A few years ago during a lecture I held focusing on strategies for learning Chinese, a student asked me a good but unusual question: Why do we need to set goals to learn efficiently? This question might sound either uninformed or stupid, but I can assure that it wasn’t, so please hear me out.
I personally think that goals are an essential part of learning anything, but I sometimes forget that the underlying reasoning might not be all that transparent. You might have read about goals, but do you really understand why they are essential?
Before we go into a discussion about goals, it’s probably a good idea to make sure that we’re all on the same page. Goals are targets for your learning, clearly defined milestones that are placed along the road to your final destination (the purpose of studying Chinese).
Goals can be set on many different levels and can range in scope from a few minutes to several years. In fact, the reason you study Chinese is probably because you have some kind of goal, although it might not be that well defined. Rather than going on about this, here are the basic four articles about goals on Hacking Chinese:
- Goals and motivation, part 1 – Introduction
- Goals and motivation, part 2 – Long-term goals
- Goals and motivation, part 3 – Short-term goals
- Goals and motivation, part 4 – Micro goals
Why goals are necessary, indeed crucial
Even if the articles above explain how to use goals and perhaps a little bit about why they are good, they don’t really explain why goals are crucial and they don’t answer the question why you can’t learn Chinese completely without setting any goals at all. I think there are two arguments that need to be explained.
First, it would be very hard to imagine what learning would be like without having goals. Learning in itself means that we get to know something we didn’t know before, and in the case of language learning, it means learning how to use a foreign language. This is a goal in itself. Thus, what we’re talking about here is having explicit and clearly defined goals, rather than just having a vague idea of what we want to achieve, because after all, few people do things completely without a reason.
Second, and more importantly, if you don’t have a goal, there is no such thing as “progress”. The reason we say that we become better at something is because we’re approach a goal, explicit or implicit. If we know nothing about why we are learning Chinese and have no goals defined, we are just wandering around randomly. Since the term “progress” becomes meaningless, words like “efficiency” also lose their meaning.
Why should we use SRS to learn more words if learning those words doesn’t accomplish something we strive for? Why should we try to hack our daily lives to fit in more listening if we’re not accumulating exposure to the Chinese language for a reason?
What about having fun and enjoying the journey?
I suppose it’s possible to see learning Chinese as pure recreation, so that learning is done for the sole purpose of learning itself or because it’s fun or entertaining in some way. However, this has huge consequences for what strategies you should use for learning and almost everything written about learning languages would be useless. Suddenly, you would discover that:
- The best learning method is the one you think is the most fun, even if you don’t learn any words
- It doesn’t matter if you don’t learn anything at all in class, as long as you’re having a good time
The journey is important, but the destination matters as well
This will inevitable lead to the question why you are learning Chinese at all. Why don’t play computer games, go swimming or watch a film instead? I often stress that having fun is important, but since my purpose here is to help you learn more efficiently, I tend to regard having fun as important because it significantly helps you learn more, not because it’s fun in itself. Having fun is of course good in and of itself, but that has nothing to with Hacking Chinese. Speaking of which, it’s probably time to play another round of Faster Than Light. Bye!