How to Successfully Set Language Goals …. or Why “Being Fluent” is a Bad Goal to Have

Ah, the New Year… no other time like it, with the “New Year, New You!” captions, sponsored ads for healthy eating, clean eating, and workout mixes not-so-subtly shoved at us, and the overwhelming sensation that we, as we currently are, are not good enough.

There’s a whole host of reasons why New Year’s resolutions fail, and it doesn’t matter to me whatever side of the aisle you’re on: (They’re great! They’re horrible! Somewhere in between!); odds are, you will fail. As with any goal, the key is to set it cognitively, and above all, be realistic. As a recovering perfectionist, let me tell you about this word, realistic. Think about what you can realistically do during the perfect day… then take away about 80% of that action, and you might get true reality.

For many of us, language fluency sounds like a good goal to have. It can realistically be done within a year. It has a beginning and ending point… your brain will need to learn vocabulary words, verb tenses, accents, and common phrases in order to be fluent. You can even chop it up into smaller goals each month by learning different vocabulary and verb phrases! What’s not to love about this goal?

Well, everything: and it starts with the definition of “fluency”.

Ironically enough, there is no standard, international definition of language fluency – but there is one for fluency: the ability to speak easily and smoothly[i]. Right then, clear as mud.

How about if we go to the standardized levels for learning language? If you prefer the American ACTFL (American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages) or MLA (Modern Language Association of America), or European CEFR (Common European Framework of Reference for Languages) levels, you’ll get the basic Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced levels of speaking and learning a language: but notice, there’s no “fluent” level.

This is because language fluency isn’t like punting a ball into a net, and you’ve made it… no, fluency is a constant ebb and flow of attention, effort, focus, inputs, and outputs. Even those most advanced language learners are still that: learners. The fact is that language forces us to all be students, at least part of the time. This is what makes it a bad goal to have. You’re basically wishing yourself to have information at your fingertips for an indiscriminate amount of time, with words that may not even exist yet.

Resolutions are all around you, whether you believe in them or not, and if you’re serious about learning a language this year, I salute you.

Here are four tips to make your language goals actually stick and remain realistic:

  1. Know your reality. Do you work 60 hours a week? Take care of children or parents? Do you have an extensive social life, or are you really passionate about baking, Monopoly, or any other multi-hour hobby? The best goals come from those self-aware people, and it’s up to you to pick an amount of time to dedicate to your goal: I recommend anywhere between 10-50 minutes per day.
  2. Integrate your language into your life. My favorite parts of this are to use subtitles on favorite shows or movies or investigate music in your target language. Any language learning routine will need input (music, TV, podcasts) AND output (thinking, writing, conversation), so think about how to balance these two aspects.
  3. Keep yourself accountable – and be specific! Have daily or weekly goals: I’m going to read this short story and make a list of words I don’t know. This Monday and Friday I’m going to have a dance break at noon with some reggaeton or dance music.
  4. Vet your help. I’m not talking about the animal hospital here, but rather, make sure the resources in your collection are reputable. Free Facebook groups are great for meeting native speakers or connecting with other language learners, but those offering services for free may not be accredited or experienced. Adults learn language a very different way than children, and a teacher or coach can help you take advantage of your time learning a language.

Whether you look for others to help you learn a language or you decide to go it alone, remember: language learning and the path to fluency resembles a rollercoaster. There are always more advanced concepts to learn and different pronunciation or grammatical rules, and fluency can be a moving target. Instead, focus on your smaller, more realistic goals and build the language habit into your life: only then can you see real progress.

[i] Merriam Webster, English Language Learners Dictionary. Corroborated by the BBC, Article here and Encyclopedia Britannica.


Megan Miller
Megan Miller
As one enamored with deep thinking and deep conversations, Megan Miller shares her findings and experiences as a word nerd and language lover worldwide. With more than 2 decades of Spanish under her belt, Megan has experienced firsthand the benefits of bilingualism. Megan is the founder and owner of Aprovechar Language Solutions, a translation and Spanish/English language coaching business that focuses on mindset, habit, and real-world examples to improve people’s confidence and comfortability in speaking and communicating. When she’s not coaching or translating, Megan uses her communication skills as an IT Project Manager to produce technological solutions and likes to travel and bake in her free time

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