How To Define Language Learning Goals That Work

Just as I did last year, I am going to get my year started by setting some goals and laying out a clear set of expectations with the language. It is always important to do this with big projects, and learning a language is definitely a big project.

Saying you want to learn a language is too vague. Even using the word "fluently" isn't clear. When half of the alotted time is over, you need to be able to look at your list and feel confident that half of your expectations have been met, and determine which ones you still need to work on.

As I did last year, I'll start by defining fluency.

Define fluency

  • The term fluent is a form of the word fluid, or flowing. In other words, a fluent speaker of a language should be able to form flowing speech. Pauses to think are natural for anyone, but what’s important is the ability to chain words together casually.
  • A fluent speaker should be able to understand a casual conversation, and insert themselves into it without breaking the momentum. For example, if I am with friends and they’re talking about a new restaurant, I should be able to jump in and say that I’ve been to that restaurant, what I had, and what I’d recommend. Just as I can, and do, in my native English.
  • A fluent speaker should be, within reason, grammatically correct. It’s okay to be imperfect; in fact, I’m foreign is a great excuse. But the mistakes being made should be grown-up mistakes, not those that any five-year-old native speaker would laugh at.
  • I am not going to focus on word counts or vocabulary size. While these things may come up as part of my study, they will not be used as metrics by which to gauge my success.
  • A fluent speaker shouldn’t be tripped up by slang. We don’t say is not, we say ain’t, and we don’t say going to, we say gonna. These shortcuts will exist in any language you learn, and without learning them, you’re gonna be lost.

Okay! Now that I've got a clear understanding of my expectations, it's time to design a few "proofs," against which we can measure success. So, here are my expectations this year with Turkish.

My goals for Turkish

  • I should be able to chat with new friends online about general subjects without using any translator or dictionary
  • I should be able to read an article from a Turkish newspaper or news web site, and be able understand and summarize it without any help from a translator or dictionary. I don’t need to know every word, but I need to understand the details of the event being discussed.
  • I should be able to accomplish normal online tasks in Turkish, such as checking email or weather, shopping for clothes, or searching for plane tickets.
  • I should be comfortable expressing my personality through the language as I do in English, by making silly jokes, puns, wordplay, and flirting in conversation.
  • I should be able to watch a movie in Turkish without subtitles and understand what’s going on.
  • I should be able to download a short news clip in Turkish and understand it.
  • And finally, I should be able to have an in-person conversation with a native Turkish speaker for at least 30 minutes, without using English.
  • Most importantly, I will achieve these goals without using lesson books, vocabulary CDs, flashcards, word lists, instructional software, classes, teachers, or tutors.

The list is slightly different this year, compared to my checklist for Italian last year. Any interest in Italian is sure to include literature, whereas that's not such an obvious case for me with Turkish. But based on my results from last year, I feel I can (and should) raise the expectations on the length of conversation. Most significantly, I have added the fact that I will not be using any traditional language-teaching materials to learn this language.

I will keep a nice checklist of these items on my mission page, and as the year goes on, I will check off the items on this list as I accomplish them. My intention is that before 2011 is over I will have successfully completed each one of these goals, thus proving to myself that I am, in fact, fluent in Turkish.


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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • I like your goals, as they are well thought out. I think the difficult one, for me, anyways, is telling jokes or puns in a non-native language. And sometimes I don't get jokes in a non-native language.

  • Nice goals!
    But why only 30 minutes? I'd only feel fluent if I could manage hanging out with natives for an entire day. I notice your list is more task-based (things you can do in Turkish on a computer) rather than conversational focused.
    Most of those tasks are passive uses of a language. Many people around the world can do most of those in English, but I still wouldn't say they are comfortably fluent when I speak with them.
    Not too sure about if I'd agree on this year's definition of fluency, although I definitely am keen to see how you apply it using no products while not in the country!

  • Im not going to move to Turkey just to prove my success. Hanging out all day in Turkish would unfairly put a requirement onto someone else. These definitions form a checklist for measuring success, nothing more. Also I find it interesting that you complain about this year's criteria, but not last year's which was more loose.

  • Yeah, humor is subtle, and one of the aspects of language that I find most challenging.

  • FYI, 2010 is over.

  • Do you talk nonstop for 24 hours with people around and without people close enough to hear you talking? That's not normally how people spend their days. What Randy specifies with his 30 minute rule is closer to reality.

  • Wow, really impressive! I think this is a hell of a goal, but I truly believe you will be able to achieve it. I guess that you usually do this kind of stuff expecting to help people, right? So it would be great if you would "teach" us readers how to use the internet like that. I mean, I know I can find almost anything in almost everylanguage on the internet, I just don't know exactly how to do it. If you could show how to do it, it would be a great help for me and for many and many other people.One question I have: You've learned Italian in the past year, that is awesome. I myself have a profound admiration for the italian language, but I don't know if it is worth it to learn it. I mean, I don't really like the few italians musics I know, i also haven't heard of many great books in the language and certainly, their TV shows suck. Do you see it as a useful language in your life? I mean, despite your personal taste for the language, can you really use it to make your life more interesting? How do you do it?Ok, ok, I am sorry for disturbing with all this bullshit. I know you have better stuff to do rather than answering my silly beginner's questions. But, you know, I would be really grateful for you if could spend some time with a short answer. I can tell you it would be pretty helpful.Best luck with your new incredible mission!

  • When he said hanging out with for one day, not talking for 24 hours nonstop. There is a major difference. He doesnt need to be talking the entire time but understanding what is going on around him and join in conversations at any time. Randy has goals which suit people like me, who can really only have time to speak at most for half an hour online. Remember, Benny hangs around with natives all day as he is in that country; Randy is in Chicago, using the Internet and any natives he can find, which itself is harder. That's why Randy says 30 minutes while Benny says a whole day.

  • Ah, thanks for making the distinction. I believe Randy did say he plans to travel to Turkey after the year is up . . .

  • Yeah, he did. But that is to use the language, not practice it. :)

  • Good luck in Rome by the way! Just saw the video. It looks like an amazing place, with that mixture of old and new.

  • Um Randy, did I say move to Turkey? You can hang out with a Turk in Chicago, I'm sure I've given dozens of suggestions on my site for how to do this!I presumed this would be part of your Internet-learning activity - do you not plan to use the net to actually meet up with people?? Skype-only conversation is really limiting yourself when Turks are so easy to find!If you believe after an entire year that you are somehow pressuring or inconveniencing someone else by hanging out for a day, I personally wouldn't call that fluent.I didn't say I loved last year's definition either - your definition of "fluency" itself (i.e. not the goals) parallels how I'd describe it on my blog, but saying that you only aimed to speak for TEN minutes with someone is pretty bad. If I can't spend an entire evening at least with natives then I'm simply not fluent yet. I spent entire days with Hungarians after 2 months, just speaking in the language and STILL didn't call that level I reached to be fluent!!It seems other people define fluency as how well you can read or listen with way less focus on the comfort involved in speaking for long times than I would.

  • I think a lot of people face a simple problem with the Internet: the ability to find just about anything the search for, coupled with a complete lack of any idea of WHAT to search for.Seems to me Italian is quite useful — all musical language is Italian, much of popular cooking languagecis Italian, several historic authors and artists were Italian, and there are tons of good italian movies.

  • I think it's a good question. Even when I spend a whole day with someone, we don't talk the whole time. And in a group setting, it's quite common for much of what is said to go completely unheard by members of the group.I think I agree with Lola here. Bennys choice of words here is reflective of his own style of learning, but not really compatible with mine, or with those for whom who my site is intended.

  • Again, the intention with this list is to provide a clear checklist for measuring success. I agree that there seems to be something missing toward the end, and I'm happy to update the list when a good goal is imagined, but I don't think that "spend a day with a Turk" is a fair requirement for anyone — it requires not just language skill, but a social engineering component that is not part of my message here.

  • And whether the definition is 10 minutes or 30, the goal is always more... By October last year I was already hanging out all night in Italian.

  • Fair enough! As you say we have different goals. I don't care so much for buying plane tickets or watching movies in other languages, so in those aspects I am "less fluent" perhaps since all my focus is on speaking. Having said that I do naturally improve in other areas (as shown in the complex German exam I did last year) since reading and writing can't be avoided in immersion environments.For me fluency involves it flowing for long periods of time so that you would withstand immersion environments, but that's not what people who visit countries briefly may be after I suppose. For your visit to Italy and later Turkey, as your touring you'll only really need 10-30 minutes to chat to any given person.If I feel tired or that the other person has had enough of my mistakes after just a few minutes I wouldn't feel that's good enough - but you're right, quite a lot of social engineering is involved here, which is something I talk about a lot since it's crucial for living naturally with natives.But as you say, you can always have set goals and ultimately achieve higher than them!

  • The definition Randy has for fluency seems much better than the fluent in three months or "getting by in 8 weeks". Most of the language people encounter in a day is pretty basic and repetitive, with sections of intensity popping up. if you can chat comfortably for 30mins or an hour or similar on varied subjects surely you aren't going to have much of problem adapting quickly when you visit the country.I see the opposite problem, Chinese who come to England and their classroom based study quickly allows then to adapt to all the daily living things, buying stuff, feeding, traveling etc. Some of them can live quite happily for day after day entirely in English (if they are isolated / working or studying they don't have a choice because the natives don't speak Chinese ;)).What they struggle with is medium to long conversations with natives about interesting things, understanding radio or TV programs etc. etc.
    all the things that go beyond small talk and buying a bus ticket that actually make life interesting. Occasionally I come across one who has mastered all that prior to coming to England and they are streets ahead right from the moment they get off the plane. If they are that way inclined you can see how much more relaxed and how much more they are enjoying the experience.

  • Nice post Randy. I can meet all those goals for Spanish except "I should be comfortable expressing my personality through the language as I do in English, by making silly jokes, puns, wordplay, and flirting in conversation."
    I understand pretty much any type of input and can talk one-on-one on most topics without problems, but my speech is still fairly formal. I have a real problem joining group conversations. I can follow what's being said, but jumping in without completely stopping the flow is beyond me. It's not how long I talk, but a lack of natural speech patterns that flags me as foreign. Anyone got any tips for how to surmount this final obstacle?

  • That's a fair question, and which I'd like to see answers for.

  • Major props for doing it correctly and making a list of well-defined objectives before you get started--95% of people don't do this when they start out on something they want to accomplish, whether it's learning a new language or getting in shape or what-have-you, and it makes all the difference in the world.Also, I wrote up a post on this called is the real litmus test for me: 30 minutes of smooth conversation with a native speaker at a normal, conversational rate of speed, without any outside aids (dictionary, google translate, etc.).It's good that you threw in some objectives/tests for reading/writing because I didn't really emphasize that as much, though I'm of the opinion that it's more important now than I used to think it was, but I still contend that being able to speak a language is FAAAR more important than being able to read or write it with regards to which is most useful when you go in-country.Cheers,
    Andrew

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