Planning your language learning path – Where do you want to go?

06/21/2020 9:45  Pai Language Learning 

Following on from last week’s article about analysing your current ability in different languages, this week will be discussing a similarly important part of the language learning process: Goal setting.

In the overall language learning process, this is the second part of the planning stage. By knowing where you want to be in terms of languages, and comparing it to where you currently are, you can begin the next step: planning how you will reach your targets.

We at Pai Language Learning suggest applying the “SMART” framework to your objectives. This is an acronym, that explains that to set high-quality goals, they should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound.

We believe that you can create language learning goals, fundamentally, in up to three areas – Vocabulary, Grammar and Naturalisation. All ‘higher-order‘ goals (such as wanting to be fluent, wanting to be conversational, wanting to be better in certain situations e.t.c.) can be broken down into these basic constituents.

Vocabulary Goals

Vocabulary goals are some of the easiest to set. You can set them in three ways, by frequency, by function or by topic.

Goals-based on learning vocabulary by frequency are targeted at improving your overall ability in a language and your ability to express yourself in all situations. Vocabulary follows a Pareto distribution, which means that roughly 20% of the most common words in a language make up roughly 80% of it.

Pai Language Learning bases the vocabulary section of its courses on the Pareto principle. Each course consists of 5000 words, which makes up 98%+ of a language. The exact values change depending on the language, but generally, the top 100 most common words make up around 50% of a language, the top 1000 makes about 80%, and the top 3000 makes about 90%. Because of this, it makes sense to work through the list in order of frequency. You can set your target by aiming to learn the top X number of words.

Another way of approaching vocabulary is to aim to improve your vocabulary for specific topics or times by focusing on the topic. Perhaps, if you have learnt the basics of your target language, you may want to prioritise learning vocabulary that is related to why you are learning a language, such as for business, or travel.

The third way of creating goals is by looking at function. This is a lot more complicated to notice the need for, but comes if you regularly struggle in different ways with your target languages. The best way to describe this is by example: If you are finding it hard to describe things, you may need to prioritise learning more adjectives. If you are struggling to name objects, focus on nouns, if you struggle a lot to explain what you are doing, focus on verbs, etc.

Pai Language Learning’s platform gives the option to prioritise vocabulary learning based on topic and word type, to help empower you to take control of your language learning goals in this way.

You can even combine the two ways of setting goals, and learn words of certain topics or types in frequency order.

When setting your vocabulary goals, it’s best to be specific, and use the SMART framework, for example:

I want to learn the top 500 most common Arabic words by the end of the year.

I want to learn the top 200 business related words in Mandarin by the end of the month.

Grammar/Structure Goals

Goals-based on grammar structures are a little more difficult to define than goals based on vocabulary. We have so far found two ways of going about it, by frequency and by level.

One can approach grammar in order of frequency, but as far as we know, this is only available through Pai Language Learning. We create a set of lessons that cover all of the fundamental grammatical structures, and then tag each instance of the structure in our corpus, allowing us to analyse how frequently each structure shows up. Until our platform is available, the option to set your Grammar/Structure goals by frequency will not be possible. Once it is available, however, it will allow you to work through grammar in order of what you need to know first, as with vocabulary.

Another approach is to set goals based on the level of difficulty. Many courses and proficiency tests, such as HSK or the Teach Yourself series, have clear outlines about what grammar is needed to reach certain levels.

Example targets could be:

I want to learn the grammar of Mongolian, as described by my grammar book, by September.

I want to learn the grammar described by teach yourself Korean by June

I want to learn at least one new grammatical structure every week.


Naturalisation goals are naturally the hardest to define. Naturalisation happens by interacting with natural input, and can take many forms, such as watching films, series, listening to podcasts, and talking to other learners and native speakers. The best way to create goals in terms of naturalisation is to commit to using or listening to natural input for a certain amount of time each day, week or month.

I want to speak with Ms. Zhang once a week in Mandarin

I want to watch one movie in Russian, once a week.

I want to listen to the French podcast every day on the way to work.

What about if my goal is to be able to read and understand a book, watch a movie e.t.c.?

The best way to approach these goals is to try to work out what level of a language is being used in the book or film. As a general rule of thumb, written works tend to use a wider vocabulary and set of grammatical structures than spoken. General conversation tends to use words in the top 2000, and uses around 50% of the most common structures. You should also learn the vocabulary surrounding the topic that the work is about. For full comprehension, it’s best to know the top 5000 words, and all of the grammar. You will likely need a dictionary for very rare words.

What if my goal is reaching certain overall levels such as conversational or fluent?

The problem is with these targets, is that what constitutes ‘conversational’ or ‘fluent’ is very subjective. We will provide a rough guideline to what is needed, in our opinion, for each level as according to CEFR levels:

Beginner (A1) – 300 words – top 10% of grammar

Elementary (A2) – 600 words – Top 15% of grammar

Intermediate (B1) – 1200 words – Top 25% of grammar

Upper Intermediate (B2) – 2500 words – Top 50% of grammar – Fluency

Fluent (C1) – 5000 words – 100% of grammar

Mastery (C2) – 10000 words – 100% of grammar

It’s important to remember that this is just a rough guide! The subjectivity of CEFR levels makes measuring the amount of words and grammar needed to reach these levels very difficult to assess, and it also varies between languages. The golden rule is that the more vocabulary and grammar you know and can use, the better your ability will be.

Now I’ve got my goals, what next?

In the next article, we will discuss how to make a strategy to reach your learning goals. You know what level you are at, you know what level you want to be, and the next step is working out how you will get there.

Be sure to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, sign up to our mailing list at the bottom of the page and join our Subreddit & Facebook Group to keep up to date with all of our content.

MetaskillsOfLanguageLearning Self-Taught Teachings