Motivation and language learning

Fallen statue in Fukushima, after the earthquakeIt’s common to hear “this year I’m going to learn … Spanish, because I’m going to Spain for a holiday at the end of the year.”

Or, “I desperately want to learn Japanese. It would be cool to be able to watch anime without subtitles.”

Or, “I want a raise, and to get it I need to improve my English.”

You get all fired up and motivated at the start of your plans.

You research a bunch of different options, courses, textbooks, apps and language websites, perhaps you even purchase something or start to use an app/site like DuoLingo.

The motivation high lasts a short time, a few days or weeks, and then starts to fade.

Sometimes, it just suddenly vanishes.

Motivation doesn’t last

“It’s too hard”, “I’m too old to learn a language”, “I don’t really have the time to spare”, and a hundred other small reasons to quit dance through your mind.

And you quit.

Or perhaps you put it off for another time (if that time ever comes).

I know. I’ve lost my motivation to learn a language, many times!

I vowed to continue to learn Spanish on my own after my high school cancelled the class. It lasted a whole week.

I stuck with Japanese a lot longer, learning for a few years on my own. But even that got put on hold when I moved to Germany. I still have a bookshelf full of Japanese language books, although I’ve only used a couple of them.

Even after moving to Germany, doing an intensive language class, I simply couldn’t find the motivation to learn German for a long time.

Motivation is not enough.

I’m just not motivated

Language learning is typically a ‘nice to have’, not a life-or-death skill you must develop. So it’s often the first thing we put off when our willpower is low and there is no motivation.

Instead of relying on motivation alone to keep us working on our languages, we need to take away the ‘willpower’ requirement.

When we are motivated, it doesn’t use much willpower to spend time studying. But when motivation has fled, it takes a tonne of willpower to choose to study.

We have a limited amount of willpower each day, and are faced with a lot of tasks we don’t like. Once our willpower is used up, we start making the easy choices, giving in to our lack of motivation.

Make language learning a habit

Habits, like brushing our teeth, or getting up with an alarm don’t use much willpower. I don’t think I’ve ever heard someone complain about having no motivation to brush their teeth!

Set up a system to make studying automatic and painless. Everyone’s system will be different as it’s tailored to their goals.

  • Install a flashcard app on your phone. Whenever you are waiting somewhere, pull out the app. Uninstall Facebook or other distracting apps though!
  • Have a regular meeting that you ‘have to go to’ with someone who only speaks the language you are learning. For me, that’s easy – my weekly physiotherapy appointment would be boring and silent if I didn’t try to have a conversation with the therapist in German!
  • Set up a weekly language exchange date, or hire a tutor. This kept me on track in Japanese for an extra 6 months before I moved overseas.
  • Load podcasts, music and audiobooks in your target language, to listen to when you travel, or while you do chores. Delete the other appealing audiobooks/podcasts/music to reduce the temptation to cheat.
  • Switch your computer, phone, tablet and regular websites into your target language.

Some habits to help language learning

  • Read for 15 minutes in your target language before sleeping. You get the bonus of your brain continuing to work in the target language while you sleep.
  • Talk to yourself in the target language (no, it’s not a sign of madness!) When just starting, focus on naming the things you can see. Later, hold a conversation with yourself.
  • Get your daily news fix from a site in the target language.
  • Write a 5-10 sentence journal in your target language each day.

Use a site like Coach.me or Habtica to help you develop and stick to your habits.

Don’t try to do start with all of these things at once – overdoing it can lead to language learning burnout.

Add one thing, wait for it to become a habit (usually 30 days or so), then add the next.

We hate losing – apply penalties to not studying

Alternatively, or in addition to developing habits and a language learning system, we can put a very high cost on not studying.

Signing up for a class that costs a decent amount on money. Not like the $3-5 for an evening conversation class at my local community college – this amount of money is too easily thrown away when students don’t feel like attending, and it shows in the often poor student attendance.

Pay a good amount for the class and we have some ‘motivation’ to go – we hate wasting money. Plus, more expensive classes are likely to have more engaged teachers and fewer students – better for learning!

Rope in a friend to join you and learn the language together. Make it a competition, if that’s what you both like!

Use a habit website like StickK, where you can choose to be fined a certain amount of money if you don’t stick to your habit.

Find an inspiring reason

This is one area where I struggle. I live in Germany, I have a German partner, family and friends, yet these things don’t motivate me to learn German.

Wanting to get my health problems treated finally gave me a motivating reason to learn.

I love the sound of Japanese, enjoy anime, and cooking from Japanese recipes, which makes it easier for me to stick to than studying German.

But, I’ve promised myself to get to a decent fluency level in German before ‘rewarding’ myself with returning to Japanese.

My current inspiring reason for plugging away at my German is to get the most out of my upcoming rehabilitation course (from an operation earlier in the year).

What inspiring reason or reasons do you have?

How do you manage motivation and language learning?

I’m still trying to tweak my systems to make it easier to stick to learning German. And I hope to get that on autopilot, so that I can return to learning Japanese.

I’d love to know what systems or habits have you set up to keep you on track while learning languages.

Please let me know in the comments below!

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