Goals, Fluency, and the Finisher

One of my greatest struggles with language learning is setting goals. In the beginning, before I knew better, I did what most bright eyed and bushy tailed language learners do – I made my goal “fluency.” I wanted to be fluent in Italian, the language of the country I was moving to, and that was that. Goal set. What I didn’t know is what “fluency” even meant for me. Did I want to speak it like a native? Did I want to be able to just get around a train station or order food with ease? Did I want to have day-to-day conversations about the weather and kids, or did I want to be able to discuss economics and politics with my Italian friends? Moreover, what was my plan to reach this goal?

I left all of these questions unanswered, and not surprisingly, I haven’t become what most may consider to be fluent. Not only have I not reached the speaking level I hoped to be at by now (having lived in the country for nearly four years), but this goal – if you can even call it that – set me back in more ways than it motivated me.

For starters, I had no idea what it really takes to learn a second language. I truly believed that living in the country and being surrounded by the language would somehow make it seep into the inner workings of my brain, and I wouldn’t really have to work at studying. I would just become fluent. Sure, I took a beginner course and learned some useful vocabulary and verb conjugations. This course was incredibly valuable to me, but I was still of the mindset that the course would make me learn Italian, not that I could make myself learn the language through the course materials.

Digging a little deeper, what was really at play here is that I’m a finisher when it comes to school. I’m good at school. I can study anything and regurgitate information like a pro. I can intake complex theories and formulas and apply them to new problems. But language learning isn’t school, even if it’s performed in a classroom. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why I thought cram-session vocabulary reviews and last-minute homework completion would help me learn Italian when these exact study habits failed to help me learn Spanish in high school and college. I got As in all my Spanish classes, but I didn’t learn the language. I couldn’t speak it. I couldn’t read it. I knew a lot of vocabulary, and I could put it into specific grammatical constructs for an exam. But that was it. Nearly all was forgotten once the semester ended.

Yet still, I’ve often been disillusioned with the idea that finishing a language course will make me a better speaker (or writer or listener). It took me far too long to learn that this simply isn’t the case. The act of taking and completing a course is not the same as internalizing the resources provided, doing outside work to move vocab from short-term to long-term memory, or overcoming speaking anxiety in real-world conversations. With some serious soul-searching and coaching, I realized that my unspoken goal had always been to finish a course/book/resource but not to learn from that resource.

You may think it’s rather obvious that learning from a resource is the goal of using it, right? I mean, why waste your time finishing something if you aren’t learning from it? And you’re right. Digging even deeper into the crazy labyrinth that is my brain, I had convinced myself that courses and apps weren’t teaching me enough because I just didn’t finish enough. I needed to complete more Duolingo sessions. I needed to spend more time going through this unidentified-overly-expensive online course that bored me to tears because I just hadn’t finished enough lessons. I needed to sign up for more in-person classes and get more vocabulary spoken at me. These thoughts of “if I could just finish more…” nearly brought me to a complete mental breakdown. If fluency meant spending more time finishing things, then there must be something wrong with me because it’s just not working.

The easy answer to tell me-of-three-years-ago is that quantity does not outweigh quality. I say it again:  QUANTITY DOES NOT OUTWEIGH QUALITY. Spending more time on apps or completing more grammar lessons will not help you learn a language if you aren’t doing quality work with those resources. Moreover, failing to set S.M.A.R.T. goals can easily lead to a habit of finishing something rather than effectively utilizing it.

So with the goal of “fluency” added to my internal desire for finishing things, I had the perfect recipe for an incredibly low return on time investment. Even when it came to finishing something, I didn’t set goals for myself. The goal was to finish. That’s it. There was no plan of how many lessons to complete a week, how many words to learn a day, or what amount of time I want to practice speaking in the language. It was just to finish. Finish all of the Duolingo Italian tree. Then finish all of them to level 5. Finish another 8-week in-person course. Finish reading Il Diario (which, at the time, was far above my reading level). No wonder I was doing so much but not actually getting anywhere!

While I know better now – I’ve learned about S.M.A.R.T. goals, I understand that input does not equal ability to output, and I know meaningful practice is required for improvement – I still struggle to set goals. I give myself tasks, sure. But I need to work on my goals. Luckily, I made the brilliant decision to join Lindsay Williams of Lindsay Does Languages in her Language Life program, where she not only coaches us on how to make the most of our individual, unique language learning journeys, but also provides space for making and analyzing goals every month. So far, this has been invaluable to me as I traverse the pathways of self-studying German.

Right now I’m using German Uncovered as my main Deutsch resource. It’s a very fun and unique way of introducing oneself to a new language through story-based learning, but it’s also a course with a specific number of modules and vocab/grammar worksheets. On the one hand, it’s a useful resource with listening, reading, writing, and speaking activities included. Excellent! On the other hand, it’s a course, and I like finishing courses by way of jamming everything in as fast as possible. Not excellent. Here’s where Language Life comes in.

In February, I set the goal of completing four chapters of German Uncovered. So one per week. That’s not a bad pace, but halfway through the month I started feeling anxiety about getting all of this done. First, I realized that I hadn’t considered Carnevale holiday, when my kids are out of school for three days, and I don’t get my focused study time. I also didn’t take into account that February is shorter than the other months, lacking in a few extra buffer days. I spent a few days stewing over this, being angry about “lost” time, debating waking up an hour earlier each day to get it done, and finally coming to the best and most logical conclusion – it’s okay not to finish. I gave myself permission (thanks to the self-empowerment found through Language Life), halfway through the month, to adjust my February goal to completing three lessons instead of four. And it’s okay.

At the end of the month, I have completed those three lessons. Check. But while looking at setting my goals for March, I’m still stressed about those three lessons. Why? I completed them! I finished! Even better, I learned a lot. But I’m still not internalizing the language as much as I’d like. I know a lot of words by sight, but I can’t even begin to produce them in a conversation, and I forget many words that I’ve seen repeatedly. While I know this is completely normal, I also know that it’s not what I want long-term. I know from experience with Italian that if I don’t stop to do the (fun) work of listening to the language in other voices and contexts or if I don’t work to produce my own sentences, then I’m going to become frustrated again and start with the negative self-talk. And I simply refuse to go back down that dark hole.

My German Goals for March 2021:

Taking all of this into consideration, I decided to take a different approach with my German goals for March. Here’s what I’m going to try this month:

1. Complete two lessons in German Uncovered

                A. Chapter 6 in week 1

                B. Chapter 7 in week 3

2. Review previous lessons in German Uncovered

                A. Chapters 1 & 2 in week 2

                B. Chapters 3 & 4 in week 4

Additionally, I need to define what exactly I’m going to do with the review weeks. I’ll break this goal down into listening, reading, writing, and speaking.

  • Listening – Re-listen to each chapter 2-3 times, eyes closed, envisioning the story as it unfolds and feeling the flow of the language (not getting hung up on specific words)
  • Reading – Re-read each chapter; highlight repeated words that I tend to forget and add to Anki; make a list of words or phrases I want to focus on producing in my writing or speaking activities
  • Writing – Complete the weekly writing prompts from Language Life using as much vocabulary from the most recently reviewed chapters as possible
  • Speaking – Have two 30-minute iTalki sessions (already booked); talk to myself daily using reviewed vocabulary; repeat interesting words or phrases from the story for tongue & mouth exercise

This particular goal overview doesn’t include my goals for Italian or Polish, and it’s very specific to German Uncovered, but I know right now for me that this is where I need to work on my goals in order to combat the side of me that wants to bulldoze through a course in order to complete it. This is the area where I struggle most, and in the end, I always wish I’d slowed my pace to spend more time with the material instead of racing to finish. This month will be an excellent test in patience and quality study, and I hope to report back with meaningful progress in the right direction!

2 responses to “Goals, Fluency, and the Finisher”

  1. […] Some may think that perfectionism would be a useful tool for a language learner. It could be a motivator for working hard at it. You’ll really nail down grammar points and refine your pronunciation. And yea, maybe this could have been me in an idyllic world where I only learn languages through self-study and immersion with no other obligations. But in reality, I had two very young children, I was in graduate school working on my master’s degree in mathematics, and I had an extreme amount of personal and emotional baggage deep down that I didn’t yet know needed to be confronted and healed. All things considered, in my reality, perfectionism was perhaps the number one barrier standing between me and that lofty fluency goal. […]

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  2. […] recently, let’s say 2020, I’ve never been consistently good at making SMART goals. I always have long-term goals that I work toward, but making them measurable, realistic, and […]

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