Put Your Heart Into It – Motivation March – Part 4

Okay, so we’re at the end of Motivation March. I’ve saved the most important tip for last:

With language learning, put your heart into it.

I’m cheating a little with this phrasing, because I mean two separate but somewhat related things. Basically, find reasons to learn a language that are transcendent and human.

When we’re talking about motivation, we have to talk about what really makes us tackle the challenge of learning a new language.

By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada (Egypt-3A-015) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Children in Luxor, Egypt
By Dennis Jarvis from Halifax, Canada [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], Image Source


You have to learn a language for something more than just material purposes.

Consider art. Artists–whether they’re poets, painters, sculptors, writers, and so on–use their work as a way to discover truths. What kind of truths? Whatever you’ve got.

To really get motivated to learn a language, think of yourself as a language artist. There’s a reason why my site’s tagline is “The Art of Imperfect Language.” For instance, doing conjugation drills is derided by educators, students, linguists–practically everyone. Even I’m resistant to them sometimes. But when I end up doing them, I find myself in a kind of trance. There’s something peaceful about the process of trying to absorb a patten through repetition, and I have to think this sensation of being engaged but on auto-pilot is similar to an artist doing mundane, repetitive tasks to put together something beautiful.

Transcendence with language isn’t just achieved with drills or studying. I remember the first time I read an Arabic newspaper on my own, without a dictionary. It was in the library at language school, after hours, while I was waiting for my girlfriend to finish her homework. I was bored, so I picked up a copy of Al-Ahram off the table and just tried to see what I could understand. Up to that point, I had been reading like a robot, translating every other word with a dictionary and clumsily trying to put a collection of discrete words together so that I could pass my tests.

But on that day, something clicked. I was actually reading. I could “hear” the words in my head. All of the sudden, the language came to life. And I read more and more, hungry for the next line, not understanding every word but understanding the ideas. It was an incredible rush. I wanted more of it.

I can’t describe precisely what made Mezzofanti learn 39 languages or Mark Twain try to learn German in his old age, even though he had nothing to prove and very little to gain in the material sense. But I know it’s the same compulsion that makes an artist want to create.


I love language. I’ve said this before, but language itself excites me more than people do. In fact, I can be a little bit cynical about people.

Nevertheless, you can’t deny that languages begin and end with people.

When you learn another language, you learn other people’s stories, other people’s culture, other people’s mindset.

A couple weeks ago, I shared this on my site’s Facebook page:

I know this video is an advertisement. (There’s that cynical side of me again.) But I think the emotions are real. This guy felt somewhat isolated from his community, and when he realized that people took the time and effort to learn his language, he was moved to tears. The community’s linguistic act of kindness told him he was worth being listened to.

People need to connect. We need others to hear our voice. We need to hear others’ voices. One of the very first things we do on Earth is open our lungs and cry with all our might, and someone responds, someone takes us into their arms and lets us know they hear us. We often put language under a microscope. We study it, we dissect it, we twist it up to give ourselves the air of sophistication. But at its core, language is a primal, wild thing inside of us that lets others hear us and lets us hear others, that lets others comfort us and lets us comfort others, that lets others know us and lets us know others.

It’s Not a Chore

So with all of the Motivation March articles, the one thing I want you to take away is that language learning is not a chore.

Are there times when I get bored? Yes, of course, and I’m lying if I say I don’t have to force myself to stick to my schedule sometimes. But on the whole, language learning is fun. It’s exciting. It taps into something deep. It brings out the best in people.

If you are attacking every language session like you’re taking spoonfuls of bitter medicine, then your mindset is all wrong and you’ll never find the motivation to stick to this for the long haul.

Language learning is a privilege, and every time you sit down and read a book in your new language or listen to a podcast, be thankful for the opportunity.

  • http://lightonspanish.com/ Jorge Sivit

    Hey Ron, are you sure you are a technical writer? I think you are a poet;-) This article is beautiful! Maybe I’m a little sensitive because I just happened to read your Language Philosophies article before I read this one—and you have a great article there too! (I had been so busy reading your posts, that I had never come to that page).

    I cannot agree more with you.

    I love to study languages because of their structure. I can spend ours reading about grammar and analysing texts, trying to understand those patterns in their element. I found those structures beautiful, but at the end of the day, as you say, language is a primal thing, something that allows others to feel us and allows us to feel others. Sometimes, if we listen well enough, there is more, and more important information in someone’s voice tone than in a hundred sentences.

    Another thing I like about learning foreign languages is that sometimes we can find ways to express things we couldn’t express in our native language. When we say “There are no words that can express …”. Well, maybe there are; in another language.

    I’m thankful for it.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      Speaking of poets — “Sometimes, if we listen well enough, there is more, and more important
      information in someone’s voice tone than in a hundred sentences.” …that’s fantastic, and I hadn’t thought of it that way, but as soon as you said it I understood what you were talking about.

  • http://allthetongues.hol.es/ Roman Shinkarenko

    For me language learning is always related to people: whether to speak to them, or read newspaper about their life. Truth is, until Benny discovered for me that (gasp!) native speakers exist, language learning was like studying math: now it has a purpose.

    • http://www.languagesurfer.com/ Ron G.

      I’m like you, Roman. I had studied Arabic for translation purposes, but I had studied MSA. When I went to Egypt, I could only barely communicate, and it made MSA seem kind of silly. Didn’t think about language learning on my own until I lived in Germany and said, ohhhh, this is why you do it. (Congrats on posting on every article in Motivation March! …lol)