Language Learning is Messy IV: Goals are Bad

Ok, that may be a little harsh. Let me rephrase that and say goals can be bad. Specifically, when learning a language, goals can torpedo your motivation.

Learning a language is not like learning other things. It’s a far more complex and sometimes even magical process that takes much more time and effort than most people have spent achieving other goals. Even learning a musical instrument is easier, in a way, because it is possible (though perhaps not preferable) to learn to play the piano by yourself, in a shack in the mountains without contact with other people. For language learning, especially listening comprehension, it’s impossible to do without human interaction.


Of course, goals on their own aren’t bad. One of my goals was to write this post that you are reading right now (though it’s been the drafts folder for weeks). It’s when goals are too big, or too important that they become motivational poison or perhaps too motivating.

Stephen Shapiro in his book Goal Free Living talks about how people get addicted to goals and let their goals control their lives instead of the other way around.

For learning a foreign language I think it is also possible to sway to the other extreme and feel obligated to set a goal and then feel guilty for not focusing on it more.

A language learner may:

1. Set a goal that’s too big and get discouraged because “it’s never going to happen.”


2. Sacrifice other important things just for the sake of accomplishing that goal.

Both are signs of being a goalaholic. If you can’t easily self-diagnose, Shapiro has been generous enough to make his “Are You a Goalaholic” quiz available for free.

I suggest the following treatments for goalaholism:

1. Bite-Sized Goals

At the beginning of every school year, scads of foreigners flood into China. Most start out with the goal to learn Chinese, at least enough to “get around.” Nadina, when she arrived at our college last September, was no different. But her attitude was.

Rather than feeling pressure to learn Chinese on any kind of time schedule, Nadina seemed to be able to relax and enjoy whatever progress she was making. She quickly learned what she needed, and then found every possible chance to say those words a lot. Then, as she wanted to learn something new, she simply learned it and started using it.

At one point, she said to me out of the blue, “I need more verbs! Ok, I’m going to learn ten new verbs by…um…Tuesday.” Not only did she learn those ten new verbs (by Tuesday), she memorized very useful sentence examples from Chubby that contained them.

By setting an attainable, short-term goal for herself, she was able to go above and beyond it and learn “bonus” sentences (one of which came in very handy at a critical time for her).

2. Celebrate What You’ve Done

Another thing Nadina does well is enjoying when her Chinese worked for her rather than focusing on what she doesn’t know. She’s thrilled when she gets a chance to use her new vocabulary in the real world. She should be proud. It’s really quite an accomplishment to apply what you’ve learned proactively when talking to a real live person.

I don’t hear a whole lot of talk from Nadina like, “I didn’t know how to say such-and-such and I know I should.” Although that “should” word can really motivate some people, I’ve found it’s most likely a source of discouragement rather than a motivator. Looking ahead at the whole rest of the mountain you’re trying to climb is OK, but don’t forget to look back and see not only how far you’ve already come, but also that you’re no longer at the bottom.

3. Know When to Quit

The first two tips address the problem of not being able to accomplish a goal. But what happens when you’re accomplishing the goal too well, even at the expense of something else? Let me give you an example of a student who’s goal seemed to be: “Shout English as quickly as possible especially at foreigners.”

I know he’s a product of Li Yang‘s “Crazy English,” but I don’t think even the guru himself would have done what this student did. After trying to be polite and figure out what he was trying to say, my patience was gone and I said to him in Chinese, “When you speak quickly I can’t understand a single word, so practicing like that is wasting your time.” The student replied by shouting the opening words of the “Gettysburg Address” (I think) at warp 5. I just walked away.

This was an example of someone who had such a vice-like grip on his goal that he sacrificed other things (especially common courtesy) just to hold on to it.

As extreme as that example is, I’ve had to make decisions about when to quit as well. My first year in China I wanted to get in as much speaking time as possible. Since that’s not always easy, I decided to talk to whomever I sat next to on the teachers’ bus to or from the new campus.

However, despite the friendly responses I got from my colleagues (all of whom were strangers), I quickly realized that at 8:00 AM, on a commute to work, most people would rather have silence than conversation. One of my first clues was when I saw two of the Chinese teachers, who clearly knew each other, sit together and not say a word to each other for the whole 20 minute trip. So, my new policy on those commutes was to speak only when spoken to and let the other person initiate conversation if they wanted to.

The result was that I rarely had a chance to speak Chinese on those bus rides. I gave up my goal, but I felt better about how I was treating the people. They were no longer Chinese practice robots designed to serve me, but actual people with feelings.

Goals are a tricky thing because we feel like we should have them. There are no formulas or rules for what your language learning goals should be and or when you should give them up. Maybe it’s enough just to have the goal of staying flexible and not letting goals get in the way of the really important things.

See also the other posts in this series:

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