It’s easy to know if you are being efficient. Zero to B1 requires not more than 3,000 fluency units (words, conjugations, grammatical constructions). We know that a reasonable expectation and the basis for many language programmes is 900 hours. So that is 3 learned, retained and useable per hour. If you are progressing at less than 3 per hour NET then you are being relatively inefficient. If you are progressing at a greater rate then you are being relatively efficient. Simple.
How do you know if you are being effective – that is to say building real language ability. We suggest the easiest place to begin is reading. Can you read and get enough out of it to understand the point that someone is trying to make. If you can do that then you are making progress and reading is a real part of communicating in a language. To read enjoyably you will want to reach at least 100 words per minute. So that is a good goal to have. For instance, I can read Thai – but so slowly (about 35 words per minute) that I never read Thai unless I need to. Not great. In French, I can read a little faster than I do in English – which is odd but means that I am perfectly happy to read stories, news or anything else.
Most people are more interested in being able to listen well. It’s worth knowing that this is a significantly greater challenge than reading. Not least of the reasons being that you may be talking with a more or less reasonable person who has a large degree or a minor degree of control over speaking speed, their use of slang and slurring as native speakers naturally do.
It is harder to measure listening success objectively but it is important you find something that works for you because at some point your motivation will be challenged and at that point being able to look back and know you are getting better. A comfortable speaking speed for most people is around 140 wpm (give or take depending on the person). Many people are not comfortable speaking more than 20% slower than usual, so you ought to have your listening goals based around at least 120 words per minute.
For speaking progress, since your mind generates your communication in your native tongue, the art here is to practice translating randomly selected phrases translating not words but meaning. If you create a large number of phrases at the outset and then select 10 at random from that list once per month and mark how many you can manage to translate successfully and in what period of time.
People who don’t track their progress seldom succeed in reaching their language learning goals. Why? Because your mind is always aware of the price you are paying such as time, concentration, effort etc. Your mind is less good at tracking your progress. When your perceived progress to price ratio drops below a certain level trouble will ensue. That is particularly sad if you are making a healthy rate of progress and it just isn’t obvious to you at the time.
Final thought – goals are useful because they help us break a problem down and let us know if we are on track to reach our goals. My favourite goal setting formula is SMART. SMART stands for Specific, Measurable (objectively measurable outcomes), Achievable, Relevant and Trackable (means you can measure progress as you go along and not just at the end).