How to Stay Motivated When Learning a New Language
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Have you ever been here? You decide to learn a new language and you start off with all the enthusiasm in the world. It goes well at first. You’re progressing rapidly and everything is new and exciting.
Then somewhere along the line, things get a bit harder. You may hit that dreaded intermediate plateau and suddenly feel like you’re not making progress anymore, or perhaps a big life event comes along and saps the energy right out of you (hello, global pandemic!). Your motivation starts to wane and you find yourself taking days off here and there… until you’re well and truly in a slump.
It’s perfectly natural to experience ebbs and flows in motivation when taking on the tough task of learning a foreign language. It doesn’t mean that you are an inherently unmotivated or lazy person. While we all experience a lack of motivation at times, there are ways to kickstart your motivation and get back on track.
Here are 9 tips for staying motivated when learning a new language:
Remember why you started
In my 7-Day Language Challenge workbook, I dedicate Day 1 to finding your ‘why’. The reason I start off with this topic is that I truly believe that keeping sight of why you wanted to learn the language in the first place is essential to staying on course and motivated .
Grab a pen and paper and jot down all the reasons you decided to start learning your target language.
Now ask yourself: ‘Are these my reasons or someone else’s?’.
Go back and find your OWN reasons. Not why your teacher or parents want you to be fluent in Spanish, but why you want to learn the language.
If you want to grab the free workbook, you can do so by completing the form below. It includes worksheets on finding your why, setting goals, building habits and some other useful stuff.
Sanity check your goals
We all know the importance of setting goals in language learning. But setting unrealistic goals can be a killer to motivation, leaving you feeling overwhelmed and ready to give up.
I am a big fan of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG), but big goals become insurmountable if you don’t set out actionable, achievable steps to reach them. Break your big, scary goals into manageable chunks and plot a course of action for getting there one step at a time.
If you’d like to know more about goal setting, check out this article on S.M.A.R.T language goals.
Find your community
If you are self-studying a language, it’s essential to find a community to cheer you on and help inspire you to keep improving. This could be a language exchange partner, an accountability buddy, friends with similar interests, or a group of language learners on an online community forum.
I find the Instagram language learning community incredibly supportive and motivating. You can connect with me here.
Hold yourself accountable – publicly if necessary
Start a blog, a Tumblr or studygram to record your language learning progress. Not only will the positive feedback from others help you stay motivated, but you’ll also feel less inclined to slack if you’ve committed publicly to showing up and getting things done.
Mix it up
Feeling demotivated is often related to boredom. If working though the same old textbook every day is getting you down, try mixing it up with a variety of resources like video lessons, a tutoring session with your italki teacher, flashcards, reading, watching movies or listening to music.
You don’t have to go out and spend a lot of money on different resources. Please don’t do that! There are so many useful free materials out there, like video lessons on YouTube, free flashcard apps, podcasts and social media.
Invest in one good study aid, like your textbook or online course, and use other free resources to supplement your learning and keep it interesting.
Track your progress
There is nothing quite as motivating as seeing how far you’ve come since you first had the crazy idea to start learning a foreign language.
Keeping a language learning notebook is a great way to measure your progress. You can include schedules, habit trackers, goal pages, vocabulary lists, or anything you want.
Have a look at this article for ideas on how to set up a language learning notebook.
Try the 25-minute trick
This is something my mother-in-law taught me. When we have a task that neither of us feel particularly motivated to tackle (mostly decluttering or cleaning), she’ll say: “Let’s do 25 minutes!”. She’ll set a timer on her phone for 25 minutes and we’ll see how much we can accomplish in the allotted time. If we don’t feel like continuing after the 25 minutes, we give ourselves permission to give up. If we feel like pressing on, we take a quick break and set another 25-minute timer.
For me, the hardest part of accomplishing a task is just getting started. With this technique, you’ll often find yourself hitting a groove about half-way through the 25-minute slot. Seeing progress made in a task that you’d previously been putting off can motivate you to keep going. If not, you’ve gained 25-minutes of productivity and lost nothing.
My mother-in-law had intuitively stumbled on the Pomodoro technique, an extremely effective time management method developed by Francesco Cirillo in the late 1980s.
Try it for yourself!
Commit to habitual progress
Let’s talk about motivation vs discipline. Motivation, at least the type of extrinsic motivation that comes from an external source, is ultimately unsustainable.
You may feel extremely motivated to study your language if you know you have a test coming up and there will be some negative consequences if you do poorly. Or you may feel motivated to hit the books after a rewarding experience like receiving praise from a teacher or peer. That motivation only lasts as long as the feeling of fear or pleasure lasts.
Intrinsic motivation is something entirely different. These are the reasons you want to do something for yourself (remember finding your why?), not because of an external catalyst.
Discipline, on the other hand, is about building healthy habits and taking consistent action every day, even when you are not feeling terribly inspired or motivated.
A combination of intrinsic motivation and discipline is what will help you reach your goals in the long run. This article explains the difference between extrinsic and intrinsic motivation and discipline very well if you’d like to know more about this.
Take breaks when you need them (seriously)
I keep seeing this ‘motivational’ quote (sometimes attributed to Marilyn Monroe, but who knows) all over Pinterest and Instagram: “Don’t stop when you’re tired; stop when it’s done”. No, just take a break if you’re run down. The modern obsession with hustle culture can be very harmful to our physical and mental health.
In the previous section I spoke about being disciplined and taking consistent action every day. It may seem contradictory, but I think scheduling breaks when you need it is taking an action that will ultimately move you towards your goal.
Sometimes we need to recharge our energy to live to fight another day. You are far less likely to reach your goal if you burn yourself out along the way. I’m not saying you should take a year off from studying and call it self love, but feeling well-rested can actually be good for motivation.
If you’re dead on your feet but don’t want to break your study chain, consider doing something small that doesn’t feel like work. When I really don’t have the energy to sit down with a textbook for an hour, I will do something like: listening to my favourite Mandopop song, watching Chinese dramas with subtitles on, or saving some language-related Instagram posts to review later.