Language Learning Goal Setting

Language learning is something I have spent a lot of time doing in some shape or another. I like the process of learning a language but I also enjoy exploring the various quirks of linguistics and different languages, even languages I haven’t got any intention of learning to speak. It’s purely something I enjoy doing.

Not having any intention of taking anything past the most superficial level is perfectly fine, especially so if you enjoy that thing on a purely superficial level. But what about if you do have intentions of going somewhere with a skill, in this case language learning? You’ll probably end up setting a goal of some sort. Goals aren’t bad things. On the contrary they’re rather good. They serve as the baseline for any good plan. It’s pretty hard to structure something without an end point. However, in language learning, I’ve come to feel that most goals are illusory. I don’t think they contain any meaning or value and are wrapped up in lots of bad preconceptions about the language acquisition process.

Language learning goals are usually described by words like ‘fluency’, ‘competency’, or ‘conversational’. Don’t get me wrong, these words do convey something in a rough sense. If someone is ‘competent’ in a language then we might expect a higher level of ability than someone who is purely ‘conversational’. As labels for a level, they kind of work. But what exactly should one do, or be able to do, to reach each of these labels? This has been a big problem in modern linguistics and lots of people have come up with their own definitions of fluency. The same goes for the other labels. The Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT) has a ‘level checklist‘ for what you should be able to do according to the JLPT’s creators. The site even says that it’s ‘not a syllabus and doesn’t ensure success’ in the exam.

In my experience teaching English in Japan, these words have crept into the lay consciousness as meaningful terms for levels or even as targets which you should strive to meet. The problem is that from exam to exam, or person to person, ‘fluent’ or ‘conversational’ vary wildly and there isn’t one consistent definition. If these words vary so much from person to person or organisation to organisation, they really don’t tell us anything without further explanation from the individual involved. Hence why most exam organisers will publish their exam’s rubric in an attempt to clarify unhelpful terms like ‘competent user’ or ‘fluent’.

To drive the point home, take this exchange:

'What are you going to do today?'
'Me go shop later,'
'Oh okay cool, what are you going to buy?'
'Pant, sock, shoe, coffee 50%,'
'So you might not buy coffee?'
'True. Store music good equals buy, music bad equal no buy,'

These two speakers had an exchange. You might even call it a conversation. But I don’t know if anyone would call the second speaker conversational, despite the use of words to convey ideas. Even though the second speaker apparently understood what the first speaker was asking and (let’s assume) responded promptly and confidently, in reality many would say that speaker two is probably of a low level. Why, though? Well, the lack of grammar stands out for one thing, incorrect use of pronouns, lack of collocations, odd word choice, lack of connectives. But none of this is necessarily included in the word ‘conversational’. For all intents and purposes, speaker two is a conversational speaker, but they don’t conform to the traditional expectations associated with ‘good’ English speakers.

At what point does speaker two’s English become conversational, then? If we take the following exchange:

'What are you going to do today?'
'I'll go shop later,'
'Oh okay cool, what are you going to buy?'
'A pants, socks, shoes, maybe coffee,'
'So you might not buy coffee?'
'Maybe not, if a store's music is bad, no, but if it's good then okay,'

This is looking more like a ‘conversation’ in traditional terms and, this time, speaker two conforms more to what we expect of people speaking English. There are still clear mistakes which stand out to a native speaker, however. Some things sound unnatural e.g. I’ll go shop later -> I’m going shopping later, or the incorrect use of articles e.g. a store -> the store, a pants -> some pants. But, for the most part, this is more ‘conversational’ than the previous example. But there is no reason in principle, other than a purely arbitrary level of accuracy/production speed, which should make this any more technically conversational than the previous conversation. The same ideas were conveyed, after all.

Practically, if someone sets the goal of ‘becoming conversational’ for themselves, then they’re striving to conform to this arbitrary level of accuracy/naturalness/production speed which, ultimately, is hard for us to verify. In the end, it’s plausible that a speaker with this goal might end up striving for native-level/style speech, simply because as they improve they locate different areas for improvement until, in the end they achieve a level which is indistinguishable from a native. All because they didn’t know what their goal actually meant.

In my opinion, these labels are pretty useless and the only meaningful language learning goals are exam grades or other easily verifiable metrics e.g. knowing words on a vocabulary list. This doesn’t mean that these are ‘good’ goals, though. It just means that they’re goals which mean something to the person attempting to achieve it and others inquiring about said goals. Ideally people should do things because they enjoy them but realistically some people do need to meet milestones i.e. for work or job-hunting purposes.

This also means that I don’t believe in the casual language learner who doesn’t intend to reach a high level or become indistinguishable from a native speaker. Unless you can point me towards a concrete goal at which point you will feel comfortable ceasing seeking to improve, I assume that really you would like to become indistinguishable from a native speaker but don’t realise it yet. In which case, you should stop bothering with ineffective methods of language learning. But that’s a whole other issue for another post.

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