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“Success is going from failure to failure without a loss of enthusiasm. Winston Churchill”

Staying Motivated Whilst Learning A Language Is Critical!

Motivation in Language Learning is one of the important elements to successful language learning.

One of the basic elements in motivation that is ignored by nearly everyone is that the learner needs to be engaged.  People try to get their motivation up  to learn languages, however the understanding is lacking so motivation soon peters out for many people.  People say such things as “lessons need to be interesting”, “the lessons need to be relevant” or “it’s so boring”.  All these statements point at the problem but do not get to the core problem.  For learning to happen you, the learner, need to be actively engaged, from your own feelings.  I am not talking here about your desire to learn English, French, Chinese or some other language, but I am talking about the moment by moment engagement, which is something different from your desire or need to learn a language.

So let’s give a few examples of what I mean: think about people (maybe even you!) who play video games – are they engaged? In fact it is nearly impossible to tear them away from a game!  Why?  Because it is challenging them at the level they are at, making it possible for them to move forward all the time.  So they get “sucked in” wanting to play more and more. It’s the fun, the feedback, the interesting activity which have players persist at playing until they master the level they are at so they can get to the next level. You might even say I am really motivated to keep going when I play these games!

Another example is learning to ride a bike – kids will keep at it till they have mastered it.  They will get hurt, fall over but no matter, they persist.  No one has to drag them to do it.  No one has to motivate them.  The end result beckoning, together with a growing sense of mastery, provides them with all the motivation they need.

From these 2 examples I hope you can see that with certain kinds of learning we willingly engage ourselves moment by moment.  Of course the end result is important but in each moment that is not what is in the players’ minds.  If the activity is engaging enough, we will do whatever it takes to master what we are doing.  Some of the things that turn us off from being engaged and motivated is learning something which:

1)    We do not really want to learn.

2)    Is too difficult.

3)    Does not actually lead to real mastery of the area, just knowledge .  I may know the conjugations of a verb, but can I use them?

4)    Doesn’t challenge me. (simple repetitive drills are a good example of that but really there are so many)

In our schooling most of us were taught to ignore our own feelings about what we were learning, and had to pay attention or else get punished, do the exercises we were set, whether we liked them or not, learn the lessons EVEN IF we were not engaged or interested.  So we learnt to desensitize ourselves towards what we were learning.  We learnt to force ourselves to learn and to persist with exercises even if we did not like them or were not making progress, because we were told we had to and we gave in.  Is that why so many “geniuses” like Einstein, da Vinci, Thomas Edison, Bill Gates etc never finished their education?

This kind of learning will not serve us in language learning, as most learning is done while we are speaking, listening, reading- not doing our homework or exercises.  So to become a better ( dare I say great) language learner we have to learn to retrain ourselves to look for activities where we can get involved, engaged, motivated and be having “fun”.  We have to learn once again to start paying attention to our feelings so we can find out what kinds of activities will engage us. This way our language learning motivation will certainly increase.

Once you learn to identify activities that engage you, keeping in mind that only speaking will improve your speaking and that only writing will improve your writing etc.  You need to go and find or make situations where this can happen.  Once you feel that energy that comes from engagement then you will want more of it.  Wanting to engage in these activities for their sake, not just for the end result, will transform your results.

As we have been taught to value study, especially lots of it, many learners pay less attention to what “moves” them in a positive way and more attention to doing “what is good for them”.  I have seen students who studiously do grammar homework every night because “it is good for me” but make no real progress in their production and then wonder why there is no motivation in their language learning.

For some watching movies has been a great tool, for others talking with friends about things that interest them, for others listening to music, for others it is about finding languages classes that set them on fire (not just settling for any class, just because they are teaching the language you want to learn).

The full answer to radically improve your learning of languages is more than doing all this.  But without feeling and allowing yourself to be attracted towards that which is pulling you, it will make it hard for you to get engaged in your learning.

Once we are engaged in learning, then there are other key strategies that will enable our learning to move forward.  But without this engagement, these language learning strategies will not even surface.

So I would suggest that you start paying more attention to your feelings when you are learning, so if more often than not you feel disempowered, lacking energy, frustrated and you have to force yourself to learn then you need to relook at how and where you are learning.  Sometimes these feelings may surface for us in learning, that’s fine.  However the predominant feelings you are looking for are what I described above, energized, excited and driven. Nothing will be able to stop you once you tap into these feelings!  

At first you might just feel a little something different as you learn to sensitize yourself.  By paying attention to and following these little fluctuations, you can learn to become more and more sensitive as you recognise that you feel a little more energised when you follow that which you were energised by. Just persist and keep honing this sensitivity and you will find the motivation in language learning you are looking for.


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