This article is courtesy of Cody B., Spanish master extraordinaire & learner of Japanese (full bio below).

Since I’m a nerd, I’ve sprinkled my own comments and observations into the article, too. – Niko

When it comes to learning a new language, there are three options:

(1) do nothing, and do not learn a new language,

(2) think that learning a certain language would be “really cool”, but never do so, or

(3) actually follow through and learn the new language.

Today, I will discuss the topic of motivation in language acquisition, by exploring how a lack of it can be severely detrimental, while an abundance of it can be extremely rewarding.  Lastly, if you are lacking motivation, I will share with you the art of securing it for yourself in order to guarantee success on your path.

Motivation Is Key

Motivation is the secret to achieving anything in life.

I have especially noticed this concept’s tendency to perpetually reinforce itself throughout my experience learning languages.  Between possession and lack thereof, I have found a night and day difference in my ability to retain information, which can feel like a rollercoaster on my track to fluency.

I realize that when riding this rollercoaster, I must position myself on the first hill, always looking forward on my climb to the top.  If I start looking over the side, I will feel scared, discouraged, and hopeless.  By reminding myself that I was the one who decided to get on this ride, I recall that I did so because I wanted to have a fun, thrilling experience, and when the ride is over, be able to share what a great adventure it was with others. This keeps me motivated, and reminds me that once I reach the top of the first hill, I will have a blast on the rest of the ride.

the first step toward regaining motivation is realization of where you are

The first step toward regaining motivation is realization of where you are, and then accepting that fact.  Otherwise, no progress can be made.  I have wasted days, weeks, months, and years comparing myself to secondary speakers of my target language(s), wondering how on Earth they had achieved their level of proficiency, and all along, I wasn’t realizing that the simple explanation was that they were studying while I was not. I was too busy examining the people in the first car, instead of exploring my own.

It wasn’t until I examined the first car a little closer, that I began noticing the people there didn’t just miraculously manifest at the pinnacle of the hill, with the ability to ascertain everything around them.  I realized that they too, like myself, had once been in my position on the track to linguistic competency.  Focused in, I saw that their actions were far different from mine, and in time understood this to be the reason for the respective success and failure.

Simultaneously accepting and arming myself with this knowledge, I became equipped with the tools and weapons needed to build and fight my way to the top of that hill.  The famous School House Rock motto “Knowledge Is Power” is a strong message, albeit a little lacking.  I discovered through this process that it is not that knowledge alone is powerful, but rather, it is only through the implementation of the knowledge that it becomes powerful.  For too long I had the knowledge, but was not implementing it.  I knew the steps to take.  I had the examples right in front of me, but was not walking forward.

Since this time, I have woken up.  I have accepted that there is no substitute for hard work, for time-in, for study and practice, for rinse and repeat until clean.  Now, with tools and weapons in hand, I can confidently proceed, assured that as I continue with perseverance, I will inevitably reach the summit, victorious.

If while reading you see an image of yourself, and now feel ready to finally take your own steps to actualize your dream of being able to navigate your language of choice with ease, please continue, as I venture some suggestions:

First, make the decision: I’m all in. 

going all in for language learning

Commit to this standard, and don’t back away from it.  Take emotions out of the equation.  Emotions will come and go, but your target language is forever.  No matter what happens along the way, the end goal is positive, and it is what you want for yourself.  Keep your attention there, and you will never fail.

Once you have resolved to see the task through to the end, I recommend adopting the following practices: (if you haven’t already)

1.     Keep a language notebook

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Maintaining a language notebook is the single best decision I have made on my path to acquiring a language.

It allows me to permanently store every piece of new information I discover about a language, creating a repository of material to draw from during my study time.  There are a number of ways to use and organize a language notebook.  This freedom is greatly rewarding to the imagination, and adds depth of meaning to what you write and how it is written.

Furthermore, a notebook is a physical, tangible thing.  It makes learning the language more real.  Instead of just thinking about your target language, and vaguely recalling abstract concepts in your mind, you can open your notebook, and see it on the page in front of you, in your own handwriting.

As daily connections with the notebook are made, consistency is built, progress is made, pride in accomplishment blooms, and ample motivation to move forward with your studies is secured.

2.     Become friends with native speakers

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This picture, by the way, is of Rei and I in Jeju… with all of my new Korean cousins! Meeting new family has been one of the biggest motivators for learning a language I’ve yet to experience… along with meeting new friends ^_^

Native speakers are literally your best friends when acquiring a language.

I myself have been guilty of subscribing to the idea that I must or should acquire a certain skill level in my target language before interacting with native speakers.  However, I eventually realized that this was the very definition of counter-productivity.  As a language learner (especially those who study independently) there is a tendency to separate the language itself from those who speak it.  This causes harm to the student by artificially imposing a false reality onto the nature of language. 

A language is not a dead, inanimate concoction that you must dully beat into your brain.  Rather, it is a vibrant, interesting living entity, full with the ideas, emotions, and stories of those who use it.  If a student spends too much time removed from other speakers, they can slip away into apathy, becoming disinterested in their passion for the language, and eventually stopping altogether, by persuading themselves they never wanted it at all.

To save yourself from this fate, actively seek out native (or secondary) speakers.  There are tons of great people out there, who are friendly and helpful.  Building a genuine connection with speakers of your target language will give you many solid reasons and (the motivation necessary) to advance your current level.

Additionally, time spent with other speakers will provide valuable listening and speaking practice, and the opportunity to receive feedback and ask questions.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, you can find lessons on italki or Cafetalk, and you can find language exchange partners on sites like Lang-8, MyLanguageExchange, and HelloTalk. Also you can make friends with fellow students of Japanese in NihongoShark.com’s (absolutely free and awesome) chat community.

3.     Build your life around the language

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In order to achieve measurable proficiency in a language, it must be truly present in your life.

To facilitate this, it will require somewhat of a lifestyle commitment.  There is so much “hidden” time in the day, one can utilize to study a language: when getting ready in the morning, when commuting to work, when cleaning the house, and even when sleeping, if you are so bold.  Be inventive. Every moment is an opportunity.  By seeing time in this way and taking action, progress in your target language will be virtually unavoidable. 

The next time you are talking with a native friend, you will be pleasantly surprised by how many new words and phrases you can pull out of thin air. This feeling is so rewarding, you will be motivated to keep the language with you all the time, thereby constantly progressing.

4.     Be systematic in your studies

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I have been guilty of purchasing book after book about (or in) my target language, and never looking at any of them.

I find that the idea of having a lot of books causes you to feel like you are making progress, but you end up jumping from book to book so often that you end up with a bunch of small pieces that cannot be made sense of or put together.

In my experience, to make quality progress, one’s method of study must be systematic.  I recommend going book by book, and extracting all the new information you can about your target language before moving on to the next one.  Furthermore, supposing that the books are ordered by advancing difficulty, make sure you have a solid base in the content of one book before moving on to the next.

Also, studying by topic is extremely useful.  Being able to discuss a certain subject fully will ensure that you do not get lost in a conversation, and as you link related topics together, you will be able to increasingly chart and navigate the map of your target language successfully.

Be sure to study areas of the language that are relevant to you in your life.  (If you are not a scientist, learning scientific terms which you will never use is a waste of time.)  By personalizing your studies, you will maintain interest and enthusiasm in your endeavor, by adding intrinsic value to yourself and the language.

If you are having trouble staying motivated, I hope this article has shed some light on the underlying reasons you may have been having difficulty.

Have you tried any of the suggestions given?

What was your experience?

How do you stay motivated?

Well, Cody, since you ask, here are some of my own tricks for staying motivated…

I usually turn to 4 places for added and continuous motivation:

1) Aspects of the language I love. If you’re drawn to manga, then try to read manga. You don’t have to read and understand a whole manga all at once. Just a page here, a page there. The same goes for anime, literature, YouTube videos, games–whatever it is about Japanese that you find enjoyable, just try to do a little bit of it, and don’t be discouraged when it’s too hard; be excited about it not being hard some day. Learning 1 new word is sufficient progress.

2) Study methods I love. I try very hard to create study patterns that I enjoy. Think about what parts of studying you find boring, a hassle, or intimidating. Something that’s a “hassle” could be looking at your PC, or it could be putting your headphones in–little stuff like that can actually deter studying a lot. It’s like paying more for cut fruit. It’s more expensive, but it’s so much easier to eat that it won’t ever rot on my counter, because I don’t have to cut it! The same goes for the place and time I study–I really want to enjoy these.

3) Discipline & Momentum. These will always be a struggle. But disciple is a skill. So if you work to study with discipline consistently, it will start to feel easier. Also, momentum will increase, which means that it actually does get easier. Building habits and removing barriers is also helpful for this. I talk about these a lot in The Hacking Japanese Supercourse.

4) Listening to inspirational speakers. I often pull the audio from motivational speech tracks on YouTube or from 8tracks.com, then I listen to it when I go for walks. I never expected myself to be into that kind of stuff, but I’ve learned that it’s a great, refreshing way to take a break from work or studying.

By the way thanks for the article! ^_^

Let’s all keep swimming, yo.

For more Japanese goodness, check out:

Cody B

Cody B

Hey, my name is Cody. I teach Spanish and English to non-native speakers, and write articles about language learning on my blog, based on more than 10 years of experience. I invite you to stop by sometime: CodyのBlog.

Cody B

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