Your goal has a very powerful influence throughout your learning experience. It’s important to choose a realistic and achievable destination – the more precise the better. Students often say they want to be “fluent”. But even experts have different opinions on what this word means.
One way to measure of fluency is the number of words you know. An adult native speaker, for example, knows 20,000 to 35,000 words. This is an objective but totally useless measure of course. I have no idea how many words I know! Don’t start trying to memorize lists of words – you also have to know how to use them!
If you can travel without too much effort you probably know about 600 words. If you can hold a conversation with a stranger, you know at least 1000. To put these numbers into perspective, there are 171,476 words currently in use in the English language. Who needs all that? No one!
Another common way to think about it is that fluency is speaking easily, well, and quickly. But when? All the time? In every situation? If you threw William Shakespeare into an astrophysics class he would certainly feel the limits of his language level!
It depends on context. At work, in school, on the street, in a restaurant, or at the airport, everyone encounters a relatively short list of situations in their day-to-day lives. Your goals in English learning should reflect your profession, your life-style, your interests. Think more pragmatically and your goals will come within reach!