Why is Motivation Important When it Comes to Learning Languages? has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. You can download the audio and study the transcript as a lesson at LingQ.

Hi there, Steve Kaufmann here. Today I want to talk about a subject that comes up all the time — motivation.

I think motivation is the number one most important element (factor) in language learning success.

I just finished participating in a Google Plus hangout with seven or eight other polyglots, people on the Internet who regularly post comments like I do talking about the experience of language learning. It was hosted by David Mansaray who lives in London and I’m going to leave a link to it here in the box underneath the video and, if you are interested, please go and listen. It was done using Google Plus hangout technology and we’re still kind of ironing out the best practices for this technology, things like leaving your microphone on mute when you’re not speaking, but here were seven or eight, nine people who are obviously very motivated to learn languages.

We were asked several questions by David about the different methods we use and what we’ve found useful, not useful and so forth. There was one question about what techniques other people use do you not find useful, something to that effect, and a number of people said that they don’t find it useful to do shadowing. They don’t find Anki, spaced repetition or flashcards useful and yet there are people who find those things useful.

I think what I took out of that was if you are motivated you will find the learning techniques that work best for you and it really doesn’t matter whether you use flashcards or use Anki or use something else. Most of the people there basically said they like to listen and read. They liked to engage with things that were meaningful and interesting to them and I think that’s a very important part of motivation. I think in many cases the traditional method of teaching is quite de-motivating because it focuses on the nuts and bolts of the language trying to get you to pronounce correctly at an early stage or trying to get you to remember grammatical patterns at an early stage and because this is extremely difficult to do people get frustrated.

Leaving that aside, for example, I’ve mentioned before that immigrants to Canada do very poorly at these government-sponsored language schools. I would think they basically achieve nothing and that they could achieve more effectively on their own if they were motivated.  I would think for a motivated person the time spent in the classroom is actually a waste of time because you’re in there listening to 10, 15, 20 other people struggle with the language, whereas if you are genuinely motivated you could learn using resources on the Internet. If you’re living in a place where the language is spoken, you’re just surrounded by resources that can help you learn.

But so few people are motivated and so I asked myself, here we have these nine keeners and then, subsequent to that, I had a discussion in Chinese with Nicholas from Sweden who is 18-years-old and who speaks flawless English, Spanish and now has been at Chinese he says for four months and he speaks like wow, extremely well; again, a very motivated person. So why is it that some people are so motivated and other people sort of say yeah…?

I spoke to a lady the other day at a Chinese restaurant. We were speaking in Chinese and she said I’ve been here three years and I really want to learn, but I’m having a lot of trouble and stuff. She can hardly speak English and I didn’t want to probe, but I said how much time do you actually spend with English? How much effort do you put into it?

I think there are various levels of motivation. There are those people who aren’t interested at all and I knew a lot of those when I lived in Japan; for example, Europeans and North Americans who lived there and made absolutely no effort to get beyond konnichiwa in Japanese. So there’s the zero motivation group. Then there are the people who say yeah, I would love to be able to speak Spanish. At a certain level they’re motivated, but they either aren’t sufficiently motivated to push or they become easily discouraged.

This was another point that was raised by Luca, that the initial period with a language can be quite discouraging because it’s so difficult. Basically, you can’t make sense of the language, you don’t understand and stuff, so it is important to persevere and break through that to the next level. Now, in my own experience, I find that the initial period in some ways is quite rewarding because very quickly you know the word for dog, horse, cow. You know some things, whereas previously you knew nothing. Then comes that very long period where you have to move from some understanding of the language to actually reaching a comfortable level of fluency.

So I think that intermediate to advanced stage takes a much longer period of time than getting from zero to some understanding in the language. I think there, too, people lose their motivation. There again my advice always is to give yourself credit for being better than you think you are, but also stay with activities that are interesting and follow your interests. Now, that’s assuming people have interest. If you have no interest in any aspect then probably you’re not going to be so motivated.

I just felt coming off that discussion with those polyglots and also with Nicholas that there’s a small group of people, maybe those are the people who watch my videos, who are into learning more than one language, a very small number. Then there are a very large number of people who, to varying degrees, would like to learn a language, but they aren’t motivated enough.

Now, why is that? Is it that we have to make it easier for them to achieve some success and that they could feed off that success to become more motivated? That’s the thing I always struggle with. How do you motivate people, assuming there is some degree of interest in speaking another language? Is it a matter of convincing them that they’ll be so much happier if they speak that other language; in other words, making the reward more palpable to them?

Again, I was talking to someone in Europe and there unemployed people receive 600 Euros a month, but if they attend a language school they get 800 Euros a month. So they are motivated to attend the language school, but this person told me most people don’t learn very much there. So the motivation drives them to attend the language school six hours a day with 20 people in a classroom. If they do that for a year, that’s 2,400 Euros.

Maybe you could motivate them by saying if you achieve level X in the language we will give you 2,400 Euros. Rather than motivating them to go to school when, in fact, the schools are very often quite unsuccessful at teaching the language, maybe the motivation should be if you achieve level X we will give you 2,400 Euros. Now, you still have to find people willing to come up with the money to motivate people, but even if you don’t get the money the rewards for being comfortable in a language to me are so obvious in terms of professional opportunities, in terms of cultural enrichment, in terms of being able to make friends and travel in different countries. It’s like getting a bonus of 2,500 Euros or 5,000 Euros. It’s worth more than 5,000 Euros.

I guess the question is how do you initially make that achievement of being comfortable in another language seem genuinely attractive to people so they’re just committed to it and then how do you maintain their motivation by making sure they do activities that are interesting to them and then how do you insure that they achieve some degree of success so that that will in turn encourage them to continue. I guess part of that is to not allow them to be discouraged. Allow them to recognize that it takes a long time to learn a language.

These are some of the things I often wonder about. I think, potentially, if there are a very small percentage of people who are very motivated to learn languages, how do we make that 10 times the number? I’d be interested in hearing your comments about this whole issue of motivation and how to motivate people beyond what I call our ‘little ghetto’ of polyglots into the sort of average population. How do you get more people interested in learning languages and get them to stay with the program until they achieve success?

I look forward to hearing any comments. Thank you for listening.

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