Can you be more specific?

My last post invited you to reflect on what you want to be able to do in English, or in another foreign language that you are interested in. I insisted on getting down to the very specific ‘can-do’ goals that you would like to set yourselves: not just ‘I want to improve my English’, but, for example,  ‘I want to be able to cope with management meetings in English’ and even further ‘ I want to be able to cope with interruptions during management meetings in English’.

In this post I’m taking you even further towards a detailed analysis of what you want to become able to do in English. Why?, you may ask. Well, I’m planning to show you that the analysis technique that I’m suggesting will help you

  1. see exactly where you want to get – this way you will focus your learning better
  2. choose the right way to achieve that goal – a course in a language school, self-study with books / CDs / TV etc, private tutor etc


I’ll take myself again as an example, analysing possible learning goals for my German. First I need to decide on the main direction to go.

Preliminary Question: (Language) Knowledge, or (communication) skills in German?

I’m interested in both, but I’ll start with the skills.

Question 1: What skills do I want to improve? I’ll split SKILLS into elements that are important to me, and put them down in a triangle.

Skills The skill that I didn’t choose for my goals is Reading.

Now I’ll take each of the three elements above and again split them into elements in a triangle. Below an example for SPEAKING.

Question 2: What exactly do I want to improve about my Speaking?


Production: ability to express ideas in a connected speech

Interaction: ability to speak in interaction with others

Self-expression: ability to express your views, attitudes, ideas in a way that reflects your personality, education etc

Influence an audience: the ability to influence your listeners by your speech and to cause them to act in a certain way

Question 3: What exactly do I want to improve about my speech production?


Other elements that I didn’t choose for my goals, but could stand under SPEECH PRODUCTION:

  • cohesion, or how well you link your ideas, examples: That is why,…, First of all,…, to sum up,…, However,…, On the other hand, … etc
  • how effective your pronunciation is. This can be further detailed as: articulation of sounds, stress within the word, stress on the different words within the sentence, overall intonation
  • etc

I’ll take each element in the triangles above and detail them in new triangles until I feel I have come to the end of the chain. The ‘end of the chain’ has to be concrete items that you can search in a course-book, on the internet etc, or things that are so specific that you can immediately see how you can improve them. For example,

Question 4: What exactly do I want to improve about my fluency?

 Fluency These items are so basic, that I realise immediately what I need to do about them: activate my language resources by speaking, speaking, speaking – preferably helped by a teacher.

I’ll now get back to Speaking and detail another element, Self-expression.

Question 3b: What exactly do I want to improve about my self-expression?


Question 4b: What exactly do I want to improve about expressing conceptual relations?

image These items are again so basic, that I know where I need to search for them: materials for advanced / academic language, economic or academic journals etc.

I’ll just get back now to the Preliminary Question, and take the other direction, language knowledge.

Question 1: What exactly do I want to improve about my language knowledge?


Accuracy = how correct your grammar / vocabulary is; examples of errors: I am doing this job since 2007 (I have been doing this job since 2007) / The money are important to me (The money is important to me) / I’m in charge with organising tenders (I’m in charge of organising tenders) etc

Control = how consistent over time your accuracy is; examples of slips: There is no money for this project, but you can transfer them from other projects (the speaker knows that money is a singular, but only uses the word correctly at the beginning of the sentence)

Range = how many words or patterns you can use to say the same thing; examples: duties / responsibilities / obligations / tasks etc  (different words for the same or similar ideas); I think you should take a course / Maybe it would be a good idea for you to take a course / If I were you, I’d take a course (three patterns to give advice)

Other possible things that I didn’t choose for my goals, but could stand under LANGUAGE KNOWLEDGE:

  • how appropriate your words are to the context / interlocutor, examples: bucks // money, money // funds (different formality)
  • how precise your words are, and how accurately you use them to express the different meanings; examples: specifications // features, according to // in accordance with, economical // cheap etc
  • how effective is your functional language (patterns used to make offers, invitations, promises, to refuse, to agree, to disagree, to ask for clarification, to apologize etc)
  • etc

Question 2: What exactly do I want to improve about my range?

Range So I need to work through vocabulary materials, and possibly focus on exercises that make me reformulate ideas in alternative ways.

Variety of words for same meaning – see the example above for duties.

Variety of words for related meanings – examples: fire / dismiss / lay off / make redundant (words for different ways of terminating a work contract; the meanings are not identical, but related)

Variety of sentence structures for same message – see the example above for advice.


  • you can write key words in the triangles (as I have done), or you can write short statements that clarify your meaning; if you don’t have any experience with language learning you may not be able to find a key word that names an ability so easily. The important thing here is that you note down your own idea, in no matter what form.
  • You can write as many elements in the triangle as you feel is necessary; triangles are not preset, they can have 2, 3, 4 or 10 layers.
  • You can use the position of the triangle (bottom up) to prioritise the elements; for example, if you are most interested in learning a variety of sentence structures for same message, write it at the top.

How to process the results of your analysis:

  1. Look at the very last results, on the very last level under each category. These are the real, specific goals you care about. Put them down on a list so you don’t lose sight of them. Report them to the teacher that you hire to guide you.
  2. Look at your answers to the top levels: the preliminary question and questions 1 and possibly 2. They will indicate what strategy should work best if you start to learn in that direction.

In my example, I am mostly interested in Speaking and not at all in Reading, but I also give a lot of importance to language knowledge, in particular to range and control. This means that I could use a book and do self-study for the language part, but I should in parallel use every opportunity to speak in real life to consolidate the language I  learned on my own. ‘Control’ is a matter of long practice, so if I want to improve control I don’t need to buy books or sign up for a course. Making a subscription to a German magazine or journal wouldn’t help me directly, as I am not interested in reading skills, but it would help me indirectly if I used the reading as a way to examine language in an authentic text. I don’t necessarily need a private teacher, as I can improve my German by studying alone or by reading and by speaking in everyday life.



Don’t leave needs analysis to teachers, trainers or consultants! In an age of do-it-yourself, it’s time for you to take charge of analysing your own needs and setting your own goals. In such cases, it’s not the precision and the fine-tuning of the results that matter, but just the process of reflecting and turning every stone. Don’t be satisfied with any statement of a goal before you make sure you asked yourself the question ‘what exactly does that mean?’