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Are your language goals holding you back?

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Thanks to yousraserry's post On Quitting languages, I remembered this piece that was sitting in my draft box. So, I've dug it out in the hopes it might help people fall in love and stay in love with language learning.

I have a really hard time retaining things due to a tramatic brain injury. (Some people struggle even without a TBI and there's no shame in that either.) When I started learning languages, my goal was to be fluent, and that's where my troubles began.

My strawberry is too big!
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I took 2 years of Spanish and 2 years of Japanese in university. Then, I studied Spanish on Duolingo full bore for two years, combining it with other resources. However, if I looked away for half a second, what I learned evaporated.

I got discouraged and decided to try another language. I'd always wanted to learn American Sign Language. Starting it breathed new hope into me. I went on to study ASL intensely for a year and kept going with Spanish. Again, evaporation. When I lost a 994 day streak, I gave up. It had really been the last thing keeping me going through the mire.

I'd put in a ton of work and yet what I reaped was a feeling of failure. It was very discouraging to invest so much time and energy to the end result of feeling negative about myself.

unrealistic expectations kitten
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Exploring a language is fun and exciting to me. I wanted to keep doing it, but also to not end up feeling rotten. And so, after taking a year away I changed my goal and came back. For each language, I asked myself a set of questions to assess interest and priority.

  1. Will learning this language give me access to or improve something already in my life? (Family, Friendships, job opportunities, hobbies, travel etc.)?
  2. Are there any regular opportunities to enjoy using the language that I will actually engage? (Friends, books, music, movies, video games, podcasts, etc.)
  3. Am I attracted to something about the language for it's own sake? (the look, the sound, the script, the feel of expressing it, etc.)
  4. Do I want to learn this language?
  5. Do I have to learn this language?

I needed an excuse to show everyone this cute piglet.
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Answering those questions helped me to come back from daydreaming in outerspace about fluency and take a good look at what was actually in front of me: What could I reasonably achieve with confidence? The answers for each language of interest became a Goal 1.0

Goal 2.0 set the bar a little bit higher, into the realm of "can I really meet this challenge?" I didn't have to reach 2.0, just put it on the shelf for potential consideration after Goal 1.0.

Currently, none of my goals are fluency, and I've been a lot happier. I have now done the Spanish course more than once, done the reverse course, read a book in Spanish, and completed the Japanese tree while it was still in beta. These goals were all much more realistic for me than fluency. So, instead of a sense of failure, I felt a sense of accomplishment. The next time I take a break from language, I am confident I will return, because I'm not leaving in failure, but with the inspiration good feeling of many successes.

Reassessing my goals brought me back to languages. So, I wanted to invite you to share what your 1.0 and 2.0 goals. (And if you have a 3.0 dream that's way out there in outer space, you can share that one too. ^_^)

And lastly, I want to let you know, even a little bit of another language can change lives. A few years ago, that is exactly what happened when I used a little bit of Spanish to help a friend find a rare blood type match for a blood transfusion for their mother. More about that in Language community helps find blood transfusion for former Duolingo staffer.

October 14, 2017



After reaching a reasonably high level of English, for many years I couldn't bring myself to start learning another language. I felt it had taken so much time and effort - years of studying the language at school, hundreds of books read and films watched in English, even living in an English-speaking country for two years - to get to a level of fluency with which I felt comfortable that I just couldn't face doing the same for another language all over again.

Then, about two years ago, I realized that I didn't need to set my goals that high and that my idea that I would have to know everything kept me from learning anything. (Duolingo helped a lot with that realization, by the way.) I took up Swedish just beacause I liked the country and I've always loved Astrid Lindgren's books and stuck with it, with the simple goal of having fun and maybe being able to read an easy book or two in Swedish after some time, and then continue from there if I still enjoy it. I took the SWEDEX A2 exam not too long ago, which is far from fluency, but it is also far from knowing nothing about the language at all - and I've decided to be proud of my success instead of depressed about all the things I have yet to learn, and that mindset is what keeps me motivated.

I've recently started studying Chinese, and I absolutely love it. If I had considered the time it will probably take me to get to a similar level of fluency in Chinese as I have in English, I would have probably given up before I started, but I've decided that that is not what I'm trying to do. I want to learn a little, have fun with it, and then go on from there. :-)


Hi Usagiboy,

interesting question! There were over the years for me to learn a language and different goals to reach. So to answer you question is rather difficult for me.

First language is english. I had to learn that at school wether I liked it or not. And I asked "for what". But I realized I wanted to understand the english lyrics of the songs I heard and there was the "new" thing MTV on TV but it was in english so I begann to learn not just for school but also translated songs and so on. Only with my little dictionary (no i-net) Later I needed english again and again at work. Most of the people are speaking more or less english. Japanese as well as polish or spanish people. After my marriage I was focused on learning serbian an my english "slept" for a while. Now am getting back to my roots and try to improve my knowledge again for private interests (songs, TV, books) and work. Do I have to learn the language? Yes, as a German you need it often for your job. Do I want to learn the language? Yes, it opens doors to stuff I like and I can (more or less) talk to people from all over the world. I couldn't otherwise.

Second language was serbian. I learned it because of my husband to understand and to talk with my relatives and friends. He was not helpful, he always talked german with me. So I learned it not very well and not to write. I can read the Cyrillic script a little bit and slow but that's all. I regret that but at the moment I don't have the motivation to start again this language with learning correct grammar and writing. It sleeps. Did I have to learn the language? Yes, without I would have been a misfit in my own family. Did I wanted to learn the language? Yes, it is an interesting and colourful language and it was part of integrating and understanding that culture I had married.

Third language is spanish. I have no reason to learn it. But I always wanted so when I detected Duo I thought "that's my oportunity". I just like the sound, the colour and the charisma. It was part of my first wish for an apprenticeship (foreign language correspondence clerk) It didn't happend so I lost focus and the oportunity to learn it. Now I do it just for fun. Do I have to learn the language? No. Do I want to learn it? Yes, I just like it. And maybe it will be good for something.^^

When I started english at school I was naiv and thought "You learn this and at the end you will know it" But after a view sessions with my dictionary and the song lyrics I realized. You never learn a language completly and buried the idea of fluency. I try to learn as well as I can. The way is the goal. The fact there is always something to learn makes it interesting for me. And in my experience people appreciate the fact you try to speak than they pay attantion to your mistakes. (exept of course some texts/negotiations at work where you have to be very exactly)

Fluency in one of the languages is not achievable for me. The ability to speak to others and to learn to "feel" the language, maybe. So I try and that goal is good enough for me to go on.

best regards Angel


RedAngel666, you mentioned the color of a language. Are you a synesthete too? :D

[deactivated user]

    I think I am something like a synesthete. Food and music cross over for me. In fact, studying languages is better than dessert for me. My sense of hearing and taste are far more important than visual.


    So you're a synesthete? Interesting. My aunt is; she sees everything with colors and it was strange to hear about that, as I never knew that existed. After that conversation, my brother said that he sees days of the week in colors, but not much else. My aunt said that she has learned to use the colors to help her remember things, which I think is interesting. However, having one color difficulty for me is enough (I have color vision deficiency) and I think it'd be interesting to see things with different colors for a day, but not all the time.



    Yup! I'm a poly-synesthete. I have many different forms of it instead of just one or two.

    Interestingly enough, I have a very minimal color vision deficiency as well. But, it doesn't really cause me any major problems. Three days ago I asked a friend if my shirt was green or blue. It would have been fine either way of course. I like both of those colors. There are just some shades I can't tell apart and I'd like to know what pants or shorts my shirt might go better with.

    Like your aunt, I also use synaesthesia to help me remember things! Usually names and my passwords.

    When it comes to learning languages, it can be helpful and unhelpful. Spanish masculine and feminine pronouns are the opposite of Swedish masculine and feminine pronouns. This caused me to make a lot of unnecessary errors when I was visiting the Swedish course xD.

    I think one of the coolest and most uncomfortable forms I experience is "mirror touch". I recently found an article about a doctor who has it. His is on a more extreme end of the spectrum than mine is. But, it helps me to explain more to friends when we go to theater for action movies and I am very animated during movies, jerking in my seat, making "eep!", "ouch!", and "urgh!" noises. (Unlike the doctor, I don't have ordinal-personification personification though.)


    Hi Usagiboy,

    no, thank heaven I'm not. I think this ability is more a curse than a gift.^^

    best regards Angel


    RedAngel666, hahaha it is only a curse with Swedish pronouns (opposite color for he and she as I expect, so if I don't stop and think I get it wrong :P) and the Japanese words for right and left 右 (migi) 左 (hidari). For the life of me, I cannot recall which is which because between English and Japanese there are 3 things, the English spelling Right (more reddish) and Left (more greenish); the Japanese pronunciation, Migi (pronounced meegee--more green) and Hidari (more red), and then there are the kanji 右 (more red) and 左 (more green). 2/3 of these match in color. 1/3 does not. So, I get these wrong ALL the time. x'C

    Edit: Otherwise than some confusion now and then, like those situations, I live in a colorful world that I've come to appreciate. :)


    One of my troubles malo/mala means in spanish bad, in serbian little. I'll never get that in my head correctly!

    I was happy to read that there is someone else who is interested in sign language without an urgend need. I began BSL. Why? Don't know. My focus in english is the british english. Maybe that's a reason. I don't know any deaf person at the moment, but this kind of communication is fascinating me.

    I have a request. There's an app I like very much. It's called "spread the sign" do you know it? Are the signs correct/ good qualitiy or is it just rubbish. If you don't know here the link https://www.spreadthesign.com/gb/. The PC-version is not es good as the app in my opinion. What do you think about it?

    thank you and best regards Angel

    PS. Yes, we have this colourful and wonderful world for a good reason. Let' celebrate and appreciate it!



    I have the Android version of their app. I can't speak for the BSL on there, as I am not familiar with it. The ASL has so far been reliable. ASL and BSL are vastly different. (ASL is part of the French Sign Language family; whereas BSL is from the ‎BANZSL‎ family.)

    I haven't checked out their PC resource. I didn't know it even existed until your mention of it. :)


    Hi Usagiboy7,

    Are your language goals holding you back?

    No, never. Because, I don't feel attracted to learning foreign languages. I mostly feel happy to be able to communicate with foreign people using few foreign words and much body language.

    I like your list with 5 question very much.

    • Yes, I had to learn 3 foreign languages at high school for my exam, despite I had chosen a science profile (the 3 languages of the neighbour countries of The Netherlands: English, German and French).

    • No, I did not want to learn foreign languages. So silly, to learn about 8000 words for "water" etc., to be able to communicate with people all over the world.

    • I feel attracted to communitate with people, I never felt attracted to a (foreign) language for "it's own sake".

    • Yes, there are daily opportunities to enjoy using foreign languages.
      . My professional literature is mostly in English and German
      . I like to read the World news from different sources instead of only be informed by the Dutch point of view
      . Dutch and Flemish broadcasters subtitle their foreign movies, detectives, talk shows, news etc. instead of replacing the foreign voices by Dutch voices.
      . England, Scotland and Wales are my favourite holiday destinations and I like the detectives on BBC.
      . Thanks to Duolingo I am able to think and write a bit in English, instead of only translating from English to Dutch v.v.
      My homework for today was "Write a comment to a discussion about languages instead of my favourite subject "troubleshooting".



    I feel attracted to communitate with people

    Me too. It is part of why I stayed while taking a year off. Studying language as a structure is less interesting to me than language as a process of communication with people from different backgrounds and different life experiences.

    Yes, there are daily opportunities to enjoy using foreign languages.

    I'm glad to read it.

    For those who don't have daily opportunities, I bet you'll run into some surprise opportunities in the future. Some lighthearted and casual, others serious and life changing.

    On the serious side, I've so far have shared three emergency-related true stories with the Duolingo community now. So I'll link to them for those interested: The importance of multi-lingual access, Language community helps find blood transfusion for former Duolingo staffer, and Spanish in a Crisis.

    These situations have also provided motivation for me to keep studying multiple languages. If I had to choose, I would prefer to be able to communicate a little bit with people in several different language groups, than fluently with only two language groups (The idea scenario of course would be if I could talk to everyone fluently in their language. It is definitely my outer space dream.)

    My homework for today was "Write a comment to a discussion about languages instead of my favourite subject "troubleshooting".

    I'm glad to know that you chose to comment here. And thank you for all of the amazing work you've been doing helping people troubleshoot. ^_^

    PS You've reminded me of another discussion I wanted to make!


    Thank you for sharing!

    "Are your language goals holding you back?" Kind of. I've been meaning to seriously learn Spanish for a while now, but I can't seem to stick with it. I live in the Southeast US so I hear it nearly everyday and I am surrounded by the language a great deal of the time. This means that it would be a no-brainer that I learn it, right? Well...I've tried! I really have! I just can't stick with it. It doesn't draw me in like German, for example. But I still feel like I need to learn it since I would actually use it.

    I feel as if I should focus on Spanish instead of learning Japanese, which is what I REALLY want to learn. I've been wanting to learn Japanese since I was in high school, but I never got serious about it because I was told that I should learn Spanish. I want to learn Japanese because there is a ton of Japanese media that I want to understand and I find the culture absolutely fascinating. However, I can't actually use Japanese in real life (because I NEVER run into Japanese people where I live!) but I would use Spanish quite a bit. But ever since Japanese released on desktop, I really want to FINALLY take a jump and seriously learn it! Not sure what to do...

    TL;DR - I need to learn Spanish for real life interactions, but I want to learn Japanese. I feel like I'm being held back by the need of learning Spanish. Help!



    If you feel pressure to learn it because there are Spanish speakers everywhere, you could consider narrowing things down, again, to choose a realistic goal. Do you see yourself speaking to any of them? If so, in what capacity? If in grocery stores, ok narrow down the vocabulary you focus on to just what you'd use in the store. Or, if you think you'd ask them for directions or vice versa, then just focus on becoming proficient in that area. Being strategic like that could be your Goal 1.0, rather than trying to plan for every eventuality, when that's not what you need to plan for.

    Ultimately, if you answered no to the 5th question "Do I have to learn this language?" then the answer is, you don't have to learn it if you don't want to. If you decide to learn some anyway, you get to decide what to learn and how much of your day to give it. :)


    Thanks for your thoughts on my problem! I think I will try to stick with Spanish for now, but just focus on learning "just enough" at the moment. After that, well, we'll see. But I WILL get to Japanese one of these days!

    And thank you for everyone else that commented!


    I need to learn Spanish for real life interactions, but I want to learn Japanese. I feel like I'm being held back by the need of learning Spanish. Help!

    This is exactly why I hate Spanish.


    It's not that I actually hate Spanish. It's just that I want to learn Japanese more...a lot more...


    You know, I'd just start with Japanese. Do what you love, and maybe in a few months time you'll find you can make a little room for some Spanish in your language learning routine. It is entirely possible to learn two languages at the same time, especially two that are as different from each other as Japanese and Spanish. Putting yourself under pressure to learn something you do not really want to learn at this point will probably only put you off learning languages altogether. Interests change. Start with Japanese now, and who knows - you might suddenly discover at some point in the future you actually want to start learning Spanish.


    Hi Neon,

    I have that with other things.^^ Maybe you can trick yourself. I "order" to me a time (15min. or so) to do what I have to do/learn an than I remunerate myself with something I like (spanish lessen in my case *smile) in your case of course japanese.

    best regards Angel


    This is a fantastic post. It's so true. I wanted to gain fluency in a certain number of languages and I held off doing it, thinking about how long each one was going to take and how much work it was instead of just having fun. So instead of fluency, my only goal is to finish the Duolingo courses in those languages, and then review with Clozemaster. And if I manage to do that in all the languages I want, then I'll figure out what to do with them next. But once I set that much easier goal, I flew through the Russian tree instead of feeling pressure, and now I'm making good progress on the German tree.


    Ontalor, that's awesome! (Also, I'm always happy when I see you in the forums. It's good to see long time familiar faces. ^_^)

    For some reason, your comment of flying through the Russian tree reminds me of taking language courses in Uni vs exploring languages now on Duolingo. In uni, I was so fixated on getting an A on each of my tests that I was overwhelmed, frustrated, and panicked. I wasn't learning, I was memorizing. (An important difference in my mind.) After getting out of the habit of that mindset thanks to the time I've spent on Duolingo, I found approaching language learning much more relaxed. I completed the Japanese course in 33 days (again, not from scratch.) But, I didn't get hung up on each thing I'd forgotten (I'd forgotten a LOT!) But, I did it. I completed the tree and felt immensely good. Once it was done, I had a taste for Japanese again, so I've gone back and have been reviewing for the last 50 days or so. At the moment, I'm aiming for level 15. :)


    I don't feel like my language goals are holding me back, but I feel like my school work is holding those goals back. So far, it has been oppressing me so intensely, and it's only been a month, meaning it will get so much worse. Maybe someday I can get past all that work and be a hyperpolyglot.


    Part of setting language goals is setting them in the context of the rest of our lives. Juggling priorities is pretty much a lifelong process, including things that have to be priorities that we wish weren't. It is important not to neglect the rest of your studies. In the long run, you'll have more opportunities to use your language skills if the rest of your education is well-balanced. :)

    This reminds me when I was in school. I thought it was completely ridiculous that I had to learn English. I already knew it! Why did I need to learn to identify verbs and nouns etc. when I could use them just fine without knowing what they're called? I even told a teacher as much, pointing out that, in real life, I would not be reading a newspaper and having to locate the adjectives.

    I'm sad that my teacher never explained to me that learning the mechanics of my native language would help me learn other languages, which would give me a better opportunity to explore the world, get the jobs I wanted, and make friends I never would have made otherwise. Instead, my teacher only said something along the lines of "Well, it's just something you have to do if you want to make it into the next grade, whether you like doing it or not."

    So, I'd like to take the opportunity she missed and encourage you to do your best in your other subjects as well. Like language studies, those things will open up the world to you in ways that will otherwise be shut or at least harder to access. Just yesterday, my best friend made a new friend on campus because of math and the weekend before had gotten a date because he'd gone to a math conference. Who knew! It certainly raised my eyebrows. (But, then again I shouldn't be too surprised, considering math is actually superpower. But, those in the know are usually hush hush about that fact. ;)


    If isn't clear, my language goals aren't complete fluency (yet), especially given the number of languages I want to learn. I want to be able to communicate about myself and hopefully be able to move up from there.


    Keep at it, tiger!


    There's a useful and applicable saying in English about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good.


    I was not familiar with this quote, but I like it!


    It's rather less frequently used than many other expressions.

    I think I may have first heard it from my dissertation advisor. She probably had practice using it, as academia has more than its fair share of perfectionists who will obsess themselves out of a degree, if left to their own devices.



    when I began to read this post parts of a cite came to my mind but I couln't remember. But my mum said always "Hast du ein Gedächnis wie ein Sieb mit 'nem Loch, brauchst du Zettel". (If you have a memory like a sieve with a hole, you need a chit). I found it.

    Failures are made only by those who fail to dare, not by those who dare to fail.

    It took me more than 3 weeks to translate this (I was 13 or 14?) and another month to get it. But I think there's a lot truth in it.

    best regards Angel


    Indeed, just because something is hard doesn't mean it should be abandoned.

    And, I hope people don't feel that I'm encouraging them to give up on things that are hard. It more meant to be: if your current goal leads to failure and the death of being in love with learning languages, then it's worth changing to something that leads to success and nourishes your love of learning languages. :)


    Hi Usagiboy,

    No, I don't think anybody is taking your post as an advise to give up. Far away from it!

    best regards Angel


    Good comment.

    I am trying to be perfect in the things I do, but I also know my limits.
    So setting myself up for failure, disappointment and real frustration is never an option in anything, as long it is only depending on my energy, work and achieving realistic goals.

    Actual fluency is from the start no real goal. I know how long it took to get somewhere acceptable in English, a probably super easy language for German speakers, and I still would not rate my skill nowhere near fluency. I would love to be better, but I it is what it is.

    I am also an Introvert, so talking a lot is already in my native language not my life goal. I love to listen though and I love languages, words, meanings, understanding people.

    I postponed learning a new language very long, but I do not see my passion for languages disappear anytime soon now that I started.
    Hungarian will be tough, anyway because it is, and this did scare me, but also because the course here unfortunately could be a lot better, to say it friendly, nevertheless the gamyfied approach is perfect for me, so still the best way to learn some things and get over some hurdles.
    And it is the language I can actually use. So not just for fun.
    It will probably take a little longer than I initially planned to get to some beginner level, were I can read stuff, but I will get there.
    And afterwards I might learn something else without even that basic understanding goal. Just some basic knowledge of some languages. Maybe if I like one then I might set up a goal again of getting somewhere decent in understanding and focus on it.


    Good thinking about if you want to learn the language and if you have value in it. Something that I struggle with in life is that my capacity to learn, which includes languages, is much higher than my motivation and is pretty unaligned with the value I draw from it; and learning for me is a habit, that when done not out of finding personal value in something, is bad.

    I have little interest in learning languages, but coincidentally, I know how to do it very fast, but I think it being meaningful is when comes from a place of feeling value in doing it.

    Watch Movies

    Read Books Out loud

    Do sentence based flashcards

    Find tangible ways to use the language

    Find resources for pertinent language characteristics, or use pre-establish knowledge for forming hypothesis about grammar (I know Spanish grammar well and have studied arabic grammar, which helps me understand new languages because I have gone through the process of learning very complicated structures).

    Talk with other people and learn through inmersión.

    Really, the last point is the one thing I really like from languages. And of course those other things are good groundwork to be able to use language, but I like learning the emotional, meaningful use of language from exposure, and for what I am going to do with languages, it is probably going to come from that. And this is coming from someone who can functionally speak Portuguese from teaching it to myself. No more Duolingo ❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤, just chatting with people, because that is what I like.

    So, I like your post, I am glad you could identify what you find value in in languages, and I like that you ask others to reflect on this too. It is not just a lesson for learning languages, but a life lesson for one to know to pursue feels value in, getting the good neurotransmiters from, to like what people do. I support being reflective and acting on that. I like your post, and your citation of the person who brought this idea up.

    [deactivated user]

      Thank you so much! I also have a brain injury and I am in menopause. I can


      goal level 1 learn Japanese.... goal level 2 overcome my mental illness.... a.k.a scizoaffective. goal number 3 create a small anime-ish marvel verse...; this goal may actually be two big but it's my dream to be the next stan lee with my "truly-verse" and alternatives. will be considering if I have to big of goals and to lofty of goals in the end.


      It's usually recommended that you break large goals down to smaller ones. (What do you need to do to create anime? What skills do you need and how can you acquire them?)


      I'll give you that one. ty btw. I have broken it down but I need to break it down further. btw I am writing novels not making cartoons. i work every fourth or fifth month so far. there is just a time I can write/do other things and a time i lay in bed. I will work on chunking down my goals for now. again ty.

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