The Goldilocks Technique: How to Set Language Goals that Are Just Right
Do you ever struggle to reach your language goals?
In my 13 years of language learning, I’ve set myself some big language goals. Some have gone fantastically, and some have totally flumped.
Over time, I’ve got better and better at setting goals that inspire me to do my best, but that are also realistic
I’ve learned this through trial and error – using what I call the Goldilocks method (this is an idea I borrowed from fellow language learner Andrew Barr). Some of my language goals were way too big, and I failed to reach them. Some were far too simple, and they didn’t challenge me as much as they should have done.
The best goals were just right. These goals stretched and challenged me without overwhelming.
I’d like to share how you can use the Goldilocks technique to set language goals that are just right for you.
Step 1: Reach for the Skies
I called it ambitious, but some other people have had different names for it. “Ridiculous”. “Unreasonable”. “Impossible”.
Whether or not this is true, it hasn’t stopped me from aiming high and challenging myself.
I like to start by dreaming big. I think it’s far better to aim too high and then fail with just “pretty high”, than it to aim low, get bored, not push yourself and achieve way less than you could have.
Why are big goals good? You get to test your limits and push them as far as possible. You also end up accomplishing much more than you could ever have dreamed if your goal had been more modest.
A modest goal will give you the satisfaction of saying you achieved exactly what you set out to do. However, it won’t teach you to stretch yourself. It won’t push you to your limits and beyond.
There’s one question I hate to be stuck with: “How much further could I have gone if I pushed myself?”. I don’t like having this question lingering in the back of my mind. So I aim high.
That said, I want to make it clear that I only set goals I believe are possible to achieve. I don’t just aim for B2 in all my language missions then hope for the best.
For example, if I only have an hour a day to study, then pushing for B2 (CEFRL scale) in three months is way over the top. It’s why I haven’t had any such project for the last two years; until recently I’ve been travelling intensively for a world-wide booktour, which is time consuming and exhausting and means I’d rarely have more than that single hour free.
With this in mind, I’ve had to adjust my goals and have instead tried to cram as much Bahasa Indonesia as I could into 4 hours, be sure my French was at a C1 level so that I could follow the long road to a definite C2 level, reactivate my Mandarin after a long break, and even coach another person to learn another language quickly. So I know exactly if and when a three month project isn’t possible, and adjust to other goals when it isn’t.
How high you aim in your own language mission will depend on your own personal factors:
- How badly do you want to learn the language?
- How do you intend to use the language at the end of your mission?
- Are you in an immersion environment?
- If not, are you willing to set up a virtual immersion environment and put the time into make sure it you stick to it?
- How much free time do you have to study and practise?
I’ll look at each of these factors below, and explain how you can expect them to affect your language mission. For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to talk specifically about appropriate goals for a three-month language mission.
Step 2: Assess Your Motivation
Everyone has their own reasons for wanting to learn a new language.
Some people learn a language because otherwise they get brain itch. They need to be learning or they get bored. Are you constantly curious about the world? This could be you.
Some people want to get an inside view of another culture. They’d like to see the world in a new way, and learning another language is a brilliant way of doing this.
Still others learn a language for practical reasons. Perhaps they’ve married someone from another country, or they’re required to travel for their job.
Whatever your reason, it must be enough to keep you inspired day after day. Learning a new language is a wonderful thing to do. But there will be days when it’s a slog and you’ll feel like quitting.
It’s only by trying that you’ll see how deep your motivation runs. If you find you keep starting to learn a new language, then quitting after a few weeks, perhaps you need to investigate your motivation.
Sometimes when I really press people, I see that it just “sounds cool” to them to speak another language, or it’s on a long “bucket list”, or for bragging rights. None of these will ever motivate you to do the work necessary, so you need to really think about, and possibly change your big “why” for learning the language in the first place.
What if you still need an extra push?
I recommend joining an online language community like the Add 1 Challenge. You’ll meet other language learners who also want a push, and who will support you in your language learning. Accountability is a fantastic motivator. You will probably end up achieving far more than you expected.
Step 3: Set a Timeframe
Goals are meaningless unless you have a deadline in which you want to achieve them.
I originally started setting three month language goals because I’d be visiting countries on a three month tourist visa. I’d visit a country and immerse myself in the language and culture for three months, aiming to reach fluency in that time.
Back to Goldilocks, I’ve found that 3 months is in the zone of being not too little, so that I get a genuinely good idea of that culture and can make a couple of friends, but not too much, so that I could still explore several places. So I’d still spend 3 months in some countries even if tourist visa limits weren’t effective (like in the European Union, since I’m an Irish citizen).
It’s also the amount of time when I can work intensively on a project enough to both make huge strides of progress, and to push myself just enough to not burn myself out.
Even if I’m not able to travel, I find that setting a deadline of three months works well for me. It’s far enough into the future that it’s possible to achieve big goals. And close enough to the present that I can see the finish line.
So that’s why the timeline is relevant to me. Three months may be a completely random number to you though. It’s way better to pick a goal that fits with your lifestyle. Are you leaving on a trip in six months? Do you have a semester abroad coming up in 6 weeks? Do you have 2 months off for the summer and the time to realistically invest in such a big project? Is your grandmother who only speaks Czech visiting you in September? Then that is your ideal end-goal.
Step 4: Know How You’ll Be Using the Language
Are you learning a new language so you can:
- Meet interesting people from around the world?
- Travel the world and be able to order food?
- Attend an overseas conference?
- Conduct business deals in your target language?
- Grow in confidence around other people?
We live in busy times, and most of us only have a little bit of time to spare each day for language learning. Knowing how you’ll use the language will help you use those precious minutes to the best effect.
If you’d like a more general goal, I recomend aiming for A2 level. It’s a reasonable target for three months of language learning, even alongside family commitments and a full time job. And it will mean you’ll be ready to hold interesting conversations with native speakers.
Why do I recommend setting a specific goal such as A2 level? If you don’t have a concrete goal to work toward, it will become too easy to just start letting your studying slide for days or weeks on end. After all, you have, literally, “all the time in the world” to learn the language. The problem is that “all the time in the world” quickly becomes weeks, months or years of procrastination.
Step 5: Stop Looking for the “Perfect” Language Learning Environment
Yes, it’s good to set big goals. But just as important is how you achieve those goals.
It’s easy to set big goals. It’s even easier to find excuses for failing to achieve those goals.
What can you do to avoid this? Stomp out potential excuses before they come up.
A common excuse is: “I don’t have the right learning environment”. Perhaps you feel too busy to learn, or concerned that you live thousands of miles from people who speak your target language.
There’s no perfect place to learn a language.
You can just as easily learn French from an air-conditioned office block in Australia as you can by frequenting the coffee shops of Paris.
The environment in which you’re learning your target language actually isn’t as important as you might think. So don’t let where you live hold you back from setting big language goals
You can learn a language at a fast pace no matter where you are in the world. Even if there isn’t a single native speaker if your target language within hundreds of miles of your home, it’s still possible to learn your target language quickly.
In fact, staying at home can be better than travelling. If you travel the world, it’s easy to get drawn into tourist cafés and ex-pat communities. This is especially the case if your native language is English. In most countries, you’ll find plenty of English speakers, and it’s easy to get on the slippery slope of thinking there’s no need to speak the local language, even just “while you settle in”.
That said, if you’re fortunate enough to be able to live abroad, take advantage of it. Challenge yourself from the beginning to never use the phrase, “Do you speak English?” no matter how difficult it gets (barring emergency situations, obviously). If you’re serious about your mission and commit to maintaining your immersion environment every day, then you’d be amazed at what you can do in three months. I know this is possible because not only have I had huge successes in many of my three-month projects, but many other people have too.
Step 6: Assess How Much Time You Can Set Aside for Studying
Along with motivation, the time you have available is the key factor in establishing what would be a realistic language goal for you.
Clearly, a person who’s able to devote three hours per day to language learning is going to achieve much more than someone who only has thirty spare minutes. This doesn’t mean that it’s bad if you can only study thirty minutes per day. It just means that you should set a different language goal for a three month mission than someone who has more time to devote to theirs.
As I’ve said, most people can realistically aim for the upper beginner, or A2 level, within three months. This is ambitious, but still perfectly reasonable if you study smart.
What if you want to stretch yourself even further? Then reaching the lower intermediate level B1 is within your grasp. At that level, you’d be able to have lower-intermediate conversations on a wide variety of topics, as long as the person you are speaking to speaks slowly and patiently. This will mean an intense study schedule of at least two hours a day, ideally more if it’s your first language project.
How much time can you realistically spare? Take a hard look at your typical daily schedule. You probably have a job that takes up the bulk of your day. Then there are after-work errands you need to run, picking up kids or dry cleaning. Plus socialising and any hobbies other than language learning.
Once you’ve decided how much time you can spare each day, cut that figure in half. Then half it again. So if you thought you could spare an hour, you’ll end up with just 15 minutes. That’s your minimum daily study time.
Why set such a low minimum? Because it means you’re more likely to stick with it, even when you’re busy or feeling overwhelmed. Also, getting started each day can be the hardest part. By setting yourself a low goal, you’re more likely to get started.
Then also try the opposite. If you think you can only spare an hour, then see can you push that further out? Would it be worth giving up Netflix (at least their English programming), reducing nights-out to once instead of 3 times a week, or making some other sacrifice, for three months to achieve a lifelong dream?
What if You Fall Short of Your Goal?
Let me make one thing clear: if, at the end of three months, you’ve not reached your goal, you have still succeeded in something else that’s also extremely important – provided that you maintained a daily habit of language learning. You have greatly improved your language level and know that you’ve truly pushed yourself to your absolute limit.
I’ve had a couple of projects where I ended up with a B1 level instead of a B2 level. Calling that a failure is insane – I could converse with another culture, make friends, travel independently and do so much! I acquired a new skill that will enrich my life. And I’ve learned what my limits are, and what I did wrong that I should change in my next three month project.
Having big dreams matters. We all need them, as dreams give us purpose and something to strive for. But just as important is taking action to achieve those dreams.
If you’ve stuck it out for the entire three months, through the rough parts and the plateaus, and you came out the other side speaking your target language substantially better than you could at the beginning, then you’ve succeeded.
There are many ways to succeed at language learning. The only way to fail at it is not to attempt it at all.