If you’ve ever tried to learn a language (whether or not you’ve succeeded), you know far too well that finding motivation in language learning can be much harder than the actual learning.
Does language learning motivation feel like it comes in little bursts, but never stays around long enough to make an impact on your life? Does motivating yourself seem like a chore in itself — and that just finding the motivation to even find motivation can be overwhelming?
Very few potential language learners have the advantage of having read the few dozen psychology books on the subjects of motivation or habit forming. In my experience with both languages and psychology at work and at play I’ve found that not wishing yourself to get motivated — but rather reading about the science of motivation — is key.
If you’re looking for a secret sauce to learn how to motivate yourself to learn a language, I’ve found 5 major ways you can hack motivating yourself to learn English, Spanish, Japanese, or any language you dream of.
1. Find a language habit that doesn’t require motivation
Motivation in language learning can be hugely powerful. When you feel a typhoon of enthusiasm come on, it feels like nothing can stand in your way.
But, unfortunately, it also normally comes in small bursts. And these waves can be unpredictable and hard to replicate.
We’ll get to language motivation hacks later on this list. But first, imagine studying a language (or multiple languages) every single day for the next year with as little motivation required as that needed to brush your teeth every day.
It might seem weird to liken something as complicated and difficult-seeming as learning a language to being as simple as brushing your teeth, but habits are strong.
You can largely do this by setting the same time to work on your languages every day — a time that during you know you won’t be disturbed.
I personally use the mornings since I like to go out at night, but I have friends who use their lunch break or the last 30 minutes before bed.
I suggest putting an alarm on your phone for the first few weeks until it truly becomes a habit. Do this for no more than 30 minutes a day to start.
Even if you’re not motivated, after several months it will just feel strange to not practice your language some days. Like how it might feel strange to not drink your favorite breakfast drink every morning or do the dishes.
There are a dozen other ways to maintain and firm up your habit, however. But out of everything on this list, this has been the most important step I’ve ever taken in keeping myself focused and excited every day during my language learning journey.
If you want to learn more about how to create an effortless habit, I highly recommend the online course The Language Habit Toolkit.
To use the Tool Kit:
- Purchase the course on Teachable.com, which then gives you access to its many PDFs and materials.
- Start by picking up a notebook and doing the journaling prompts in the course: daydreaming about your vision goals, thinking about what language learning means to you, and generally getting excited. (It’s absurdly satisfying.) On my least motivated days, the prompts in the tool kit are my secret weapon in summoning my own language learning motivation.
- Set yourself goals, help yourself find resources, and generally set yourself up for success for when your motivation runs out.
- Every week or month, print out (or handwrite into a book like I do) custom trackers to check in.
The resource was put together by Kerstin Cable, host of The Fluent Show and generally one of the most inspiring language learners in the community.
Kerstin was born in Germany, but after starting to learn English in school, has mastered the language to the point where she’s very often mistaken as a native, plus brought half a dozen other languages to a higher level.
Out of everything on this list (and every language product I’ve ever seen), the Language Habit Toolkit is the only thing I recommend to literally everyone I know who is interested in language learning.
2. Trick your brain into getting excited
Change is hard.
Learning new things is hard.
Learning something as big and scary as a new language is the hardest of all.
I’ll give you some highlights, but honestly the science and psychology of motivation is much more interesting and complex than could ever be explained in a few bullet points.
In a nutshell: you cannot motivate yourself, really create motivation, simply by wishing it.
Your thinking part of your brain (the part that thinks “ugh I want to learn French”) and your excitable part of your brain (the part that gets butterflies whenever it thinks about chatting with friends in front of a Parisian cafe) are two different parts, and your thinking-brain cannot simply will your excitable-brain into feeling any certain way.
Here are some tips I’ve pulled from one of my favorite books on the subject, Switch, by Chip and Dan Health.
- Find the bright spots: Is there a certain moment when your urge to learn a language is really strong? What’s different about those times, and how can we replicate those conditions?
- Point to a destination: What small actions can be taken or what rules can be made to prevent yourself from falling out of your new habit? (For me, it’s often “if I do 10 minutes, I don’t have to finish my 30-minute goal”, which often is enough to get me to the 30-minute goal even without the language motivation itself.)
- Find the feeling: Does your target language have some music that makes you happy, which you can listen to while you day dream? Can someone embarrass you just a touch by holding you accountable? Can you brag to someone who cares about you so you can feel proud? (Kerstin also goes into this a bit in the Language Habit Tool Kit.)
- Build a growth mindset: Remember that we’re going for progress, not perfection. Just because you broke your streak on your app doesn’t mean you’re not capable of better.
You can’t simply decide to motivate yourself to learn a language, but you can absolutely create an environment in which you can trick your brain into producing its own motivation.
3. Regularly check-in and revise your strategy
Since you’re not a language professor nor an educational specialist, your first study plan will not be the best one for you.
Let me repeat that: no matter what your study plan currently is, it’s not the best one you’re going to come up with.
You will absolutely, with time, have to revise your strategy. With my Spanish, which went from absolute-zero to academic-level in the course of 3 years, I had to majorly revise the plan at least 4 times. First I tried Duolingo and free YouTube exercises, then immersion and workbooks, then just reading / journaling / flash carding, and eventually private classes online.
I tried probably 10+ different apps before I found one I liked, worked with probably 15 different professors (fired some and outgrew others), and tried 4 or 5 different books.
Is your gut saying this study tool isn’t helping you?
Are you frustrated with an app or not really clicking with your textbook?
Does your teacher or tutor subtly discourage you, even if they don’t mean to?
If your study materials aren’t a great fit for you, language motivation will be nearly impossible to come by.
This is a normal part of language learning. The more experienced you get as a learner the better your instincts will be come. Experiment as you go, or set regular monthly check-in days for yourself to journal (I do this on the last day of each month).
If you’re interested in reading more about this, I recommend both the books Becoming Fluent and Ultralearning. Both explore how gut instinct is the advantage of the adult learner, and how you can become a more intuitive language learner.
4. Find a community
When I first started language learning, I felt so entirely alone in uncharted waters. Every one of my friends had failed at learning languages, and the only ones who spoke a second (or third) language had been speaking them since birth or after moving to the US.
I had no idea how to get motivated to find a language, and those who had never learned languages certainly couldn’t help me.
Originally it was confusing and kind of scary. But as more and more time went by, and I became better and better at Spanish (and then French), I had no one to share my victories with.
My friends thought it was magic that I had learned two languages (to whatever degree) as an adult, but didn’t really care that I was listening to amazing French rap or able to communicate to my clients in Spanish. My learning process went from lonely to lonelier.
It was actually Ingrid (the same lovely Ingrid from this blog) who first introduced me to the Women In Language conference. From there I fell head-over-heels in love with the online language learning community.
Having friends who understand my excitements and frustrations has been great, but even more importantly I have people who can help troubleshoot my roadblocks and cheerlead my victories. My biggest day-to-day motivation in language learning has honestly been my friends.
I assumed I would be one of the least experienced language learners in the community and that everyone would think I was slow or dumb. I was for sure the newest to language learning out of everyone I met, but was shocked to find out just how many people would be cheerleading me from every corner of the world.
I’ve had translators who speak 10+ languages genuinely compliment my accents in languages they’re far more advanced in and podcast hosts send me messages about how much they love my studygram posts on Insta.
If you’re a Facebook user, Ingrid recommends the groups Fluent Language Learners, Polyglots, and Polyglots (The Community).
And if you’re an Instagram user like me, you can follow me here. I also recommend looking under the hashtags #polyglots, #languageexchange, or fill in the blanks with your target language: #______student, #studying_____, or #______teacher.
5. Track your habit and celebrate your victories
Language learning is something that can be enjoyed at any level, but if you’re only focused on “fluency” (whatever that means), the months or years it will take can feel enormously fruitless.
My advice is to, every month, journal on your current level and your accomplishments of the month. It is absurd how easy it is to say “I’m not getting anywhere.”
One month in particular, I thought about how little progress I had made in Portuguese (my target language in winter 2019), but when I sat down I realized I had literally doubled my vocabulary in 5 weeks, plus listened to over 10 hours of podcasts.
For good journaling prompts and habits, I again recommend The Language Habit Toolkit. (Seriously — I can have conversations in 7 languages, and I really feel like it’s the best investment I’ve made in language learning.) It has prompts for different phases of your language learning journey, and its monthly check-ins offer great structure.
If you’re not sold on something as in-depth as the Toolkit and want something a bit more for professionals, daily tool you can use is the Panda Planner.
I use mine primarily for work, but the built-in gratitude guide helps me feel positive about little victories when I’m stuck in a big project. The downside is that it’s not language-specific, but the strength is that it can be used for multiple areas of your life.
Bonus Tip: Combine them all
My personal language motivation comes from regularly mixing these 5 things.
Every day, I spend 30 minutes per language using The Language Habit Toolkit as my guide. That’s because at the end of every week, I sit down to journal about my feelings (good and bad) and re-start a new week with its habit tracker.
Then, at the end of every month, I journal about my levels and progress — plus, spend that day just totally enjoying my languages with zero study pressure.
On the days I don’t feel motivated, I pull tricks out of the bag of Chip and Dan Heath, and get myself fired up by day dreaming about my language vision goals, making rules for myself (if I study for 10 minutes and don’t want to continue, I don’t have to do my full 30 minutes), or simply blast some music from my target language and dance around until the adrenaline kicks in.
And, on the days that I feel the best, I post videos and memes and photos of whatever book I’m reading on my Instagram so I can get myself excited with my friends.
Motivation is not magic. It’s a science that has been studied by psychologists. There are dozens (if not hundreds) of books and resources that you can explore, but I hope you enjoyed some of my favorites!
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