Motivation is tricky. Sometimes it’s forced on you. Sometimes you’ve just got it. And sometimes you can develop it.
The thing is, the kind of motivation you have makes a big impact on how successful you’re going to be–at language learning and at any activity really.In general, there are two kinds of motivation:
- External – Motivation to do something based on external factors. This can be the desire to get some kind of reward (chasing the carrot) or to circumvent a punishment (avoiding the stick).
- Intrinsic – Motivation to do something to reap an internal reward.
When you set out to a learn a language, you undoubtedly have external motivations in mind. I talk about these all the time on this site because they’re important. Most language learners are pursuing some kind of reward, such as being able to travel, study abroad, pass a class, find a romantic partner, or work. And some of you are trying to avoid some kind of negative situation as well. For example, immigrants to certain countries are not allowed to stay unless they learn the local language, so “avoid deportation” is a powerful motivator.
External motivation is great, but it’s not enough. You also need to have intrinsic motivation.
A few years ago, Men’s Health published an article about something called Self-Determination Theory (SDT). SDT researchers concluded that external motivation will get you going, but you need intrinsic motivation to keep you going.
As SDT developer Dr. Richard Ryan explains:
“Ask any kid why he’s out there playing baseball and he’ll say because it’s fun…He doesn’t say it’s because that’s how he can put on musculature or because it will help him stay healthy when he’s 80. That’s the nature of intrinsic motivation—it’s something that, from a psychological point of view, is done for its own sake…That doesn’t mean external rewards aren’t motivating. It’s that the motivation becomes dependent upon rewards, and if they’re not salient enough and not continuous enough, then the motivation will track that.”
When I was in high school, I was too short and too slow to play my first love, basketball. But I was strong and in decent shape, so I gave wrestling a try. My first year, I showed up to practices out of obligation. As the upperclassmen ragdolled me and tossed me around the mat, I didn’t really enjoy what I was doing and was always ready to quit.
But after a while, a funny thing happened: I started to like wrestling. I got good enough where I was able to compete, both in practice and during meets, and I enjoyed the challenge of what was basically a physical chess match. Practice became an opportunity to learn new moves so that I could use them on some poor victim.
I worked hard, but wrestling didn’t feel like work. It felt like play. I was the team captain senior year and won the award for “Most Dedicated,” but when I got that award, it didn’t feel like I had been doing anything I didn’t want to do.
And my time on the wrestling team was a powerful lesson for me, which I didn’t fully understand until many years later. Essentially, in anything I do now, even if I start out chasing rewards (being externally motivated), I try to shift as quickly as possible to seeking internal rewards (being intrinsically motivated).
Relevance to Language Learning
So what does this mean for the language learner?
It means that even if you have a reward in mind, you have to find some joy in the process itself. It takes months or years to learn a language. You will not stick to the program if you don’t actually like what you’re doing.
(By the way, I’ve added a new category to the site: “Fun.” I realize that this is a necessary addition.)
Look, sometimes language learning is going to be boring. But the most successful students are the ones who find the fun in all kinds of learning activities, even the mundane ones.
So let’s say that you’re learning vocab with flashcards, for example. You have a few ways of looking at this:
- “Ugh, vocab. Let me just get through this pile.”
- “Vocab. Hate this, but it’s good for me.”
- “Vocab. Sweet, I get to try to figure out how to store a few more words in my noggin.”
If you go with #1, you might not even finish the lesson. If you go with #2, you’ll last a few weeks, but you’re not going to reach fluency. If you go with #3, you’re going to keep doing this, day in and day out, because you’re actually enjoying the process.
It’s not, no pain, no gain. It’s more like no pain, gain.
I promise you that your source of motivation is not set in stone. A lot of it is just being aware and shifting the way you look at things. Treat grammar problems like a puzzle. Don’t go into speaking sessions with the attitude that you’re taking medicine, but rather that you’re getting the chance to talk to someone. And if you absolutely hate something and can’t find the good in it, then just do something else. There are unlimited possibilities for language learning activities, so I’m sure you can find some that you actually like.
Going back to SDT, the researchers identified three ways to tell if your activity is intrinsically motivated:
- It’s autonomous – You choose to do it; someone else didn’t choose it for you.
- You’re competent at it – You more or less know what you’re doing or are improving at it.
- It fosters relatedness – You connect to other people somehow via the activity.
Create that environment for your language learning and you will be on your well on your way. You won’t worry about whether it takes you one year or five to reach your language goals, because you will actually enjoy doing what you’re doing every single day.