Why most people don't achieve their language goals

29th November 2015

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. Bruce Lee

I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times. Bruce Lee

Goals. Most of us are pros at getting started but a bit clueless when it comes to actually crossing the finishing line. I recently had a similar experience in my own language learning missions. Despite a lot of initial enthusiasm (or wild optimism?) my accomplishments turned out to be a bit flat. My first goal was part of the italki challenge, where I did six lessons with native Mandarin speakers over the space of two weeks. My aim for this challenge was to describe my friends and family in Chinese. [embed][/embed] The second was to learn some basic German phrases to use in shops, restaurants and travel situations. [embed][/embed] Looking back, I can see I did one thing right, but I missed something really important which ultimately slowed my progress.

What I did right

I followed the #1 rule for achieving just about anything and everything:

Set small, well-defined goals

One of the main reasons people give up on languages is the sheer volume of new things to learn. When you think about a language as a whole, each new word or grammar rule feels hopelessely insignificant by comparison. Vague goals compound the problem as they make it impossible to track progress and give the impression that you're getting nowhere, in spite of all your hard work. Ill-defined goals such as "to get by" are kryptonite to motivation. What does "get by" even mean? How will you know when you get there? Over 50 years of studies in goal-setting theory show that setting specific goals leads to higher success rates. For example, the idea of earning 500 dollars a month produces far better results when compared to the more general goal of earning some extra cash. The same principle applies to language learning.  Dividing the mammoth task into small, well-defined goals gives you a clear destination to aim for. More importantly, you can track your progress and give yourself a little pat on the back when you get there.

Where I went wrong

Although my goals were small and well-defined, I didn't give nearly enough thought to how I would bring them to fruition in the real world. For example, a lot of my study time in German was based around audio and texts from my self-study book, with relatively little time practicing the actual skills I was trying to develop. Which brings me to rule number 2:

Practice practice practice. Then practice some more. 

If your goal is to order in shops and restaurants, you should practice ordering in shops and restaurants. It sounds so simple, but it's easily overlooked. How many people focus diligently on grammar rules and vocabulary lists even though their primary goal is to communicate in everyday situations? This tactic rarely works because the brain learns new information in a way that is context dependent. This means, if you spend a lot of time memorising grammar rules and vocabulary, you'll get good at remembering grammar rules and vocabulary. But unless you put them into practice, you'll probably struggle to use them in the real world. Once you've got a goal in mind, think of ways to integrate plenty of practice time into your study sessions. For example, you could simulate ordering in a restaurant with an online teacher, a language partner, a friend, your dog, a tape recorder, a mirror... the list is endless. The important thing is to act out a situation where you use the language in a way that's similar to the goal you're working on. When you nail these skills at home, you can draw from them far more easily in real communication situations.  And voilà, before you know it, you'll have mastered that goal and it'll be time to move onto the next.

What about you?

What are your language goals? How are you putting them into practice? Let us know in the comments below!

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