Goal-free language learning

In one way or another, we made it to December 2020, which means we’re in the season of reflection, resetting, and re-ignition of the old and new.

Over the years, I’ve seen more and more people setting goals to learn a new language, to get some score on some language exam, or otherwise attain a level of proficiency in their language(s) of choice. The language learning community outdoes itself in performative goal-setting, with pastel Instagram shots of new planners and textbooks, twitter threads, YouTube videos. Even as a person who’s studied Korean for a decade and counting now, the publicizing of “language goals” has made me wonder if I was somehow doing all of this wrong.

The truth of it is, when people ask me “how” I became proficient in Korean, I can’t point to good examples of goal-setting or well-structured study plans. Every time I’ve imposed any kind of goal-focused structure to my language studies, my brain disengages and my motivation plummets. Eventually I realized: setting language goals simply does not work for me. But why? In my day job I actually work in adult education, so I know that adults learn best with clear learning objectives and outcomes. I wondered if I was just bad at setting realistic goals, or if my goals weren’t good goals in the first place, or if I just don’t have discipline. I won’t discount that there is likely some truth in that. But what ultimately made goal-setting difficult for me was the very nature of the relationship I had with the Korean language itself.

I’ve tried learning a lot of different languages for a wide variety of reasons. Because friends or family spoke it. Because I was traveling to a country in which it was spoken. Because I wanted to consume untranslated media. But Korean is the only language I learned out of pure curiosity.

When I started learning Korean, I had no “end state” that I wanted to achieve. I did not start out learning Korean because I wanted to watch dramas without subtitles, or because I worked at a Korean company, or because anyone in my family was Korean. I think I resist even the idea of milestones, preferring more to think of learning as continuous, ever-flowing discovery, without the concept of “success” or “failure,” just dips and rises in motivation and curiosity.

The curiosity was enough to motivate me and help me navigate through challenges. I studied the language by following my own whims, so to speak, similar to how a child would. This lent my studies an organic quality, and the discoveries I made as a result of it were fun, surprising, and self-motivating.

Instead of erecting milestones and working toward them, I find more joy in stumbling across them and delighting myself. The first time I understood a Korean sentence, the first time I realized I could read Hangeul fast enough to sing in Korean at noraebang, the first time I finished a Korean novel–every one of those milestones I met with awe and self-appreciation.

More importantly, it’s not the accomplishment itself that I’m proud of, but the process itself that led me there. My Korean teacher of three years once put it like this–I am not studying Korean with the goal of attaining fluency, but for the pure act of studying a language I had grown to love. Whatever mastery I achieved was a byproduct.

It’s interesting contrasting this with my snail’s pace progress in Japanese. I craved to be fluent enough in Japanese to play video games, read novels and manga, watch movies without subtitles. But desiring that end state and setting goals to review kanji, work on grammar, etc. to help me get there just wasn’t enough to keep me going with the language beyond the intermediate level. I kept my eye on the prize, but I lacked my biggest motivator–a curiosity for the language itself.

Last year, I was in the process of applying to a Korean cyber university (long story) and when my teacher read my self-introduction, one of the criticisms she offered was that it was too accomplishment-focused. I’d listed my TOPIK score, work-related projects, and other successes with sparse mention of the process it took to get there. My teacher said this was a very Western approach, and encouraged me to write more about the process of studying, the challenges I had overcome, the honest love I had for studying Korean for Korean’s sake.

It was a great reminder to myself that one’s accomplishments in language learning need not read like bullet points on a resume.

4 Comments

  1. I can completely relate with what you are saying. A few weeks ago I had a job interview and the interviewer started asking me questions about my Japanese skills. In the end he said “That is interesting, but I don’t understand what’s your objective for learning Japanese”. The fact is that I don’t have an objective, I just like Japanese itself and enjoy the language learning journey with its ups and downs :)

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I relate a lot with you. Even when I made goals, I didn’t improve my Korean skills by achieving those goals – more often than not, I failed my goals lol. I just studied when I felt like it or got curious, and that’s how I reached fluency. That said, I still think making goals is fun, even if they don’t work well for me, because it’s cool to look back at the end of the year and see how my motivations have changed, even if I “failed” all my goals.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I am currently self-studying Japanese and I tried so hard to do these goal settings too. But I fail again and again in accomplishing them. I just ended up not doing anything at all! What I do now is study whenever I feel like it and I achieve more that way 😊

    Liked by 2 people

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