The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #19 January / February 2016
Motivation Killers in Learning a Language
by Erik Zidowecki
January / February 2016 | 

Before anything can be done, it has to be started. Once it is started, it needs to be continued in order to be completed or to succeed. What starts us going and keeps us working until completion is motivation.

What motivates us to do something could be just about anything. We might do something because we will get paid for it. Maybe we are doing it to impress another person. Perhaps the project will further our position in a job or life.

This can obviously be applied to language learning. If you ask twenty people why they are learning a language, you are likely to get twenty different answers. We all have our own purposes in mind.

There are also many things which can kill off that desire to learn.

In fact, there are about as many things that can demotivate someone as there are that can motivate, but these are things people never talk about because they might be embarrassed about the triviality of their reason or afraid to be seen as lazy or easily defeated, or even stupid.

I have come up with four of the most common reasons I believe people give up on studying another language.

Using the Wrong Approach

When it comes to language learning, not everyone learns the same way. That is why there are so many different methods that get talked about. Just like we all have our own favourite flavours of ice-cream, so too will we have a method that we like that best and which works for us.

I've written before about six of these: audio, books, classes, software, the internet, and immersion. These can be further broken down into different activities, like audio can mean using audio courses like Pimsleur, listening to audio books or podcasts, radio stations, etc. Some ways are active while others are passive, and most of the time we will need to use a combination of methods to achieve any progress.

The trick is to find what works for you. Anna might be learning German and attending classes twice a week. She likes the structure of the class and feels very comfortable practising with others. Bartok, however, is bored with the class, so he doesn't pay attention.

Or maybe Cristopher and Dina have moved to Germany, and while Dina does quite well picking up the language through immersion, Christopher is overwhelmed and too scared of making mistakes to use German at all.

If the means of learning doesn't match with what works for you, you will soon lose interest or simply be unwilling to try any further. You may still want to learn the language, but feel you can't, since while others are doing fine, you are struggling.

Frustration at Progress

This is probably the most obvious reason for people to stop trying. When you are using the wrong approach or one that doesn't work for you, the amount of progress you make will be minimal, and you will just give up.

Even if you are picking up the language using a manner which suits your learning style, you might not feel you are learning it fast enough or at a high enough level.

How many times have you seen one of those "Learn X language in Y days" promises on a course book or other material? Those are just sales pitches, and while they might give you the courage to start learning, they can also be the reason you stop. After all, if the book says you will learn Hungarian in three weeks, but you are still working on the basics after four weeks, then you must be a failure, right?

Progress has to be always be measured at a personal level, not an external level. Comparing progress to others can be a motivator, which is why group challenges and leaderboards in gamification settings are so popular, but if you take them too seriously, you will end up just dropping things entirely.

I saw an extreme example of this in one particular person who would enthusiastically embrace the study of a new language. He would post to forums excitedly for several days, and get into lots of discussions with others. Then, he would suddenly become very upset that he wasn't doing as well as he wanted, and would delete all his posts.

Don't feel like you have to prove anything to others. Goals are things to strive towards, but they aren't immutable. If you don't get where you want to be after a certain time, then you need to reasses your goal, not declare defeat.

Burn Out

The other extreme to not making progress is just over exposure. There are always people talking about how to maintain a few languages at a time, but even constantly studying just one can cause you to baulk at further studying. There is only so much your brain can process before it stops.

There are two important things to realize about burn out. First, people all have different tolerance levels to things, and learning a language is no different. Elena might be able to study Japanese three hours every day and never have a problem, but Franco might try doing the same and find his brain is unable to retain what he is learning after a short time. This doesn't mean one learner is better than the other, and neither should feel bad.

Second, there are a few ways to deal with the mental block. In jobs, people usually take some time off from whatever they are working on and have a holiday. So too, a learner can stop studying for a while and do something completely different. This can even help revitalize them and give them a feeling of new energy when they start learning again.

Another way that some use is instead of stopping studying languages, they just change to studying another language. This is one way people learn and maintain several at a time, although it may not work for you.

No Reason

This might actually sound like the most obvious, but it is surprisingly overlooked quite often, because people think they have a reason. Only when they question it do the realize they are wrong.

When you don't have a strong reason to do something, you don't have any motivation. You may start learning a language out of the desire to do so, or perhaps your friends are doing it so you want to fit in. But learning just for the sake of learning is really not a good motivator for most people.

A common funny anecdote is of a reporter asking a mountain climber why he took such a risk to reach the top of a tall peak, and the climber responds "Because it was there". Many people can claim that reason, but it rarely supports them to complete the task on its own.

Let's say that one guy, inspired by that story, decides he is going to climb Mt. Everest. He could reach a point just one third of the way up and then suddenly ask himself why he is doing it when it becomes very difficult. "Because" just doesn't sound convincing enough. He could have applied the same logic to ordering a pizza and watching a movie and have had a much better time of it.

The obvious way to avoid this is to make sure you have a strong reason before you even begin. Also, make sure that reason isn't mutable or dependent on a changing situation. For example, if you meet a nice Russian woman online and decide that you will now start learning Russian in hopes that she will become your girlfriend, you are just asking for trouble. That possible relationship could change the moment she says she has a boyfriend, and then your entire reason is gone. At the point, you will either stop studying or find another reason to continue, like maybe you have fallen in love with the culture from talking to her and want to keep learning Russian, independent of her.

Keeping It Going

There are so many factors surrounding what motivates a person, both good and bad, and we are all confronted with them at one point or another. Probably the best way forward is to be able to identify what is motivating, or killing your motivation, and respond accordingly. If you find yourself pushing forward well, then make sure you turn that into a habit. If you find you are failing, then you will have to change what you are doing.

Whatever your experience is while learning, remember that the ultimate goal is to learn the language. Whether that comes fast or slow, easy or hard, as long as your find a way to motivate yourself, you can do it.

Motivation Killers in Learning a Language
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Colin Adamson: Sleeping man (title)
Petey: Sign; Girl on bagpipes; Man on log; Woman on mountain;

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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