Can a Lofty End Goal be Damaging?

So yeah, are there other people here who orginally started off their language learning “journey” with a specific ‘end goal’ in mind, i.e to be fluent by ‘x time’, only to realise how long it really takes? And to eventually just accept that you’ll always be learning, and however fluent you think you are, you’ll never be as fluent as you want to be?

I’ve been feeling this way for quite some time now, and I’ve realised that removing the pressure of having a defined end goal has made me so much more relaxed about spending so much time in my TL. I now feel like I don’t care how fluent I’ll become, only about how much more content there is for me to consume. Wherever that takes me, I’ll just be happy that I got to do it.

I’m now convinced that setting such a target, but never seemingly able to reach the elusive, almost mythical ‘fluency’, was really having a negative effect on my willingness to spend time in the language. I was forever thinking that I wasn’t good enough, I was dumb, I was so much slower than other people… It actually caused anxiety, and I realised that, probably on a subconscious level, it was likely the main contributor to what I thought was a simple case of laziness/procrastination, when in fact, it was fear of failure.

When you’re perpetually failing, which is essentially something we language learners spend 90% of our time doing (probably necessarily) it can become a real slog.

If we arrive at that point, it’s almost certainly going to seep into our subconscious that this isn’t so much fun. Then one day you wake up and your subconscious is like:

“Do you know what? This TL thing is getting a little tedious. I’m tired of so much work for so little reward, and I’m fed up of feeling like a failure… I think I’ll go binge some native language content to put an end to these feelings.”

I feel like we don’t notice this happening, we believe it to be not wanting it enough, and so we run with that excuse, “this wasn’t something I ever really wanted”, and we go do other things. In reality, perhaps it’s just a simple case of being too hard on ourselves, expecting the same miracle results we read and hear about from blogs and Vlogs, without really knowing for sure that what they’re saying is even true, or at the very least not knowing the full story of just how much exposure they got.

So maybe forgetting the original goal and just existing as much as possible in the target language, devoid of any pressure, enjoying oneself in the moment and being happy with what you are understanding, is probably the optimal mindset to have for the majority of us.

Not that small goals can’t be helpful of course, but yeah, I’ve personally found that end goal of some kind of warped vision of ‘perfection’ can actually be quite counterproductive.

I guess it’s different if you have to learn a language for a job, or for basic survival, but if that’s not the case, what’s the rush?

Nobody will care that, after 18 months, you’re not at ‘native-like’ proficiency, so there’s no need to continually beat yourself with a stick. In fact, in the longterm, which is really what this whole process is about, it’s surely better to relax about things and understand that things will come when they come. That way, you at least stand a chance of enjoying the process and not allowing those negative feelings about the whole project to deter you from actually doing what needs to be done - to spend as much time as possible with the language.

I feel like almost everyone but the machines on here will relate to this, so it’d be nice to hear that, and perhaps nice for others to know that there’s at least someone else who’s arrived at a similar point in their journey.


That is well said, thank you!

I can absolutely relate to this. I’m an experienced burnout :slight_smile:

We all tend to apply the naive intuition we’ve gotten from this hustle culture and sport, like everything is a race and you’re either a sprinter or (ultra-)marathoner.

But what if the finish line (if there is one) not in 300 miles, but in 300,000 miles? What one’s strategy would be like?

1000 ultra-marathons? 600,000 sprints? I don’t think so. It doesn’t even look lika a competition anymore. It’s more like a regular life, at a regular pace, but with a defined direction.

Those ultra-marathoners and sprinters who pushed themselves hard, well, you’ll see them lying on the road dead or burnt out and certainly not interested in pursuing any goal anymore. Saying this as one of them, still recovering.

You have to walk at a most healthy pace possible. But still walk. You’ll rarely get impressive rewards because you’re not doing anything impressive from day to day, just regular walking. There’s no external motivation on the horizon for you. In such circumstances, the only reliable reward is if you just enjoy walking down this road, and that’s it.

“are there other people here who orginally started off their language learning “journey” with a specific ‘end goal’ in mind,”

Yes. My goal right from the get go was reaching 30K known words. I seen that Steve usually stoped around this number, so I figured this number meant fluency. Fast forward years later I started to near 30k and I realized that for my definition of fluency 30K just wasn’t going to cut it. This was really sad for me. Because this was my goal for years. But it’s okay, I think it’s important to just get in what you can everyday and keep moving forward. Try not to focus too much on the numbers and just enjoy whatever content you are in to.


I agree. I do set goals, but they are activity oriented, such as words read or time listening per week. I also like streak goals, because regular input is as important as input quantity.

These are goals that are within my control (more or less) and don’t set me up for feeling like a failure when I’m doing all I can do within the scope of priorities I have in my life.

If we are learning for fun, there is no need to introduce this buzzkilling pressure of unrealistic expectations.


Yes, that feeling of ‘doing all you can’ is important, I think. I’ve often found myself getting angry/frustrated when I can’t understand something, but all that really means is that I haven’t yet done enough to understand. In which case, why let it get to me?

It’s like I’m expecting better results than I deserve. I’ve done what I could to reach the level I’m at, and like you say, that’s all that matters. If our current level means we fall short at certain moments, then that’s just how it is. Those that could understand whatever was giving us difficulty have almostly certainly done more and therefore deserve to understand more.


Yes, well said, that’s been my experience too. Had I known that from the beginning, I may not have even started, so perhaps that’s one benefit to having a big initial goal, something naive to dream about, haha.


Well said, I definitely agree with hellion. I can share some more personal notes on the topic.
In general a lot can be said for not focusing on a specific goal, and instead to implement good study habits that will keep you going in spite of fluctuating levels of motivation and available time. Additionally I find it helpful to focus on the number of hours I have spent actively studying the language. This creates guardrails to prevent me from completely slacking off. Because the human memory is often unreliable and distorted, this can serve as a ground truth of what I have actually done.
I used to be rather serious about my studies, but due to a lack of free time and real life obligations, I have adopted a more casual attitude as of late. I now spend less time actively studying and more time engaging in random, casual activities in the language. Of course, this requires a certain level of proficiency, so I can listen to podcasts or watch YouTube videos.
Maybe I will return to the more serious ‘target mode’, or not… it sometimes has a bitter note to it, because inevitable I would fall short of my own goals and expectations resulting in frustration. In my experience, self-flagellation and berating oneself for not reaching a specific target has never been helpful. This tendency is probably related to one’s background and upbringing as well, so not everyone experiences this to the same degree, but I at least have a tendency to do this and need to keep it in check else I will burn out.
However, I acknowledge that not everyone has the luxury of learning a language for fun. Many people have external pressure, such as work or family reasons, that require them to reach specific targets, such as ‘fluency’ or test scores, by a certain deadline. In this case, my advice may not be applicable. But, if you are a hobbyist, there is nothing wrong with simply having fun with the language.


That’s actually a really beautiful way to describe it. I greatly enjoyed reading that analogy. So many of you Russians are able to paint such beautiful pictures with your writing.


Hi hellion,

“on here will relate to this,”
Yes, I’ve seen this hundreds of times with my students in SLA and math.
From a teacher perspective, I’d say you have dug your “fun learner’s grave” yourself
because you have chosen the wrong options…

On a personal level (i.e., from an SLA learner perspective), I don’t share your mindset and, thus, I have none of your (or S.I.'s burnout) problems even though many of my students would say that I completely failed in Japanese, for example, after studying this L2 for more than 2.5 years without “ever having fun in / with Japanese” (!) during this time.

Anyway, more about this topic later because I’ve got to work now…


My motivation goes up and down, at some times I’m like (I’ll never get there) but in hindsight it’s the no-end-in-sight without fixed goals that makes it hard to focus on.
I haven’t (yet) achieved my fixed target but I’m closer than I was.
I feel like leaving something open-ended or ill-defined makes it almost impossible to plan and to achieve the goals. It was easier to do my French experiment than my Russian one. My French one was simply grind it out according to my method as hard as I could for six months then drop it. I achieved that and kind of got an idea of how far I could get. It confirmed my belief that my method was (at least kind of) functional.

The issue I’m having with Russian is that I have kind of moved the goalposts on myself. I’ve set harder goals. And though I’m still doing it in six month stints I’ve found that I’m looking for more specific goals and if I dont meet the more specific goals with no easily definable way to determine if I’m achieving it other than it feels a bit closer I feel like I’m still just grinding away.

That said, I’m also learning what it’s really like to learn a “hard” language and what the individual steps feel like. I’m using the language and consuming stuff I more or less enjoy, just not to the same degree as my other “fluent” language. But if I compare my other “fluent” language to the path-to-fluency I followed, there has definitely been an improvement. What’s interesting is that the picture in my head of what I did to learn my “fluent” language doesn’t actually match in reality the theory of what I really did so I’m having to re-evaluate my ideas/theory.

Anyway… ramble… TLDR… my method seems to “work” to get you to a solid low intermediate level in about six months to a year for any language comprehension wise.

I think that after you get to low intermediate there is no quick (as in six months or a year) to getting to “fluency” or “native like comprehension/speaking” without actually using the language on a day-to-day basis. I haven’t discovered anything or figured anything out. Which leads me to the conclusion that in order to get from intermediate to advanced without immersion like activities you need a bit more time.

So… long story short. Hard languages are hard and they take their time but it’s doable. It’s just not happening that you get to advanced in a year of input (whether reading only or listening/watching videos only or a mix).


LOL yeah. Why can’t I understand yet? Is def annoying.
That said, I’m now right on the verge of understanding in all of my targets.
What I have noticed now though is freaking guy mumbles/slurs his words in my target netflix shows. But my brain is nearly there. I can understand the guy on and off, but I have to concentrate really hard.

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I think the challenge with Russian is the massive number of declensions. For immediate understanding, I feel like you need to have heard the declined word at least a couple times, otherwise your brain needs to process it instead of just recognize it. I can do this easily with reading i.e. process it but with listening it’s really hard to do in real time. It’s especially bad if dude freaking MUMBLES.
That said, I can understand to a lesser or greater degree a few podcasters in native speech at native speed so I’m definitely improving.
It’s also a super high bar. I mean, a baby just CANNOT go to a high-schooler level of comprehension by immersion in five years so why do we expect to be able to do it in less than a year as adults?

I think we should be awed by the fact that we CAN get to at least a 1st grader’s level of language even in a difficult language in about a year and a half.
Like I reckon I’m essentially a five year old at Russian when it comes to the spoken language and maybe a seven year old at listening comprehension.

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but also… look how far you’ve come.
For me I’m awed by the fact that although I can’t understand everything, I can understand freaking classroom russian. That is mental.


Yes, the mentality of how we view the whole language learning process has a more significant impact on us than we expected. Compared to the far-fetched, idealistic goal of being native-like, I am more focused on several milestones as benchmarks with no time constraints in the language. It helps determine my approach’s effectiveness and efficiency at the time corresponding to the progress in the language, and I might adopt and incorporate more variety in terms of contents in different formats and learning strategies.

Time as a factor plays a more significant role in the beginner’s stage of learning. I would dedicate more time to learning a new language in the first three months, especially with a different writing system and downright bizarre pronunciation rules. Setting the first goal by getting the first foothold in the language helps me stay focused when facing a typical new beginner’s dilemma of what contents or methods to follow in the language in the first place. The receptiveness of the content and approach at the time for maximum efficient learning is crucial for one to identify and undertake on an individual basis according to one’s preference and learning style. I would only venture into Netflix films once I acquire a strong foothold in the language. Watching the first Netflix series in the TL 2nd or 3rd time without subtitles is a milestone that is a starting point for me to consume any content with minimum struggling effort; if we get hooked on something that we enjoy tremendously after this point, then the rest is history.


I’m going to write a few posts today and in the following days (because it’s an interesting topic that concerns most learners who want to acquire practical skills - beyond SLA) on how the path to learning hell is paved with supposedly “good” learning options:

“Good” learning option 1: “(native-like) fluency” as a target / goal

  1. “Fluency” and esp. “native-like” are notoriously vague terms that everyone interprets differently.

When you started your language learning journey with these “sweet nothings”, you never had a “specific ‘end goal’ in mind” (hellion). Instead, you had just “specific vagueness” or, even better, “specified unspecifieds” in mind.

This contradiction is nice as an oxymoron (and we could it use to drive ChatGPT in nonsensical dimensions), but it’s not a goal because it can never be quantified and measured. In short, It’s completely useless as a “target”.

  1. So what you usually want to have are SMART goals:
    "To make sure your goals are clear and reachable, each one should be:
  • Specific (simple, sensible, significant).
  • Measurable (meaningful, motivating).
  • Achievable (agreed, attainable).
  • Relevant (reasonable, realistic and resourced, results-based).
  • Time bound (time-based, time limited, time/cost limited, timely, time-sensitive)."(MindTools | Home)
    in our SLA context that could be, for instance, the number of words read, the number of min / hours listened or simply the number of daily / weekly Pomodoro blocks (à 20, 25 or 30 min per block).
  1. However, goal setting is both a blessing and a curse:
  • Goals can give your learning direction (= the blessing).
  • They can get you obsessed with stats (= the curse).
  • Use B.J. Fogg’s “Tiny habits” approach
  • Start with an ultra-short Pomodoro block (5 min a day), then add 5 additional minutes every week until you reach 25 min. Then add a 2nd block.
  • Just live in the moment and try do to your daily Pomodoro block(s) using a tomato timer.
  • Rinse and repeat until you’ve reached your goals such as the number of XY words read / the number Z of min / hours listened.

I agree with you hellion. I’m not overly concerned with how fast I’m learning. I am more concerned with the excitement of reaching certain milestones (1) ordering at a restaurant, 2) having a conversation that’s interesting for both parties, 3) understanding a podcast without reading the transcript, 4) being able to converse with a group of native speakers without slowing them down).

I reached that 4 achievement in Spanish last year, but probably have regressed since. I’ve reached the 3 in Portuguese recently but am not quite at 4.

So those are the goals I have. But really, I am less focused on the goals and more focused on building the habits of daily engagement with the language. I am confident the achievements will eventually come if I keep engaging.


“Good” learning option 2: “Like a native”

Adult native speakers in their early twenties usually have more than 100000 hours of constant interaction and immersion in their L1s under their belts. In this sense, they’re “true professionals”, esp. in the oral dimension of their native tongue (not necessarily when it comes to reading and writing).

So you want to be like a “true professional”? The SLA solution is really simple:
Make the L2 part of your lifestyle and use the language every day (listening, reading, writing, whatever). Period.

And forget about “(language-specific) finish lines” in this context.
Or have you “ever” heard a native speaker say: “Oh, you know. I think I’ve learned enough in my L1. I think I’ll stop using it!” :slight_smile:

Your lifestyle ends when your life ends. That’s your final finish line…

It’s nice that you’ve reached the same conclusion :slight_smile:
“you’ll always be learning,”

That’s only a problem for those people (teenagers and adults) who think that learning is work, and work is unpleasant, ergo: it should be avoided.

In the IT world in which I live, for example, people with this attitude not only have no professional future, but also no professional present - because they have disqualified themselves right from the start…


Hey, don’t ya involve ChatGPT, he’s mah buddy now! :->

I’m waiting for your 3rd and next “options”, I just already have some observation regarding your algorithmic approach. It seems lacking a bit of the Emotional Intellegence part, like all we have to do is think about achieving goals the other way.

Usually it’s the best option for those who has been so fortunate to never get burnt out, before even came to these ideas of time framing, habits and so on. I really like this framework, I tried it several times and really I wish it would work for me, but mostly it ends up in frustration each time.

I can “think” whatever way one could imagine, and it will be helping me as long as I stay in an emotionally stable state of mind. But, once I triggered by something that reminds me, or rather my neurolocial system, of the past experience when I had to do what is allegedly “right” instead of what I like and think is actually right for me, even something like the goal of developing a habbit becomes my enemy.

It’s hard to unerstand if you’re emotionally intact or just strong naturally, you wag your tail and being happy with whatever approach you apply. But if you have been broken down for once, sometimes the tail starts wagging you as a measure of preventing the loss of energy and you end up frustrating.

It could also depend on the infrastructure of you life domains, when your goals always have some extent of external “have tos”. These have tos are also the real rewards in front of you.

But in general, I agree with everything you’ve said, it’s just it applies to me during the positive wave, and still eventually leads to the feeling, that I’m again doing what is right instead of what I like. Slow pacing has been working more reliable so far.

Ha. 100,000 hours is probably an exaggeration but not by an order of magnitude.
8 hours a day solid for 20 years is 60,000 hours give or take.
A couple hours a day is 15,000 hours give or take.
To get to a five year old’s level at 8 hours a day is about 2,000 hours. I reckon as adults we can beat that. I’d wager 1,000 hours of listening will give you enough for a solid base.


It’s qutie scary when you really take a good look at how many hours natives get. Not only that, but their immersion is probably just about as pefect an immersion environment as one can get, throw in a very high dose of ‘survival motivation’ and you realise it’s just plain wrong to make any kind of comparison between the native and the learner.