How To Find The Motivation To Learn A Language

How to get motivated to learn languages

Recently I wrote about how one of the biggest struggles people face when learning another language is finding time (according to many of you who I surveyed).

The response I gave can pretty much be summed up like this:

Minimalist living → Less work → Less hours stuck doing things that enslave us → More time to truly live and do the things we love

It doesn’t take into account everyone’s own situation but for many it does.

You know what the second biggest problem people said they face?

Finding motivation.

The difference between the time issue and the motivation issue is that time isn’t always within our immediate control whereas motivation absolutely is.


Intrinsic vs. extrinsic motivation

If you’ve got any kind of background in education, you may have heard at some point that there are two types of motivation – extrinsic and intrinsic.

Extrinsic is motivation that we get from our environment.

For example if I offer you $100 to pass a test and you pass with flying colors, I’ve used a reward to motivate you to succeed.

That’s extrinsic motivation.

Other language-specific extrinsic motivators might be learning a language in order to get a promotion at work or to be able to chat up girls in a bar.

Then there’s intrinsic motivation.

This is the motivation that comes from within ourselves.

An intrinsic motivator could be something like wanting to learn French just because you love French culture or because you enjoy learning. Intrinsic motivation is basically feel good motivation and is all about self-improvement and feeling good about ourselves.

Experts say that kids are much more extrinsically motivated than adults (which is why they’re so easy to bribe with candy) and that as we get older we become more intrinsically motivated.

In my experience and opinion, some adults are far more similar to kids however.

A lot of people stay mostly extrinsically motivated for certain things their entire lives and in the case of adult language learners, unless there’s a serious extrinsic motivator like getting a job promotion, there just isn’t enough motivation there to do it.


Are you extrinsically or intrinsically motivated to learn a language?

When you hear of polyglots learning their umpteenth language and you’re amazed at how they do it, remember that they’re mostly just intrinsically motivated to learn languages.

They do it because it makes them feel good. They enjoy it.

I have a good friend who buys and collects vintage cars – he has more than he needs and he keeps buying them.

He treats vintage cars the same way I treat languages.

We’re all intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to do different things – everyone’s different.

So really, the first thing you need to do is decide whether or not you’re intrinsically or extrinsically motivated to learn a language.

If you learn languages just because you enjoy it then you shouldn’t really have as many issues with motivation as it’ll be something you do just because you really want to.

People who rely on extrinsic motivation are the ones who will struggle the most to find it when learning a language.


How to find motivation to learn a language

Get serious.

When I sit down to get something done that’s important to me and motivation wanes, I tell myself this:

There’s nothing on earth more important than what I’m staring at right now.

Put yourself in a zone where language study is do or die.

One of my biggest heroes is Bear Grylls (the British former SAS survivalist guy on Discovery Channel) and I’ve been reading a motivational book of his called A Survival Guide For Life.

He tells a story in his book about a friend of his who had piles of unfinished work that he couldn’t find the motivation to finish. It just kept piling up and he couldn’t bring himself to get through it all.

Then one day one of his friends invited him to Fiji for a holiday but the only way he could possibly go on that holiday was to finish all of his unfinished work.

Bear then goes on to say that his friend smashed it all out in lightning speed.

The trip to Fiji (great extrinsic motivator!) pushed this guy to get absolutely everything done.

He concludes by saying that whenever you struggle with motivation, just go to Fiji. :)

The good news for us is that we don’t need to have a holiday to Fiji on the horizon. We can apply the same principle to our own motivation when it comes to language study or anything else by denying ourselves pleasures and rewards until it’s done.

If you’re the kind of person who finds language learning boring and monotonous (ah man, I suppose I should study now :() then you may be learning in a way that makes it boring.

Or you may have been taught a misconception about how languages should be learned which is making you hate the idea of study altogether (see this post).

Routine is a progress killer.

Try doing something completely different for a change.

Instead of going for the same book or tool you use every time you study, use another resource that you don’t usually use for a while. I’m sure that a lot of people take online tools like Duolingo and use them almost exclusively to learn languages which is never a good idea.

Variety is key both to success and sanity.


Let the world hold you to your promises

I wrote about this a while back but here it is again to remind you.

Public accountability is powerful.

When everyone knows what you’ve set out to do, it’s much harder to quit because of the social pressure involved.

Nobody likes to fail and especially when other people can see it.

In my case about 50,000 strangers visit this site every month, thousands of people read my emails and thousands more read the stuff I say on social media.

That means that when I learn a language and announce it here, I feel pressure to make sure I follow through with it – not because I have anything to prove but simply because I’ve made it known publicly to a lot of people what I’m doing and that alone challenges me to carry through with it all.

If I start getting lazy or losing motivation then all I have to do is look at this blog or open my email account.

But this is a principle that applies to the real world as well as online (in fact much more).

Tell everyone around you (family, friends and colleagues) that you’re learning a language, set a date for when you expect to reach a certain goal and also tell them about that.

Let them hold you to it and remind you constantly.

So in summary:

1. Self rewards and punishments. Deny yourself simple pleasures until the job is done.

2. Break routine and monotony. If it’s boring, you’re doing it wrong.

3. Seek out social pressure. Hand the whip to people around you who will make sure you follow through.

How To Learn Grammar Easily And Enjoyably

How to learn grammar

Much of the advice on this site for language learning can be summed up like this:

Get out there and talk to people. Even if you only know two words – hello and goodbye – it’s enough to get you started.

Fact: books are dead and don’t reflect the living, organic nature of languages that are spoken by real people.

I’m a hold-nothing-back, face-your-fears language and cultural immersion guy.

Grammar rules are something we invented to try and make sense of languages that are forever evolving and breaking those rules.

Ironically, the best language learners are the ones who forget about the rules, stop asking pointless questions and are willing to let the language and culture shape and mold them. It’s foolish to treat a living language the same way as a math problem (if I just work out the formula then I’ll get it).

In fact I’ve said many times over that you absolutely don’t need to study grammar to learn to speak a foreign language and shown how this is possible but today I had a thought:

What if somebody has to learn grammar?

What if we study a course at college that requires us to learn all the rules or we want to learn a language that’s only written (such as a ‘dead’ language)?

There are loads of times where we have no choice and/or speaking with native speakers just isn’t an option.

Since I’m working through Ancient Greek (Koine) grammar at the moment, it’s been a great chance to reflect on my own strategies for making grammar study much easier and more enjoyable.

It can be enjoyable believe it or not!

So if you’re in the same boat learning foreign language grammar then keep reading! This will help you.


Know your own grammar first

What’s an adverb?

What’s a gerund?

Do you even know what a verb is?

It might sound crazy to some people but there are genuinely many many people out there (the majority of people in fact) who don’t know what these things are.

You might be one of them (and there’s no shame in it).

Now imagine the kind of work you’ll have cut out for you when you start a new French class say and the teacher starts using these terms – in French.

Before you even get to the French stuff, you’ll be going mad trying to understand what the grammar actually is.

I’ll never forget seeing a grown man storm out of my Greek class a few years ago literally in tears because it was too much for him.

The crazy thing was that it wasn’t the Greek that stumped him, but the English grammar was so foreign to him that he struggled to make sense of any of it (and he’s a native English speaker!).

I had a brilliant lecturer for Hebrew once who showed me the importance of taking time to acquaint myself with English grammar properly before actually trying to learn the grammar of another language – and this is especially important for people who have been out of school for quite a while and forgotten all the basics.

This is not to say that you need to do some intensive course on English grammar before anything else.

It just means you take a bit of time to familiarize yourself with the concepts so you can relate it to what you already know.

Often all it takes is to see a few examples of a grammar point to have that ‘aha!’ moment.

That way when you come across terms in a new language’s grammar you won’t be scratching your head over the descriptions.

Get a simple, easy-to-read grammar reference in English (or whatever your native language is) and use it to guide you through the foreign language material (this series is my favorite).

Whenever you come across a new grammar point that’s a bit confusing, you’ve got a basic reference on hand to explain it to you in a language you already understand.


Take really really hard stuff and make it really really easy to understand

Never start memorizing a bunch of rules if you’re not 100% sure what they’re for. It’s a waste of time.

Step 1 should always be: grasp the concept.

You won’t always find explanations in an English grammar book because you’ll quite often find grammar in other languages that we don’t have and vice versa.

I’ll give you an example:

Let’s say I’m looking at a chapter in a Greek grammar book on past tense.

The book starts using big words like imperfect and aorist, and suddenly I’m confused as hell because all I understand is the general meaning of past tense – something that happened before now.

I had no idea that there are different kinds or aspects of past tense.

Confusion sets in!

So before I go ahead and start memorizing all the rules of these two aspects of the past tense, I need to clarify for myself what they’re talking about.

One way that I personally make this hard stuff very plain and simple to understand is by drawing it:

How to learn grammar

I’ve drawn two branches of past tense and visualized the concept by drawing a basic timeline for each.

The aorist is a simple, undefined past event; it’s something that happened in the past so it’s represented by a a single dot whereas the imperfect was something ongoing in the past so it’s a line with an arrow pointing toward the future.

I’ve taken something abstract and dumbed it down for myself.

It’s a fairly simple image but it clarifies confusing concepts for me and is especially useful for visual-spatial learners like myself who need to see it before it sinks in. I actually didn’t understand this until I had it drawn on paper the way you see here.

Again, I could scribble something to myself to clarify how the past perfect and future perfect tenses in English work:

How to learn grammar

Remember this is not about being artistic – it’s just a quick scribble to help you see grammar in action.

Now whenever I see these terms in the textbook, I can refer to this to get some better perspective on it.

These drawings might not make sense to anybody else but that’s fine – they’re there to clarify meaning for me and that’s the point.

You could do this in any number of ways – recording yourself explaining the concept in simple terms or writing a quick anecdote that illustrates the point for example.

Also if you find terms confusing then write them down and write in brackets beside them a word or description that makes sense to you personally. For example:

Noun = name.

Verb = doing word.

Adjective = describing word for a noun.

Adverb = describing word for a verb.

Conditional = if.

Conjunction = and, but, or, so…

and so on.

They’re very simple explanations but the important thing is that they make sense to you.


Learn the core, essential stuff first

And don’t necessarily follow a textbook from beginning to end.

Just because a textbook introduces something in chapter 1 doesn’t mean you should start with it. I’ve seen a lot of shitty textbooks that leave the important core stuff till the later chapters and teach unimportant grammar right up front.

Good books won’t do this but in any case you should decide for yourself what’s high priority and what’s not.

I wrote a post a while back called How To Understand At Least 20% Of Every Conversation In A Foreign Language where I talked about the most common 100 words in a language and how understanding them will enable you to understand a huge chunk of everything you hear and read.

These core words in every language are the framework of our conversations – we use them constantly every time we speak.

So make it your priority to identify the words and grammar that are absolutely essential and focus on them first. For example, personal pronouns, conjunctions, basic nouns, verbs and adjectives, prepositions (in, on, under, etc.), and basic verb tenses (past, present and future) definitely should be learned first because you’ll need them straight away.

Be selective about what you learn and only give time to what matters most.

I apply this same principle for learning to speak a language by only devoting my time to the things that I know I’ll use.


Identify patterns and use mnemonic devices to never forget anything

Forget exceptions.

In every language on earth (except constructed languages), you’ll find exceptions to rules.

That’s because languages can’t be bound by rules – we invent rules to help us make sense of things but languages are organic, living and evolving things that don’t like to be told what to do. :)

We know in English for example that -ed on the end of a verb indicates past tense but then we come across words like ate, saw, sang, etc. which give a big middle finger to this rule.

So just focus on the patterns of unexceptional grammar, use mnemonic devices to help you remember them and forget exceptions until much later on.

What’s a mnemonic device?

It’s simply a fancy term that means anything that helps you remember something.

So for example in Koine Greek the word for tree is δενδρον (dendron) and it’s an easy one to remember because quite a few trees in English have names that are of Greek origin (e.g. rhododendron).

That’s a mnemonic device for you (albeit an easy one).

The word for death in Greek is θάνατος which I always remember because the bad guy in the cartoon Gargoyles was named Xanatos and death is bad. Xanatos → bad guy → kills people → death → θάνατος.

The same kind of thing can be done with rules and conjugation tables.

Take this table of endings for the present indicative active tense in Greek for example:

How to learn grammar

The bit that stays the same all the time is the φι- bit at the start which is the root of this particular word meaning to love.

For each one of the endings you could make your own mnemonic devices to help you remember them:

-ω (oh): Ohhhh I love it!

-εις (ice): You love ice.

-ει (eye): He, she, it loves my eye.

-ουμεν (ooh men): ‘Oooh we love men’, said the ladies.

-ειτε (aighte): You’ll all love it, aighte (alright)?.

-ουσιν (ooh sin): Oooh, sin is something they don’t love.

A few of these may seem silly but you’ll never forget them.

The great thing is that for many languages, once you learn a few of these conjugation tables, you start to notice similar patterns in the language for other conjugations.

The best way to really make it sink in and get used to these patterns is the same way you would if you were learning to speak a language – lots of exposure to the target language in context.

Learning rules for words as you encounter them in sentences is a heck of a lot better than simply memorizing them in isolation as single words.

You need to see how words interact with each other in natural sentences.

The only difference is that instead of listening and speaking, you’ll be doing lots of reading and writing to look for these patterns.


I also use and recommend the Shaum’s Outlines if you’re looking for a solid, detailed yet clear (important!) grammar book.

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