Motivation: The Most Important Factor in Learning a New Language

Today we have a guest post from Andrew, the blogger of How to Learn Spanish. He was kind enough to write an article for me on motivation when learning a new language. Please be sure to visit his site for many more excellent articles on learning Spanish and language learning in general!

Motivation is the most important factor in determining whether or not you will learn a language, how well you will able to learn it, and how long it’s going to take you.

Attempting to learn a language without having a true passion for it, whether it’s because you want to be able to communicate with the people who speak it (the best reason!) or because you need it for business (hey, if it’s worth enough money to you, that can work as excellent motivation) or because you think it’s beautiful and you want to be able to read old literature written in it (this pops up a lot for French) or whatever, you need something. You need to find something you can be truly passionate about that will serve to help you break through the inevitable plateaus and walls you will encounter that will deflate and depress you and ultimately cause you to give up if you don’t have something really strong pushing you to keep going, if you don’t have a really good reason to struggle through the tough stuff.

A great way to do this, my favorite, is to schedule a trip to a country where your language is spoken a certain amount of time (6 months, 1 year, etc.) in the future so that you’ve not only got a great reason to learn the language but you’ve got a dead line, too!


One of greatest motivations that I’ve never seen fail, though it’s not practically possible for a lot of people, is wanting to be able to communicate with a new girlfriend or boyfriend who happens to be a native speaker, or even a not-so-new husband or wife or their in-laws (who frequently don’t speak English).

If you’ve just gotten a new boyfriend or girlfriend, who you think is just the most fantastic, sweetest little pookie-wookie-shnookums-cutie-pie in the whole world, but who isn’t a native English speaker and especially if their English isn’t so great and you’ve realized just how much better you can communicate with them, empathize with them, write love letters to them, explain movies to them, and tell them how much you love them if you could speak their language, guess what: that’s a powerful motivator, one of the most powerful I’ve ever seen.

Guys who have repeatedly told me how much they’re not interested in learning a new language “because the whole world speaks English, so hey, why bother man?” get a cute new little French or Brazilian hottie for a girlfriend and all of a sudden they’ve bought half a dozen language learning programs, books, CDs, and such, they’re watching French or Brazilian football games with subtitles on and trying to read the newspapers from Paris/Rio, etc. etc. It’s hilarious to watch and massively educational at the same time in that it shows just what the proper motivation can do.

This particular advice to get a lover who’s a native speaker of the language you want to learn is something that you will see repeated over and over again if you read enough books and blogs on how to learn a new language, and they’re right, and there’s a very good reason that works so well.

Travel and People

I really don’t believe that you can learn very much about another culture, country, or people simply by visiting them as a tourist for a couple of weeks, and it’s even worse if you can’t speak their language and one of my personal passions is learning about other cultures and people who are different from me and mine. I could literally spend the rest of my life moving from country to country every 3-5 years and picking up, ooohhh, say a dozen or so languages along the way, learning about other people and other cultures just never ceases to completely enthrall me and I know a lot of other people out there, especially language-learners, feel the same way, so if this is you then you’ve got a fantastic source of motivation right there, I would just give you one little important piece of advice that I mentioned at the start: don’t keep it general and obscure, make it specific and stick a deadline on it, pick a specific country and set a deadline for when you’re going to visit it so that you have to have learned the language by that time.

Not only will learning the language allow you to communicate with them so that they can tell you this, but the very act of learning that language will tell you SO many things about the people who speak it. Look at Japanese and all the honorifics used in it, how many different ways there are to say ‘no’ without saying ‘no’ directly and what does that tell you about how important it is to do that, how important it is to avoid confrontation? You see that reflected in the language and the roundabout, indirect way it goes about doing EVERYTHING: what does that tell you about the Japanese people??? And you haven’t even talked to any of them yet, have you? Do you see how much you can learn about a people just from their language alone? This stuff is fascinating!

The Easiest Language in the World

Is the one that fascinates you the most, or who’s people/culture fascinates you. That will be the easiest one for you to learn because learning it will be a labor of love, it won’t be ‘work’ because it’ll be fun, it’ll be interesting, it’ll excite and drive you through thick and thin to keep going and succeed no matter what, and when you do it won’t even feel like it was all that hard at all! It won’t be an exercise in seeing how much you can torture yourself like when you were trying to force Spanish/French/German/Latin down your throat back in high school just so you could pass that stupid test and get out of there, it won’t be something you dread doing every day and are eager to “just get it over with” so you can get onto something…interesting, perhaps? See what I mean?

Are you fascinated by the history of a certain country? If you’re a WWII buff then German or Russian may very well be for you! If you’re a Japanophile who knows more about Japanese history than most Japanese do, then I think the choice is pretty obvious. If you’ve got a serious, acute, and completely untreatable love for latinas like I do, then Spanish it is (and in that case I’ve got some posts on how to learn Spanish from Shakira that you might be interested in )! If you’re a foodie with an undying love for everything edible and French, well… what do you think? Parlez Français!!

Which language should you learn? What are you most passionate about that has a language strongly connected to it? There you go, problem solved. Now go forth and SPEAK! And it is vitally, absolutely, monumentally important to SPEAK to native speakers, but that’s a whole ‘nother post altogether.

Please, tell me in the comments, why are you doing this? You don’t need to be able to speak a language other than your native one, not really: you can get around your home country, buy food, get a job, pay rent, raise a family, etc. without ever having learned another language besides your native one. Also, this takes a lot of time, self-discipline, motivation, energy, work, and usually some amount of money (which could range anywhere from a grand total of 50 bucks for books to thousands of dollars spent on travel), this stuff requires some serious time and dedication, you could be building model trains or getting really good at playing Call of Duty or whacking a little ball around a field with a stick instead: so why are you doing this?

I think you’ll find that being forced to write out a good, solid explanation will be quite therapeutic for you in that it’ll help to remind you just why you’re working so hard at this, it’ll recharge your motivational batteries, so to speak. So come on, give it a shot, tell us what your deal is.

And, of course, if you’re particularly interested in Spanish I’d love to have you come on over and have a look at what I’m doing, maybe even subscribe if you like.

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