It’s hard to stick with learning a language.
Like cooking, dancing, knitting, martial arts, archery or any other skill that needs practice to emerge, a language requires focus and devotion.
And devotion of that level requires real commitment.
Maybe you started out devoted to the language, but came to dread practicing it daily.
Maybe it became tedious, just another obligation.
Want to make sure that you stay the course this time and really learn your target language?
If you can’t take the heat, don’t get out of the kitchen. Learn to take the heat.
In this post, we’re going to look at three ways you can keep your language skills progressing, even if you get discouraged, and even if your enthusiasm wanes from time to time.
But first, we’re going to look at how to deal with those pesky motivation killers.
The Biggest Motivation Killers and How to Overcome Them
“I no longer have to do this.”
Maybe the France assignment you’ve been gunning for has been given to someone else. You still love the culture and the country, but your fire for learning the language gets a good dousing because you’re thinking, “Well, I’m not going there anytime soon.”
Or maybe your Italian girlfriend has broken up with you and anything Italian only reminds you of her. Down goes your motivation for learning the language.
Most successful language learners are those who never run out of reasons to learn the language. They always find something to hold on to, that keeps them going regardless.
So when changes happen in your situation and you lose your initial motivation for learning the language, look for other reasons to continue with the journey. Motivation is not one monolithic thing. You can have many reasons for learning a language, and they don’t have to be dead serious ones. They don’t even have to be big ones.
Many learners successfully learned French because they started with a single food, a movie or an actress that they liked. Then it goes from there. Motivation doesn’t have to be a huge rock that you latch on to forever. Because that can get old. Think of motivation more like pebbles that you find on a beautiful beach and decorate your home with.
The thing is, you will always find those pebbles. There are always good reasons for learning a language. The best ones are within yourself, the internal and intrinsic reasons that are less susceptible to external changes.
“I realized I’m bad at languages.”
Language learners often come to a faulty conclusion that they’re just bad at languages. They’ve been at it for weeks or months, and nothing’s happening. Meanwhile, they’re seeing other people progress in ways they can’t even imagine. So they throw up their hands in surrender and declare that they’re no good with languages.
But the thing is, there are always plenty of reasons why things are not clicking. And they often have very little to do with you being bad at languages. Plenty of polyglots initially thought they were bad with languages until they found the appropriate material, format and language experiences for them.
So before you fall victim to this line of thinking, widen your horizon and search for other ways, methods, mentors or experiences that are more appropriate for you. See what works, or you’re going to be missing out on a lifetime of adventure. The search can start online, for example, or with a fun language learning app.
Almost nobody is bad at languages. You’ve proven that yourself by learning your mother tongue. You just need something appropriate for you.
Try FluentU’s low-pressure and fun language immersion to escape the stress of traditional courses and textbooks. FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movies, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language lessons.
Since you choose your own content and schedule, you won’t end up comparing yourself with other learners or focusing too much on arbitrary progress markers—you’ll see true, incremental progress with every new word you’re able to understand in a real-world context.
When you start thinking you’re bad at languages, focus on little tasks or games that reward and encourage you for what you do get right. You’ll end up thinking, “Hey, I’m really not that bad!”
You begin to study a language, and it’s as if the floodgates have opened up for you. You’re learning new vocabulary concepts left and right. You’re learning so much that the wave of adrenaline that flushes your system keeps you up at night.
This goes on for days, weeks or even months.
Then you hit a wall.
Now, not much is happening. Really, things are at a standstill. Each new vocabulary theme or grammar rule you’re trying to get your head around seems awfully esoteric, difficult and impractical. The effort you’re putting in doesn’t give you equal returns.
Everybody gets to this place at some point, so consider yourself forewarned. If nobody is really bad at languages, it’s also true that nobody really escapes going through the plateau. Because it’s a natural element of that progress towards linguistic mastery.
Sure, things are going to be red hot when you begin, and you’re going to be learning many things in a short period of time.
Then the plateau comes and you think nothing new is happening.
But stay the course. Don’t delete that language app, keep coming back to that website and watch that video clip for the nth time. Even when you think you’re not improving, continue studying. Because learning plateaus end. Keep that in mind. Soon enough, you’ll break through and be learning on a different level. Things will get hot again.
Things will get moving again, but only for those who wait for the next wave.
When other things become more important…
We all have jobs to work, families or obligations to other people and places we need to go to. When you’ve got that school deadline looming over the horizon, or your boss breathing down your neck, the “Sound of Music”-like ideal of learning a language seems like a luxury you can’t afford.
So learning a language takes a back seat to bills that need to get paid, reports that need to be made and kids who need to be raised.
I’m not saying that you drop everything to study a language. All I’m saying is that learning the language needs to have a high place in your priorities, if you’re ever going to get around to it. Maybe not as high as your family, but maybe higher than the time you spend watching TV or that time you spend daydreaming about your crush.
Make an inventory of things you do on a daily basis. What things can you stop doing so you’ll have time for learning a new language? There will always be things that are more important than learning a language, but realize that you’re also doing things that are less important. Carve them out of your life.
All that being said, let’s get to the three powerful mindsets that effectively bulletproof your motivation to learn any language.
3 Mindsets That Fire Up Your Motivation to Learn a Language
1) “Mistakes get me closer to the promised land.”
If laughter is good for you, being able to laugh at your mistakes is even better.
People who successfully learn and master a language have made thousands of mistakes. They’ve made so many, they’ve lost count. Well, really, they don’t count them at all!
Used the wrong vocabulary? Wrong verb conjugation? No problem, learn the correct one and then move on. Violated a dozen grammar rules in a single sentence? No big deal! Made a fool out of yourself in front of a native speaker? Just got yourself a newfound friend.
People who fail make very few mistakes. It’s because they don’t even try. They’re afraid of committing the slightest of errors, so they tiptoe around language practice. They make mountains out of molehills and quit after a series of totally common mistakes…mistakes that even native speakers make.
They often end up with Motivation Killer #2. They come to the conclusion that they’re just bad at languages. So they quit and never make it to the promised land, not knowing that each little mistake, each little screw up was actually a step in the right direction.
The thing is, errors are part of language learning territory. They’re right smack in the middle of the whole thing, an inherent part of the process. Benny Lewis, the polyglot behind Fluent in 3 Months, even advises people to make as many mistakes as possible. More mistakes is better in the long run.
So don’t think that you need perfect grammar and pronunciation before trying out your first sentence. Nope, that’s putting the cart before the horse. You’ll get nowhere. Do this instead: Speak your first sentence, make all the mistakes you can make along the way and then slowly weed them out over time. That’s how you get to native-like pronunciation and fluency, not the other way around.
Think of kids learning their mother tongues. Maybe you have children of your own or a young nephew or niece. Listen to them speak. Notice how many times they butcher their own language? They don’t even pronounce words right. Mistakes are so much an integral part of language learning that we can even predict the type and timing of errors that children make.
But kids never make a fuss over it, do they? They say, “Waits for me!” and go on with their day. And the adults who interact with them just laugh off the innocent gaffe, or sometimes correct them and then move on. Everybody understands that the child is still learning.
Adults are quite a different breed. Every mistake becomes a blunder and signals the end of the world: “I should have gotten 10 out of 10 on this vocabulary test. What’s wrong with me?!”
If you’re to bulletproof your language learning motivation and never lose steam in the process, you’ll have to realize that every blemish in your record, every mispronunciation, every little vocabulary word you can’t seem to recall, every mistake on the “chapter quiz,” every correction you get from a native speaker and every sentence you can’t decipher are all a trail of crumbs that you follow on the road to learning.
Do this: Whenever you commit a mistake, write it on a small piece of paper. For example:
Did a quiz online. Thought the plural for “child” was “childs.” It’s actually “children.” Ha!
Fold up that piece of paper and put it in a bowl. Every once in a while, draw from that bowl and read what’s written. Be reminded of the correction to your mistake and learn the material. If you’re still not confident, toss the paper back into the bowl to be revisited another day. Otherwise, throw it away. Replenish the bowl as often as possible.
That’s just one way of learning from mistakes.
You actually have software and apps that do this for you automatically. They’re called SRS (Spaced Repetition Software). Say you want to stock up on vocabulary by doing flashcards. Spaced repetition apps like Anki and SuperMemo can do this for you so you don’t have to create an actual deck where you write the word in the target language on one side and its translation on the other. These apps are electronic decks that you can practice on.
And they take it a step further. Say you made a mistake and gave the wrong translation. Boo hoo! No big deal. The apps have an algorithm that tells them to show that particular card more frequently so you can have more practice with it and eventually learn it.
See? No big whoop every time you make a mistake. The app is actually encouraging you to try again. It’s as if the app is telling you: “Made a mistake? Try again. Made another one? No worries, I got it covered. Try again. As long as it takes, pal. I have all day.”
Mistakes are not the enemy. If you get that mindset in your head, no misstep, error or mistake can ever extinguish that fire of motivation.
2) “Man, this is fun!”
How motivated do you think you would be if your view of language learning were that it’s a chore, a burden and a bore?
You look at a long list of Greek vocabulary words or a thick Russian book, and you’ll soon be opting for a walk-in root canal instead. Many will come to the conclusion that language learning is a drudgery, a dead serious challenge that only the disciplined and the inherently, mysteriously motivated can hurdle. But oftentimes it’s not even really the material’s fault that we get bored and lose motivation. We do this to ourselves, demotivate ourselves out of the running. We think, “This thing isn’t making it fun for me,” expecting language learning to somehow make itself fun.
For language learning to be fun, you have to be an active participant, not a passive observer of the proceedings. In short, make it fun!
Some of the things you can do to achieve this include:
- Aim for variety and novelty. Variety is the spice of life. So mix it up by using multimedia. Watch movies, listen to songs, partner up with a native speaker or dive into audiobooks.
- Aim for brevity. Speaking from experience, anything that’s long tends to become synonymous with “hard” and “tedious.” Break up your study into short bits and stop just before you get tired and lose motivation for the next day. Leave things with you wanting more and you’ll find yourself excited to do it again tomorrow. Many make the mistake of squeezing out every ounce of motivation for the day, so it demotivates them to do it again the next day.
- Pair language learning with your favorite activity. For example, let’s say you’re into archery. Why don’t you place different vocabulary words on the target, draw from a bowl containing the same words and try to hit the word you picked? The idea is, don’t just wait for the material to be fun. Do something about it.
- Don’t take any of it too seriously. Being serious kills all the fun. Pressuring yourself will deflate you. I don’t mean that you don’t work at it, I don’t mean that you don’t learn from your mistakes, I don’t mean that you should be content with your present language chops. I mean don’t let today’s mistakes stop you from trying and making tomorrow’s mistakes. It’s not the end of the world, so let’s not act like it is. We’re just learning a language. People do it every day. So relax! Shoot some arrows.
- Check out some language resources for kids. These are learning tools whose language games make you think “Where have these things been all my life!” The activities are interactive, wildly colorful, user-friendly and guaranteed to make language learning a hoot.
Muzzy BBC is one such great resource that makes use of animated video courses. It’s meant to teach 600+ words in your target language covering a variety of basic topics. So if you’re struggling to get started with your language and still haven’t learned the basics, consider that if a course like this is designed to keep kids from getting bored, it might just be the ticket for your own motivation.
- Continuing with the BBC’s great language resources, go over to BBC Languages and consume the wonderful array of audio, video, tests and activities they have for Spanish, Italian, French, German, Chinese, Greek and Portuguese language learners.
- Don’t just study up on the language. Put down the language textbook for a minute and dive into the culture. You’ll learn almost as much French by learning about French food and cooking techniques, for example. So widen your horizon and look to the culture. It will make the language come alive and give you more reason to love your target language. YouTube contains tons of native speaker produced content that will give you hours of engaging language lessons in the form of fun vlogs.
- Find a friend to help motivate you. Find someone funny, whose energy can be infectious. This person doesn’t even have to be a language learner themselves, just somebody who can crack you up and give you a hard time when you’re taking yourself too seriously. Let them quiz you on the thing you’re learning. Make it into a bet. And then when you lose, get them that ice cream.
3) “Every day is training day.”
Consistency is the name of the game. It’s true for the milkman, the mailman and it should be true for our motivation to learn any language.
But we’re only human, and there are days when energy is at a low and we just don’t feel like doing it. There are days when we’d rather watch a marathon of “Friends” than hit the books. There are moments when we can’t smile at the progress we’ve made. The different ways to make the process fun that we’ve just talked about will help. They’ll turn the whole journey into one big adventure. But how do we bulletproof motivation on those days when it’s the hardest?
By making language learning an essential part of you.
Let’s learn from the milkman who greeted your grandmother with a “good morning” every day, and the mailman who faithfully delivered your family’s mail for years. Do you think they didn’t have mornings when they’d rather stay at home and have somebody else knock on doors and flash those everlasting smiles? Sure they did!
But why do they go out when everybody else stays in? Why do they brave the snow and rain? Why do they report for duty when they don’t feel like it, dealing with guard dogs, sneaky sprinklers and rowdy neighborhood kids?
In some cases, it’s a simple matter of having a job, of course, but for at least the more dedicated among them, the answer is “because it’s what I do, gosh darnit.” He’s the milkman, and everybody’s counting on him to bring in fresh milk every day. He’s the postman, and he’s delivering mail to the right homes at the right time. It’s who they are. It’s a part of their being, and that’s why bad weather, a bad mood or a bad day can’t stop them.
Studying a language is very much the same. Successful language learners don’t leave language learning to chance or their mood that day. Because they could be not in the mood that day and for several days after that. Instead, they try to practice the language day in and day out, especially when it’s hardest.
This mindset, in a way, takes the burden off answering the question, “What’s my motivation to learn this thing today?” It turns language learning into a normal and daily routine, making it a part of your day, a fiber of your being, a definition of what you are.
“Am I gonna study today or not?” That question becomes irrelevant, because the answer will always be “yes.” There’s no guessing to be had.
Cracking a language textbook, watching language learning videos, honing your craft with language learning websites is what you do. It’s not something out of the ordinary, it’s what you do. “I’m a language learner, gosh darnit! That’s what I do!”
Carve out a time each day for when you study your language. You can make it as short as five minutes, though it’s better if you go over. Reserve that time for language study alone. Same time each day. Same exact time. Very important. For example, think “9 pm to 9:05, it’s go time.” Don’t say “I’ll get to those five minutes, depending on my day.” No, you’ll never get to those five minutes that way. Carve out that daily five minutes first, and the rest follows.
One cool way to achieve this is through the app Habitica. It’s a to-do list app that allows you to create habits by game-ifying them. So you’re not only learning the language, you’re also playing an RPG-style game. You create a character and each time you accomplish a daily task, you get rewarded by perks like unlocking armor, buying a pet or opening up new quests. Fail to do a daily task, and soon the monsters will be out to get you!
But, of course, there are still times when you just can’t get out of bed and get into those books. For you to be able to recover and still do it day in and day out, you need to know that you’re not slugging it alone.
A great way to deal with these ups and downs and keep on track is with polyglot Olly Richard’s courses. He offers something for many different languages, and everything is designed to help you figure out your own favorite way to learn, schedule your study time and maintain your motivation. He also really likes to keep you accountable by giving you “homework” at the end of each module. Some of it even involves emailing Olly directly—who better to keep you honest than someone who’s learned seven foreign languages himself?
If this sounds like what you need, start with Grammar Hero (all about the building blocks), Conversations (for fast fluency) or the Uncovered courses (targeting specific languages including Spanish, French, German and Italian.)
You can also plug into an online community that will make you feel that you’re not alone in this language learning quest. That there are people out there just like you.
LingQ is a supportive and interactive online language learning system that provides lessons and courses as well as a robust network of community resources. You can meet and chat with other users in the forum and request corrections to your writing or pronunciation in the “Language Exchange & Community” part of the site.
You can motivate others, just as they buck you up. Having these connections will help on those days when learning the target language is the last thing on your mind.
So there you have it!
Three mindsets that will bulletproof your motivation to learn any language.
Get these three mindsets down pat, and you’ll never lose your way. You’ll get to the promised land and have a wonderful time doing it. Because you’ll be doing exactly what you’re supposed to be doing. And you’ll know it!
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