Have you ever started learning a language with a huge boost of motivation, only to see that motivation disappear within months, weeks, or even days?
I have, and even after dedicating 30 years of my life to language learning, I’m well aware how dangerous a lack of motivation can be for any language goal, great or small.
I’ve seen it in my students, too. In a decade of working as a language coach, I’ve heard hundreds of stories about how motivation can dry up just when we need it most.
If that’s happened to you, then I’ve got good news. That doesn’t have to be how your language learning story ends. With the right strategies, you can develop your capacity to create motivation on demand, so you have enough for every leg of your journey towards fluency.
And today, I’m going to teach you those strategies!
Let’s dive right in!
Whether or not you’ve tried to learn a language before, I’m sure it’s obvious to you that language learning requires effort. What’s perhaps not so obvious to people is how long they have to wait until they see some kind of reward.
People who have taken language classes in school might have never seen a reward for their learning efforts. They just remember having to fill in verb tables, do endless grammar drills, and copy vocabulary list after vocabulary list. There’s little to no fun in any of this, so motivation is scarce.
Even independent learners, who usually avoid some of the most boring staples of traditional language learning, often find themselves caught in an initial stage where they spend more time with their head in language books than they do actually using the language in a productive way. Since these learners have some choice in what and how they learn, they usually find this period more motivating than traditional learners do, but many people still get stuck at this stage.
I have learned all of my languages independently, and yet this “sit and study” period is not at all what motivates me to keep learning languages. In reality, the most motivating part of the language learning process is typically what comes after this period, when I know enough language to actually use it in real life.
When my “sit and study” period comes to an end is exactly when I start living the language. This is when I do all sorts of fun and exciting things, like:
- Having conversations with native speakers
- Reading target language books (affiliate)
- Watching target language TV and movies
- Traveling in the country or countries where the language is spoken
- and so much more!
To me, these are the most life-changing parts of learning any language, and exactly what I look forward to when I start out, as a beginner.
But if you’ve never reached this stage, or you haven’t reached it yet in the language you’re currently learning, how can you develop and maintain enough motivation to get you there?
How can you stay motivated enough during the “sit and study” stage to eventually see the fruits of all of your efforts?
I personally use four powerful motivation strategies, which we’ll examine in detail now:
1. Imagine Your Way to Fluency
“If you know your why, you will discover your how”
In a nutshell, this quote explains exactly what has allowed me to learn fourteen languages:
For each language I’ve learned, I’ve worked hard to discover exactly why I needed to learn that language, and make it a key part of my life.
If you want to learn your target language well, you’ll need to find your why, too.
But knowing your “why” isn’t an automatic recipe for fluency. Oftentimes, a certain “why” is completely inaccessible at the beginner level of learning a language. So you need to take an extra step to “borrow” motivation from that “why” until you can actually make it a reality.
For example, a common “why” of mine for language learning is “to build deep connections with native speakers in their own language”. When I’m a beginner who can’t string two words together in a language, making such deep connections is impossible.
To bridge the gap between “beginner me” and the version of myself who can actually achieve that purpose, I use the power of my imagination.
Specifically, I close my eyes and visualize myself months or years in the future, after I’ve gotten past the “sit and study” phase and am comfortable enough to live my life in the language. In my mind’s eye, I watch myself as I make friends using the language, and smile, laugh, and have fun alongside native speakers. I may even picture myself traveling within the country, or visiting famous landmarks with new friends.
This is exactly what I do with every new language I can learn. To this day, I can even remember the images I conjured up years ago while learning German, before I had ever even set foot in Germany—images that I thought of every day before sitting down for my learning sessions. The funny thing is that now, even after I’ve reached fluency in German and spent lots of time in Germany, I still find those images to be immensely motivating!
Here’s how you can use your “why” to build a powerful visualization that can fuel your motivation for years:
- First, you need to “find your why”. Think about the kinds of things you want to do when you’re a skilled user of your target language. For me, it’s usually traveling and making friends, but for you, it may be different.
- Find a quiet, distraction-free place, and sit down with a pen and paper. Take a moment to close your eyes and try to mentally picture yourself doing all of the things you listed as part of your “why” in the last step.
- Try to “flesh out” this mental picture as much as possible. Ask yourself questions, like “who am I with?”, “what am I doing?”, “where am I doing it, and when?”.
- Once your visualization is sufficiently vivid, write down a description of it in words. It can be as long as you’d like, but mine are generally around 200-350 words.
- Keep your written visualization with you, or at least near your study space. Before you sit down to learn each day, read what you’ve written, and try to picture it again in your mind.
If you can complete these steps, (and specifically step 5, every day), you’ll have a powerful source of motivation that will pull you into your desired future. You may even find that one day, your visualization will come true, as many of mine have!
2. Focus on Systems, Rather than Goals
Most beginner language learners are constantly stuck asking themselves one question, over and over:
“When am I going to finally become fluent in my target language?”
I understand why this is. Heck, I used to be the same way. Just like on any long journey, it’s easy to find yourself wondering “are we there yet?”.
Over my decades of language learning, however, I’ve learned that these kinds of “goal-based questions” are not useful. It’s impossible to say exactly when any language learner will definitively reach fluency, so obsessing about it won’t do anyone any good.
Instead of goal-based questions, I’ve found that it’s much better to ask “system-based questions”.
While goal-based questions have answers that are often either difficult or impossible to know, system-based questions have useful answers that you can usually come up with on the spot, for immediate impact.
Good system-based questions for language learners include for example:
- When can I next sit down to learn my target language?
- How long can I dedicate to my language learning today?
- How can I make it easier to start my next learning session?
- What can I do the next time I don’t feel motivated to sit down and learn?
All (or most) of these system-based questions have answers that are repeatable. For example, if you know how long you can dedicate to your language learning today, you’ll likely be able to determine how long you can dedicate to your learning tomorrow, as well.
At the very least, the question helps you brainstorm about how much time you can dedicate to your language learning in the very near future, which creates value in the here and now, unlike “goal-based questions.”
Over time, asking yourself “system-based questions” will help you create reliable systems and schedules that will lead you towards any goal. For example, if you develop a system through which you spend 30 to 45 minutes every day learning your target language, then you will eventually become fluent, even if you never actually worry about “when” you’ll get there.
Here are some suggestions that can help you build powerful systems for your own learning:
- Set aside a weekly block of time that is completely separate from your learning time. This will be your “planning session”, which you will use to reflect on your language learning efforts from the previous week, and ask yourself “system-based questions” that will improve the efficiency of your language learning for the coming week. Try to identify the strengths and weaknesses of your current learning plan, and use that information to modify your plan for the future.
- Devote a realistic chunk of time to language learning every day. Other than planning, the next system you will need involves actually sitting down to learn. Decide on a length of time you can spend each day on learning, and mark it on your schedule. I recommend starting with 15, 30, or 45 minute blocks, to avoid becoming overwhelmed. You can always increase them later, as necessary.
- Develop a contingency plan for your daily learning. Sometimes, life can get in the way of your language learning schedule. Have a plan in place so that if you need to skip a learning session, you can make up that learning time somewhere else in your day. And make sure that even if you do need to skip one day of learning, you never skip two days, and risk breaking your learning habit.
In many ways, systems are more powerful than goals, because they keep you focused on the ways in which you are taking action towards your goal, and make the overall process of learning easier, smoother, and more habitual.
3. Aim for the “Goldilocks Zone”
When you were a kid, did your parents ever tell you to “finish your vegetables”?
Whether we intend to or not, we often feel like we have to finish the things we start, simply because we’ve been taught it’s the “right thing” to do.
We finish books we don’t like, eat meals we don’t enjoy, and we sit through TV series that got stale halfway through, just so we can say we finished what we started.
But while that is often a useful rule in daily life, it’s not always useful when learning.
I can still remember when, a couple of years ago, I was coaching a student who was learning German. Like many of my other students, I had taught him how to apply my Bidirectional Translation method to the Assimil coursebooks, which typically contain anywhere from 80 to 120 dialogues.
Originally, it seemed that his heart was set on applying my method to every lesson of the book, from start to finish. Gradually, though, I noticed his passion for the Assimil lessons begin to wane.
One day, during a lesson, he said to me “Luca, I love your method, and I love ASSIMIL, but I’ve had enough of these dialogues! What should I do?”
I think he expected me to be upset, or say something like “just stick with it!” or “power through, until the end, and everything will be fine!”
But I didn’t.
Instead, I told him he could drop Assimil right away, and move on to another activity and another resource. He didn’t have to finish all the lessons.
So why did I let him stop, even though he technically had a lot more material he could cover with Assimil?
Because he no longer found it enjoyable or challenging. And enjoyment and challenge should be the two things at the heart of any learning activity you do, at any level.
To maintain motivation while learning a language, you should constantly assess and reassess your learning activities to ensure that you:
- Find them fun, rather than boring
- Find them neither too easy, nor too hard.
In other words, you want to make sure every activity you do is in the language learning equivalent of “the Goldilocks Zone”.
If you remember the tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, you’ll understand the concept. Just as Goldilocks didn’t like her soup to be “too cold” nor “too hot”, you don’t want your learning activities to fall into the extremes of “too easy”, “too hard”, or “too boring”—though I’m not sure there’s anything wrong with a learning activity that’s “too fun!”
Identifying learning activities that fall within this special zone also has a powerful impact on motivation, as well. Author James Clear noted this when he wrote:
“If you find yourself feeling unmotivated to work on a task, it is often because it has drifted into an area of boredom or been shoved into an area of great difficulty. You need to find a way to pull your tasks back to the border of your abilities where you feel challenged, but capable.”
So that’s what I recommend for you here: to maintain long-term motivation, you need a plan to consistently keep yourself in the Goldilocks zone.
The best way to do this, in my opinion is to:
- Regularly ask yourself if you find your learning activities “fun” and “challenging”
- Revise your language learning plan every three to six months
These two steps will help maintain your awareness of the motivational value of your current activities, and remind you to regularly mix things up, to keep your learning fresh and interesting.
This sense of reflection and experimentation is something I build into everything I do as a language learner. For example, though I get a lot of value from my Bidirectional Translation method as a beginner, it is not something that remains challenging and/or enjoyable as I move on to the intermediate and advanced levels. For those levels, I have other methods that are better suited to what I enjoy and find challenging at those times.
4. Establish Meaningful Relationships
This is something I teased a bit when talking about my personal “why”, but it is powerful enough that I feel it deserves its own point:
To stay motivated over the long-term, seek out meaningful relationships with native speakers.
Whether you are introverted or extroverted, I think you’ll agree that human beings are social creatures—we derive much of our happiness and well-being from engaging with people we care about, and who care about us.
As beginner language learners, it’s easy to feel like there’s a wall between you and any native speakers you might connect with; you either feel too inexperienced or too uncomfortable to engage with them. As a result of this, you retreat into things that feel more comfortable, but are more difficult to connect with—books, videos, apps, and so on.
Even if you’re stuck in the “sit and study” stage, I recommend finding ways to build personal connection into your language learning life.
You can try things such as:
- Visualizing yourself connecting with native speakers (which I spoke about earlier)
- Joining online or in-person meetup groups about your target language or culture
- Hiring a tutor
- Finding a language partner
Even as a beginner, you can find value and connection in all of these things. In my experience, if you’re lucky enough to form a strong bond with a native speaker, that bond will act as a powerful motivator that will spur you to get better and better at the language. On top of that, you’ll have a wonderful source of feedback and encouragement, as well!
I’ve developed these connections in nearly every language I’ve learned. Through language learning, I’ve met many incredible people with which I’ve shared countless adventures and life-changing experiences. And all of those things together have created a wonderful source of motivation that has kept me learning for decades on end.
If you establish meaningful relationships with native speakers, I’m certain that you, too, can develop such an endless source of motivation, as well.
And there you go! You now have a powerful set of four strategies you can put to use to create and maintain motivation for years and years to come.
This marks the end of my three-part series on how to start learning any language. First, we covered simple steps for getting started, then we covered the power of translation, and lastly, we touched on motivation.
If you’ve enjoyed what I’ve shared in this series, and would like to dive deeper into my personal methods for learning a language from scratch, then I invite you to check out my brand-new online course, which will provide you with even more in-depth strategies for mastering any language!
Written by Luca Lampariello