How to set SMART goals for language learning 2

how to set smart goals for language learning

How to set SMART goals for language learning

Have you heard people talk about SMART goals before? I’m sure you have – the internet is full of articles about goal setting and how it can make things better. And believe me – it can!

SMART goals are a very useful tool when learning a language, and I’m about to tell you why. And I’m also going to tell you how to set SMART goals effectively to ensure you’re constantly moving closer towards your dream – fluency in the language (or languages) you’re learning!

Why SMART goals?

First, let me tell you about a common frustration many language learners feel. You might be feeling it too right now…

Many language learners get frustrated because in their head, they’re thinking they’re just ‘learning a language’. Their goal is usually ‘to be able to speak the language they’re learning’. And they don’t feel like they’re making much progress. They’re learning and learning, but not seeing the results they want.

Why is that?

Think about it for a second. When your goal is to ‘speak the language you’re learning’, what does it actually mean? Does it mean being able to say what your name is? Or does it mean to have a conversation about global warming? But they’re two completely different things!


If you want to make progress in the language you’re learning, you really need to know right from the outset what it is that you’re trying to learn.

And that’s where SMART goals come in. I’m about to explain what exactly they are and how to set them.

But first, let me just introduce you to a tool I’ve created that you can use to stay on track with your goals when pursuing your language dreams! It’s called the Motivation Journal, and you can read more about it here:

Find out more about the Motivation Journal.

The Motivation Journal

Now, let’s go back to SMART goals for language learning, OK?

What are SMART goals?

Here’s what SMART stands for:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Ambitious
  • Realistic
  • Time-bound

So what does each of the letters mean in practice? Let’s take a look!

SMART goals: specific

Let’s go back to one of the examples I mentioned earlier – your goal being ‘learning a language’.

If you want to make your goal specific, you need to break down ‘learning a language’ into specific tasks that you’re trying to accomplish.

If you’re learning French, for example, these could be to:

  • Understand when to use the subjunctive
  • Get the intonation right when asking questions
  • Learn phrases that will enable you to be more persuasive when dealing with a French business partner
  • Be able to transcribe a song by your favourite French band

While working on each of the objectives above, you will of course be ‘learning French’. But your learning will be more focused and more specific. This will enable you to feel more motivated and to understand when exactly you’ve met your goal and are ready to move on to the next one.

9 Essential Productivity Apps Every Language Learner Needs

SMART goals: measurable

You want to put a number on each one of your SMART objectives. Why? Because that will help you measure your success and decide whether or not you’ve achieved your goal yet. Let’s look at the first two examples from the section above and see how you can measure them:

  • Understand when to use the subjunctive: this could be made measurable by putting a specific number on it. For example: learn the 5 most common uses of the subjunctive.
  • Learn phrases that will enable you to be more persuasive when dealing with a French business partner: learn 5 adverbs that will help you emphasise what you’re trying to communicate.

This is getting even more specific now, isn’t it? You’re focusing on a specific number of things you need to learn (5 in the two examples above) and you will know exactly once your mission has been accomplished.

SMART goals: ambitious

Remember – to learn, you need to leave your comfort zone. Whatever it is that you’ve set out to do, make sure it sounds like a challenge to you.

So, instead of setting yourself a goal of learning 10 new words every week, call it 30, or even 50 if you feel brave enough.

One thing to remember, though, is you need to be able to balance ambitious with realistic, which is the next element of SMART goals.

SMART goals: realistic

Take your lifestyle and your everyday responsibilities into account when setting your objectives.

Use your previous experiences to determine what’s doable and what’s not. For example, if you managed to learn 80 words last month, it’s probably realistic this month as well, as long as your schedule looks similar to what it looked like last month. Was it an ambitious goal, though, last month or did it feel a bit easy?

Being realistic is important because setting yourself goals which are unrealistic is counter-productive and may cause your motivation levels to drop significantly.

SMART goals: time-bound

The final element of SMART goals is making them time-bound. But what does it mean? It essentially means setting yourself a deadline for achieving your goal.

For example, ‘learn 20 French verbs by the end of next week’. You can then see the specific chunk of time in your head and you know the learning process has to happen and get completed during that period of time.

How to set SMART goals for language learning?

How to set SMART goals for language learning

Image: Steven Depolo

Writing SMART goals is like painting a picture of the future you want to see, as if it was already here. The important thing is that it should not be a list of tasks but a reality that you want to see. The tasks will form part of the actions that you will need to take to achieve this reality.

Some people like starting their goals with ‘I will have’ but I personally prefer to write them in the present tense to make them more real and more achievable. Once you start seeing the future as if it is now, you start believing that it’s actually possible.

I also like to start my goals with the ‘time-bound’ component, such as ‘It is the end of January’, ‘It is Monday’, ‘It is the end of 2015’.

SMART goals don’t have to be expressed in one sentence. In fact, my language learning goals are often made up of two or three sentences.

Take a look at the example below.

It is the last day of June and I can now give a 5-minute speech about the jobs I’ve done in the past, using the ‘imparfait’ and ‘passé composé’ tenses in French. I can confidently use link words such as ‘après que’, ‘puis’ and ‘malgré’ to show logical continuity when describing past events. I use 5 new irregular verbs to talk about my previous jobs, including ‘prendre’, ‘vendre’ and ‘sentir’.  

  • This objective is specific in that it focuses specifically on using the two tenses – ‘imparfait’ and ‘passé composé’, as well as on learning irregular verbs in the ‘passé composé’. It also includes a speaking component – being able to give a 5-minute speech on a very specific topic.
  • It is measurable because it specifies the speech should be 5 minutes long and the number of verbs is 5. It also focuses on 2 specific tenses.
  • It is an ambitious goal because it is focused on three different aspects of language learning – speaking, grammar and vocabulary.
  • It is realistic because I might set myself this goal at the beginning of June with a plan to achieve it by the end of the month.
  • It is also time-bound because the deadline is the last day of June.

Have you ever tried setting yourself SMART goals? Let me know in the comments below!

P.S. If you’d like to learn more about SMART goals and actions, enter your email address into the form below to receive my free ‘Learn Languages Like a Pro’ starter guide. 


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  • This month I’m planning to start French classes again. This is way outside of my comfort zone, since last time I took French classes was 16 years ago. But I love the language, I’ve been studying it by myself, and I like the interactions and dynamics in a class.

    Great post, by the way.

  • Judy Thompson

    I like setting goals with SMART technique but I’ve never used it for learning a language. It’s my fault. Thank you, Agnieszka, for sharing the expertise 🙂