Why motivation is NOT the most important thing in language learning (and what to do instead)

Published by Aneta on

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Why motivation is NOT the most important thing in language learning (and what to do instead)

www.vroolang. com - blue neon sign work harder

Mozart was a piano genius. Steve Jobs had his own IT empire. Malala Yousafzai, a Pakistani activist, built a thriving NGO. And myself, not getting even close to the achievements of the aforementioned, speak fluently in four languages. What do we have in common – apart from being slightly dramatic? 😉

Perseverance, determination, and patience in doing what we have decided to focus our time and energy on.

It wasn’t just motivation and “nice flow” that allowed Mozart to play his first concert at the age of six, Jobs – to build an empire worth billions of dollars, and Malala – to help millions of girls in third world countries. So why do we think that motivation alone will allow us to succeed in language learning?

The myth of motivation as the main (or the only) factor that leads to success in language learning comes from poor understanding of what motivation really serves for.

What purpose does the motivation serve then, you might ask?

It’s the initial spark.

Imagine you’re going on a long road trip. Everything you need for the journey is already in your bag – clothes, cosmetics, a phone charger. You are ready, finally. You take the keys and go to the parking lot, where you have left your car. You get into the car and start the engine, full of excitement. You enter the highway; you can almost feel the taste of the refreshing drinks you’re going to enjoy when you reach your Dream Destination, when suddenly… you run out of gasoline. You have prepared your luggage, but have forgot to put the fuel. It simply slipped your mind.

The road trip story is the story of your language learning. The car represents your language skills. The luggage are all the books, apps, language classes and other props you need during the learning. The car keys are your motivation. Yes, motivation is just a fuse, a spark that sets the whole process in motion. Your car won’t run on motivation alone. No “language car” ever has.

So what is your linguistic gasoline? The fuel that will allow you to reach your desired B2, have a conversation in Polish with a local shopkeeper, or speak fluent French during a business meeting? There are several types of fuel, and each has its own function in the learning process.


a piano player

Every skill requires regular practice. Fitness lovers know it, guitar players know it, language students should know it as well. To answer a frequently asked question: no, attending a language course once or twice a week is not enough. Regularity means daily learning practice, both in class and at home.

How to get in the habit of studying regularly, and how long does it take to develop a habit? According to the calculations of Wise American Scientists, it takes somewhere between 28 and 60 days.

My favorite way to develop a learning habit is to combine learning with an everyday activity, like sipping your morning coffee or doing yoga. You will be surprised how quickly you will see the results of regular work!

Another frequently asked question: shall you study in the mornings or in the evenings? I recommend mornings, for several reasons:

  1. It gives you a motivation boost – it’s only 8 AM and you’ve already learned something new!
  2. You are (usually) less tired and have more receptive mind.
  3. Mornings have more predictable schedules (again – usually), and it’s easier to find the time to learn – a zillion ASAPs may crop up in the afternoon, or you may be invited to a social event, and your daily language routine will be postponed – yet again.

A well-set language goal

a man with an arc

No work at the linguistic roots, no regular learning schedule will be any good if you cannot answer some basic questions: why am I doing all this? Why am I learning a language? Why do I spend lots of time sitting with my nose in grammar books, instead of relaxing or socializing with friends? If you cannot answer the above questions with certainty and conviction, all the learning, however regular and well-meant, will quickly lose all meaning.

Intelligent, logic-driven beings that we are, we like to know the reasons for our actions – the “why”. Both children and adults, we are much more willing to perform specific tasks if we are provided with a reason. Write down your language goal and hang it up in a visible place – preferably in a place where you study. Never lose sight of it – literally and figuratively!


a tree growing

Developing any skill requires time and dedication. Developing language skills is no exception – you have to invest a lot of time and energy and wait for the results. Imagine that your language skills are a tree you just planted. It’s only natural that it shall take some time from the moment you plant the seed to the moment you savor the fruit of your work.

I get triggered by the click baits like “learn Spanish while you sleep” or “he started speaking fluently after two weeks of our language course – teachers hate him!”. If somebody had invented a way to instantly upload a new software, called Fluent in a Foreign Language, we would all be speaking eight languages fluently 😉 So far, such things stay in the fantasy world, so we have to learn and wait patiently.

How soon will you see the first results of regular, daily work with a language? In my experience, it takes around 30 days to see the first results.


Patience’s best buddy. The idea of perseverance is based on your (mostly) unshakeable faith in your abilities to learn a new skill. Remember that speaking a foreign language is not something reserved only for people that “have a knack for languages” or posses the alleged “language gene” (the idea which, by the way, has never been scientifically proven!). It is accessible to everyone. I repeat: EVERYONE can learn a foreign language. Thanks to daily, sometimes tedious, work at the grass roots of a language.

How about you? What is your fuel for learning when the initial spark of motivation runs out? Precise goals, perseverance, developing good learning habits, or maybe something else? Let me know in the comments!