How To Stay Motivated To Master a Language

Quynh Nguyen
Dec 4, 2015 · 5 min read

Starting to learn a new language can be very exciting, but keeping the motivation going, till you master it, is not so.

There are many reasons for starting to learn. For example, you want to learn French because you are planning a trip to Paris, the city of love, or you want to impress a French girl whom you are interested in. Maybe you think it would also increase your employability if you work in certain fields.

However, your motivation level somehow drops after the trip, or when you find it difficult to express yourself in French as well as you wish to. You want to reach fluency, but you just can’t see to the end of the tunnel, so you give up.

It happens a lot and to many people.

I picked up French for the first time ten years ago. On and off in the last ten years, I’ve tried classes, online learning tools, Michael Thomas, French books from my favorite authors, language exchange partners, and god knows what else. It just didn’t stick. I lost my motivation after a couple of months, started again after a year or two, and lost it faster than the previous times.

I’ve made it to fluency with English, but it was impossible with French. I didn’t fully understand why until I started to learn Dutch.

I decided not to repeat the French failure with Dutch. Instead of rushing into learning more and more Dutch words, I took a step back to compare my experience of learning English and French, and to find out what went right with the first and what went wrong with the second. I talked to people who mastered three or four languages and dug deeper into the psychology of motivation.

Here is what I’ve found about keeping the motivation going:

Stay in the honey phase

Never let the excitement go away. Create new exciting projects for what you learn, not in two years but in a month or two weeks. The “a better chance to get a cool job” is a legitimate target, but it is not gonna work in terms of motivation.

Getting to the level of working proficiency, when you learn from scratch, is a painstaking process. Thus, you need to create fun and doable targets along the way to proficiency. Being able to read a book from your favorite author is a good one, but be sure not to start with a classic, like Shakespeare for English or Alexandre Dumas for French. That was the mistake I made. I started with Dumas instead of some children books like Le Petit Nicholas. It took forever to read one paragraph. I felt stupid and defeated. I was in despair because I couldn’t see how this dumb girl, meaning me, can master this sophisticated language. I gave up.

Take an intensive dose

If truth be told, it is difficult to find fun things to do when you are at the beginning level.

When you first take a language class, you spend a lot of time trying to pronounce unfamiliar consonants. You end up with hurting your throat, and your dignity. No fun in that.

Then you are taught to say your name and tell others about your family. This can be fun for the first time, not the ten times like how it often happens in language classes. You give up before you can start putting together a story about your last adventure — before the fun part.

A while back, I went to a Brainwash session, that is literally how it’s called, where a guy spent three hours explaining the benefits of learning Dutch eight hours a day for five days. 40 hours and you can start having a lot of fun with Dutch. Five days instead of 10 weeks with 2-hour sessions twice a week when you spend half of each session trying to remember what you have done the last time.

What the Brainwash guy or the guy in fluentin3months recommends is that you immerse yourself 110% in a foreign language for a short period of time so you can quickly reach a good level, before it gets boring and when things start to be really fun.

Take a month off to just learn the language if you can. If not, a week. or at least every weekend and all evenings for two months. I know it is a big sacrifice and some of you can’t afford to take a whole month off work or school. I couldn’t afford to pay the Brainwash guy for his session either. But the more you can do in one go, the better.

In hindsight, I know that the foundation of my English was built not by attending two English classes per week in 8 years of secondary school and high school, but by self-studying for four hours every morning during my first semester at university.

Many language learners stay their whole life at the level to have casual conversations about their countries, jobs and hobbies. Can you make a real connection with those? Not really. You need to be able to discuss your life choices, values, your fear and aspiration in order to really connect with people. That is the ultimate function of a language: so people can understand each other. You need to get there and the faster you do, the less painful it is. Like ripping off a band-aid.

Put it into your daily life

An intensive dose is good but after that, you need to keep it going.

Make it a part of your daily routine. When I wake up in the morning, I make a cup of tea. I do it every day unless my boyfriend offers to do it for me. So if I put a sticker with a new word on my teapot the night before, then that word would be the first thing I see the next morning. Learning new words has become a habit.

Think about learning a language as doing exercises. Choose the type of activities you enjoy, stick with it and you will see the benefits for sure.

Find your tribe

When you develop, for example, listening skills, you can practice with audios spoken by various people so you are used to not only the language but also the unfamiliar accents.

However, when it comes to motivation, it is better to build the connection with a few who have similar hobbies and values with you. Try a sports team or hobby club where people speak the language that you want to learn. Some language exchange forums offer matching learners by topics that they are both interested in.

Or else, find a partner whose mother tongue is the language that you want to learn. Well, this one is a joke, but a boyfriend or girlfriend is surely the best motivation.

Take ownership of your language learning

Don’t learn a language just because you need it, or because your girlfriend asks you to. Learn it because you want to, because it fits in your personal development.

Make plans for learning it, fit those plans into your daily life and be awesome.

Quynh Nguyen

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Amsterdam-based freelance writer, covering sustainable practices and world travels -