Yo! After a 1.5+ year long nerve injury and the general life changes of graduating from college, I'm done with Powlyglot. If I find myself sharing my language experience in another format later on, I'll probably link to it here, on my personal site, or on Twitter at @mpvboehme. Thanks for reading.
4 Ways to Stay Motivated When Learning a Language

4 Ways to Stay Motivated When Learning a Language

Learning a language takes time, and with anything that takes time, sometimes you’re just not feeling it. Maybe you’ve hit a roadblock because of a concept you find difficult, or you’re simply bored – either way, you’re just not motivated.

I had this feeling most recently with Japanese. Schoolwork kept me from studying it very much for a couple weeks, so I lost my drive due to stagnation.

I knew that I wanted to learn Japanese – I just didn’t feel it. So I took a few measures to get myself back where I need to be.

Here are four things that helped me get back on track with my language studies.

Personalize Your Studies

If you’ve been studying nothing but grammar and generic vocabulary words for weeks on end, of course you’re going to be less than thrilled with your target language.

That’s why you need to make sure you learn things outside of traditional curriculum guidelines.

What are your interests? Name a few things that are a big part of your everyday life, whether it be for work or liesure.

For me, three of these areas have been food, nature, and language. I try to make a point to know how to say the ingredients I cook with, the animals and plants I see while walking (I basically refuse to talk to animals in English at this point, which is also helpful), and the languages I’m going to learn in whatever languages I’m learning at the time.

In fact, learning the simple sentence “I speak Spanish” (or 私はスペイン語を話します!) in Japanese is one of the big things that helped me regain my motivation for the language.

Take a Break!

Maybe this sounds counter-intuitive, or maybe it sounds obvious. Either way, sometimes you’ve just got too much on your plate. You’re worn out.

Taking a break from studying is a great way to get through this – as long as you don’t stay away too long. Take a week or so off from the hard stuff and relax.

If you want to keep the language a part of your life, you can watch videos, listen to music, or play games in your target language. Put subtitles on if you really want – it’s your break, after all. Several of my favorite movies are in other languages (El Laberinto del Fauno, Amélie, and Oldboy), and this video in French is probably the most adorable thing I’ve ever seen.

If you’d rather just not think about the language for a bit, go ahead – but set a date for when you will return to your studies, so you don’t just drop it altogether.

Sometimes, though, you might feel like you do want to just drop it.

If you’ve really hit a roadblock and it’s more than just a difficult concept or word, maybe you need to remind yourself what made you want to learn the language in the first place. Go back to the beginning. Is this what you want?

Without a real desire to learn, you’re going to be fighting an uphill battle.

Use a Goal Notebook

Like this one. [Note – this is an affiliate link, so I’ll earn a small commission if you buy through it. If you want to get a goal notebook through here, thanks! If not, that’s cool too. :)]

Many of us know that the secret to great progress is little steps, but it certainly doesn’t always feel that way during the little steps part. Using a goal notebook can remedy that by not only making you take the little steps, but showing you how quickly they add up to become something big.

This single thing is responsible for most of the progress I’ve made on several different projects this year, including school, music, language-learning, and building this website.

Goal Notebook

So meta indeed.

It works like this: you pick four goals or projects that you want to work on every day over the next 12 weeks, and you keep a daily log of what you’ve done for each. At the end of the week, you write out a summary of your progress.

Here’s the catch, though – when you don’t work on one your goals, you have to write “nothing” down for what you did that day.

That definitely doesn’t feel very good. The first time I had to write “nothing” in for one of my projects, I was devastated.

The motivation to avoid having to do that again is huge – I worked very hard after that so that I wouldn’t need to admit defeat a second time. Keeping yourself accountable makes a hell of a difference.

The goal notebooks I linked to above aren’t free, but they’re worth buying if you need a little extra motivation – knowing they costed actual money made me feel obligated to use them even more. Writing everything out by hand made a big difference, too.

Of course, you can easily mimic this for less on regular notebook paper, or in an Excel spreadsheet. Just make sure you remember to use it every day, or it won’t do you much good!

Bonus: Try filling out the notebook in your target language – it basically forces you to learn the vocabulary you use on a daily basis.

Compete (and Cooperate!) with Your Friends

There are many reasons why this is a good idea. Studying a language with friends automatically gives you someone to practice speaking with, for one thing.

Another benefit is the extra level of accountability you’ll have to keep working at it.

When you’ve got a group together, plan to meet up at least once a week to talk about what you’ve been doing for your target language – how you’re progressing, things that worked well, things that didn’t.

If you pick up the goal notebooks I mentioned a minute ago, you’re already ahead of the curve – they come in sets of four specifically so that you can share them with your friends.

If you happen to live with your group like I do, you can also use marker boards to more directly show off what you’ve been up to. I live with two other guys who are learning Japanese, so we’ve each got a board up on the fridge where we write random stuff that’s at our skill level.

Not only does this give us a place to show off how far we are, but we can help correct each other’s mistakes when we see them.

Anyways, these are the biggest things I do to keep myself going – if you’ve got any other ideas to keep yourself motivated, let us know in the comments!

  • http://collegeinfogeek.com/ Thomas Frank

    I recommend, um, you know, going to Japan 😛

    Seriously, a trip to the language’s native country does wonders. Though I will say that, at least for me, short bursts seem to do the trick best. For the first 10 or so days here, I was incredibly motivated to try speaking and learning more Japanese here.

    I learned katakana in about an hour on the train and through just trying to read signs, as well as a bunch of useful kanji through just trying to do things (like figuring out which bathroom was the men’s).

    However, even being in the country, I’ve burned out a little bit. For the past couple days I’ve been slipping back to English more and more – maybe it’s just me being tired, but it’s still a thing.

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      But of course!

      I imagine there isn’t a single facet of learning a language that can’t be drastically improved by visiting a country that speaks it.

      The burning out part is interesting, though – maybe that’s just where the whole ‘taking a break’ thing comes in. Especially given that you probably went there more to relax and have fun than to study Japanese.

  • http://achiclifestyle.com/ Sanam

    I’m not learning a new language at the moment, but It’s been on my to-do list for AGESSSS, so when I do (finally) get round to it these will be super helpful tips Martin.

    I like the collaborating with your friends one, but I think my main issue will actually be finding people who want to learn a new language lol. We’re all annoyingly lazy unfortunately!

    And I ordered those Pick 4 (?) notebooks this week actually so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into those!

    Sanam (AChicLifestyle.com) :)

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      Do it! And when you do, you should definitely let me know. :)

      Good luck with finding someone to learn with – have you tried online friends? There are tons of language-learning communities and social media sites, or even just groups on Facebook. I’ll have to round up a list later.

      Also, those notebooks are such a good resource! Baby steps have never been simpler.

      • http://achiclifestyle.com/ Sanam

        Will do! :)

        And I’ve never actually thought about that, an online community sounds like a fab idea. I’d love to see that post!

        And yep I couldn’t agree more, they’re definitely worth paying a little more for :)

  • Joe Longhin

    Well I finally caved after seeing you link the pick four notebooks.
    The desire to get you some commission, and to actually set my goals and go for them was just too strong today!

    Also thank you for the article. I have been intending to learn Japanese for some time now. After coming back to your site again after some time I am motivated to get going with learning the language again.
    Loved the So meta indeed.

    Joe

    • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

      Nice! And many thanks. :)

      Let me know how the goal notebook works out! I’m sure it will have a great effect on your Japanese if you keep at it.

      Also, I’ll make a point to get some Japanese resources up soon so you’ve got some extra stuff to work with. Have you checked out MindSnacks? I enjoy using their Japanese app for vocabulary building.

      I’ve reviewed it here if you’re interested: http://powlyglot.com/mindsnacks-review/

      • Joe Longhin

        I’m working on learning Hiragana before going after vocab. At least I think that’s where I need to start. (right?) I only started going through the first steps in the Pick Four but I am really really liking what I am seeing so far and plan to use them to the best of my ability 😀

        • http://martinboeh.me/ Martin Boehme

          Hiragana is a great place to start. Learning that and Katakana will make you feel like a badass early on, which is a great motivator. :)