The long road to language learning success

language learning

It takes a long time to learn a language. I have sometimes compared language learning to an upside down hockey stick. There is an initial quick steep climb, followed by a long straight period when we are often not aware of our progress. That early climb, when something unintelligible all of a sudden becomes meaningful to us, is most gratifying. The long road to fluency, slowly acquiring new vocabulary and new habits, requires a lot of determination and perseverance.

One of my Youtube viewers, atf300t, left the following comment on one of my videos:

“When you start learning a new language, your progress is quite noticeable — you knew nothing and now you can understand simple text and slow speech. However, after some time, it may appear that you do not make any progress. At this point, majority of extrinsic motivated individuals often become demotivated and stop learning.”

He went on to say, in a comment to another video:

“I do not think it’s correct to say that immigrants who go to those language schools are not motivated. If they were not, they would not go there. They may have plenty extrinsic motivation – chances for a better career, earn more money, etc, still they do very poorly. What they lack is intrinsic motivation to learn the language. Only _intrinsic_ motivation makes one a successful autonomous learner.”


  1. Not part of the essential nature of someone or something; coming or operating from outside.


  1. Belonging naturally; essential.



So what does this mean?

It means that if you are trying to learn a language for someone else, or for some objective outside yourself, e.g. to get a better job, to improve your pay, to please someone else etc., you are likely not to stay the course. You will start to waiver along the long road to fluency and you won’t get there.

If, on the other hand, the desire to learn the language comes from within, if you truly like the language and if you enjoy learning it, then you will stay the course and eventually achieve your goal.

There are things that you can do to increase your intrinsic motivation. Ideally the language interests you for its own sake. But what if the language and culture don’t interest you, but you have to learn it anyway? My advice is to try to find some small aspect of the language or culture that does interest you. Work at it. Your taste for the language can be developed. It is a long road to fluency, so you are best advised to find a way to make the process enjoyable.


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3 comments on “The long road to language learning success

That’s true for many things and that’s also why language learning at school rarely proves effective. We are humans, we need to find interest in ourselves to learn a language. When a country as a whole doesn’t interest me, then I do as you suggest, I focus on something specific, like movies or songs.

I really like this thought of intrinsic motivation, it’s beautiful. But I can’t agree with it completely.

This kind of intrinsic motivation is what a polyglot needs who seemingly learns languages for the sake of it. And it’s extremely difficult to acquire.

It would also mean that very few people would be able to successfully learn a new language.

IMO if you just want to learn another language (and not become a polyglot) then you need some kind of motivation coming more from the outside, i.e. a reason to actually learn that language. This can be anything like having a solo trip planned to China in a year or having girl or boy friend from Spain etc. Negative ones work better. A solo trip to China without speaking any Chinese may make you quite afraid of not being able to “survive”. So that’s a good one if you don’t underestimate the situation you’re going to be in.

A big reason that people stop learning a language is that in their eyes the benefits of learning one no longer outweigh the disadvantages. The struggle isn’t worth speaking another language anymore.

The same goes for the immigrants. They stop because after having spent a while in the country they see it’s not that necessary to speak the language. Especially if they hang out with folks from their own country. In their eyes, the outside need to learn the language has diminished and the benefits or learning the language no longer outweighs the disadvantages of doing so. So there you have your demotivation.

If this happens they aren’t lost of course, but they’ll need to find a way to increase their perception of the benefits of learning another language.

That’s my two cents. Hope it adds something to the discussion. It’s a rather abstract subject so we’re never going to nail it exactly.

That’s really true. Before learning a language, it is important to learn to love it.
This love is the best motivation and the energy we need to keep learning without tiring. We adopt a positive attitude and focus on the benefits of learning the language. From time to time I stop and focus on my achievements. That helps me realize how much I progressed!

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