Seven Ways to Stay Motivated in Your Language Learning

Three weeks ago, I admitted I was losing steam with German. But instead of giving up and saying auf wiedersehen to German forever, I went on a 21-day project to find my lost motivation.

So how’d it go?

It went awesome. I got my mojo back.

No, this isn’t phoney baloney blog hype. I’m not just trying to tell you a good story. I was seriously getting burned out and was dreading anything having to do with German. But now I look forward to it again.

Heidelberg, Germany at night Image Source

Heidelberg, Germany at night
By whobee, [CC BY 2.0], Image Source

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if any of this was going to work. After the first week, I was doing better, but not great. After about two weeks, though, I was beginning to get the itch back. Now, three full weeks later, that “addiction” to language learning is back and in in full force.

So if you’re feeling burned out, if you’re thinking about giving up, or if you’re feeling discouraged, here are seven things to try.

1. Make motivation a priority.

It takes a while to learn a language–months, years even. The number one reason I’ve seen for people not meeting their language goals? Giving up.

That’s why I try not to get too wrapped up in language arguments. Yeah, I do think that some approaches are better than others. But if you’re making progress, no matter how slow, you’re going to end up where you want to be as long as you stick with it.

Motivation helps you keep going, so it should be a goal in and of itself.

With this project, I really had to work to fall in love with German again. The whole thing was kind of like marriage counseling for the language learner, but with 50% less shouting. In the end, though, it wasn’t that hard to get back on track after I made the adjustments.

2. Keep it fun.

On the Huffington Post Deutschland Facebook page, I saw this quote: “Menschen haben selten Erfolg, wenn sie keinen Spaß bei dem haben, was sie tun.”

That’s a German translation of Dale Carnegie’s quote:  “People rarely succeed unless they have fun in what they’re doing.”

And this couldn’t be more true. Keep things fun by doing fun things:

  • Consume a lot of authentic materials. Make sure you’re getting live, not fossilized, language.
  • Read, watch, and listen to what you actually like. If you like comic books and soap operas, don’t make yourself read economics magazines and the news.
  • Listen to music. Lyrics are powerful because they’re wrapped up in music. You feel the rhythms, the highs, and the lows in your bones. When vocab words take on emotion and context, they come alive.
  • Play games. Games and game-like apps like Duolingo can be a good way to get you studying without feeling like you’re studying.

3. Go back to the easy stuff.

I’ve been trying to push forward and get to a C1 level, so I’ve been working with the hard stuff. The last three weeks, though, I dialed it back a little bit so that I could actually understand what I’m reading and watching.

There’s a time and place for pushing yourself with the harder texts. For example, intensive reading (the opposite of extensive reading) gets me great results.

The problem is, intensive reading and tackling difficult texts can be very taxing. It’s hard work getting lost and clawing your way out.

So if you’re having trouble with motivation, going back to stuff that you can reasonably understand is a great way to coast along and actually get some entertainment out of your learning materials, while still making good progress.

4. Try new things.

During the last few weeks, I tried something new: I spoke German with a partner over Skype.

This wasn’t technically a language exchange. Her native language is English and she’s pretty new to German. With the risk of the blind leading the blind, I wasn’t sure how effective the session was going to be. But it was actually good. She’s intelligent and motivated, I have the challenge of trying to put the words together and saying something meaningful, and our session was pretty chill.

I’m glad she was nice enough to speak with me, because it breathed a little life into my studying.

I absolutely think there’s a value in finding ways to shake things up in your routine.

5. Take stock of how far you’ve come.

One reason for loss of motivation is that you might feel like you’re spinning your wheels and not getting anywhere. After all, what person would want to devote an hour or more a day to something that they weren’t getting any better at? (Besides Candy Crush.)

Pay attention to how much progress you’ve made up to this point. Find something tangible to let you know that you’ve made progress. It could be as simple as being able to say the greetings in your language more comfortably, or improved reading speed, or being able to follow along with podcasts better.

Me? I watched German translations of Family Guy episodes and realized I was able to understand 90% of the dialogue word for word. Four months ago, that percentage was closer to 50. Seeing that improvement really did make me want to keep going and keep improving.

6. Find like-minded people.

Last week, the famous Benny Lewis (aka Benny the Irish Polyglot) from Fluent in Three Months came to Orlando. He gave a talk, shook hands, and signed copies of his book. There were about forty people in the crowd, taking up most of a coffee shop in a trendy part of Orlando.

I was on the fence about going because it was in the middle of the work week and I’ve been pretty busy. But I rearranged my schedule and made it out. And I’m glad I did.

If you’ve read both our blogs, you’ve probably noticed that Benny and I say quite a few different things and don’t necessarily agree about everything.

Yet if you step back, you’ll see that we agree on the biggest thing: Gaining a new language is important and can enrich your life. So even if we diverge on some of the details, I still feel like ultimately we’re on the same side. I mean, give me a break. We’re both language bloggers. Out of seven billion people, there’s not that many of us.

Me (left) with Benny the Irish Polyglot

Me (left) with Benny the Irish Polyglot

The talk he gave was very motivating, it was great to see him work the room full of people, and I loved meeting other people in the area who like languages as much as I do.

There’s definitely value in seeing that you’re not alone in your language learning. Consider joining a class, a language meetup, or anything in which you can surround yourself with other language learners.

7. Focus on what’s really important to you.

During Benny’s talk, he said his motivation for learning languages is people. He considers language as a means to communicate and connect with people.

That’s really cool, and I think that’s an awesome outlook. But that’s not me.

Sure, people are cool, and I do like making connections with people via language. Love it, in fact.

Yet what really gets me going is language itself. I love how language can carve out its own space. As I mentioned in my language surfing manifesto, language can represent reality, while also creating its own reality.

Don’t run away. This isn’t that cooky.

Ever read a book in a crowded room or bus? The words on the page can take you to faraway lands, make you laugh, or move you to tears, and when you look up, everyone around you is completely unaffected. That’s an example of words operating on their own terms, within and outside of reality.

That’s what I love about language. That’s the kind of stuff that gets me motivated, that made me choose to major in English in college when I knew it wasn’t the most “practical” degree.

I have a feeling you started learning languages for a reason–a deep reason, not money or better job prospects. Find whatever that is for you and keep it mind to help you keep going forward.


  • Natalie

    Can we just talk about the amazingness of the photo in this post? That is such a beautiful picture of Heidelberg. Brings back some happy memories of visiting that city! :)

    • Ron G.

      It is! (Thanks, Wikimedia Commons.) I love Heidelberg. Wish I could’ve got to live like there, like a lot of my colleagues did.