The single most important thing – Motivation

Motivation is the most important thing in language learning. It is what drives us, keeps us going when things get hard, and makes us put in the time.

If we are motivated, and spend time with the language, everything else almost doesn't matter. If we keep going, we will learn.

So for such an important thing, why is it so fickle?

How can we keep our motivation high, and make sure we become fluent in our target language?


Why are you learning?

First off, we need to know why we want to learn.

This can be anything. Do you have friends or family that speak the language? A group of people in your local community?

Perhaps you are interested in the culture, food, music, of cinema in this language?

Whatever the reason, it really doesn't matter. As long as you know why you want to learn, and keep this in mind when you are learning.

This will allow you to do two things. Firstly, it keeps you motivated. Think about everything you will be able to do once you are fluent. All of the people you can meet, all of the places you can go, and all of the things you can do.

The other bonus to this of course is it lets you target your learning.

For example, if you were learning Mandarin Chinese, and you wanted to speak to a small group of people in your village. This would need a completely different approach to if you were interested in Chinese history and literature.

Knowing why you are learning, allows you to break down what you need to do into steps, and allows you to set appropriate goals.

Another reason I mention this, is that one of the biggest mistakes I see people make when choosing a new language, is to learn the language they think will be easy, as opposed to the one they are actually interested in.

If you are fascinated by Chinese culture and history, you want to learn more about the country, you love the food, and you are fascinated by the Chinese writing system, but you think it will just be too hard.

But because you want to learn a new language you choose to learn Spanish, because you think it will be easier, and you studied it in school. This is a big mistake.

When you realize, learning Spanish isn't quite as easy as you originally thought, and things start to get more difficult, you will lose motivation.

This is why it's important to know why you want to learn, so you can stay motivated, and set goals that actually work.


Surround yourself with a community

This is a huge thing for motivation. The more people you include in your learning, the more motivation you will have, and the more fun it will be.

This is the essence of the add1challenge, and the community is why people manage to achieve such breakthrough results in just 90 days.

Participating online is a great way to meet new people. Join facebook groups, go onto the language learning sub-reddit, language specific reddit, or join a discord channel.

There are a ton of things you can do to meet people online, but there are also lots of things you can do to meet people in real life as well.

The first thing you can do is join local meetups. You can filter to "language & culture", and meet other language learners, and language exchange partners alike.

The other thing I would recommend is going to a big conference or gathering, such as langfest in Montreal, or the polyglot conference, held this year in Slovenia.


Track your progress

Another great way to keep your motivation and momentum is to track your progress.

Language learning is a long process. So inevitably there are going to be plateaus and points where you just feel like you aren't progressing.

Of course the key thing to bear in mind here, is that you are progressing and learning new things just as fast as before, the only difference is diminishing returns are in play.

Once we know all of the most common words, everything we learn after that has less and less value, so our overall progress feels a lot slower.

So how can we track our progress and remind ourselves of how far we have actually come?

There are a few ways to do this and the first is to take metrics.

Use some form of capturing how many words or characters you know, and when you feel like you aren't progressing you can check the number and see just how much it has gone up.

Definitely the easiest way to do this is to track your known words on LingQ. By simply using the system to learn, it keeps track of all known and unknown words, without you having to do a thing.

This is good for the reasons mentioned above but also another reason. When selecting new articles or lessons to read, it gives you the percentage of new words in the lesson.

This means that without even opening it, if you see only 20% known words for a text, you know that it is way above your level.

You can choose from 16 languages in LingQ, with another 11 in beta.

Unfortunately Cantonese is not one of those languages, so that leads me to what I have been using.

Sentence mining. Using SRS flashcard apps, one can add sentences and characters and track exactly how many they know by looking in the app.

Because I use Anki to learn new characters, it means I can see exactly how many are in my deck, and to what degree I have learnt them.

Another great way to track your progress is to create videos in your target language. You can post this on Youtube as an unlisted or private video if you don't want to make it completely public.

Going unlisted gives you the option to watch the video only if you have the link. So it's a good way to easily share content with your friends without putting it out to a wider audience.

If you feel like you have plateaued recently, then go back and watch an earlier video and notice just how much you have improved.


Make it easy for yourself

We are incredibly lazy by nature, so it can be difficult to get going and build up momentum.

The best thing I recommend for this, is to start small, and as you build up momentum slowly expand out from there.

When I first started learning I only set 30 mins a day core study time and didn't do anything else.

Once I was comfortable with that I upped it to an hour a day, and added in SRS flashcards as well.

The other point is to make things as easy as possible for yourself.

When I got into my car for work, I had a free Cantonese Pimsleur CD I picked up from my local library. So when I got in the car and turned the engine on, it started playing automatically.

The fact that all I did, was get in my car and go to drive to work and I was already learning Cantonese. The fact that I don't even think about it, just turn on my car and go, helps build an easy to keep, solid routine.

Another thing to do is to download all of the audio from your dialogues and CD's and put it on your phone.

Make the information as easy to access as possible, so when you have a minute here or there you can put it on for a few seconds, and before you know you will have spent the past 10-20 mins studying.

Have you ever thought you need to clean your room and put it off for hours or even days without doing much. Then sometimes you notice one thing that's out of place, pick it up, and before you realize, you have already cleaned your entire room.

This is the same principle. You start without thinking and you won't put it off. If you start off just to review one flashcard in that spare few minutes you have, I guarantee you won't only review just one.

That is what will lead you to learn the language. Make small habits that you do without even thinking. Make it as easy as possible.

Go to the toilet, check your flashcards. Get back from work, open your textbook before you even have time to think.


Mix it up

Even the most diligent student has dips in their motivation, and I find this is usually for the same reason. I am bored of my learning material.

Nothing will kill your motivation faster than doing the same thing, day after day for months on end with zero variety.

Make sure you vary your activities, and vary the material you study with.

Mix it up between easy and hard, reading and speaking, fast and slow.

The variety helps bring novelty to the whole process and keeps everything enjoyable and fresh.

Of course, you don't want to change resource every day, otherwise you will never get anything done.

So my favourite way to get the right balance is to set goals for myself, and usually end up changing resource once every month or so.


Fun gets done

Who said language learning has to be boring? By actually doing activities you enjoy in order to learn, you don't need motivation.

You simply do it for the pleasure of the activity rather than to learn.

Are you a social butterfly? Then speak from day 1.

Are you a bookworm? Grab some short stories and get reading.

Are you a gamer? Why not check the steam library, to see what games have been dubbed into your target language.

When those times come that you really can't be bothered to do anything else, this is the perfect solution.

I remember when I was having a dip in my Cantonese motivation one week just at the late beginner stages.

So what I did was book an italki lesson every day that week, and spend the nights' binge watching Hong Kong Dramas and Stephen Chow movies.

Not only was it an all round kick ass week, but the concentrated amount of speaking actually gave me a huge boost.

The confidence I gained gave me the momentum and second wind I needed to get back into my listening practice even more energized than before.




Motivation is the single most important thing in language learning. If you have it, then you will learn. Everything else is just a matter of time.

Peaks and troughs are normal for any long term project, and language learning is no different.

If you follow the advice from this post, you will not let the dips in your motivation stop you.

The most important thing is that you keep going, because once you come out the other side, you will feel more energized and motivated than before.

Do you struggle with motivation in your learning? Which one of these points did you find particularly useful? and what do you do when you are just feeling like there is no point?