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Road to Fluency #1: Goals & Motivation

Hey there, Anon here. In the comments many of you ask us how we learned Japanese. I decided to write a short blog series about how I, personally, learned the language since you all seem to be really interested in how the process can go - there's plenty of other paths than my own, naturally. Today we'll be covering reasons for learning the language and setting appropriate goals. This series will be written from the point of view of a self-learner. I will cover classroom learning in another post later in this series.

Goals & Motivation

So you've decided to learn Japanese, great. Many of you are most likely not sure how to embark on this enormous task. One common mistake is not setting any short, mid, and long term goals. How motivated are you really, how much time are you willing to invest on a daily/weekly basis and what would you like to achieve? This could be reading manga, watching anime, reading novels, playing Karuta, communicating with your significant other or friends, traveling, acquiring linguistic knowledge, having fun, and the list goes on and on. There are two different kinds of motivation I will talk about: the intrinsically and the extrinsically driven.

Intrinsic motivation

This is the kind of motivation that comes from within. It is usually something you like doing. Some examples of this would be:

  • Playing any kinds of sports because you find it challenging 
  • Playing games because it's enjoyable
  • Learning about a certain subject because you are genuinely interested in it

These are things you wouldn't procrastinate on, you'd do them without a second thought because you enjoy it, find it interesting, challenging, thrilling, etc... Having intrinsically driven motivation is going to be very beneficial in the long run. Learning a language is not all fun and games though, not everything will be that enjoyable. What is fun in learning a language is also very different from person to person. You should try to find things in the language learning process that are fun to you.

Extrinsic motivation

Extrinsic motivation usually comes from an outside source. You might not always like it, it could feel more like a chore. Some examples of this would be:

  • Studying to achieve good grades in school
  • Work harder at your job to receive a bigger bonus
  • Losing weight because your SO told you to do so

Extrinsically driven motivation doesn't always last very long, and it can be hard to then motivate yourself to keep going. It's not always a bad thing, however. There's also not always a very clear distinction between the two. Sometimes people just aren't driven internally (yet) and need a little push to get started. Over time this might develop some intrinsic motivation, but that is not always the case.

Use it or lose it

Keeping yourself motivated is in my opinion the hardest task when it comes to learning a language, even more so for a difficult language like Japanese (for native English speakers at least). It's more comparable to an ultramarathon than a sprint... or even an exhausting jog, for that matter.

The most important factor in successfully learning a language is the frequency you engage with the language. You don't always have to be actively studying it; just using the language like reading and speaking the language could be enough depending on your current level in your target language. You'd ideally want to use it every day, even if it's only 20 minutes a day. 20 minutes every day would yield better results in the long term than one long 2-3 hour study session during the weekend.

I've often heard the excuse from people that they simply can't find the time to study every day. I'd say this is bullshit for 99.95% of all of you out there. There is so much dead time during the day. You could be reviewing vocabulary while you drop the kids off at the pool, read a page of a study book while you're waiting in line, think in the language or review a grammar point while taking public transportation to work or school, etc... It's not that you can't find the time, you make it so you have time for it if this is truly important to you.

Setting short, mid, and long term goals

More often than not you will have a mix of intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. You will like certain parts of the language learning process, but you might absolutely despise some of it as well. To make sure that you'll still be on this journey a year from now we will need some planning. You'll want the learning process to be as rewarding as possible and make the process itself fun whenever you can. This could for example be done by including your favorite manga, anime, or drama series in your studies.

Long term goals

These are some examples of the kind of goals you might like to achieve near the end of your studies (although you never ever finish learning a language, there's always something you didn't know yet). These are harder to quantify, and wouldn't make very good short or mid term goals:

  • Watching raw anime
  • Reading any raw manga
  • Being able to translate from Japanese
  • Being conversational

You'll want to set your mid and short term goals with these in mind, as those will have to contribute to achieving your long term goals.

Mid term goals

These are the goals you might want to achieve in the next couple months to a year. Examples of these could be:

  • Finish a textbook
  • Finish reading a novel
  • Read your first manga volume
  • Learn 3000 words
  • Learn 500 kanji
  • Watch a season of an anime without English subtitles

These goals are harder to complete in a short amount of time, but easier to quantify compared to the long term goals. Every couple months I would review these and update when needed. They are the foundation for my short term goals.

Not all of these goals would be very fun to achieve, but they could lead to rewarding results. You'll eventually see progress towards your long term goals and that will drive you to work even harder.

Short term goals

These are the goals you'd like to achieve in the next week-month. Some examples are:

  • Study a chapter of a textbook
  • Learn 100 new words
  • Read a volume of a simple shonen manga
  • Watch 5 episodes of an anime with Japanese subtitles
  • Analyze a translation of your favorite series
  • Listen to a Japanese podcast daily

You want something that you can measure, something that you can tick off in a to-do list. That will help you to stay on track and improve in the long term. Every Sunday I'd sit down and write down my goals for the next week. I'd keep track of what I did every day and would check the weekly goals I had completed that day. A week could look something like the following:

  • Translate 20 pages of manga
  • Read 2 manga volumes
  • Read 50 pages of a novel
  • Learn 20 new words every day
  • Review scheduled vocabulary every day

Notice how each one of these is measurable. For vocabulary I would be using a Spaced Repetition system like Anki or Memrise and review the words that were scheduled for the day.

My study time would vary from 20 minutes a day to a couple hours, depending on how I was feeling that day. The key thing was to do something every day, without breaking the streak. I would not always meet my weekly goals, but that would motivate me to work harder the following week.

I wouldn't be too ambitious with your weekly goals at first. If you're a novice language learner you will need time to adapt to a daily study schedule and need more time to do some of activities listed above. Heck, you'll need time to figure out how long the activities listed above will take you in the first place. I'd set one or two goals for myself and try to complete them. Once you get more comfortable with the study schedule you can try and add more to it. 


Without putting a study plan together it will be very hard for you to stay on track. You don't have to do it the exact same way as I did, but at least have some understanding and record of your long, mid, and short term goals. What you study is also less important than the fact that you're actually studying and putting in the time and effort.

Next time I will be talking about input and output in language learning. Good luck with your studies!

- Anon