My Five-Year Language Learning Plan

I’ve been thinking more and more about my own language goals. Even though I’ve had language goals of one kind or another for the past 15 years, I haven’t always made my goals measurable or given them a specific deadline. I’ve still been able to make a lot of progress as a language learner, but I can do better. In this post I’m going to talk about my own, specific language goals for the next five years.

When I started The Babel Times, I was hesitant about making it too personal. But as I’ve continued writing and thinking about language learning and living abroad, I’ve come to realize that, in many cases, it’s the personal that makes blog posts interesting.

In light of that, I’ve decided to make more specific language goals with more specific deadlines. The good news, my language goals are extremely simple. The other good news: They are aggressive, but totally achievable.

I am going to reach native-like fluency in 6 languages (Spanish, French, Russian, German, Mandarin Chinese and Arabic) by July 1, 2019 – five years from now.

This is a simple goal with a simple, concrete deadline. Nonetheless, I’m still working out how I am going to measure success, which is a necessary component of any goal, language-related or not. In general, however, here is how I intend to measure my success:

1. By passing the highest level of the tests for learners of each language. For Chinese, this means the HSK 6, for the European languages it means testing at the C2 level, for Russian it means passing the TORFL Level 4. The only language that might be an issue is Arabic, because I haven’t been able to find good information about internationally-recognized Arabic exams. Incidentally, I have spent a lot less time studying Arabic than any other language, so it might just be my ignorance, not an actual lack of tests (or a combination of both).

2. Accent and speaking. This is a little less straightforward, but my plan is to have a native speaker language instructor evaluate my accent based on a relatively complex topic (to be determined in the future…). My goal would be the ability to “pass as a native.”

3. Writing: I’d like to get a piece of original writing published in each of those languages. I’ve also been planning to start a multi-lingual blog, and that should both give me a place to practice my languages and a way to evaluate my writing skills. I’m going to base my evaluation on typing, and I’m going to use a spell-checker. That might be cheating, but since most native-speakers do the same thing, and it’s not like I write much out by hand in English anymore (at least not much that is meant for anyone besides me to read) I think it’s completely fair.

4. Reading: I will be able to read at roughly the same speed that I read in English. If I’m a little slower, that’s ok, but I’m aiming for no more than 10 percent slower. Of course, comprehension is also an important part of reading. I will completely, 100 percent, understand newspapers, novels, and non-fiction books aimed at a general audience (in other words, stuff I would expect to understand if they were written in my native language), without using a dictionary. The one additional limit I am going to place on the reading category is that I’m not going to count anything written prior to 1950. Old stuff is harder to understand for a lot of reasons, and it’s not worth it.

5. Listening comprehension: I will be able understand normal, conversational speech, movies and radio broadcasts completely and without listening repeatedly or having to reach for a dictionary.

6. Other specifics: For Chinese, I’m going to learn to write 5,000 characters and to recognize another 1,000. I’m also going to make sure I learn all the food characters and words so I can read a menu with no problem (this takes a lot of cultural knowledge, not just linguistic knowledge. I’m going to do it). I’m also going to improve my penmanship in Russian (Cyrillic script), which is actually not that bad right now, and in Arabic. My Arabic still being pretty basic, my writing skills in Arabic are pretty atrocious. In both Arabic and Chinese, I’m going to be able read, without difficulty, other people’s handwriting.

To meet these objectives, I need to establish a concrete plan for each language, evaluating where I am now and creating a road map for where I want to be five years from you. I’ll go into more detail about those plans in the next couple weeks, since they are still works in progress.

For the moment, however, I’m in the process of winding down my stay here in China. Next week I’m leaving to travel in Yunnan for 10 days, and then I’m heading home to Portland. It’s been a humbling, exciting, frustrating and illuminating experience that I’ll write about as soon as I’m fully able to reflect on my five months here.