The Motivation Language Learning Requires (and 8 Tips for Getting It)
A momentary loss of your language learning mojo doesn’t have to spell the end of your language learning aspirations.
What determines whether you’re ultimately successful in learning a language isn’t whether you have trouble getting motivated at times (that’s going to happen), but your ability to bounce back and fight through the language learning doldrums.
Fortunately, we have some ways to tilt the odds in your favor to get that spark back, which will make it easier to get back on track. Let’s get right to it!
- 1. Have a Language Learning Plan
- 2. Make Talking to People Part of Your Language Learning Schedule
- 3. Use What You’ve Already Learned
- 4. Do Things You Enjoy
- 5. Find Media Not Available in Your Native Language
- 6. Make Language Learning a Habit
- 7. Take Inventory of What’s Working
- 8. Visualize Success
1. Have a Language Learning Plan
Anyone who’s ever taken a trip knows that planning how to do something can be more work than actually doing the thing itself. In the case of learning a language from scratch, you have to figure out how you’re going to build up all your language skills (writing, listening, speaking, etc.) simultaneously using materials that are challenging but not too challenging.
Having to constantly worry about organizing how you’re going to learn can get tiring and boring fast. So to get this potential motivation killer out of the way, try doing as much planning in advance as possible. Draw up a language learning plan that includes a schedule, a list of what materials you’re going to use and a rough timeline.
The idea is that whenever you sit down to learn a language, you should be able to go straight to the meat of your language learning and not have to worry about deciding what to work on. Being able to follow a preexisting plan is especially helpful on days when motivation for language learning is lagging.
When you get through your plan, draw up a new language learning plan. Note that having a plan doesn’t mean you have to get stuck in a rut—having a creative, interesting plan with lots of variety will help keep things fresh and get you through the times when you’re feeling less inspired.
2. Make Talking to People Part of Your Language Learning Schedule
If you’re having a hard time getting excited about language learning, sometimes a little peer pressure is just what the doctor ordered. Having activities where you have to talk to other people in your target language as a regular part of your language learning schedule can make a big difference.
There are a couple reasons these activities are helpful for maintaining language learning motivation:
- Doing anything with other people can make things more interesting, and you’ll be especially glad you don’t have to go it alone during times when you’re not really feeling the language learning magic.
- Having to use the language regularly to interact with other people provides an additional incentive to keep making progress. You’ll be motivated to learn it for the sake of communicating with other people.
Face-to-face group settings are ideal for maintaining language learning motivation. Some of the activities you can try include study groups, meetups and reading groups. But if you can’t find something in your area, online language exchanges can also add an entire new dimension to the language learning experience.
Whatever the exact activity you choose, make sure your language learning plan has some sort of regularly scheduled way of learning your language by talking to other people.
This is a really big deal in language learning communities. Academic researchers who study language learning methods have coined a term for this motivational strategy: integrative motivation. That’s right—it’s been scientifically proven that talking to people provides you with a very uniquely effective form of motivation for language learning.
But it goes a little further. Integrative motivation is extra powerful when you care about the people you’re speaking with, so practicing with friends, family and significant others gives you an additional motivational boost. If you need to meet new people to practice with, take a strong interest in their lives and try to build a real relationship.
Why does this work? Integrative motivation is all about wanting to connect and become integrated in the culture of the target language. Wanting to speak like a native, blend in among native speakers and have close relationships with them is what will carry you forward.
This is much more powerful than instrumental motivation, which is when you only want to speak a particular language to complete a task and “earn a cookie,” like putting your proficiency on your resume, land a job, make more sales or make a good impression.
3. Use What You’ve Already Learned
When you’re learning a new language, it can be tempting to try to learn as much new material as possible as quickly as possible. However, if you focus exclusively on learning new material, you run the risk of burning out.
More important than learning as much as you can as fast as you can is making sure you have fun with the stuff you’ve already learned. Keep a journal, compose a song or write a poem if that’s your thing. Talk to people. Even treat yourself to a meal at an ethnic restaurant, or try cooking one at home by following a recipe in your target language.
When you’re writing up your language learning plan, keep an eye out for courses or software that give you opportunities to review material you’ve learned in interesting ways. As an example, FluentU is an online immersion platform that has a variety of videos incorporated into language learning lessons. It also includes multimedia flashcards and personalized review quizzes to reinforce vocab memorization.
Using what you’ve already learned is essential to staying motivated because learning a language isn’t a black-and-white situation where either you’ve learned the language or you haven’t. Rather, you’re gradually getting to know the language better over time, and it’s important to give yourself credit for what you’ve already accomplished.
Spending some time using material you already know is also the best way to shut up any internal voice that might be telling you you’re not making enough progress. That voice is detrimental to your learning, and reminding yourself of how far you’ve already come proves it wrong. Besides, you’re learning a language for a particular reason, so once you’ve learned any amount of your language, use it!
4. Do Things You Enjoy
No matter how many language learning goals you set and how organized you are, it’s hard to stay motivated if you don’t enjoy the actual process of language learning itself. The best antidote for the language learning blahs is to make sure you’re learning language in a way that makes you constantly curious about what you’re going to do next.
One way to add this spark to your language learning life is to switch out rote studying in favor of interactive learning and games whenever possible.
Another way is to go a step further and replace a chunk of time you would’ve spent studying language instead just using the language for things you enjoy by reading books, watching movies, etc. By using the language for things you enjoy, you’re adding more intrinsically rewarding activities to the language learning process as opposed to just learning a language to meet an external goal.
You can also choose long-term projects to help sustain your motivation for language learning over time. For example, if you pick a book to read that’s a page turner, but that will take you a while to get through, it’ll be that much harder to give up on language learning before finding out how things end!
If you’re just starting out, you can still use this strategy to motivate yourself by challenging yourself to get to the point where it is an option to use your target language to do things you enjoy. That way you’re working towards a shorter-term goal instead of the way too broad goal of becoming fluent in the language.
For instance, try picking a simple book you want to read, then commit to reaching a level of basic reading comprehension where you can work through that book with the help of a dictionary. Once you arrive at that point, you’ll get a big motivation boost by successfully meeting a shorter-term goal and by adding a new intrinsically rewarding activity to your language learning regime.
5. Find Media Not Available in Your Native Language
An exciting aspect of learning a language is gaining access to an entire new culture (magazines, TV shows, podcasts, blogs, Twitter feeds, etc.) that you can’t get in your native language.
So if you’re looking to add a motivation boost, try consuming media only available in the language you’re learning. Besides providing a way for you to work on your language through an activity you enjoy, you’re literally using what you’ve learned to do something you would never be able to do otherwise with this technique.
It can take a little searching to actually find media not available in your native language. One way to do this is to look for newly released media that’s so fresh it hasn’t been translated to other languages yet. If you’re looking for books, try Googling something along the lines of “new books in [target language].” For example, the website New Books in German keeps a running list of yet-to-be-translated German books hot off the press. For best results, type the search terms in your target language.
Consuming media only available in your target language involves one of the best reasons for learning a language: gaining access to an entire new range of experiences that you’d never be able to have with only your native language.
6. Make Language Learning a Habit
Brushing my teeth isn’t something I get really excited about, but I still do it every day. What’s the key to my remarkable teeth brushing consistency?
Habit! (And visions of all my teeth falling out.)
If you make language learning a habit rather than just something you do when you feel like it, loss of motivation will become less catastrophic. Of course, motivation will still affect the quality of your language learning and you still want language learning to be something intrinsically rewarding overall, but having language learning as a regular habit woven into the fabric of your day-to-day life will make it easier to push through the times when you’re not feeling it as much. And that’s because sitting down to study language will be more automatic.
Try picking a regular learning time that you stick to religiously, either every day or on predetermined days of the week. That way your thought process will be “Well, it’s 6 p.m. on Monday, time to work on my Spanish again” rather than “Hmm, should I study Spanish now? Nah, not really feeling motivated today.”
You can make language learning a routine without having language learning be routine. That is, just because working on your language is a regularly scheduled habit doesn’t mean you can’t actually study in interesting and varied ways. It just means getting your brain in gear for language learning will become easier since it’s more automatic.
7. Take Inventory of What’s Working
All the motivation-boosting strategies in the world won’t make a difference if you’re not using language learning techniques that are right for your learning style. To make sure you’re using techniques that are keeping you engaged rather than sapping your motivation, take inventory of your language learning at the end of every month or so. Review whether your language learning routine contains any unnecessarily boring or tedious learning techniques that you should replace.
Some red flags that point to possible counterproductive learning techniques are:
- Learning activities you dread
- Learning activities where you’re progressing at a frustratingly slow pace
- Ineffective learning activities
So when you take stock of your learning techniques, ask yourself what activities you hate the most and what activities you’re progressing the slowest in.
If the answer is none, great! If you do find some counterproductive learning activities, however, that’s also great because it means you can replace them with something more effective and enjoyable.
To replace activities that just aren’t cutting it, try searching online for other activities that target the same skills. For instance, if you really hate memorizing vocab, Google for vocab learning techniques and you’ll discover a world of vocab games and apps and other learning tools. The FluentU Language Learning Blog is an excellent place to get ideas for engaging and effective language learning techniques. (Using that same example of learning vocab, the blog has fun games to boost your vocabulary, practical ways to learn vocab and tips for soaking up vocab like a sponge.)
8. Visualize Success
One way language learning burnout happens is by getting so caught up in the day-to-day mechanics of learning a language that you lose sight of your big-picture goals and motivations. To keep your eye on the prize, take time to remind yourself of your reasons for learning a language and to visualize what your life will look like and what you’ll do with the language once you’ve got a good handle on it.
The important thing is to stay in touch with whatever’s driving you to learn your language. Some ways to do this are:
- Decorate your room with motivational quotes in the language you’re learning
- Decorate your room with posters or objects from the culture(s) associated with the language you’re learning to remind yourself what about these cultures inspired you to learn the languages
- Make a bucket list of places you want to go or things you want to do once you have a grasp on your language
Learning a language is such a long-term project that you need to take active steps to keep your overall motivations, desires and inspirations fresh in your mind. Getting the right language learning techniques is crucial, but so is having an intuitive understanding of why you’re spending your time locked up in a room poring over vocab lists.
Of course, you probably will lose sight of your reasons for language learning at times along the way. And you definitely will wake up some days and just not be feeling it as far as language learning goes. Learning a language is no small undertaking, and you’re bound to have ups and downs along the way.
But the way to win out against the language learning blues is to have a concrete set of strategies you can use to weather the storm and work back to a place where language learning is something you want to do. Once you do that, it’s all worth it in the end.
So, use these tips to get your excitement back and maintain all the long-term motivation language learning really requires; the future you will want to thank your past self for sticking things out.