How Social Accountability Will Revolutionize Your Language Goals

What do you want to be when you grow up?

As a child, I used to get that question a lot. I’m sure you did, too.

My answer?

An actor.

I wanted to star in blockbuster movies.

I imagined my face emblazoned across movie posters, my name getting top-billing on the marquee.

What was your answer? Who, or what, did you want to be?

Whatever it may have been, I can say with relative certainty that that was one of the first, if not the first life goal you ever set for yourself.

And that goal was important, at least for a while. Most of our earliest decisions — what hobbies to take up, what electives to take in school, which college to go to — are all chosen in alignment with what we at least imagine to be our end-goal.

Sometimes, perhaps most of the time, we don’t end up anywhere close to that goal. Sometime between then and now, a newer, better goal appeared, and the original was dropped.

And that’s fine. I didn’t become an actor, after all.

What’s not fine, though, is when we set goals that we feel we want, that we know we want with every fiber of our being, but we set them aside because they’re too hard, too bold, too scary, and too risky.

To numb the pain of not going after these goals, we procrastinate, we self-sabotage, we let resistance take over and divert our path. Out of fear.

But what if we could short-circuit that fear?

Instead of being frozen inside our comfort zones, what if we could set up systems that pulled us out of our comfort zone, and compelled us to achieve the goals we most want, no matter how much they scare us?

We can. You can. And you will.

Just let me show you how.

Setting Goals vs. Making Commitments

Let’s make this simple.

You don’t need any more goals.

For all the talk of goal-setting tips that goes on nowadays, no one actually needs to set more goals.

After all, a goal is just what you want.

You want to be happy. You want to be healthy. You want love, and a warm bed to sleep in at night.

And you want to learn a language.

Those are all goals. They’re just a handful of the thousands that you have at any one time.

You don’t need more goals, or even better goals. You just need to achieve them — to get to them.

And if a goal is what you want, what’s the only way to get what you want?

To take action.

Action is the problem. It’s messy, risky, and invites failure.

Action is, in a word, scary.

However, if you want to learn a language, you’re going to have to take action. And lots of it.

So how do you get over this fear of action? How can you ensure that we take all the action you need, both now and in the future, to get to your language learning goal?

You need commitments.

A commitment is a pledge to take action in the short term to stay committed to the goal in the long-term.

You’re probably familiar with the concept. If you live in the West, you probably make a big commitment every January 1st. You just call it a New Year’s Resolution.

This resolution is just a goal with an added commitment on top, like:

This year, I will learn Spanish

Now, let me ask you: Is that enough? Are people who set New Year’s Resolutions completing them left and right?

No. Not usually.

While commitments and goals are better than goals in themselves, they do not get the goal-setter all the way there.

If we commit to taking action towards a goal, but there are no real consequences for failing to follow through, then the commitment had no real substance.

We’re missing a third piece of the puzzle.

We’re missing accountability.

What is Accountability?

Accountability is the act of making the outcomes of our commitments answerable to a person or certain people.

Accountability generally comes in two forms: personal accountability, and social accountability.

Personal accountability is about holding yourself responsible for your actions and commitments. In most cases, whether this is effective or not is a question of self-discipline. The New Year’s Resolutions that fizzle out by February are perfect examples of the general ineffectuality of personal accountability.

Social accountability is about having to answer to other people about the outcomes of your commitments. If, upon failing to follow through on your commitment, you have to look another person (or group of people) in the face and literally tell them that you failed, you will be much more motivated to follow through with the commitment in the first place.

Why is this?

Why are the commitments you make to others more powerful than the commitments you make to yourself?

Hold on. We’re going deeper.

How Society Influences Behavior

The power of social accountability is rooted in our identity as human beings. As individuals, an important part of our mental health and well-being is our self-esteem.

Put plainly, we want to feel good about ourselves, even if we may not at any particular moment.

In our efforts to determine whether or not we should feel good about ourselves, we look to the people around us.

We look to our friends, families, and society at large to see what they think of us — a type of “social mirror”, albeit an imperfect one.

Robert Cialdini, psychologist and one of the world’s leading authority on influence, says this on the subject:

[As social beings, we believe that] if we engage in behaviors of which others approve, others will approve of us, too.” (Cialdini & Goldstein 2004, p. 598)

This is the key. If we can make commitments and then enlist the help of others in evaluating whether or not we’ve met those commitments, we unlock a secret source of motivation. In social influence terms, this motivation is the human desire for consistency.

According to Cialdini, human beings have strong motivation to appear consistent to themselves and others. If, through carrying out our commitments, we are successful in appearing consistent, Cialdini’s research suggests that we “serve the ultimate motivation of maintaining or enhancing [our] self esteem.” (Cialdini & Goldstein 2004, p. 605)

So, in short, we if we make our commitments public to others, we are more likely to follow through — because we want others to like us, and we want to like ourselves.

So, how can we make our commitments public?

Types of Social Accountability

There are two principle types of social accountability that you can use in order to guarantee that you follow through on your language learning commitments. These are one-to-one accountability and group accountability.

One-to-One Accountability

One-to-One Accountability comes in two forms: accountability partners and accountability coaches.

An accountability partner can be any individual person to whom you report both your commitment, and the eventual outcome of that commitment. Such accountability partnerships are often mutual, with each partner spurring the other on towards a particular goal.

An accountability coach has a similar role to the accountability partner, but is often a person of some authority or expertise in the domain in which you’ve set your goals. This coach will often draw from his or her experience to encourage you and advise you on the most efficient ways to meet your commitments.

Group Accountability

Group Accountability, like one-to-one accountability, also comes in two forms: small group accountability and large group accountability.

Small Group Accountability takes place in (aptly named) accountability groups. Generally, each member of a group is working towards an individual goal, and uses the group as a forum for feedback, moral support, and encouragement.

The most effective small groups restrict their membership from three to five people, so that each individual has frequent opportunities to share and contribute to group discussion and management.

Large Group Accountability is on the opposite end of the spectrum from the small group variety. While the strength of small groups is the ability to share and form interpersonal connections with several people, the strength of large groups is in their potential to generate massive feedback and support.

The most common form of large group accountability is the public declaration, where one person declares his commitment publicly to a broad audience.

In the Internet era, this is most easily achieved through social media, as any individual with a Facebook page, YouTube account, or WordPress blog can spread news of a particular commitment far and wide to thousands of people in a matter of seconds. In the language learning field, when people undertake language missions or challenges, this is the type of social accountability they are leveraging to achieve their goals.

Once you’ve determined the variant of social accountability that you would like to use to support your own commitments, you need figure out who, exactly, you’ll be accountable to.

How to Find People to Hold You Accountable

For accountability partners, quite literally anyone will do, so long as you don’t mind reporting your progress to them, and they don’t mind checking in with you to see how much progress you’re making.

I, however, would advise against starting an accountability partnership with someone you’re too comfortable with (like a best friend or close family member), as these people will be more likely to forgive you if you don’t follow through on the commitment. The idea of the partnership is to be challenged, not to be coddled, after all.

For accountability groups (and more compelling accountability partnerships), I would recommend looking for people who have similar goals to yours.

Since you’re learning a foreign language (or looking to learn one), you can start by visiting any of the multiple robust language learning communities online. There, among the members, you will likely find many willing participants in your accountability partnerships and groups.

Some language learning communities have built in social accountability features. Typically, these come in the form of language challenges. The Italki Language Challenge and the Add1Challenge are excellent examples of vibrant communities with lots of people who will help you achieve your learning goals.

For large group accountability, find any social media platform that allows you to reach a wide audience quickly. Platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram allow for this kind of wide reach, with the bonus that you probably already have an account with one or more of these already. Simply make a public declaration, and commit to providing regular updates. Once friends and followers notice that you’re actively working towards a goal, you’ll be surprised to see how many people will regularly check in to cheer you on!

Commit to Accountability

In conclusion, simply having a goal does not mean that you will follow through with it.

You need to face the fear of action, and to do that, you need to find people to hold you accountable to your commitments.

As a human being, you’re hardwired for social accountability. Your desire to not let others down will pull you through the fear and discomfort of action, and allow you to finally reach your language goals, whatever they may be.

So set your goals. Make your commitments. Find your accountability partners, coaches, and groups. Make your public declarations.

And finally be the language learner you want to be.