Maintaining motivation is absolutely key. I think many people start with some motivation to learn a language and, for various reasons, get frustrated and they are unable to maintain their motivation.
In my own case, I am usually quite motivated to learn a language, but it wasn’t always the case. When I was 16, I wasn’t very motivated to learn languages and I spoke only one. Today, I speak 16 languages to varying degrees of fluency.
Most of my professional life I have been in business, in particular the lumber business. In a way, I want to compare the undertaking or the enterprise of running a business (I’ve had my own company for 30 years) and the activity or the undertaking of trying to learn a language. There are similarities and there are differences.
Seven or eight years ago, I was in China and I met a Canadian there who was building homes. He made this comment: “In China nothing is easy, but everything is possible.” He referred to the fact that, of course, the business environment in China was different from what he was used to, so he found it quite complicated. Nothing is easy, but in China there’s always a way to get things done, he sort of said, therefore everything is possible.
This expression has kind of stuck with me because I think it applies to a lot in life. Most things that are worthwhile doing are not easy. Starting a business and making a business successful is not easy. Learning a language is not easy, but it’s very worthwhile and, what’s more, it’s possible. Certainly, learning a language is possible. In the case of business, there are more unpredictable factors, things that are outside of our control, but I think it’s very much possible. It’s possible to be successful in business, it’s possible to learn a language and if we have tasks that are not easy but that we make them possible, this gives us a great sense of satisfaction.
This has been described in great detail in what is known as Flow Theory. If we are dealing with a task that is a little difficult for us, not so easy but we’re able to cope with it, that this is very satisfying for us, satisfying for our brains. It gives us a great sense of satisfaction. It’s one of the most enjoyable things we can do. It’s more enjoyable than doing easy tasks where there’s no sense of satisfaction and, of course, it’s more enjoyable than a task that frustrates us because it’s too difficult, therefore not possible.
If we can achieve this state of flow, like the flowing of a river, then we will not only be able to maintain our motivation. Our motivation will grow because we’ll be getting a sense of satisfaction and achievement that we’re coping with something that isn’t easy, but that we’re making possible to achieve. So how do we do this? How we get ourselves into this state of flow? Here is where we come to this issue of whatever we want to do, we have to be prepared.
When I started my own business, I had to be prepared. I had to know something about my market. I had to know people. I had to know the product. I had to be prepared, otherwise the risk was simply too great. In language learning you have to be prepared. You have to make sure you have the materials you need. Maybe a starter book in the language. You should look into resources that are available online, there’s of course LingQ.com, but other resources, grammar resources that are easily accessed online. You have to have the tools. You have to prepare yourself, otherwise the task isn’t easy.
Again, if we want to achieve this state of flow we should do two things. We should make the task as easy as it possibly can be and that means being prepared. The second thing is we want to have a method that’s going to make things that might seem impossible become more probable. That means not trying to do things that are too difficult to do, for example, trying to memorize conjugation tables. In my experience, I can’t do that. If you can do that, fine, but I find that’s not possible.
I don’t think it’s possible to learn lists of words and, in fact, there is considerable research that shows that the more time we spend on trying to learn something like lists of words, the less we retain. A far more effective method is to expose yourself to lots and lots of the language. Initially, you have to deal with rather uninteresting material, but then as soon as possible you should move into content that’s of interest so that you’re just being exposed to the language.
Going back to this idea of preparation: Part of our mental preparation has to be to recognize that in the first few months you’re learning new words, you’re learning to say things in a new language and it’s very exciting. Then, at some point, we realize that to achieve fluency is a long, long road. So we need to be mentally prepared for that, but at the same time we need to have a method of learning that enables us to stay with the task, to remain in that state of flow. As we get into authentic material, we’re reading about subjects of interest to us or watching movies that are of interest to us. We’re engaging with the language in a way that’s interesting and satisfying and we can introduce variety.
Another aspect of method is to vary listening and reading and possibly use flashcards, talk with people and so forth. Something that might seem impossible to you, like becoming fluent in another language, now becomes possible because you have a method that enables you to stay with the task over the long haul. If you can get yourself in this state of flow where you have content that’s not too difficult but is of interest to you, and you’re achieving this sense of satisfaction because you’re able to understand it, then you’re in that state of flow.
Obviously, in business if you fail that could be quite dramatic. In my business career, I have had customers go bankrupt and not pay me what they owed me. I’ve had customers suddenly decide they no longer want to buy the product that we’ve been supplying for a long time. I’ve had a number of problems and the consequences can be quite dramatic. In language learning, a lot of the failure is in our own minds. We think we didn’t do as well as we would have liked to. We weren’t able to express ourselves as well as we would have liked to. We didn’t understand as well as we would have liked to.
I think there we have to be realistic, so one of the reasons that I focus on listening and reading is there’s less opportunity to fail. I’m just listening. I’m reading. If I don’t understand, I listen again or I read and study the words and listen again. On the other hand, if I’m forced to do tests, which I don’t like doing, then there’s a real opportunity to fail the test, to get the wrong answer. That’s why I believe in language learning we shouldn’t give people tests, drills and exercises, but rather let them enjoy the language so that we don’t confront them with failure. As they build up familiarity with the language, gradually they start to speak better and better.
Even with that, there are going to be moments when we don’t do as well as we would like or we feel we don’t pronounce as well as we would like. Very often, these things don’t really matter because, in fact, you’re able to communicate quite effectively, even with less than perfect pronunciation and less than perfect usage or grammar.
As in business, we have to overcome failure and start again, very often. There are periods when we’re very depressed because things didn’t go as hoped. It’s the same in language. There are times when you are disappointed with your results, but you have to cope with that. Again, if you focus on comprehension, accumulating words and enjoying the language in this state of flow, you will be less upset over your perceived shortcomings.
Finally, I think it’s important to find people to help you in business. You can’t do business without suppliers, customers, friends, contacts, people who help you along the way. Language learning is a little more of an individual journey, but people can be so helpful. These can be native speakers, teachers, fellow students, people who can direct you to resources on the Internet where you can find reference to whatever you need to know. It could be conjugation tables in Italian. It could be audio and text content in the language you’re learning. People can help you and you can find people to talk to.
Never has it been easier to find language companions than today. In fact, never has it been easier to find language resources than today using the Internet and all the different forms of modern technology.
Staying motivated in language learning really is a matter of getting yourself into a position where you can enjoy the process of learning, where you’re in this state of flow and therefore you don’t get frustrated. Once you’re frustrated, what do you do? Perhaps leave it for a couple of days, go back to it and study in different ways.
Ideally, I don’t get frustrated in my language learning because I do things that are enjoyable. I have realistic expectations. I sort of try to do things that are a little bit difficult for me but not impossible. I focus on listening and reading to things that are enjoyable for me and, as a result, my motivation grows. I think all of us can learn languages in a way that sees our motivation actually grow.
I believe in LingQ as an extremely effective way of learning languages and staying motivated. The LingQ system gives you access to interesting and authentic content earlier, so you aren’t stuck with what I consider to be somewhat discouraging learner material. I definitely recommend that you give LingQ a chance and see if it can help you.