Why your language goals fail (and how to fix them)

Kelsey Rayeducation, language0 Comments

Why your language goals fail

Before I started learning German in 2008, I studied Spanish in school and flirted with Japanese in the library. It’s easy to say why I failed in learning these first two languages. In Spanish, it was the overuse of vocabulary memorization. By the time teachers started introducing grammar, I associated the language with boredom. It was too easy. And Japanese? With three alphabets and a completely different word order, I didn’t know where to start.

After studying German independently for two years, I could speak conversational German. I thought I had the learning process down. Whatever I did with Spanish and Japanese – I could correct that. I could learn any language no problem. All I had to do was refine the strategy.

I was wrong.

Here is what I’ve learned:

A language isn’t one skill

The summer after my freshman year in college, I decided to learn Russian. I wanted to nail elementary Russian and test into intermediate.

I studied for at least five hours a day. I made elaborate color-coded reference charts for verb and case endings. I completed countless exercises.

Russian books

Some Russian books I picked up the following summer. I read. A lot.

It was a grueling schedule.

I tested into intermediate. In fact, I was half-way to advanced. I was ecstatic. I met my goal, right?

In actuality I could read well. I could figure out grammar. But I had barely spoken all summer. When I enrolled in the fall, I discovered that my anxiety had skyrocketed. Listening and speaking portions were the bane of my existence.

While I may have passed with an “A”, I felt frustrated by the end. I could read, and to some degree write in Russian. But my knowledge was more linguistic.

There are four skills to language learning: Reading, writing, listening and speaking. It’s becoming culture savvy. It’s negotiating a refund. It’s bargaining the market. It’s explaining your future goals. Make sure you actively analyze your process to ensure you are hitting the skills you want.

Even if you love languages, you can burn out

The worst part about my Russian experience is that I had completely burned out by the end of that academic year.

To be fair, it wasn’t the fault of the language or the intermediate class. I had failed to consider other sources of stress and anxiety. Life happens. Perspectives change.

Don’t take on more than you can take. Always take on 10% less than you can take in ideal conditions.

After high-frequency words

When you are a beginner to intermediate student, you have to shift through what you need. In reality, beginner goals are fairly simple to outline:

But intermediate and advanced language goals are not so clear.


I spent a lot of time walking around this city. Marburg, Germany.

I studied abroad in Germany. I was hoping to bump up my level to C1. By the end of the semester, I could pass an exam in German without a dictionary. I could explain problems to a cashier and ask for a refund. I could negotiate some pretty upper level tasks.

But I wasn’t C1. Nor was I completely confident in conversations.

The problem?

I kept narrowing down when I needed to expand.

There comes a point when you have to stop thinking, “Do I really need this word right now?” Once you have the most common 5000 words under your belt, it’s time to dig deep and focus on any word you come across. It’s time to start creating synonym and antonym lists. You need to focus on style rather than grammar.

When you’re at the intermediate level, you need to both be open and focused.

Be open to all new words and structures you come across. Focus on one theme, one grammar topic, and one style at a time.

You’re not actively studying

The last point I want to make is that there is a considerable difference between active and passive studying. Both are useful. But you’ll get farther with active studying.

After obtaining my B.A., the more academic approach to studying stuck with me. While learning Hindi, I decided I wanted to experiment with my process. I no longer had to worry about grades. This was the time.

So I tried a lot of methods prompted by polyglots. I’m a bit of an introvert, so going out and speaking Hindi with strangers was terrifying (and not very helpful). I ended up leaning on grammar study once again. Grammar helps me feel prepared, but it’s not necessarily an active exercise.

Here’s what worked (and is working):

  • Having an overview of grammar and structures
  • Listening and repeating conversational dialogues
  • Writing a brief script and speaking in the mirror
  • Writing spontaneously
  • Translating from English back into Hindi
  • Learning in short bursts throughout the day

In the end, I have found that when making goals, it’s crucial to really understand what you need, what you want, and what your level is. Otherwise, it’s possible you will waste time, become demotivated, or worse – burn out.

What has worked for you? Let’s talk about it in the comments.