Rliberni's Blog – Radical language

March 2, 2010

How to keep motivated in language learning.

How can you keep motivated when learning a language? This is a million dollar question! If everybody was highly motivated then we would all be multi-lingual! Whenever I attend an event and we do the round robin exercise of ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you do?’  the discussion following my ‘bit’  inevitably moves on to the number of ‘tapes in the car for Italian, Spanish French etc., the number of course books at home, how many online course started and not finished and even, how many evening classes started and not finished!’ It is very clear that there is a desire for language learning but what happens to all those good intentions?

I have to come clean myself, I’m learning Chinese and I am not being a very good student! I did two lessons and then stopped for two weeks and haven’t done my homework! In fact the thought of writing this post has made me book up my next 4 lessons IN ADVANCE!!

Why did I need this external motivation? I enjoy languages, it’s my field, I know what to expect and I really do want to learn this. Here are my excuses:

  • It was half term, kids at home and I had a busy week (first miss)
  • Actually I was ill which accounted for the second miss but I could have done my own study
  • I haven’t had much time
  • As a beginner it is quite hard!

I’ve heard them all from students and they are valid and understandable.

I hope that I am now back on track and won’t need to write another confession on this blog!! But…..

What is it that makes some people motivated to keep going and others fail at the first hurdle?

I think there are 4 main factors in this.

  • Expectation
  • Approach
  • Curiosity
  • Reward


Learning a language takes time, patience and perseverance (rather like learning a musical instrument). There are no quick fixes or magic bullets. You are in it for the long haul. I think this has to be accepted.

Some examples: of unrealistic expectations

  • I once had a student wanting to learn a new language before he left to take up a new post in that country. It turned out that he had 4 days before departure plus all that a move of this nature entailed to organise! He had pencilled in one afternoon for language training.
  • A second student wanted to learn French, Italian and German all at once having never studied a language before!

Making sure expectations are realistic is a key factor in success. If you don’t know what you are in for you’ll be disappointed.


One of the problems I have with my Chinese is I’m not organised yet. I haven’t got a folder where I can keep my crib sheets etc. I don’t have a notebook or dictionary and I haven’t got my head around a personal study schedule.

Some common problems:

  • Students turn up to lessons without paper, notebook or even a pen!
  • Each lesson is seen in isolation and no reference is made to past activity or future study.

Learning a language involves a lot of recycling! When I taught French in a primary school I was teaching colours ‘We’ve already done this.’ the children refrained. Languages don’t work like that, learning is more cyclical.

The basic toolkit for a language learner is a notebook/folder organised by skill type (reading, writing etc..) or date to enable revision or referencing, a dictionary, a grammar book and whatever coursebook or materials are being used. It is possible to have ‘off the cuff’ and impromptu lessons – these can wonderful but unless you are at a quite advanced level, they will be ephemeral if you don’t have some sort of record to refer to. (see my post on choosing books)


For me this is a key factor in any learning. It is the ‘What if…’ and ‘How about…’ questions that lead you beyond the classroom and into your own learning which will move you further towards your goal and provide the incentive to learn more.

If you have this curiosity factor it will help to keep you motivated. You will want to re-work sentences and find other synonyms. You’ll be interested in how everyday notions and functions work in the target language. You’ll look for patterns and use these to build and test new sentences and you’ll want ultimately to get out there and use what you’ve learned.

When this curiosity is lacking or absent you may hear:

  • I’ve been through all the practice books for the exam, when is the next one going to be available?
  • I haven’t got time to read that poem, listen to that discussion… I have to learn more vocabulary.

Without curiosity learning a language can become a very dull and dry exercise. Languages aren’t academic subjects they are living, breathing entities and only there by virtue of the people who speak and write them.


Rewards in learning are very important and take many different guises, from small personal rewards for mastering irregular verbs for example, to success in examinations. Rewards are motivating but the level and nature of the motivation differs with level and nature of the reward.

  • External rewards such as exam grades, promotion, even a potential love interest make the language learning a vehicle for something else. While this can be very motivating indeed, it is often short-lived. How many people learnt a language at school which is now long forgotten?
  • Internal rewards – those we set ourselves are more effective and last longer. How many things are we good at and remember because of the sheer love we have of learning and doing it?

This may all sound a bit ‘airy-fairy’ or ‘wishy-washy’ I’m not suggesting you have to fall in love with your English learning in order to make progress. What I am saying, though, is that with some committment you will come to enjoy it and become expert in it so that your language skill may, in turn, become the vehicle for the things you really do love!

An extension to this in a learning sense is that when we are immersed in a task or topic we are really interested in we often absorb the language without realising it. So, don’t eschew literature, jokes, songs or other ‘frivolous’ activities,  throw yourself into them and enjoy them – the language development often happens by osmosis!

Some jokes to conjur with!

Here are some other posts with similar topics:

Are some people better at learning languages than others?

Making progress as an advanced learner

Thinking in English – how to make it happen


  1. Good posting. The title grabbed me as it is always maintaining this motivation and not getting discouraged that appears to be the critical element for language learners. When you look back at the success stories, it is always more to do about the learner themselves than the teacher. But certainly good teaching has a role to play as well. Good teaching can train students to be the kind of good, organized learner you talk about here. And a teacher’s role is really to motivate, motivate, motivate.

    Comment by Jeff — March 3, 2010 @ 5:44 pm | Reply

    • Thank you Jeff for your comment. I think you are right a good teacher certainly helps the process but ‘You can take a horse to water but you can’t make it drink!’ I do feel though that the initial spark of interest has to come from somewhere. This could be a teacher’s influence but also some outside factor like hearing a language or being intersted in a particular country or culture. I think my interest came from several angles – singing in Latin from the age of 7, hearing my father speaking Geman on the phone, being introduced to French at 10, always having visitors from overseas at home and then a fabulous French teacher at high school. All these things re-inforced my interest. Then it’s, as you rightly point out, a case of motivation and determination all the way! But oh the joy of being able to speak another language!

      Comment by rliberni — March 3, 2010 @ 11:23 pm | Reply

  2. […] How to keep motivated in language learning. « Rliberni’s Blog … […]

    Pingback by learn chinese quick joke | LEARN CHINESE — March 5, 2010 @ 8:35 pm | Reply

  3. […] How to keep motivated in langauge learning […]

    Pingback by How to be a good language student! 10 suggestions « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — August 27, 2010 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

  4. […]  How to keep motivated in language learning […]

    Pingback by What should you do if you don’t get the IELTS score you need? « Rliberni's Blog – Radical language — November 29, 2011 @ 11:08 am | Reply

  5. Did you take foreign language to meet college requirements or because you really wanted to learn the language (whatever language class you took such as French, German, Spanish, and etc.)

    Comment by birthday parties san francisco — February 28, 2012 @ 5:53 pm | Reply

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