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Sprint! Take goal setting in language learning to the next level

Full disclosure: This post contains affiliate links. ?

Oliver51Next week, when I'm back in Ireland, I'll have some fun announcements for language learners, and can get back into actively making videos myself now that I've got the hang of this slightly different style of travel.

But continuing with some cool guest posts, today Olly from I will teach you a language is telling us about sprinting in your language learning project and the benefits from highly specific short-term goals. Enjoy!

What comes to mind when I say the words “goal setting”?

Is it:

a) Yes! I'm there!
b) I never bother
c) I know it's important, but…

I've known people who fall into all three camps. Some people seem to have a natural ability to set goals and stick to them. Others just get started and don't bother with goals.

But when it comes to language learning in particular, I suspect there's a fairly large number of people who fall into the last category.

I'm a classic example of this. I'm great at setting goals – I can set goals and decide how I'll achieve them all day. Sometimes I actually do 🙂 But, inevitably, after a certain period of time, I fall off the log. I can't, or don't, follow through.

Happens every time.

I have massive respect for people who are strong at goal setting and have the stick-to-it-iveness to follow through. But what happens if you just don't work that way?

Benny has talked about his solution to this problem with what he calls mini-goals:

When I learn a language I like to set myself a very large number of mini-goals with very short time limits. None of these goals in themselves are particularly impressive or difficult to achieve, but they all add up over time to speaking a language fluently.

In this post I'm going to take this a step further and suggest an alternative, more process-orientated approach to mini-goals that might work for people who haven't had much luck with medium/longer-term goal setting in their language learning.

I want to be fluent!

If I asked you what your language learning goals are, you'd probably tell me: “I want to be fluent.” And that's great – it's good to aim high!

How do you reach that goal?

Well, the next step, in theory, is to break that big goal down into shorter, more manageable goals, then into individual steps, until you've got an action plan. Then you go off and do it.

So what are you waiting for? 🙂

Tangible goals like “writing a novel” can be broken down into logical steps that anyone can follow. Conceive the plot, flesh out the characters, write your chapter outlines… it’s quite formulaic.

But how can you break down “fluency”?

Experienced language learners, with a few languages under their belt, will eventually learn about the various phases that they go through on the path to fluency. Benny famously does this in three months and plans it out in detail. Luca plays the longer game. Richard has approached this by joining online courses or university programmes.

For most people, though, learning a foreign language for the first time, the process can't be clinically broken down into steps. It's a long, hard journey and there are too many unknowns.

Things take you by surprise. You get bored with your textbook. The vocabulary doesn't stick. Work or family commitments disrupt your routine. You get sick. You have a bad experience speaking with someone and get demoralized. Your progress appears to grind to a halt for no apparent reason. You get frustrated that you still don’t understand native speakers even after months of study.

All these things happen. In fact, it's quite normal. But it certainly doesn't feel like it at the time! If you've got a plan, it's not going to survive the ups and downs.

I don’t think you need plans.

I think you need to focus less on the product and more on the process.

I think you need action.



“Sprints” are my answer to the goal setting problem.

It’s a term that I've borrowed from the business world. When entrepreneurs start out on their own, there are a thousand and one things they can do to build their business at any one time. But the one thing that really matters is finishing their product.

With no time or money to waste, they run “sprints” in which they set a deadline for finishing their product and then go all-out to get it finished by the launch date. Other things can wait. It's an example of the 80/20 principle in practice – decide what really matters and focus most of your energy on that.

But here’s the thing.

Smart entrepreneurs don’t aim to make their product perfect first time round. They make a beta version, get it out the door, get feedback on it, learn the lessons, and make it better next time. A language learning “sprint” follows exactly the same principle.

Here's how it goes:

“I’m going to choose one language learning activity. I’m going to do that one thing everyday, and I’m going to go deep with it. No messing about. No changing course. No fuss. Just that one thing, as well as I possibly can, for 3 weeks.”

It sounds simple, and that's the point. Sprints are supposed to be actionable.

If you're the kind of person who jumps from one thing to the next, studying in a different way everyday without a clear focus, take note! (I suffer from this, which is why this is a big deal for me!)

Over the course of 3 weeks you invest all your energy into one thing. In the digital age of instant notifications, status updates and news feeds, we've lost the ability to focus, and that's a killer if you're trying to learn a language.

With a clear, sustained focus on one thing, not only does your language benefit a lot, but you discover how you learn. After 3 weeks, you look back on what you've done and reflect on how effective it's been for you.

If it worked for you, you have a new weapon in your arsenal. If it didn’t work for you, well that’s fine too – you’ve learnt an important lesson about your learning style, and you move on to the next thing.

Either way, you learn – both the language itself and about your ability to learn.

Why 3 weeks? It's a period of time that I've settled on naturally that is long enough for me to properly get stuck in, but not so long that I start to get bored! I'm usually ready to do something different after that.

What can you do on a Sprint?

The important thing is that you choose an activity that's meaty enough to really learn from, and that's going to hold your interest over a few weeks. You don't need anything new – you probably already have all the resources you need at home.

Here are things that I've done at different stages and with different languages:

What can you learn from Sprints?

I've learnt a lot from a number of sprints over the years. Here are some examples:

I used to believe that watching TV in the target language was a good use of study time for beginners. I don’t any more. I learnt that lesson during one Cantonese sprint last year, where I watched episodes of a Hong Kong TV drama every night for 3 weeks and learnt very little. I don’t do that any more.

I used to think that online flashcards weren’t for me. (“I don't want to spend hours glued to a screen!”) Then I got an SRS app for my phone and went on a flashcard binge. My vocabulary more than doubled over the space of a few weeks. Having figured out that they work for me, flashcards are now a vital part of my daily routine.

In an effort to keep up my Japanese, I recently spent a 3-week period reading an interview from a Japanese magazine – the same interview, over and over, 30 minutes every night (it was quite long!). The effect was amazing – I had lines from the interview floating around my head for weeks afterwards and it all went firmly into my long-term memory.

The lessons learnt here were incredibly important for me, and will directly influence how I learn languages in the future.

They were learnt through a clear focus on one thing over time.

Do the work

Even after seven languages, I still get a bit overwhelmed by the size of the task. Since I've begun learning languages remotely, I've had ups and downs and wonder whether I'll ever be able to learn another language as well as when I've been living in the country, surrounded by native speakers. I find some books that I like, others that I don't. I see some great movies, and some rubbish ones.

I have the same painstaking first steps in speaking the language that everyone else goes through. It's enough to make that goal of “fluency” seem all the more elusive!

Sprints have helped me to harness the power of focus, remove those unproductive daily deliberations of “what shall I study now?”, and ensure that the work gets done. So here's what I want you to do:

  • Commit to trying out one sprint this month
  • Decide what it's going to be
  • Leave a comment below to tell me what it is
  • Get started, and kill it!!
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Guest Writer at Fi3M

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Speaks: Various languages

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