’s just not going to happen is it? If you know that on Sundays, you’d rather stick a pencil in your eye than do anything productive, make that your day off. If reading the news feels like a chore in your native language, don’t force yourself to do it in the language you’re learning - go for something more enjoyable. The more you can plan for you, the fallible human being and not the superhero version, the easier it is to take action towards your language learning goals.  

6. Don’t rely on willpower

If you’re excited about your language learning goal, it’ll give you plenty of motivation to get started. But somewhere along the line, that enthusiasm will start to wear off. It’s not a good idea to count on willpower when this happens because it has a habit of failing us when we need it most - that's why most gyms are half empty in February. The best way to combat this, is to make language learning a habit. This way, there’s less risk of overthinking things and talking yourself out of it. There are 2 ways to do this and the most successful approaches use a combination of both:
  1. Think of lots of little ways to integrate language learning into your life, like listening to podcasts on your commute, or writing your shopping list in the language you’re learning.
  2. Be as consistent as possible. This normally means setting aside the same time every day to squeeze in a bit of language learning. Choose a time when you’re able to block out distractions - early in the morning is ideal, but if you’re a night owl, evenings can work too!

7. Book it

It helps to have concrete arrangements which force you to take action towards your goal, like booking your exam, or a holiday in a little town where no one speaks English. This is because at some point, a little voice will pop into your head and try to dissuade you. “What if I skipped this exam session and did the one a few months later?” “I’m not ready yet, maybe I should wait until next year to practice my language skills on holiday” Don’t listen. Maybe it won’t turn out exactly as you’d hoped: maybe you’ll get a lower mark than you wanted, or even fail your exam. Maybe you won’t get by in Spanish on holiday as easily as you’d hoped. But we’ve already established that it doesn’t really matter. You’ll learn so much more by having a go and falling a bit short, than by putting it off. Once it’s booked, it’s much easier to ignore this voice and keep going anyway.

8. Don’t go it alone

Research shows that teaming up with other people who are going for similar goals makes you more likely to achieve them. There are loads of ways to team up with other language learners online, here are a few to get you started: the language diary challenge, the add1challenge, the fi3m forum, clear the list, the 30 day speaking challenge.

9. Do take it lightly

One thing that puts people off chasing big goals is that it can feel a bit scary. But there’s no need to take it so seriously! When it all gets too much, remind yourself that reaching your goal is just the cherry on top: the important thing is all the progress you make as you work towards it. When it comes to language learning goals, it really is the taking part that counts!

My language plans for November

My exciting language goal for the moment is to reach advanced level French, which I’m hoping to verify by taking the DALF C1 exam at the end of November. Knowing this deadline is coming up has motivated me like nothing else: I’ve made more progress in the last few months than I had in the 3 years before. I’m still not sure if I’ll pass or not, but whatever happens, I’m thrilled with the progress I’ve made.

Here’s how I’m following the 9 keys for setting audacious language goals

1. Is it exciting?

Ok, so doing an exam isn’t a very thrilling prospect, but being able to certify that I’ve got advanced French is. That’s my moonshot and I’m excited about it.

2. Is it short?

Yep - I started working on the project back in July.

3. Is it specific?

Yes - I’m taking the C1 DALF French exam on the 27th November. It doesn’t get much more specific than that!

4. Did I break it down into actionable steps?

I did - you can read more about them in this post: DALF C1: How I’m preparing for the scary French exam.

5. Did I plan for failure?

Yes. I’ve come up with plenty of strategies to work with (rather than against) my laziness (including watching reality TV in French when I can’t be bothered to study).

6. Did I turn it into a habit?

Yes and no. I’m good at integrating French into my daily life, by listening to podcasts etc. Not so good at studying at the same time in the same place every day. This is what’s holding me back most at the moment. In the morning I think “I’ll study later”, but then life gets in the way and I don’t get around to it. This month, I want to get into the habit of studying in the morning, before I start my day.

7. Did I book it?

Yes! This part was tricky as my terrified brain was doing everything in it’s power to talk me out of it. But I tried not to listen and booked it anyway.

8. Did I find a community?

Yes, I joined clear the list, an online blogging community where language learners share their goals and cheer each other on. In fact, you’re reading one of my clear the list posts right now!

9. Am I taking it lightly?

I’d be lying if I said that the prospect of doing a big scary French exam didn’t stress me out from time to time. But reminding myself that the real aim is to make progress in French, and I’ve already done that, certainly takes the pressure off.

Checklist for setting audacious goals for learning a language

1. Is it exciting? When you've got an inspiring language goal, it’s much easier to motivate yourself.
2. Is it short term? Try to keep the deadline under 6 months. Any longer and it’s easy to keep putting  off. 
3. Is it specific? Language learning goals like “be able to speak for 30 minutes without reverting back to English” are better than “learn fluent Spanish”.
4. Did you break it down into actionable steps? Break your language learning goal down into a series of small, actionable steps (and actually do them!)
5. Did you plan for failure? Make your plan around the fallible human being that you are (not the super future you that doesn’t exist!)
6. Did you make it a habit? Don’t rely on willpower, build habits instead.
7. Can you book something? If you can book something related to your deadline like an exam date, or a trip where you only speak your target language, it helps you beat the powerful urge to chicken out at the last minute.
8. Did you find a community? Get some moral support by joining one of the online language learning communities, like the #languagediarychallenge.
9. Did you remember not to take it too seriously? Whenever you feel stressed out, remember: it’s the taking part that counts! Even if you fall a bit short of your language learning goal, you'll still have made loads of progress.

 What do you think?

Which language are you learning? What kind of audacious language learning goal could you set to help you make more progress? Share it in the comments!

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