Finding motivation in language learning
Of course we would all love to speak another language. But few are willing to commit the time to learn it. Even less are able to stay motivated for the time and effort it takes to become fluent.
My own language journey started in school, like everyone else’s. And like almost everyone around me, I bitterly despised those French classes. It felt like I was being forced to learn what I couldn’t possibly hope to achieve without living in France for twenty years.
It was not until I was in my gap year that I started to learn another language again: this time, Spanish – with a fresh attitude.
Then earlier this year, with the generous help of the Walter Mangold trust fund, I was able to travel to Madrid on exchange and make the leap to fluency.
So what was the difference this time? Truthfully, I was not incapable of learning a language. I just hadn’t applied myself.
The difference was all about my level of motivation. So here is my practical guide to finding your motivation and staying motivated.
An important first step to take is to truly convince yourself that speaking another language is possible. Reach out to someone who was in a similar situation and successfully learnt to speak a new language. It’s not enough to hear or read about a stranger’s experiences. For me this involved seeing friends (including Dan) return from exchange, fluent in other languages. Without someone to inspire you, you’ll always find an excuse to give up.
The next step is to clearly define your reasons for learning the language. From my experience in sport, athletes will often train the hardest when improvement will bring the opportunity to travel to cool places and most importantly meet exciting, new people.
How can speaking the language make your life more exciting? Start with clear reasons that inspire you. For most language learners, these reasons will relate to the country’s people and their culture.
If you’re looking to improve career prospects, have a well-defined job in mind that you are passionate about. Be clear about how speaking the language will help you get it.
Next, find a way you’ll be able to use the language. The clearest (and most fun) solution is to move overseas, especially if this is your first time learning a language. Pick somewhere you’d really love to live and find a reason to live there – to work, study, volunteer or even learn to salsa. Make it clear and make it happen.
You should aim to be at an intermediate level when you get there. If you are in the early stages, I would recommend a year of learning before heading off. Of course it will depend a lot on your circumstances, but if anything you should head off sooner rather than later. Not only is it hard to stay motivated for something so far off, but remember Parkinson’s law: the more time you allot to a task, the harder it will seem.
Now you’ve defined your reasons for learning the language, the biggest challenge will be to maintain your motivation.
First and simplest is to cut out anything that might hurt your motivation. It is best to avoid associating the language with anything you dislike. If you hate taking the train, then don’t study on the train. Although I’m not discussing learning methods, avoid those you particularly dislike, however effective. Anki is a great tool, but if you feel soulless after 10 minutes on it, don’t use it.
Conversely if you walk around the park listening to an audio you are linking language learning to a positive experience. This has the added bonus of exercise, which also increases retention.
Just as important in maintaining motivation is goal setting. It’s fine to aim for fluency or to do well in a proficiency exam, but it should be clear how you will act upon your goals.
At home, a simple way is to make a 30-day mini-goal: study the language for a set amount of time each day. The amount of time and how it is designated can be adapted but it must be clear how you will spend your time. Check out Dan’s article for more on goal setting. Here is an example for a Spanish learner:
- 30 minutes of learning per day
- Maximum of three missed days
|Beginner||Pimsleur audio lesson (30 minutes)|
|Intermediate||Morning||Walk while listening to Notes in Spanish Podcast (15 minutes)|
|Afternoon||All Anki repetitions|
|Read One Piece comic in Spanish (until session totals 15 minutes)|
Especially if you are a beginner, keep it simple to avoid putting off goal setting.
For some people, it can be effective to set the complementary goal of missing less than two or three days in a thirty day cycle. This can help prevent slacking off, and ensures one missed day won’t make you want to give up. If, occasionally, your only chance to study is at two in the morning, then allow a few days off.
The easiest way to help you stick to your goals is to get people involved. Simply having a friend or housemate who takes an interest in your goals can make a huge difference.
To complement this you might also like to raise the stakes: ask yourself, what will happen if you don’t succeed? American author Tim Ferriss has some great ideas on this subject. For example: if you don’t reach your goal, you will have to donate $100 to Bronwyn Bishop’s political campaign. This doesn’t have to involve money; having to do anything you absolutely detest will work fine.
When overseas, you should set yourself the simple goal of no English. Expect that it will be extremely challenging not being able to express yourself readily.
For many people, obligations such as family at home, emails or simply frustration will make entirely no English virtually unattainable. A good compromise is to allow yourself a set amount of time each day in which you can speak English. Ideally this will be about an hour in the afternoon.
You should immerse yourself in the language at the start of the day, to allow yourself to get in the right frame of mind. Use your English “break time” only for things you need or really want to do. Don’t go reading Facebook articles and watching bad YouTube videos.
To make it easier on yourself, do not have English television shows, music and books on hand. Take the choice away and it won’t test your discipline.
Similarly, try to avoid people that speak to you in English. It might sound harsh but consider their detriment to your learning. Speaking English is more than a missed opportunity to practise your new language. Most likely, it will snowball into your other interactions and disrupt the immersive environment that forces you to learn.
Regardless of what you do however, occasional dips in motivation are unavoidable. You just have to find a way to raise your motivation levels again. Reward yourself for the effort you have put in. This will be tied into your reason for learning the language in the first place.
If you’re doing it for the chance to interact with other cultures, see if you can ask for directions in another language. If it’s because you want to look for work, then check out some cool job ads on Google. If you’re learning because you love the culture’s food, take yourself out to a nice restaurant. Even the little things can be surprisingly exhilarating.
No matter your reason for learning the language, just don’t doubt that you will get there.