Hindrances to language learning: motivation

Posted on 29/09/2011


You’ll know your motivation is flagging if your textbook sits unopened; if you find yourself procrastinating rather than going to your desk; if the first five minutes of your weekly lesson consists of you explaining precisely why you haven’t done your homework this week.

There are any number of reasons your motivation can weaken, particularly when you hit the point – about twenty lessons in – when you feel like you’ve put in a lot of time, the initial excitement of learning something new has worn off, and you can’t see yourself progressing (although you are – every minute you put in counts, it really does).

So how can you keep yourself going?

1. Know why you’re learning. 

There are countless reasons to learn a language, and no doubt we will be going into them at some point on this blog. They range from the pure enjoyment of discovery to necessity because of living in a foreign country; from keeping your brain active during the early years of motherhood to getting the most out of your holidays; from enhancing your career prospects to widening your social circle.

Why are you learning? Write down five reasons. One or two should come to you fairly easily – but push yourself and see if you can come up with more – you might be surprised as to what flows out of your pen.

Write these reasons down on a Post-It note, or better still, on several: stick them on your grammar book, your vocab book, your mirror, above your bed, anywhere where you’ll be reminded of them often.

2. Set SMART goals. 

“I’m going to learn a language this year” is one of the most frequently broken New Year’s resolutions. One of the reasons for this may well be its vagueness: what does it mean to “learn a language”? Does it mean being able to have a conversation with your neighbours, or reading the Harry Potters in Spanish? If your goals are specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timetabled, you’ll have a much better chance of meeting them – or at least knowing that you’ve met them – and doesn’t it feel good to tick something off a list?

3. Reward yourself.

Yes, yes. Learning is its own reward. But on a dark November evening, with a good two-thirds of the textbook to go and a list of irregular verbs to learn, it will not feel like it. Put in a place a gold star system for yourself: small rewards along the way – a chocolate for each verb learned, an episode of your favourite TV programme for each chapter finished – and a larger one for the bigger goals, like finishing the textbook: a shopping trip, or a daytrip to Paris, or an afternoon in a café with a newspaper.

4. Be accountable.

Tell people you are learning. They will ask you about it. You’ll want to have progress to report to them.

This is where it may also help to have a tutor. It doesn’t have to be every week, either. A monthly or even more occasional check-up may be all it takes for them to see if you’ve progressed – and you to want to show them.

5. Enjoy your learning.

As much as possible, marry your language learning with the things you enjoy. Listen to music in Italian if that’s your thing. Read magazines about a topic that interests you, or books you’ve been wanting to look at again anyway. Meet interesting people through language exchanges and meet-ups.

If you’re an expat, you have a huge advantage here. The possibilities are almost endless. Join clubs or take evening courses in something you’ve always wanted to learn (wine tasting or cookery springs to mind if you’re in France). Join or occasionally go to a Church that speaks the local language (if you’re not a believer, you’ll find good opportunities for mingling and social occasions there, and they usually won’t mind). Find people who want to play Scrabble with you. Take your toddler to a local-language playgroup. Whatever works for you.

We, like Pavlov’s dogs, are basically simple creatures. If your brain associates language learning with enjoyment, you will look forward to it. You’ll be motivated. And suddenly, guess what? You’ll find the time. Or make it.


— for more hints and tips on language learning, buy Conquering Babel: A Practical Guide to Learning a Language here in the US and here in the UK.
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