As you can see in my posts (for example: 1, 2, 3, 4), I have mixed success in achieving my goals. Pretty much like everyone else. And over the course of 2016, I came to two insights. Two things that I have actually always known but which I have come to appreciate with a greater clarity and keenness.
- You have to START AT THE END. Determine what your ultimate goal really is, and then work backwards from it to work out what steps will get you there.
- You have to MAKE YOUR GOAL “SMART”. This means goals which are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
So don’t just say, “I wanna get into shape and be fit”. Rather, figure out exactly what “into shape and fit” means. Be specific and measureable, e.g., run X miles in Y time, get down to a BMI of 22. The goal has to be attainable: so running 100 metres in 10 seconds or less might not happen. It has to be relevant to what you want generally. And it has to be time-bound: so work out how long those goals realistically will take, and work to that timeline, with various short, middle, and long-term deadlines.
Here’s a great bit of an article from Tim Ferriss and Benny Lewis about using SMART Goals to learn a foreign language. Enjoy!
© 2016-2017 Bryan A. J. Parry
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#9 – Create SMART goals.
Another failing of most learning approaches is a poorly defined end-goal.
We tend to have New Year’s Resolutions along the lines of “Learn Spanish,” but how do you know when you’ve succeeded? If this is your goal, how can you know when you’ve reached it?
Vague end goals like this are endless pits (e.g. “I’m not ready yet, because I haven’t learned the entire language”).
S.M.A.R.T. goals on the other hand are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
To start developing your SMART goal in a language, I highly recommend you become somewhat familiar with the European Common Framework that defines language levels. This framework provides you with a way of setting specific language goals and measuring your own progress.
In brief, A means beginner, B means intermediate, and C means advanced, and each level is broken up into lower (1) and upper (2) categories. So an upper beginner speaker is A2, and a lower advanced speaker is C1. As well as being Specific, these levels are absolutely Measurable because officially recognized institutions can test you on them and provide diplomas (no course enrollment necessary) in German, French, Spanish, Irish, and each other official European language. While the same scale is not used, you can also get tested in a similar way in Chinese and Japanese.
So what do you aim for? And what do words like “fluency” and “mastery” mean on a practical level?
I’ve talked to many people to try to pinpoint the never-agreed-upon understanding of “fluency,” and I’ve found that it tends to average out around the B2 level (upper intermediate). This effectively means that you have “social equivalency” with your native language, which means that you can live in your target language in social situations in much the same way that you would in your native language, such as casual chats with friends in a bar, asking what people did over the weekend, sharing your aspirations and relating to people.
Since we are being specific, it’s also important to point out that this does not require that you can work professionally in a language (in my case, as an engineer or public speaker, for instance). That would be mastery level (generally C2).
Though I’ve reached the C2 stage myself in French, Spanish and am close to it in other languages, realistically I only really need to be socially equivalent in a language I want to communicate in. I don’t need to work in other languages. It’s essential that you keep your priorities clear to avoid frustration. Most of the time, just target B2.
To make your specific goal Attainable, you can break it down further. For example, I’ve found that the fluency (B2) level can be achieved in a matter of months, as long as you are focused on the spoken aspect.
In phonetic languages (like most European ones), you can actually learn to read along with speaking, so you get this effectively for free. But realistically, we tend to write emails and text messages—not essays—on a day-to-day basis (unless you are a writer by trade, and you may not have those goals with your L2). Focusing on speaking and listening (and maybe reading) makes fluency in a few months much more realistic.
Finally, to make your project Time-bound, I highly recommend a short end-point of a few months.
Keeping it a year or more away is far too distant, and your plans may as well be unbound at that point. Three months has worked great for me, but 6 weeks or 4 months could be your ideal point. Pick a definite point in the not too distant future (summer vacation, your birthday, when a family member will visit), aim to reach your target by this time, and work your ass off to make it happen.
To help you be smarter with your goals, make sure to track your progress and use an app like Lift to track completing daily essential tasks.
You can join the Lift plan for language learning that I wrote for their users here.
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