Motivation in Language Learning

“I want to learn German!”

*you can replace German with any European language closely related to English. This page is applicable to all of them.

This is something I often hear people say. I like hearing this. It gets me excited because I know I can help this person, which makes me feel good.

Usually, when I ask them what they are currently doing to learn German, they tell me they can’t start right now because [insert reason]. They need to finish their exams, they’re saving money for a course, they want to find a new apartment first, they’re going to Italy next month and want to wait until they get back etc. etc. etc. But once that’s done, then they’re gonna start!

This makes me sad, because I know that these people will never be able to speak German, or probably any other language. It’s not because they’re stupid or lazy; it’s because they don’t really want to. What they really mean is, “I want to be able to speak German.”

These people still find time to watch Netflix and swipe through Instagram stories. So why don’t they learn German instead, seeing as that’s something they want to learn and nobody is stopping them? Quite simply, they are stopping themselves – they aren’t motivated enough.

Learning a language takes a long, long time. People give up. I know this because I gave up when I tried to learn French, Swedish, and Polish. I gave up because my motivation was not strong enough.

My Experience with Other Languages

French

My decision to learn French was mostly based on the fact I had to spend 6 months in Belgium. I didn’t really want to be there. I wanted to move back to Germany. The city I was in sucked and I didn’t like French. It sounded kind of cool, but the spelling annoyed me. I had French at school but it was one of my least favourite subjects, so I already associated it with pain and boredom. However, learning French would make my life in Belgium easier, so I started learning it. Needless to say, I didn’t get very far.

Swedish

I have also learnt some Swedish, mostly because I had a girlfriend from there and because I like Scandinavia. I was more motivated to learn Swedish, and, you guessed it, I made more progress. However, after a few months I started to get bored. It was very similar to German and I had already gone through the learning process once. There weren’t that many people to practise it with and there weren’t many fun materials for learners because not many people learn Swedish. Also, Sweden is a small country so doesn’t produce that many films and books. As such, my efforts eventually fizzled out.

Polish

I have also attempted to learn Polish. I went to Poland several times and loved it. The people are so cool, and I had lots of Polish friends, and Poland is right next to Germany! I was kind of curious about what a Slavic language would be like. I like Polish a lot, but there are very few learning materials. Since it’s a very complex language and there aren’t many good materials, it would take years to even start using it at a basic level. Since my motivation wasn’t enough to overcome this hurdle, yep, I gave up after a few months.

German

Ever since I first heard German I thought it sounded awesome. There were long, scary words on signs like “Hochspannung Lebensgefahr!” and it sounded very precise and complicated. Germany was a fascinating place to me. They had fast trains that arrived exactly on time. The people lived in houses that looked like white triangles, and there were mountains and forests and fields full of wind turbines.

One year at school, 40 international students arrived from Germany. They were all really interesting and cool. They spoke German to each other around the school and I wanted to know what they were saying. I wondered what it would feel like to understand those mysterious sounds. It would be so cool if I could make those sounds too. I just had to find out.

My school didn’t teach German, but I didn’t care. I had to study for my other exams, but I didn’t care. My friends thought it was weird, but I didn’t care. I was bad at languages, but I didn’t care. I started learning German in my free time in the school library. On the bus home I listened to German music, and when I got home I studied in my room. I even learnt German during Spanish class while the teacher wasn’t looking. German was fun. As you can guess, I succeeded.

Motivation is the Key to Language Learning

I remember staying with a German family once. They asked me how I had learnt their language. I said the first thing which came to me, which was, “Motivation! Das ist der Schlüssel zum Erfolg!” and they laughed. It sounded like a slogan from a self-help programme, but it was true. Motivation is the key to success in language learning.

Humans learn languages. Languages are perfectly evolved to live in human brains and help them think and communicate – it comes naturally to us. More than half of the world’s population speaks two languages fluently. Therefore, if you keep learning and never give up, you cannot possibly fail. There is no way to fail. You either continue learning until you become fluent, or you give up.

Consistency

Learning German requires that you take action over a sustained period of time.

There is only one type of person who will do this – someone who enjoys doing so.

You need to be somebody who enjoys:

  • Working through a free online course for beginners
  • Studying a list of the top 500 most common German words
  • Watching a series in German with German subtitles
  • Listening to a German podcast about travel
  • Practising making the sounds German has that English doesn’t
  • Reading a word they don’t know, opening a new tab on Chrome, searching for the English translation and writing it in a notebook
  • Writing 20 short sentences and asking their friend, who is a native speaker, to correct them
  • Spending 15 minutes on the train listening to German music
  • Wondering how to say “I like riding my bike”, “this tea tastes very good”, or “yesterday I saw a fox in the front garden”
  • Seeing a new verb form they don’t understand and googling what it means

If you don’t do these things over a sustained period, you won’t be able to speak German. If you do them, you will.

The real problem is not the learning itself, but whether you do it or not.

The learning is easy. You just sit down and learn German. It’s just words and grammar and stuff. It’s all explained in books and online.

Some people pay for classes and think that will fix the problem, but it won’t. You can’t pay someone to put things in your head. You have to put them in there yourself.

How to Motivate Yourself

“But that’s fine for you!” I hear you cry.

You may think I was blessed with unlimited motivation to learn German, but that’s not true. Some days I got lazy and played video games or hung out with my friends instead. Sometimes I lost sight of why I was doing it. But I did notice that certain things boosted my motivation and got me really excited about German.

1. Just 5 Minutes

I noticed that if I simply studied for a few minutes, I found it enjoyable and got motivated again. Studying languages is actually quite fun when you do it, a bit like going to the gym.

You discover lots of funny things when studying a language. For example you find out that Germans call slugs ‘naked snails’ (Nacktschnecken) and they call gloves ‘hand shoes’ (Handschuhe). If you tell someone they park their car in the shade (Schattenparker) you are calling them a wimp.

There are also interesting similarities between languages. In German a stove is called a Herd, which is related to the English word ‘hearth’, and a bottle is a Flasche, which is related to ‘flask’. Television is Fernseher, which means ‘far-seer’ – a box that helps you see things that are far away (which is also what tele-vision means).

Try to develop a child-like sense of curiosity. Start calling gloves hand shoes and learn by taking fun little sips of German throughout the day.

2. Imagine how good you will be in the future

Think of yourself in one or two years after studying every day. Imagine yourself:

  • speaking German fluently
  • hearing German and understanding it automatically
  • having conversations with native speakers
  • watching German films without subtitles
  • reading books in their original language
  • ordering drinks in a bar and making your friends say “wow how did you do that?”
  • having the East German Police take you aside and ask if you’re an American spy

People will ask you how you learnt to speak German so well!

You can tell them you did the activities I listed above for 1–2 hours a day for this number of days:

1 year
1 year

Wow that’s barely anything! All I had to do was sit down and study for 1–2 hours, watch series in German, look up a few words, study new grammar and vocabulary, and listen to some German podcasts on the bus! And it was fun! And now I can speak German! Amazing!

3. Learn with a friend

Another way you can keep up your motivation to learn a language is to study with a friend. Talking about something over time will make you start to develop an interest in that thing.

Why not try:

  • Talking about the language you are learning with a friend
  • Trying out new learning methods together
  • Watching the same films and reading the same books and then discussing them
  • Sharing resources and comparing interesting vocabulary you learned
  • Doing challenges together, such as who can be the first to read a specific book, or who be the first to listen to 100 hours of German

4. Being in a country where the language is spoken

People think the reason being in a country is good because it will magic the language into your head.

But the real power lies in motivation. Hearing and seeing a language all around you at all times seems to trigger a mental shift. It’s almost like your subconscious realises “oh, this language isn’t just a toy.”

Once you realise that everyone speaks it and you don’t – that you are the outsider – the loser – it will light a fire under your backside.

This is the best motivation to learn a language I have discovered so far, second only to an intrinsic love of the language itself.

There is simply no escape. Fail to learn the local lingo and you will forever be a second-class citizen at the mercy of the worst fomo you’ve ever experienced. Everything anyone says lost forever, even though you experienced it in front of your eyes.

Why Do You Want to Learn?

It’s perfectly natural for our motivation to go up and down. The important thing is to make sure it doesn’t fade completely.

But if you have to try too hard to motivate yourself, then you should ask yourself why you want to learn German in the first place? Do you really want to learn it, or are you lying to yourself? You need to get your language learning motivations straight.

Learning a language is like a long-term relationship. You need a deep connection and must be willing to work at it and make compromises. This means spending quality time together instead of watching Netflix. If you only like the language because you think it will make your friends jealous, or for financial reasons, then it’s doomed to fail.

Nobody cares whether you learn German or not. Nobody is going to make you do it. If you don’t want to, then own up to it. Admit you don’t want to learn it. It’s okay.

Different Goals

People learn languages for many reasons. Some learn them for love, others for their career, others to feel closer to their ancestors, and others to read literature in the original language.

But there is only one type of person who ever succeeds. This is the person who enjoys the process of learning, and who approaches the language with a child-like curiosity and intrinsic interest.

If there was a businessman learning a ‘useful’ language like Chinese to increase profits, and a woman learning a ‘useless’ language like Norwegian because her dead grandfather was from Norway and she has a passion for cooking ancient Viking stews, my money would be on the lady.

Learning language is like running a marathon against your innerer Schweinehund (inner pig dog), as they say in German. It is only by enjoying the process that you will sustain the necessary consistency over a long period.

If someone doesn’t want to do something, there is almost nothing legal except for money that will make them do it. The funny thing is that people actually spend money on classes expecting that to fix their motivation problem.

On the other hand, if you enjoy the process itself you will find it effortless. You won’t be able to stop yourself from learning. Knowing a language is just a bonus you get from learning it. Woops, I accidentally learnt German! Scheiße… please take it out.

The funnier thing is, you can’t unlearn a language. German used to sound awesome before I knew it. Now it’s just people talking about BMWs and tax returns. Scheiße!

Closing Words

If this post doesn’t make you want to study German right now, then why are you even on this blog? Please stop wasting my bandwidth. In fact here’s a link to Netflix for you. Get off my site. Goodbye.

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