How to Learn German in 6 Days: A Lesson in Setting SMART Language Learning Goals

It’s time to address these claims of “learn German in 30 days, 60 days, 90 days”. You are never “done” learning a language. I’ve been learning English since birth and I still learn new words and phrases all of the time. I have only been speaking German for 18 years. I’m nowhere near perfect and I won’t be anytime soon. I haven’t finished learning English, my native language. Why would I ever think I have “finished” learning German? 

A Paradigm Shift in Language Learning

We need a paradigm shift in the way we think about language learning. Stop thinking in terms of A1, A2, B1 and B2 and figuring out what’s on the exams for each level. Think instead, “what do you want to Do with this language?” and “how can I get to a point where I can DO x, y or z?” 

Sure, there is some general knowledge that you will need no matter what your goals are, but if the goal is always figuring out what is on some test and working towards that as a goal, frustrations will run high and you will suffer from burnout in no time. Ask yourself, “What do I want to Do with this language?” and don’t answer “pass the B1 exam” or “get into a German university”. These are bad goals. Let me explain.

First of all, the goals I just mentioned are ok to have as “end goals”, but you are missing a ton of steps in between. If you are just starting to learn German and your goal is to pass the B1 exam, when you reach that intermediate plateau, you are going to struggle to be motivated by this goal, as you won’t see progress that you want to see. You probably are making progress, but you can’t see it, because your goal is too far away. 

One Goal Ain’t Enough. You’d Better Make It Three.
– George Thorogood

This is why I recommend you don’t set one goal. Set an end goal, but make as many small goals in between where you are now and where you want to be, so you can see that progress as you work towards your goals. If you can’t reach a goal each week, I would say your goals are too far apart and you need to find what steps need to be taken in between the steps you already have found. 

Why Smaller Language Learning Goals Are Important
Why Smaller Language Learning Goals Are Important


Recently I stumbled upon the idea of “SMART” goals. This concept aligns really well with my own personal views on language learning and the reason that goals like passing the B1 exam are, in my opinion, bad goals. I’m going to use the concept of “SMART” goals to teach you how to really set language goals, how to work towards those goals and how to actually attain them. 

S – Specific, Simple, Sensible, Significant

The “S” in “SMART” goals traditionally stands for “specific”, but it has also been labeled as “simple”, “sensible”, and “significant”. I would argue that your language goals should be all of the above. First and foremost, your goal should be specific. “I want to be able to converse with any German native speaker I meet on any topic that could possibly come up.” isn’t specific enough. It is a great overall goal, but it isn’t a “SMART” goal. 

To me, the word “specific” is perfect for reminding you exactly how small each stepping-stone goal should be. Let’s keep the example of being able to speak with any native German speaker on any topic. One of the steps along the way would have to be “I want to be able to order food in a German restaurant.” This is a goal that is specific and simple. It is also sensible, as you will very likely have a conversation like this at some point. To me this is also a significant conversation, too. It is a great feeling the first time you use your German skills to order food in a German restaurant. 

Ask yourself this series of questions in order to find goals that are specific, simple, sensible and significant. 

What do I want to be able to do? 
Are there steps I need to complete before this goal can be met? If so, you need to add a goal for those steps first! 
Why is this goal important to me?
Will I actually use the things I learn on my way to this goal? Don’t study astrophysics unless you anticipate you plan on having a conversation on astrophysics in German. 

M – Measurable, Meaningful, Motivating

Next up is “measurable”, which is also sometimes labeled as “meaningful” or “motivating”. I would again argue, it must be all three. First, it must be measurable. How will you know you have accomplished this goal? What boxes do you need to check in order to consider this goal met? It must be meaningful. Does your goal have a purpose? Is there a real reason why you are making this goal? It must be motivating. Why do you want to do this? Will this make you proud of yourself if you can accomplish this goal? 

These questions are great for crafting measurable, meaningful and motivating goals. The bottom line is this. How will you know that you have accomplished this goal? If you can’t answer that one question, you need to rework your goal to make an answer to this question. 

A – Achievable, Attainable

The next letter is A. It stands for Achievable or Attainable. This one is a pretty easy one to conceptualize, but it is often more difficult to actually create a goal with this component. Is it achievable? Can you actually ever do the thing you want to? Sure, you can become completely fluent in German and never have to consult a dictionary during any conversation about any topic, but just as I mentioned before, having such a grandiose goal leaves too much time between milestones, which can lead to problems. 

I would combine this component with that of the letter T in SMART goals, which I will explain in more detail later. This is all about time. Is it achievable, yes. Can you do it in a short time span, probably not. If you can’t combine these two ideas, you need to change your goal. 

In addition to the time constraints, you should also consider other factors that might hinder you ability to reach your goals. Do you have a job? If you are at work for 10 hours each day, studying German for 10 hours each day isn’t going to work. So if your goal is to be fluent by next Tuesday, you have chosen poorly. Are there financial constraints to consider? You can’t afford to take lessons for $1600 per month. Planning your goals around this would be problematic. 

R – Relevant

The R in SMART goals stands for relevant. This essentially means, is it even worth trying to achieve this goal? 

Since you are already making smaller goals that are targeting a bigger overall goal, this boils down to one question. Do you need this topic in order to communicate? Do you need vocabulary for astrophysics? Probably not. I doubt you are planning on discussing astrophysics anytime soon in German. This goal is not relevant. 

Also under the umbrella of “relevant” is the question of timing. Do you need to learn the Konjunktiv 2 in the first few weeks of learning German? No. You need other building blocks first. So you need to think about what the next step would be. Don’t try to jump over steps in order to get to the finish sooner, this will only cause you problems in the long run. For example, if you ignore the genders of nouns in German when you first learn nouns, you will have a ton of problems later on when you are trying to master the cases. Make sure your goals are in a logical order. 

This does not mean, however, that the goals you set have to be in some predetermined order. There is no official order of things to learn in German. If you want to learn sports vocabulary before you learn school vocabulary, because you are more likely to talk about sports than you are to talk about school, this is a logical order for you. A high school student might have a different order than you and that’s ok. 

T – Time Bound

The last letter in our SMART goals model is T. This stands for time bound. This is very important for keeping yourself on track. First, you need to think about how long it will realistically take you to reach your goal. Then you need to make this a solid deadline. 

Don’t let yourself get into the habit of moving back a deadline because something came up. You set a deadline for yourself, you need to stick to it. This is a very slippery slope that could lead you to giving up entirely. Take the deadlines seriously. Have you ever missed a step when going up a flight of stairs? If you do it more than once, that can spell disaster. 

Examples of SMART Language Learning Goals

Now we have all of the letters of the SMART goals, let’s go back and look at what a real goal might look like. 

SMART Language Learning Goal Example #1

That’s a good SMART goal. It has all of the components and it is small enough to be achieved in a short amount of time, which will keep you encouraged for the next goal you set.

Now let’s try a bigger, broader goal and narrow it. 

SMART Language Learning Goal Example #2
SMART Language Learning Goals Example #2

With the “measurable” part of this goal, I would break the main goal into smaller SMART goals. Make a goal each week to learn a new topic. There will be a ton of little parts to put together in order to meet this goal, so make sure you take the time to map it out in detail. 

Get Started Working Towards Your German Learning Goals Today

If you want to reach the goal I just mentioned (being able to navigate any conversation that might occur while you are vacationing in Germany), you might want to check out some of the following posts.

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