“Most people vastly overestimate what they can do in a week and vastly underestimate what they can do in a year.” — Geoffrey James.
As I set out on my first overseas trip in two years, I can’t help but look back on the time required to get to this point.
You need months to save and plan for an overseas trip. And that is just to get to the starting point.
In addition, on the day of departure, you may still have a journey of 24 hours or more to get to your destination.
I recorded a video to capture my thoughts while on the journey:
Both the months leading up to the trip and the time in the aeroplane represent a simple metaphor of what it takes to achieve challenging goals.
If you want to hit a stretch goal you need to push yourself through a level of discomfort over a period of time. Of course, the length of time depends on the goal. But for language learning progress is typically made over weeks and months, not hours or days.
So how should best progress your Spanish? How should you think about it? And how should you set short-term goals to improve your rate of progress?
Mindset: Thinking about your thinking
Language learning is a pursuit that evokes tons of passion from its participants because of the hard work needed to improve.
There are Spanish hacks that make the process easier and quicker. But, if you are just starting out, you will still need a minimum of at least 3 months of organized activity to get to a point where you can speak in Spanish without English.
This means that how you think about your goals and progress is important. And to be as effective as possible will mean considering your goals in appropriate time periods for progress.
Mindset may not be a sexy topic, but I believe a good language learning mindset is the critical distinction between students that have success with language learning and those that don’t.
What is progress?
Before we look at setting goals for progress, we need to consider what the word ‘progress’ actual means.
At first glance, the concept may seem obvious, but there are layers that need to be considered.
For example, if your goal was to be conversational in Spanish, how would you know you have made progress towards that goal?
It could be that after 6 weeks of focused practice, you don’t feel like you’ve made progress because you can’t see how you at all closer to holding a conversation without English. But, in reality, your vocabulary has expanded and your knowledge of verb conjugations has improved.
Alternatively, it could be that you are frustrated by what feels like extremely slow progress in one aspect of your Spanish, such as listening comprehension. But it turns out that you have made huge progress with other areas, such as your pronunciation.
Small wins are hugely rewarding and motivating. So you need to carefully consider how you are thinking about your progress, and importantly, how you are tracking it.
How to set goals to quickly progress your Spanish
Referring back to the quote I included at the start of this article, we tend to overestimate what we can do in short time periods (hours and days) and underestimate what we can do medium to long term periods (weeks, months, years).
I’m very guilty of this and often need reminding.
As humans, we have inbuilt biases that make us judge things in certain ways. Ways that can often be deceiving.
We struggle to think in short-term windows. And, bizarrely, it’s often much easier to think in hours or years than it is in weeks or months.
But, of course, this is the key to quick progress—setting goals based on improvements over weeks and months.
So how should you set goals instead?
The best timeframes for goals in language learning are in the order of 6 to 12 weeks. This is because goals in these time frames are short enough to maintain consistent focus and long enough to allow you to see significant progress in your abilities.
To help you brainstorm, think about what your Spanish is missing most and then try to fill the gap.
For example, if you think that vocabulary is what you most need to improve, set a goal of learning 5-10 new words a day, every day, for 6 weeks.
Measurement and feedback
Success at anything in life is about 5 basic steps:
- Choose a goal.
- Take action steps to achieve that goal.
- Notice if you are moving towards to your goal or not.
- If you are moving closer towards your goal keep doing what is working; if you aren’t moving closer change your approach.
If you haven’t reached your goals yet, it could be because you have missed steps 3, 4 or 5.
Are the actions steps that you have been taking working? Are you moving closer to your goals?
When it comes to language learning, sometimes those last two questions are quite difficult to answer. But, there are ways to track your improvement.
For Spanish, there are a few things you can do. Try out one of the following options:
- Record yourself speaking to yourself (with a smartphone or recording device).
- Record yourself speaking to a friend or tutor over Skype (always ask permission first).
- Write every day.
- Read books and see how far you can get.
- Ask a teacher or tutor for feedback on your progress.
- Self-vocabulary tests (or with a friend).
At the start of a 6-12 week goal window use one of the above options to measure your skills at the start, then retest or compare your results at the end of the window.
If you are happy with your progress, keep going. If not, adjust your training activities or the measurement test (or both) and go again.
The key to effective progress in language learning is consistent effort over the short-term.
Try to set yourself a goal that involves daily activities for 6-12 weeks.
See if you can notice if you have made progress towards your goals. This can be difficult because it is often somewhat subjective. Test out a few of the above methods for yourself to which you like best.
How can you set yourself short-term goals to effectively progress your Spanish?