goals notebook

How to Set SMART Language Learning Goals

ElzetteAugust 23, 2019

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Goal setting is important when tackling the monumental task of learning a new language. But are you setting yourself up for failure by pouring energy into vague, unachievable goals?

For instance, your goal may be:

I want to be fluent in Mandarin. 

This is a goal I can relate to. After all, ‘fluency’ is the ultimate objective for the majority of language learners. But as far as goals go, this is also a pretty nebulose one that sparks a host of questions.

What exactly do you mean by ‘fluent’? 

Have you given yourself a specific timeframe in which to achieve this goal? 

What resources will you use? 

How will you know when you’ve reached your goal?

Once you start asking these questions, you’re well on your way to properly defining your goal and mapping out a strategy for success.

My day job is in Marketing, so I’ve pilfered some of the industry basics to help me form a structured approach to setting out my language learning goals.

Whenever I am setting objectives for a work project, I use the SMART method to define clear, attainable and meaningful goals.

What are SMART goals?

SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Timely. SMART criteria are often used in the corporate world as a guide for setting business objectives, but can be applied to any personal development and, of course, language learning goals.

I have seen a few variations on the acronym, but the above definitions will do just fine for our purposes.

Let’s break it down.

‘S’ is for Specific

A SMART goal is well-defined and focused. This simply means that you should give as much detail as possible when defining your goal.

Questions to ask:

A good place to start is to try answering the ‘5 Ws’:






‘M’ is for Measurable

It’s important to have measurable indicators of success or progress to help keep you on track and  motivated. Your measure of success can be anything from passing an exam with a specific score, to finishing a novel in your target language, working your way through a text book or learning a specific number of vocab words per day.

Questions to ask

How will you measure progress?

How will you know when you have achieved your goal?

‘A’ is for Achievable

By setting impossible goals, you’re setting yourself up for failure. There are many people on the internet toting learning methods that will supposedly get you to fluency in a ridiculously short amount of time  – for a fee, of course. These kinds of claims may lead to some unrealistic expectations when setting goals.

Let’s be real. No matter you how much of a genius you are, you won’t learn a new language to fluency in 10 weeks or 5 minutes a day, or in your sleep.

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with having ambitious or challenging goals, but certain things are unfortunately just downright unachievable. Or perhaps achievable, just not as effortlessly or quickly as you’d expected.

Questions to ask

Is this goal possible given the resources you have at your disposal? 

If not, what do you need?

Can you break it down into smaller goals to help you achieve the larger, more ambitious goal?

‘R’ is for Relevant

This can be a tricky one to define. Relevancy is very subjective and depends on your own personal objectives. Here’s an example of a goal I’ve had to dismiss as irrelevant in the past.

When I first started using Memrise, I added every custom Chinese course I could find. One of these was a vocabulary list for the Chinese phrases used in the television show Firefly. I am a huge fan of Firefly, and was sorely tempted to work my way through this list. However, learning colourful ways of cursing someone’s mother (Mandarin is mostly used in the show to insult people) just doesn’t fit in with my overall objective. I decided that my time is better spent on learning stuff that will be of actual use to me in everyday conversation.

Question to ask

Is your goal relevant to your overall goals?

‘T’ is for Timely

Setting a clear beginning and end date allows you to work with an end goal in sight.

Questions to ask

By when do you want to achieve this goal? 

Is the deadline you have set realistic?

Setting short term and long term goals

SMART goals can be used for both long term and short term goals. Let’s take a look at the original goal again.

I want to be fluent in Mandarin.

This is an example of a long term goal, but, as I pointed out earlier, it’s a little vague.

Let’s try to define what we mean by ‘fluent’ (a very slippery concept to begin with) first.

I want to be able to effortlessly communicate with native Mandarin speakers on everyday topics (such as ordering food at a restaurant, asking for directions, speaking about my hobbies and interests, etc.)

Right, that’s looking a little bit more realistic already. You’ve now defined what ‘fluent’ means to you and made it relevant to your own experience. Now let’s add a time limit, so we know how much time we have to reach this goal.

I want to be able to effortlessly communicate with native Mandarin speakers on everyday topics within one year.

Great, now you can define how you will go about achieving this goal. Here’s where you can add your short term SMART goals.

I want to be able to effortlessly communicate with native Mandarin speakers on everyday topics within one year, so I will:

Short term goal 1: Learn the 1000 most common vocabulary words within three months by studying 10 words a day.

You can keep adding short term goals that will help you to achieve your overall objective. These short term goals can also serve as your milestones for measuring progress.

Things change, so you can keep revisiting your goals and make adjustments if necessary.

Further reading

If you are interested in learning more about SMART goals, you can check out these books:

What are your language learning goals? Do you have your own method for defining goals?

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