22 Nov Using SMART Goals to Efficiently Learn a Foreign Language

Setting goals or targets doesn’t come naturally to everyone and has to be cultivated using various factors of importance. When researching goal setting theories or the importance of goal setting, one is bound to come across the 1979 Harvard study or the 1953 Yale study, both concluding that from the MBA students researched, 3% earned 10 times more than their remaining 97% of classmates, 10 years post the study, simply because they wrote down their goals instead of placing them in their mind or not doing either.

While both researches gained huge amounts of popularity and were used as excellent examples to encourage the use of goals setting in everyday life, neither of them were true!

Neither Yale nor Harvard had any record of either of the studies taking place at the institutes, thus nullifying their existence completely.

After extensive exploration by the firm Fast Company (1996) and research by Steven Kraus, a social psychologist from Harvard, in collaboration with Dr. Gail Matthews, a clinical psychologist and professor from the Dominican University of California, the two infamous studies were declared as nothing more than urban myths.

Inspired from the above mentioned ‘urban myths’, a study was conducted by Dr. Matthews (2007) to investigate the effectiveness of goal setting.

267 candidates were recruited from various professional fields and nationalities for the research, out of which 149 completed the study. Individuals were placed in 1 of 5 groups, each ranging on tasks from merely writing down the goal (group 1) to adding action tasks as well as reporting progress and accountability to a friend (group 5).

The results of the research backed what the ‘urban myth’ studies were trying to portray; 43% of those that wrote down their goals either achieved the goal or were halfway there (group 1) and 76% of those that added additional tasks, weekly progress reports and reviews to a friend (Group 5) either achieved their goal or were more than halfway through.

To put it in simple terms, group 5 used SMART Goal setting techniques and thus performed better.


Using goals, specifically with SMART goal setting, to learn a new language can work just as the technique would for a business objective. Though a long-term plan, learning a foreign language is an objective that can be better achieved through the use of precise and short-term targets.

The concept of SMART goals, commonly defined as the ‘best practice framework for goal setting’, first appeared in 1981 in an issue of the Management Review. Despite being known as a simple business tool, business experts & psychologists have proved time and again that SMART goal setting is an effective as well as proficient way to achieve targets. Though there have been many other words to define the abbreviation ‘SMART’, the following have stood the test of time:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable/Achievable
  • Relevant/Realistic
  • Time Bound

The idea is to ensure that any goal set meets the above stated criteria in order to aid the individual in successfully achieving their objective.

Here’s how you can set SMART goals when learning a language:

  • Specific

Learning a new language can be daunting but setting specific tasks can lead to a more focused learning experience.

For example, take baby steps and set a target of learning days of the week or the months of the year. For those at an advanced level, translating a small article into your native language or vice versa is a small yet detailed task which would increase fluency and understandability of the language.

  • Measurable

Adding a number, limit, time, date or any unit of measure makes a goal even more precise and offers noticeable results.

For example, set concise learning goals for the day such as learning 5 new adjectives or reading 3 pages of the foreign language newspaper, etc.

  • Attainable/Achievable

Being a confident and ambitious learner are two commendable traits but anything in excess does more harm than good. Overestimating your capabilities when setting a goal can lead to stress when working towards it. It is essential to set a goal that is truly achievable.

For example, learning 50 foreign language words in one day is highly unlikely but learning those very words in a span of 5-10 days is possible.


  • Relevant/Realistic

It is said that there is no better teacher than experience as it makes you aware of your strengths and weaknesses. Therefore setting a goal based on experience will give it a more realistic approach.

Moreover, your goals need to be relevant to your final aim. Irrelevant or unrealistic goals can lead to dropped motivation levels of the learner and be counterproductive to their learning.

For example, it wouldn’t make sense to learn the complex conjugation of a verb if your final objective is to know the basic travel phrases in the foreign language.

  • Time Bound

A time frame or a deadline increases the urgency to do work and simultaneously increases focus, motivation levels and helps modify the short-term goals to achieve a bigger target. Without any time measure, you may not feel the need to learn or perform better. Moreover, practice makes perfect and practice takes time.

For example, learn 5 new phrases by the end of the week or finish a module before the 1st of next month.

Keeping the above in mind, there are a few more things to note when setting out a SMART goal:

  • Write it Down: While it is okay to have a set goal in mind and rely on memory, writing the goal down gives it a stronger sense of purpose and makes it easier to consult.


  • Challenge Yourself: It is vital that you experiment with tasks which are out of your comfort zone for productive growth. However, it is equally essential to ensure that you don’t push yourself too hard as it can lead to anxiety, waste of time and many more counterproductive situations.


  • Be Optimistic: Using a positive undertone in the writing will help you feel driven, confident and inspired to work towards achieving the goal.


Setting goals can be highly effective as well as efficient if done right and help you reach your objectives in a wholesome and successful manner. Make sure that your set goals are based on the SMART goals framework and it will make all the difference!

Achieve your business goals the SMART way! Start by communicating with your diverse workforce today.

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