How to Use Systems (Instead of Goals) to Get Results in Language Learning
What’s your language learning goal?
Perhaps you’re aiming to reach A2 level in French in the next 3 months. Maybe you’re looking to gain basic knowledge of Italian before your trip to Rome in a couple of weeks. Or perhaps you’re aiming for German mastery.
Whatever your goal, setting a goal is the natural thing to do when you start learning. Choose your language, set a target and work towards it.
Over the last 13 years I’ve set some big language goals. Some I achieved, some I didn’t. And I’ve helped hundreds of thousands of language learners achieve theirs with this blog.
From all my language missions and goals, I learned a valuable lesson:
The goal isn’t what’s important. What matters is the system you follow to reach your goal.
In fact, the wrong type of goal can actually hold you back from learning a language. Let’s take a look at why that is…
Goal vs. Systems: What’s The Difference?
A goal-based approach focuses on where you’re going, while a systems-based approach focuses on how you’re going to get there.
If your language goal is “to become fluent in Italian in six months”, a very simple system could be daily Italian practice.
For example, one of my big goals in language learning was to learn Arabic while living in Brazil. That was my goal. But it was the systems I put into place – daily Skype conversations, finding and filling the holes in my knowledge – that allowed me to reach my goal of being able to genuinely travel Egypt using my Arabic.
The way to tell you have a system in place is, if you were to remove your goal and just focus on what you do every day, would still end up where you want to be?
If you took away my goal to learn Arabic in Brazil and I still did all of my tasks every day, would I still have learned Arabic? I think so, because by that point I’d put in at least 150 hours of practice and had spoken the language for 91 days back to back.
I’ll share some specific systems you can use for language learning in a moment.
First, let’s look at why the difference between systems and goals matters to language learners, and why goals might be stopping your progress.
The Problem With a Goal-Based Approach to Language Learning
There are a lot more drawbacks to setting goals than you might think. Especially when it comes to language learning.
Learning a language is a huge task that takes hundreds of hours. As such, language goals can be overwhelming. As Scott Adams points out, the enormity of your goal can start to create negative emotions. And nothing can stop your language progress faster than feeling bad about what you’re doing.
James Clear makes a similar point about how goals relate to feelings – you don’t feel good about yourself until you achieve them. Of course, this can leave you feeling glum.
The difficult emotions created by setting goals is part of the reason you’re tempted to throw your arms in the air and exclaim, “I’m just not good at learning languages!”.
Let’s say you’ve set yourself the goal of learning B1 level Mandarin in three months. That’s a heck of a big goal (as I well know!) and if this is your first foreign language it can feel like you’ve got a mountain to climb. But you set out to do it anyway. That means you’re going to need to:
- Immerse yourself in Mandarin (phone, computer, television, books)
- Study for at least two to three hours each day
- Have at least one conversation in Mandarin every day
That’s a lot of work to try and fit into your schedule.
And, if you miss a day or two (because life happens and you might just do that), you have a tight deadline breathing down your neck. If you miss enough days you’ll be tempted to say, “Screw it, I’ll come back to it at another time!” and give up on your goal altogether.
I’m not saying that goals are always bad. I’ve previously written about setting appropriate goals. I’ve achieved, and seen people achieve, goals that most people would have called “unrealistic” or “impossible”. But in almost all of these cases it’s been the system that they committed to, and not the goal itself, that created that success.
So why are systems the better choice?
Why Systems Are a Better Choice For Language Learners
Many language learners I speak to are surprised when I ask them to remove their goal and just look at what they’re doing every day. They often find that their goal and the system they’re following to achieve it don’t match up.
That’s why I consider systems-thinking the first step in getting real about language learning.
By focusing on a system rather than a goal, you give yourself more control over your language learning.
If instead of saying that you want to speak B1 Mandarin in 3 months, you were to say to yourself, “Every day I’m going to practise my Mandarin to a level that I enjoy”, how much more achievable would that be?
In other words, a system is right here, right now, and in front of you. If you follow your system you’re able to progress your language skills, no matter how big or small, each day. And much like brushing your teeth before going to bed, language learning becomes a habit.
On some days you may only enjoy learning for 30 minutes. On others you may want to dive into your books for three hours at a time.
That’s a system in action.
If you have to miss a day you can pick up right where you left off and recommit to the process. That takes away that negative, guilty feeling you get when life gets in the way of a goal.
Using Systems to Speak from Day One
The number one concept I talk about when it comes to language learning is Speak from Day One. That’s not a goal for you to achieve; it’s a system for you to follow.
On day one you may only be able to speak two Tarzan-like sentences, like “I Benny. Me blogger”. That conversation might be 10 seconds long. But after two weeks that will grow to a real introduction about who you are, where you’re from and what you do, and asking questions back.
You’ll start to see real progress unfolding right before your eyes. It also has a built-in feedback loop. You can see what you’re doing right (positive feedback) and see where you need to improve (negative feedback).
In the next section let’s look at some systems you can implement to make consistent progress with your language learning.
What Systems Can Language Learners Use?
The Seinfeld Strategy: A Little Practice Every Day
This system comes straight from the famous comedian, Jerry Seinfeld! It’s a system for creating consistency and building momentum, which is perfect for language learning. All you need for this is a calendar and a pen.
Seinfeld believed that the best way to create good jokes was to write jokes every single day. I firmly believe that the best way to learn a language is to practise it every day!
Let’s say you want to learn German. Each day that you sit down to practise German, no matter how long for, you can go to your calendar and put a big cross through the day, marking that you’ve accomplished what you set out to do.
After a few days you’ve got a stack of crosses that show you just how much you’ve achieved.
It also gives you a big positive feeling when you go up and cross out the day. After three months you’ll have so many crosses you can’t help but see how far you’ve progressed!
Habit Stacking: Tying Language Learning To A Bigger Routine
Trying to force a new skill or habit into your day can feel quite hard. But as SJ Scott writes in his book, Habit Stacking if you tie your language learning system to a bigger routine, it’s much easier to stay on track.
Your day has lots of different routines in it. Getting up in the morning, commuting to work, eating your lunch, coming home from work, going to bed, to name just a few. By using these habits you already have you can begin to add other habits into that framework.
Let’s say you’re on your lunch break at work, which might look like this:
- You go for lunch at 12:30
- You get your lunch out of the work fridge and sit at the desk
- You eat
- You wash your tupperware
- You go back to work
These are all habits you have (whether you realise it or not) and you can use them as a framework to add in your next habit. So, where could you add your language learning into here?
I’d say you could do it right here:
- You eat
- You review your Anki flashcards
- You wash your tupperware
You don’t have to move because your phone is probably already in your pocket. There’s also usually a bit of time between eating and going back to work so you can slot it in perfectly.
HabitBull: The Habit Coach In Your Pocket
I love it when I find tech that can help you. And, HabitBull is a cool little habit app that helps you create a system for your language learning.
My friend Maneesh wrote a great post about how creating a system of tiny actions, like just opening the Duolingo app, can be the start of lifelong language habit. That ties in perfectly with your new system-based approach.
Choose a tiny action like opening your language workbook, logging into italki or opening Anki, and set it as a habit in HabitBull. Then set it as your habit to achieve for that day. It’ll then remind you when you should complete that action.
It’s the coming together of the last two steps because you can feel the gratification of ticking the box to say you’ve completed it. And, you even get daily motivational message to keep you pushing through too!
You can also time it to be part of a bigger routine, like your lunch break, so you can begin to really cement that habit.
Time to Put Your Language Learning System in Place
Having a language-learning goal to aim for is a great place to start, but without a solid system in place you’re setting yourself up to fail.
So now is the time for you to focus less on where you want to be and begin to look at what you’re going to do. Think about how you want to approach your language learning and implement it into your day-to-day routine.
If you’re able to create a system where you can immerse yourself at home for three hours a day, then take advantage of it. Or if small steps and incremental daily progress are your cup of tea, start there. Your system should be unique to you and how you learn.
The most important part of this is to commit to your process and focus on what you can achieve right now.