Motivation is everything in language learning. In fact, it’s a pretty big deal in, well, everything.
And like many, it’s something I’ve had a funny relationship with over the years.
At times, finding the energy to carry out even the most essential tasks has been a struggle. The urge to delay and the desire to do something—anything—else has often overpowered even the best of intentions.
Sometimes I just can’t be bothered to put the key in the ignition, even though that one simple action is all that’s needed to start the engine and get things moving.
Begin. To begin is half the work, let half still remain; again, begin this, and thou wilt have finished.Marcus Aurelius
And I’m not alone. As a species, we’ve become very good at putting things off; waiting until we feel like doing something before we actually do it.
But for others, language learning becomes just another sphere into which the tentacles of procrastination extend.
Which is problematic, because sustained motivation is critical when learning a language.
Breaking free of procrastination and rediscovering motivation can seem difficult. But fear not. With a bit of reflection and a simple course-correct, we can make motivation deprivation a thing of the past.
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1. Remember your ‘Why’
This is, without a doubt, most important thing of all when it comes to motivation.
Above all else, if you don’t know why you’re doing something, then how can you expect to continue doing it?
Your ‘Why‘ is your fuel. It’s what pushes you forward even when you don’t feel like it. The end you seek is so powerful and compelling that you’ll stop at nothing to get there.
This is true of most things in life, but is especially so for language learning. If you don’t have a solid reason for wanting to learn a language, then it won’t be long before the impetus to learn it simply fizzles out.
This happened to me when I first started using Duolingo back in 2014, when I decided to learn Spanish. My only reason for doing so was that I wanted to improve my CV.
Looking back, I had no emotional, compelling drive to learn Spanish. I just thought, as a native English-speaker, it would be one of the easier languages to learn.
I stuck it out for about a month. When I returned to university for my second semester, other things took priority, and so my Spanish went no further than the very basics.
Finding the Why
The issue was that improving my CV, though sensible, just wasn’t enough to push me to practice every day, especially when my university workload was so heavy.
But that all changed when I started Italian.
Without even realising, I had a compelling reason to learn it and practice it every day: I was genuinely curious about the language, and the country, history and culture behind it.
I was, in effect, learning it for fun. I certainly wasn’t learning it with any grand career goals in mind.
The result: over four years later, I find myself 1,578 days into my current Duolingo streak, at a comfortable level in Italian, and excited to plough on and improve further.
I can honestly say that, after getting beyond the first couple of months of my current streak, I haven’t once lacked the motivation to log-in to Duolingo and hit my daily XP target.
There are a few reasons for this. But for the most part it’s because I’m always aware—consciously or otherwise—of my reason for learning. The moment my Why becomes brittle is the moment I need to reevaluate. For me, an arbitrary CV-boosting exercise isn’t enough.
For you, however, it might be the perfect motivation. The goal isn’t to find what motivates others and make their motivations your own. But rather to figure out what it is that motivates you specifically.
So take some time to understand your Why. Don’t lose sight of it. If you do, take a few minutes to get reacquainted. The quality of this Why will determine your motivation, and ultimately your chances of learning your target language.
So make sure its a good one!
2. Compelling content is key
If you’re not engaging with content that interests you, then your motivation to learn your target language will naturally melt away.
This might seem obvious, but it’s surprising how ingrained the dry, scholastic approach to language learning is in our mindsets.
From an early age, we’re led to believe that we learn languages in the classroom with bland, inauthentic textbooks, reciting words and phrases ad nauseam until they stick. Before we can use and enjoy a language, we must first acquire the skills.
In principle this makes a lot of sense. A school is a place of learning. We acquire skills in other subjects and areas of life there. We even acquire the skills of our mother tongues there. So why would it be any different when learning a foreign language?
The issue isn’t so much that languages are taught at school, but rather the way in which they are delivered. Laborious skill-building approaches do little to stimulate our minds. Worse still, as Stephen Krashen argues, they don’t even work; skills come as a result of doing, not the other way around.
Put another way, skill-building makes about as much sense as reading books on how to ride a bike. Until you actually hop on and fall off a few times, you’ll never really know how to ride one.
How this affects motivation
The good news is that Duolingo is far more engaging than a school textbook.
Yet it still represents what we might refer to as an active form of learning. It focuses on developing your ability in a target language through quick-fire exercises, games and competition. There’s a lot of repetition — and not much in the way of authentic content.
By authentic content I mean news articles, music, movies, video games etc. Content that is created not with the intention of teaching a language, but as a natural expression of it.
It’s here that we see it in it’s true form. And this is where the real learning takes place.
I don’t have to push myself to watch an epic movie on Netflix, or listen to awesome music on Spotify.
That’s because we don’t need to motivate ourselves to do things we enjoy. The motivation is just naturally there.
And therein lies the key to keeping your language learning routine fresh: introduce your target language to things you enjoy.
It really is that simple.
How to find compelling content
Duolingo is a fun and useful addition to almost any language learning routine. But when done to excess, the initial enjoyment will often give way to frustration and boredom.
Therefore it’s important to strike a good balance between active and passive learning. Duolingo, for the most part, represents the active. While reading books, watching movies and listening to music in your target language represents the passive.
If your motivation is waning, simply do more of the latter. Not only is this where the fun takes place, it’s also where the real learning happens; where you enact everything you’ve acquired on Duolingo in an authentic environment.
It could be as simple as listening to music in your target language and following the lyrics, reading some mini stories on LingQ, or changing the language settings on your favourite TV shows on Netflix.
So when the motivation dries up, take a look at your routine and see where you can freshen it up. Focus on having fun when the going gets tough!
3. Manage your expectations
Learning a language is a big commitment and it can take months, even years, before you see any tangible progress.
But nowadays, it’s easy to think we can make quick progress.
Take Duolingo, for instance. It’s seriously easy to get carried away in your first few weeks on a new course.
Often, particularly with languages similar to our own, we see rapid progress and whizz through the early lessons. Deep down we begin to think that, if we maintain this pace, we’ll be fluent in no time.
Except it never pans out like that.
That’s because learning a language, as Steve Kaufmann jests in this clip, takes a long, long time. There’s no getting around it.
Depending on how much time you can commit and how similar your native language is to your target, it could take anywhere from 6 months to several years before arriving at a comfortable level.
And even then the learning never really ends.
It’s also important to remain conscious of how far Duolingo can take you by itself. Expecting Duolingo to take you all the way to native proficiency—even with years of repeated use—is simply unrealistic.
Again, without the right balance of active and passive learning, progress will be frustratingly slow.
So don’t be lulled into thinking that Duolingo (or anything) will make you perfect in your target language. Expecting too much will set you up for disappointment, sap your motivation, and ultimately hurt your chances of learning your new lingo.
4. Focus on yourself
Ultimately, learning a language is as much a personal experience as it is social. You’re in charge of how you learn — and thus there are infinite places you can find the motivation you’re looking for.
One of my favourite things about Duolingo is how it ‘gamifies’ the language learning process. Leveraging the use of leaderboards and XP, you can find motivation in competing with friends and other Duolingo users around the world.
I regularly check to see how I’m doing compared to my friends and my league. It’s a healthy dose of light-hearted competition that adds to my motivation.
But while this can push us to do better, it can also have the opposite effect.
That’s because when we try too hard to keep up with what others are doing, it can take the emphasis away from our original Why, and instead place it on being the best.
This can motivate us for a time, but after a while it can become extremely fatiguing. And it’s at this point that we can lose the will to learn our target languages.
All too regularly I see Duolingo users—usually beginners—going from thousands of XP per week to nothing at all. It’s a dramatic decline that almost always stems from the need to keep pace with the competition.
For me, competition is a secondary concern. It’s fun and adds an extra layer of interest. But my number one focus will always be my Why. I learn languages for fun, not because I have something to prove.
The motivation returns
Motivation is a fickle thing. We can’t really control it.
Sure, we can take steps towards creating it. But ultimately, it’s either there or it isn’t.
Inevitably, there will be days when you just don’t feel like showing up. Work might bog you down. Tiredness might get the better of you. Circumstances might conspire to force language learning to the back of the queue.
When this happens, all that remains is your resolve. Having the discipline to crack on, even when you don’t feel like it.
The quality of your Why will determine how capable you are in these moments. The stronger it is, the easier you’ll find it to get the ball rolling.
So, when all else fails, just begin, and motivation will find you again.