10+ Ways to Language-learning Success by Setting Goals

It’s easy to feel overwhelmed when you’re learning a new language.

False cognates can trip you up, idioms can seem completely incomprehensible, and you may run across some words so weird you don’t believe they exist.

Instead of letting this discourage you, take control by setting goals for yourself.

Setting goals is arguably one of the most important steps you can take to ensure your success, and it’s remarkably easy to do. Here are some tips to help you get started.

Why Set Language Goals?

You’ve probably already heard a lot about goals. High school teachers love to talk about them, and so do bosses.

Why? Because research shows that people who set goals are more likely to achieve success.

Goals help you achieve success because:

  • Goals help you identify what you want to achieve. It’s hard to achieve success when you haven’t defined what “success” is. Setting goals helps you identify what you want to accomplish so you can start working toward accomplishing it. What does “fluency” mean to you?
  • Goals keep you focused on what’s important (and help you ignore what’s not). Learning a language requires familiarity with literally millions of different grammar points, vocabulary words and cultural competencies. Setting goals helps you stay focused so you don’t get distracted by the many things you may need to learn in the future. By focusing on smaller bits of information, you make faster progress and gain tangible skills.
  • Goals save you time. Instead of memorizing vocabulary words you won’t readily use, spend your energy learning words directly related to the way you want to use your target language. Setting goals helps you identify your ultimate reason for studying the language, which makes it easier to pinpoint the skills and information you need to learn first.
  • Goals provide a way to measure your progress, which helps improve your motivation to learn more. It takes a really long time to learn a foreign language well, and it’s frustrating to pour time into something that doesn’t seem to have a payoff. By setting goals, you can identify the progress you’re making and feel good about the work you’re doing. Instead of kicking yourself for not knowing a new word you hear, you can congratulate yourself for learning the 25 new words you just memorized.

Identifying Your Language Goals

The first step to identifying your goals is to figure out why you are studying this foreign language. Take some time to think about the big picture and ask yourself questions like:

  • Why do I want to learn this language?
  • What would I do if I could speak this language fluently right now?

The answer to these questions is your ultimate goal — the reason you are spending time, money and energy learning a new language.

It’s okay if your ultimate goal is huge, multi-faceted or even a bit vague. Maybe you want to learn Spanish so you can move to Spain. Maybe you want to learn French so you can talk to your boyfriend’s family in their native language. Maybe you want to learn Chinese so you can travel to China next year.

Whatever your goal, just make sure you are honest with yourself about it. There’s no right or wrong.

The next step is to break your ultimate goal into specific steps — the components that make up your larger goal. At this point, you aren’t setting tangible goals yet — just identifying the things you need to learn in order to achieve your ultimate goal.

At first, focus on identifying only a handful of the most important steps. Recognize that you can’t list every possible thing you need to know to “become fluent in German.” Just list a few of the most important tasks you want to achieve along the way. Here is an example:

Ultimate goal: To be able to communicate with Spanish-speaking patients at the medical clinic where I work.

Specific steps:

  • Learn vocabulary for body parts
  • Learn vocabulary for common diseases
  • Learn to ask what hurts and what is wrong
  • Learn to talk about a patient’s medical history
  • Learn to express sympathy for pain or loss

Setting Effective Language Goals

You’ve identified your ultimate goal and a handful of specific steps. Now prioritize your specific steps and select one or two to focus on first. You will use these steps to generate your short-term goals.

Research shows that the best goals are specific, short-term and moderately challenging. Follow these tips to write effective goals:

  • Write down your goals. It’s easier to remember and consult them if you can see them.
  • Set deadlines. It’s usually ideal to set deadlines between one week and three months.
  • Focus on tangible tasks rather than the amount of time you plan to spend studying. Instead of setting a goal of studying 30 minutes a day every day this week, set a goal of learning all the basic vocabulary words related to ordering a cup of coffee at a cafe.
  • Challenge yourself, but don’t push yourself too hard. If you set goals that are too difficult, you’ll waste time stressing about them or beating yourself up for not achieving them.
  • Use optimistic wording. Write your goals in a way that makes them feel achievable. A good model is this: “By [time frame], I will be able to [achievement].”

Grab Your Paper and Pencil: Set Your Goals Now!

It’s time to get started! Think about what your ultimate goal is, write down some specific steps and identify a few short-term goals for yourself.

Use the examples below for inspiration as you start writing your own unique goals:

Ultimate goal: To be able to speak Chinese comfortably so that I can move to China and use Chinese in my everyday life.
Specific step: Learn the vocabulary and phrases necessary to go shopping in China.
Short-term goals: By the end of this week, I will have learned the vocabulary words for types of clothing and shoes. By the end of the month, I will have learned the phrases and basic vocabulary needed to talk to shop clerks in China.

Ultimate goal: To be able to read the newspaper in German.
Specific step: Learn vocabulary related to politics and the political scene in Germany.
Short-term goal: By the end of this week, I will have learned the basic vocabulary words for issues related to elections.

Ultimate goal: To be able to talk to my in-laws on the phone in Japanese
Specific step: Learn pleasantries.
Short-term goals: By the end of the week, I will have learned basic everyday pleasantries, including greetings and closings like “How are you?” and “Talk to you again soon.”

If you’re struggling, review the examples below for help:

  • Instead of: By the end of this week, I will have learned how to talk about medical problems.
    Try: By the end of this week, I will have learned the words for all the primary body parts (i.e. arm, leg, heart, stomach).
  • Instead of: By the end of this year, I will be able to have a phone conversation in Spanish.
    Try: By the end of this month, I will have learned how to use basic telephone phrases such as, “Who are you calling for?” and “Dr. Smith is not available at the moment.”
  • Instead of: By the end of this week, I will have learned all 500 of the words in my medical dictionary.
    Try: By the end of the week, I will have learned the basic terms for simple diagnoses (i.e. a cold, the flu, a backache).

Following Through

Goal-setting is not something you do once and forget about. For goals to be effective, you need to consult them regularly and set new goals every few weeks.

Every few days, take a moment to review your goals and check your progress. This will help you identify what to study next and feel good about the progress you’re making. It will also keep you on track when you’re veering away from your ultimate goal.

Although it’s important to follow through with the goals you’ve set for yourself, don’t be afraid to change your goals if they no longer serve you well. As you gain confidence in your new language, perhaps your ultimate goal will grow from being able to have a phone conversation to wanting to travel to a country where your foreign language is spoken. When you make discoveries like this, adjust your goals appropriately so that they can continue to serve your needs.

Finally, remember that there are no “right” or “wrong” goals. The most important thing is that you believe in your goals and can visualize yourself achieving them.

If you set goals with this in mind, you will find that they help you stay motivated and enthusiastic about your language learning, and you’ll be proud of what you achieve!


Katherine Kostiuk is a freelance writer with professional experience in international education and English teaching. She has lived in four foreign countries and studied five different foreign languages.

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