How to Keep Learning a Language when You No Longer HAVE to

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ask-the-experts-50_0Every experienced language learner knows it.

Motivation is hard to come by sometimes.

The best way to obtain it, is probably to have an actual “need” to learn a new language.

Most of the time, this “need” is related to other people.

A friend once told me: “Since scoring that girlfriend from Beijing, learning Mandarin (a Chinese language) has never been easier!”.

So finding a partner who’s a native speaker of the language is one way to create that “need”.

But what if your long-haired dictionary (girlfriend) or muscled private language tutor (boyfriend) leaves you?

What do you do then?

Or let’s consider a similar scenario. Maybe you quickly got to the intermediate stage because the anticipation of a trip to the country where your target language is spoken encouraged you to blast through the difficult “study” days.

The only problem?

You’re back home now, you don’t have plans to go back and haven’t got the slightest motivation to raise your language skill to the advanced level.

Both of the above scenarios are the same.

The “need” to keep learning the language was taken away. And with it the motivation.

So now what?

Time to consult the experts!

Welcome to the third edition of Ask the Experts.

Since the last edition, I’ve received some interesting questions. One that came up a few times, albeit in different guises, was the question of what to do when you no longer “need” to learn your target language.

That’s why I decided to pose the following question to our varying panel of experts:

How do you motivate yourself when you already get by in your target language or are no longer in the country?

In other words: how do you motivate yourself to keep learning a language when the need to do so has waned?

Considering the time one invests in learning a language, dropping it altogether would be a small tragedy.

What do you recommend to prevent this?

19 experts replied and supplied me with their advice. Great advice, I must add. It’s always good to inform yourself about the different schools of thought and that’s exactly what Ask the Experts is for.

The experts are sorted randomly and you can use one of the quick links below to directly visit your favorite language-learning expert, or simply scroll down to read all contributions.

Yangyang Cheng
Olly Richards
Lynn McBride
Kevin Chen
Conor Clyne
Benny Lewis
Alan Park
Olle Linge
Jared Romey
Idahosa Ness
Fabiola Franco
John Fotheringham
Hyunwoo Sun
Catherine Christaki
Luciana Lage
Ben Curtis
Anthony Metivier
Jason Oxenham
Andrew Tracey

Note: the only affiliate links on this page are the ones pointing to the How to Learn and Memorize the Vocabulary of Any Language video course by Anthony Metivier. It’s about a memorization method I tested and wholeheartedly recommend. In fact, I did a case study on it. You can find out more about it here:

http://www.smartlanguagelearner.com/case-studies/how-to-learn-and-memorize-the-vocabulary-of-any-language/

Yangyang-ChengYangyang Cheng

Yangyang Cheng is the founder and host of YoyoChinese.com, where students can learn Mandarin Chinese through more than 400 clearly explained video lessons.Before Yoyo Chinese, Yangyang taught Chinese to MBA students at Pepperdine University. She also has one of the most popular Chinese language learning channel on Youtube with over 6 million views and 43,000+ subscribers.

I think People focus way too much on motivation, as if losing it somehow signals they should immediately stop doing whatever they’re doing and wait for their motivation to reappear before they can continue.

Most people think motivation is a prerequisite for action. But in reality, you need to act first and then motivation follows.

So what does that mean for language learning?

As counterintuitive as this may sound, motivation is usually a result of persisting in language learning regardless of how you feel about it. Why? Because motivation for language learning is nurtured through habit and reinforced by routine.

The best way to make sure you keep learning the language, even during those days when you just want to rip those vocabulary flashcards to shreds, is to make language learning such a big part of your life, you’ll feel weird not doing it.

Take one of my students for example: he sets aside an hour everyday before bed to study Chinese. He hated doing it at first, but gradually, the process became so ingrained in him, it just didn’t feel right when he skipped a day.

Simply by creating a habit of language learning, my student’s first motivation (business reasons), evolved into something more – a passion for learning Chinese and appreciating the Chinese culture.

He reached a point where he saw why learning Chinese mattered to him beyond securing business deals: it enabled him to connect with people who had different perspectives and worldviews, opening a window to a world he now wanted to explore.

And so in a sense, routine helped to hone that first motivation into something that’s more profound and less vulnerable to dying away.

In any case, when it comes to finding the motivation to keep up your language studies, just keep in mind that the first step isn’t getting said motivation – it’s actually taking the first step and building that routine.

Once you do, you’ll find your own special reason for learning, and you’ll realize that it’s stronger and goes beyond any other motive you initially started out with.

Olly-RichardsOlly Richards

Olly Richards is the polyglot behind the I Will Teach You a Language blog. He speaks seven languages and was the first experienced language learner to be interviewed in our Language Learning Gets Personal interview series.

If you no longer have the “need” to learn your target language, then you have a simple choice between giving up and carrying on. Assuming you don’t want to give up, you need to rely on something other than passion and necessity to keep you going.

Motivation in language learning, for me, comes from three main areas:

  1. Having a clear, passionate reason to learn the language
  2. Having a consistent study routine everyday (even if it’s short) so that I keep momentum up and keep making baby steps forward
  3. Speaking with people in the language, because this is my ultimate aim. Speaking with people helps me to remember what I’m aiming for and also gives me lots of feedback on how I’m doing.

If I don’t have one of these things in place, it’s going to be hard going. But what’s important here is that motivation isn’t just this grand reason or passion that you either do or don’t have (number 1). Numbers 2 and 3 in my list bring motivation as a result of actually doing it.

Put simply, if you have a good, solid, simple routine you will make progress, and that progress will motivate you as you see yourself getting better everyday. I think looking at it this way is a good alternative to relying on passion alone to motivate you.

Lynn-McBrideLynn McBride

Lynn McBride is the author of How to Learn a New Language with a Used Brain. She lives in the Burgundy region of France and blogs about French life and food at Southern Fried French.

So, you were able to cruise along in your new language pretty well, and the natives could understand you. But now you’re out of the country with no more speaking practice, and that’s when the dreaded C-word sets in: Complacency! It’s hard to keep up those studies. Not to mention, the D-word, Decline, from lack of use. It’s time for a little group therapy.

Learning, practicing, or just conversing with a language partner or group puts the fun back in language learning, after you’ve mastered the basics and want to hold on to them over the long term.

For me, that means a weekly conversation group with fellow students and a French leader, where we analyze French politics, do a quick grammar lesson, or just chat over an espresso. But there are many other ways to put some sociability into your language studies.

In the States, most every town has conversation groups at local cafés, or meet-up groups for language practice. Local universities or consulates are good resources for finding these groups. But you don’t even have to leave your house, it you want to go the virtual route. Many language learning sites, like italki.com, offer on-line partnering with a native speaker.

Kevin-ChenKevin Chen

Kevin Chen is co-founder of italki. italki helps connect people learning foreign languages with online teachers around the world. italki has roughly 1.5 million users.

I’ve been learning Chinese, which is one of the most frustrating languages for native English speakers.

Chinese gives a low “return” for study time (David Moser explains it best). Despite having studied French for only three years in high school, I suspect my ability to read a newspaper in French is comparable to my ability in Chinese — after nearly a decade of living and working in China, having Chinese friends and colleagues, and so on.

My Chinese ability is still depressingly only intermediate.

How do you maintain your motivation in the face of all of this?

My view is that it all goes back to the beginning: Why did you start learning this language?

Some people can learn a language out of sheer willpower, but most people were drawn by something else. In that respect, I think the ultimate source of motivation for many people is an interest in the culture, the place, and the people.

If you don’t have the love, all the tactics in the world won’t make a difference in the long run. The question is finding how to rekindle that fire that brought you there in the first place. Maybe it was a film or a book that spoke to you. Maybe it was an attractive stranger. Maybe it was a travel experience that left you promising that you would one day go back. Try to reconnect to that, and you’ll find your motivation.

Tips:

* Remember why you’re doing it. If you are fascinated by the people and the society, use a site like italki.com to make friends and connect with the place.

* Make realistic goals. Maybe it is just one hour of personal tutoring, or reading one magazine article every week. Whatever it is, make sure it is reasonable (i.e. small) and a commitment you can maintain. Remember to celebrate your small victories; progress is the accumulation of a lot of small steps.

* Do the things you enjoy about the language. Don’t force yourself to read 19th century novels out of some misplaced belief that it’s better for your vocabulary. Nothing will kill your motivation faster than turning learning into a second job. If you really like watching cartoons, work with that. Maybe your SRS app is a nice distraction for a long subway commute. Positive experiences will reduce the usual pain from the hard aspects of learning a language.

* Stay connected with people. Just as a musician should try to play with other musicians, languages should be used with other people. If you are an expatriate that has returned home, try your best to stay connected with your old friends. In the same way you don’t want to lose your language, don’t lose the other connections that tie you to the place and the people.

Conor-ClyneConor Clyne

Conor Clyne is the polyglot behind the website Language Tsar, where he shares how he’s been able to learn nine new languages.

Answer 1:

I always maintain contact with the people that I meet on my travels whose company I have enjoyed. This helps me to remain motivated with the language even if I am not traveling there as I am constantly using it to converse online. Also having spent some time traveling in a country makes me more curious about its politics and culture so I invariably find myself reading its press and literature.

Answer 2:

I recommend developing relationships with people who speak the target language and exploring the language’s literature and culture. That way the language is incorporated into your lifestyle without any additional effort being required. For example, with the internet, it is increasingly easy to chat via chat or VOIP with native speakers, read the newspapers or novels and watch local TV or YouTube videos.

Integrating these habits into your routine is the key to avoiding the ‘small tragedy’ of losing a language that you may have already invested a lot of time into learning.

Benny-LewisBenny Lewis

Benny Lewis runs the biggest language-learning blog on the web: Fluent in 3 Months. He’s also the guy behind the Speak from Day 1 package, and the author of the book: Fluent in 3 Months: How Anyone at Any Age Can Learn to Speak Any Language from Anywhere in the World.

I see language learning as a series of mini-projects.

  • Step 1: Get by in the language basically
  • Step 2: Have an exchange that lasts 30 seconds etc., and if possible have the European Common Framework as my end-goal for whatever level I can reach in some timeframe.

When you can already get by then you are presumably A1 or A2. I was lucky to have the fire under my ass of being in Spain to urge me to keep improving and expanding on my situations to use the language, but since then, I’ve improved a lot of my languages at a distance and my main motivator has been building on knowing already that the next stage in the language opens up so many wonderful doors, from appreciating the literature, to having deep conversations, to being able to even follow along when natives are speaking with one another at normal speed.

So there is always a need!

I suppose for some people, not being surrounded by the language in that very moment could remove the need, but I always set myself a goal of going to the country or sitting an exam, or planning to host a couchsurfer from the country etc. by my deadline and that is extremely effective in motivating me to keep working at it!

Alan-ParkAlan Park

Alan Park is the founder of FluentU, a site for learning languages with real-world videos like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks.

Stop doing what you’re doing and try something new. For example:

Indulge in guilty pleasures. Perhaps you like trashy romance novels or watching silly YouTube videos. Now do it in the language that you’re learning. Voila! You won’t need extra motivation anymore.

Learn the real, authentic language. If you’re learning with textbooks, that could be part of the problem. Learning a language the way that it’s actually spoken is the most exciting way to learn it.

Appreciate how far you’ve come. If you’re beating yourself over the head, then take a moment to give yourself a pat on the back. You’ve already come a long way – enjoy your accomplishment!

Set the bar higher. If you’re becoming complacent, then challenge yourself. So you’re better than all your friends. How about setting a new goal? Can you sound exactly like a native speaker?

Remember why you’re learning. Being able to speak a foreign language isn’t just a cheap parlor trick. It gives you more professional opportunities and opens new worlds to you. The more advanced you become, the more empowered you become.

Find new ways to learn. It’s an amazing time to learn a language. There is incredible new technology out there (and I’m not talking about spaced repetition – which is decades old). Explore these new tools and find the one that works for you.

Olle-LingeOlle Linge

Olle Linge, a Swede living in Taiwan, runs Hacking Chinese, a website dedicated to unveiling the mysteries of learning a language in general and about learning Chinese in particular. He speaks three languages.

I think the answers to these questions depend greatly on the reason why you started to learn a language in the first place.

If your motivation was to be able to travel and speak with locals, it’s understandable that you lose motivation once you feel that you have achieved your goal. Perhaps you should start learning a new language? No-one forces you to keep learning a language when you’re not interested in it any more.

However, if you’re serious about learning a language or want to use it professionally, you need more than that, and motivation becomes a major factor. I think the main reason people lose interest is that they regard the language as an end in itself. I study Chinese to become better at Chinese. This is detrimental to motivation in the long run unless you’re very motivated for some other reason, but then you probably wouldn’t be reading this article.

A language is a tool, so instead of focusing on the forging of that tool, I suggest that you start using it to achieve other things. Since the things you can achieve with a language are virtually unlimited, this can keep you motivated forever. For instance, piggyback on your other hobbies and interests.

If you’re interested in knowing more about something, read books and watch documentaries about it in the target language. If you love watching sports, watch games with commentary in the target language and discuss the sport online with native speakers. Learn more about the culture, read novels, watch movies.

Learning at this level often isn’t a goal in itself, rather it’s the result of actually doing things with the language. I’ve learnt a lot of Chinese by practicing gymnastics in Chinese and going through a master’s degree program entirely in Chinese. I didn’t focus much on actually learning Chinese, it was something that came as a bonus from using the language to achieve something else.

A language can be a key to open up new worlds, so use the language to explore these worlds and you will find plenty of motivation.

Jared-RomeyJared Romey

Suffering a typical 9-5 existence, Jared’s foray into lunch-hour Spanish shook up his mundane life. He quit his job, stopped by briefly to school, and then left the US…for 14 years. Twelve countries, three start-ups, two bestsellers and a Puerto Rican wife later, he’s still confounded by how many Spanish words exist for “panties.”

This question opens up a philosophical or even circular question in my mind.

Namely, why continue studying or learning a language when you have no need to? My simple answer would be, don’t continue. Focus on learning or maintaining a language that will be useful for you.

If at some future time you again have use for the language, then it should be reasonably easy to reactivate it, if you had originally achieved an advanced level.

Now a “need” to learn a language with a less strict understanding of “need” could just mean that you do it for pleasure, fulfillment or as an intellectual challenge, more than for any practical application of the language.

If this is the case and you wish to maintain or improve your level in the language, then I suggest exploring the nuances of the language. I personally have spent 19 years studying Spanish and every day I learn something new.

One option is to explore literature. This may hold interesting lessons in the history of the language. A few years ago I set out to read Don Quijote in the original Old Spanish. Little did I know that the original story is two volumes of a couple thousand pages. Yet as I read, I began to understand the roots of Puerto Rican Spanish. I also learned more about the language itself.

Explore regional differences and dialects. It can be fun to relate to people from different areas, through their own language. And again, it also helps learn more about the people, their history and culture.

Simply, find whatever engages you with the language. If at any point you find that the language maintenance is a chore, I suggest leaving it and moving to your next interest. You can always return to the language in the future when your interest is rediscovered.

Idahosa-NessIdahosa Ness

Idahosa Ness is the creator of the Mimic Method and Flow Training. He teaches people how to sing, rap and mimic foreign languages with a perfect accent.

I personally learn languages for one reason – to communicate and connect with people within a certain location. Therefore when I leave a place, I no longer have any interest in practicing the language. But I also have zero fear of losing language ability because I know how to “re-activate” languages.

So for example, I rarely speak Chinese any more but I know from experience that if I ever had to go back to China, I’d be able to re-activate my Chinese and within a week’s time. So there’s no need to spend time maintaining it while I’m not there.

This is only possible because I take a sound-centric approach to language, and sound has a deeper connection to memory than anything else. I’ll forget all my Chinese characters, but my Chinese sounds are with me until the day I die.

Fabiola-FrancoFabiola Franco

Fabiola Franco was born and raised in Colombia and moved to the U.S. for graduate education and has lived there ever since. She’s taught Spanish at all levels for over 35 years.

Note: this contribution is a bit larger as it’s basically three contributions in one.

Keep Your Language Alive!

Here you will find the thoughts of three people who taught or have taught foreign languages at institutions of higher education in and out of the United States.

We all have in common the joy of knowing at least two languages: English and Spanish. We all regard a language as a wonderful gift to be kept and improved as long as we live. Finally, we all face realities that could lead us to forget one of our languages but fight in different ways to keep our language knowledge.

We hope that this contribution helps someone.

Alexandra was born in New York from an American father and a Spanish mother. She moved to Spain at age 10, and later attended the University of Granada. After residing 15 years in Spain, Alexandra returned to the United States to pursue graduate work and teach.

She misses Spain, but visits twice a year. “I teach Spanish to beginners and sporadically to intermediate learners”, says Alexandra. Although classes are taught entirely in Spanish, these levels of instruction restrict the instructor from free, advanced communication.

Her favorite method to keep her Spanish alive consists of taking advantage of all the possibilities that technology has to offer. She spends two to three hours a day reading newspapers and listening to music. Although we may call her method passive, it can be very effective, she affirms. It is not always easy to find people and friends who can or have the time to communicate using native and/or advanced Spanish.

Estela is from Argentina a retired professor of English who lives in Mendoza and has an extended family of over thirty Spanish-speaking members.

Recently, Estela visited the United States and one couldn’t help noticing her constant reluctance to speak English. Suspecting that her shyness to communicate orally would relate to the main theme of this very article, I decided to call her and ask: “Estela, what do you do to keep yourself from abandoning your second language?”

Her response came with no hesitation: I was becoming very worried and sad about losing the oral competency in the language I studied throughout my life. After a close examination of my personal situation, my decision was to maintain only two of my English language skills: reading and understanding of the spoken word. Reading, in my opinion, is the most efficient way to keep and improve a language.

From an early age I’ve been reading European and Asian literature in English. Right now, I read literature originally written in Spanish in their English translation, such as the works of Gabriel García Márquez, Neruda, Vargas Llosa and the Classics.

I also try to keep my understanding of oral English by watching movies and plays on television. Again, as far as my capacity for good oral communication in English is concerned, it became too difficult to find people willing to speak English in Mendoza, a relatively small place. Living in Buenos Aires would have been different, I guess. Sometimes we have to make harsh choices.

My name is Fabiola, author of this contribution. I’ve taught Spanish for over 35 years.

My life has been dedicated to my profession and I have loved every minute of it. My activities to keep all aspects of Spanish at superior levels of scholarship have lasted three quarters of my life. Although English fascinates me, I don’t dare calling myself a perfect bilingual.

As a linguist, I am with Saussure (the father of linguistics) who believed that being monolingual is the normal tendency of the human brain. French by birth, Saussure learned German at age five but said that his French was better than his German at some levels of scholarship. If we believe in this reality we may be less arrogant and worry less when seeing one of our language expertise decline for we can always keep trying to improve.

To keep a language I listen, speak, read and write –my writing in Spanish being far superior- I buy all kinds of dictionaries –from Oxford… to American slang. Every dictionary helps a lot. I talk when given the opportunity (in the case of English I listen more than I speak, especially when the English speaker has an excellent command of English). I make lists of new words, I ask when a Spanish speaker uses a word I never heard. I e-mail in both languages.

My ex-student, Brooke keeps her German and Spanish through correspondence. She writes in English to me and I answer in Spanish. I write very well in Spanish having the patience to rewrite as many times as possible. Gabriel García Márquez used to revise and rewrite his works innumerable times before publishing. I like to read beautiful English. Finally, I travel, rewarding and fun if we are not equally versed in two languages and as long as we keep trying to improve.

When I started to teach Spanish, the need to know the countries where the language is spoken became one of my endeavors; travel provides cultural immersion. Little by little we can visit each of the countries where the language we teach is spoken. This is not only a fun way to learn; language change is a fact of life and full immersion provides the opportunity to refresh and refine language.

It doesn’t matter if our trips are short. Even short visits allow teachers to better their language skills and gather teaching materials unavailable elsewhere. All this is possible if we approach a language and culture with an open mind.

Final Note

Besides stating ways to keep a language, the above shows two harsh realities that affect language: a) Isolation: b) the rapid disappearance of languages.

a) In the United States of America, the present and future threaten us with isolation – no need to talk, no one to talk to, one year old children already versed on technology are starting to talk later than others – this is from my own observation.

On August 28/2013, US Today reports from the Census Bureau:
More Americans are living alone.

Living alone? You’ve got company. More than one in four households had just a single person in 2012, greater than at any time in the past century, according to new Census Bureau findings. About one in four households now have only one person One-person households triple since 1972 million Americans living alone than in 2007.

World’s Languages Dying Off Rapidly. By John Noble. Published: September 18, 2007.

Of the estimated 7,000 languages spoken in the world today, linguist say, nearly half are in danger of extinction and are likely to disappear in this century. In fact, they are now falling out of use at a rate of about one every two weeks.

Fabiola Franco. Emerita, Macalester College.
June 6, 2014

John-FotheringhamJohn Fotheringham

John Fotheringham is the man behind the blog Language Mastery. He’s also the author of various guides on how to master a new language.

This may be stating the obvious, but for some people, it’s probably not worth the time and effort to continue learning a language once they’ve already reached their target level of fluency or no longer use it in their daily life or work.

Learning just to learn may inspire some, but I find that few (myself included) put in the requisite time unless there is an immediate (or imminent) need to use the language in meaningful human-to-human interaction.

So if you don’t live in a country where the language is spoken, and don’t have friends or colleagues who speak the language, it’s up to you to create contexts in which you can—nay, MUST!—use your target tongue.

One of the best ways to create such contexts, keep yourself accountable, build motivation, and get immediate feedback on your performance is to schedule a few sessions each week with a tutor on iTalki (there are myriad other language exchange sites but they are my favorite).

Knowing that you will be in the hot seat with an actual native speaker (whom you are paying to speak with) helps give you the extra motivation needed to fire up Anki each morning, listen to language podcasts during your commute, read foreign language blogs during lunch, etc. You can also try finding language exchanges through Meetup.com and volunteering to tutor exchange students at nearby universities.

For even more motivation, buy a plane ticket to a country where the language is spoken 1 to 3 months out. But don’t just plan the trip; actually make the arrangements to ensure that you put your money where your mouth is (or is it, “put your motivation where your money is”?).

Lastly, I want to mention the importance of habit. You won’t always feel motivated to learn, but if you put study time on the calendar, and commit to not skipping these sessions no matter what, language learning will eventually become an ingrained part of your daily ritual even if you don’t live where the language is spoken. And once something becomes a habit, motivation is no longer the deciding factor between action and inaction. Apps like Lift can be a great way to monitor your progress and leverage the power of public accountability when the going gets rough.

Happy learning!

hy

Hyunwoo Sun

Hyunwoo Sun is the founder of TalkToMeInKorean.com a popular website and community where learning Korean can be actually fun and exciting.

The longest time I have stayed abroad was just a few weeks, so I have learned all of the languages I know (except for Korean, which is my mother tongue) without actually being in a country where the certain language is spoken on a daily basis.

The only language that I started learning while I was still visiting a country where it’s spoken was Chinese, but it wasn’t until I came back to Korea that I actually started making serious efforts and forming sentences on my own. So, perhaps because I am always “no longer in the country”, I tend to struggle with lack of motivation from day one.

What I find most helpful in finding motivation is interacting with my old and new friends online. It used to be more difficult to make new friends that can help me with language learning before, but thanks to social media, it is very easy now. Everybody is on social media now and you can talk to any number of people who speak any language you want to learn, almost instantaneously.

You will still have to do the hard work of memorizing some stuff and figuring out how certain grammar rules work in that particular language, but if you use social media wisely, you can always find great motivation for and sense of achievement in your language learning.

Catherine-ChristakiCatherine Christaki

Catherine Christaki has been a full-time English-Greek translator since 2001 and co-owner of Athens-based Lingua Greca Translations since 2012. Her specializations include IT, medical and technical texts. She writes a translation blog called Adventures in Freelance Translation and she is active on social media, especially Twitter @LinguaGreca.

For me, the biggest motive is to have an end goal.

A self-reward (like a trip to the country where your chosen language is spoken) or a professional goal (as a translator, I want to offer my clients translations services from that language into my target language). For translators and interpreters, it goes a bit further than a motive. Keeping up with your source language(s) is part of the job, something we have to do at a daily basis.

For non-linguists, sometimes daily life and time restrictions take over or the fascination about language learning wanes. In that case, you should go back to the reasons that led you to study a language in the first place. Are those reasons still valid?

If not, can you come up with new ones that would invigorate your efforts? If you take the trip I mentioned above, you’ll remember all the right reasons and come up with tons of new ones!

Meet up with people speaking your source language in your area. Have as many conversations as possible. Nowadays, there are many (and free) online resources to help you get in touch and talk with people speaking in other languages.

Not ready to talk yet?

Watch movies (with or without subtitles in your target language, both options help) and listen to the radio (even while you work and not really listening, this will help).

l-lageLuciana Lage

Luciana Lage is the founder of Street Smart Brazil, a website that offers Portuguese Classes, Intercultural Coaching, and Translation and Interpretation services by professionals. She has also taught Portuguese at the University of California, Berkeley, and currently teaches at the University of San Francisco.

Motivation is the key to learning, not just language learning, but any learning. Research has shown that highly intelligent students are often outperformed by highly motivated learners. Besides, it takes time and effort to learn something well. Staying motivated is what keeps you going.

The question is: How can we create that kind of powerful motivation that helps us overcome challenges, keep focused in spite of distractions, and build endurance?

My suggestion is to make learning personal: Think about what moves you and find ways to do that using your target language. Get your feelings and emotions involved in the learning process to keep it fun and rewarding.

Use your target language to do things you truly enjoy doing. Do you like music? Take singing classes in your new language or join a band with musicians who are native speakers of that language. Do you like being in the know about world issues? Read online newspapers and watch the news in your target language. Love cooking? Take a cooking class in the new language.

The trick is to get actively engaged in speaking the language while doing things you enjoy doing.

Let me give you a couple of examples from the Street Smart Brazil team:

  • While learning Dutch, one of our instructors started volunteering with Dutch organizations. This gave her exposure to the language, helped her make friends with native speakers who had common interests, and added meaning to learning the language.
  • Another of our instructors loves to cook. To keep her English sharp, she watches English language cooking shows on TV. She also loves movies, so she often watches French movies to keep her French fresh.

Not living where your target language is spoken is not an excuse not to immerse yourself in the language. In this article, I give ideas of how to create immersion from your home. The article links to resources for Portuguese speakers, but the ideas applies to learners of any language.

One final note:

Remember that it is important to actually speak the language and practice with other people. Do not limit your learning to reading and passive listening (TV, radio). Engage in real-life activities with native speakers of the language you are learning. You can do this through regular language classes.

At Street Smart Brazil, we personalize our classes to engage our clients in conversations of their interest. This way they improve their language skills and continue to enjoy their lessons through the years. Find a program that can do the same for you.

Ben-CurtisBen Curtis

Ben Curtis is one half of the duo behind Notes in Spanish, a website that aims to help you learn the real Spanish you’ll never find in a textbook or classroom. They sell several popular Spanish language products and have been featured in the New York Times.

I learned Spanish in Spain with a huge motivation.

I knew I wanted to live here for a long time, and that I wanted to speak to all the Spanish people around me – I needed to rent flats, open bank accounts, and generally ‘get by’. So I had real need and motivation to learn. And I learned at a fast, determined pace.

I still live in Spain, and I’m still learning, and am fairly bilingual now. As I use Spanish all day, I don’t think I have to worry about losing or dropping it.

But that hasn’t happened with my French! I spoke fluent French when I arrived in Spain 15 years ago and now can hardly speak a word. I dropped it, and it is a bit of a tragedy.

Many times I’ve thought about getting it back, and I get a bit back every summer when we spend a few weeks in France, enough to survive… I’d love to get it back to where it was, but, the motivation isn’t there! The need isn’t great enough.

So for me, if there is no need or motivation, a language goes, which is quite natural.

So if you want to keep a language when you are back home, or living elsewhere, you have to keep the motivation up. Maybe a love of French literature, or more frequent visits to the country, would do it for me. Or working with a French company. Or an interest in something, anything, very French! But at the moment those ‘needs’ just aren’t present, so I have to live with the fact that French has dropped away.

But, and this is important, I’m absolutely sure that if I needed it again, and the motivation returned, I could get it back in a few months of really concerted effort.

I know it’s still all there somewhere in the back of my brain! I was stopped by traffic police in France a couple of years back for a mild traffic infraction, and immediately managed to squeeze my way out of a fine with enough not-bad French, much to my delight and surprise as I thought it had all gone!

Not that I recommend getting in trouble with the police as a way of keeping up a language after the need has gone!

Anthony-MetivierAnthony Metivier

Anthony Metivier is a memorization expert who holds a BA and MA in English Literature, an MA in Media & Communications and a PhD in Humanities. He’s the creator of the Magnetic Memory Method and the man behind the How to Learn and Memorize the Vocabulary of any Language video course, on which Smart Language Learner has done a highly successful case study.

You would think that living in a country where the language is not your mother tongue would be a great motivator to learn more. The ugly truth is that … it isn’t.

At least not necessarily.

When speaking German day in and day out, for example, I often crave English conversation with native speakers, especially speakers within the academic community where you can use a lot of shorthand terminology to express relatively simple concepts that scholars like to make seem more difficult than they really are. It’s a form of play that I haven’t quite conquered yet in German.

The great motivator, then, is to learn and memorize more vocabulary so that I can “play” in my strongest language. And for that, Nietzsche has been a great teacher and motivator to both add to my pool of vocabulary, but to create inspiration to learn how the humor, wit and polysemy of, not only how the German language works, but how Nietzsche’s version of the language works.

And that is the ultimate motivator of all: seeing how each and every person has in some fundamental way adapted the language to their own purposes (whether it is their mother tongue or not), even if it is just the slightest shift in style, makes reading, listening and conversing more with different people a great motivator to learn and discuss more.

Jason -OxenhamJason Oxenham

Jason Oxenham is the Founder and CEO of Rocket Languages, an award-winning online language learning provider. He’s been refining language learning and motivation techniques since 2004.

The motivation for learning a new language is often never higher than when contemplating a trip to some exotic country, and for me that’s France.

There is that little je ne sais quoi about everything French that’s fascinated me from a very young age, even though I was born and raised in a little island in the South Pacific… New Zealand.

While living 30 hours by plane away from France has disadvantages when it comes to learning French, it’s given me great insights into how to stay motivated.

I believe that the best way to maintain motivation is to experiment with a variety of different approaches to language learning, too much of one thing can be counter-productive and de-motivating. Mixing it up brings new ways of thinking to the table.

Even though France is 11,900 miles away and not somewhere that I regularly head to, there are a few key habits and tools I use to keep my French fresh and exciting. Here are some of my favorites…

1. Making local connections

The world is now a global village, and the major languages can be found in virtually every corner of the planet. This makes for a great opportunity to connect with and learn from immigrants in your community. I make sure that I keep my ears open for news about French people in our community; ethnic restaurant and cafe businesses are great places to practice and socialize. If ever you’re in Auckland I would recommend L’assiette (www.lassiette.co.nz), the food is great and the staff all speak French!

2. Online tools

There are a lot of online tools that can be used from basic flash cards, online tutors, and language learning apps to more full-blown courses like Rocket Languages. I use our Rocket French course just about every day and while there is a certain professional motivation for doing so, it also makes me acutely aware of how e-learning can be made so much better. In recent years we have added gamification, points and badges, and daily schedulers, all in an attempt to increase the stick-ability of our courses and keep our members learning.

3. Reading material

Reading interesting material in the target language a great aid to aid sticking with it. We have a ton of French comic books and graphic novels ay home, and they are great for keeping my hand in with reading French. In particular the Tintin series by a native French speaker, Belgian author and cartoonist, Hergé.

4. Passing on your knowledge

I teach my 4 and 6 year old a new French word every day at dinner time, and at that age they soak it up like little sponges! I believe that exposure to other cultures and languages will help them to develop a world view as they get older.

5. Plan your next trip

Planning a trip to the nearest (or cheapest to get to) place where people speak the target language definitely helps! There are around 30 countries where French is an official language, that’s a lot of places other than France to visit!

So, to keep yourself motivated, even when you’re a long way away from the country of your target language think about experimenting with a variety of learning activities. It’s a great way to keep your language learning fresh and interesting!

Andrew-TraceyAndrew Tracey

Andrew Tracey is the guy behind the How to Learn Spanish site where he shows you how to use fun and interesting media to learn Spanish. He’s also the author of The Telenovela Method book.

You have to find something to use it for that you care about.

In other words, you need to have a friend (whether across the street or across the globe) who you can only talk to in your target language and therefore you can only talk to them if you remain proficient in it, you need to have some type of media (movies, TV show, books, etc.) that are in your target language that you really want to read or watch, etc.

You need some sort of use for your language skills that’s important enough to you, that provides enough value to you, such that the time and energy necessary to maintain it is worth it.

I’ve found that the best of these is other people. Meaning: a friend who’s a native speaker who you need your target language to communicate with. I have friends in Spanish-speaking countries that I talk to via Skype from time to time, and I also have various books and movies in Spanish that I want to watch and be able to understand without having to rely on the subtitles.

My Spanish-speaking friends are by far the biggest motivator to keep up my skills in the language.

Get on language-exchange sites like iTalki find people to talk to, and make some friends. Do this with enough people and eventually you’ll have a few steady language partners who you’ve come to like and enjoy talking to who you won’t want to disappoint by either missing your normal session with them or by showing up not having worked on your skills in the language in the meantime as you were supposed to.

Also, find some type of media that’s of the type that you would normally be interested in (movies and TV shows that are comedies/dramas/action/whatever-you-like, for example) that’s in your target language and start reading or watching it and doing whatever you have to in order to understand it and learn the language that they’re using (this is what I call my “Telenovela Method”, that’s basically what it’s about).

A big thanks to the Experts!

Some great advice in there.

I think that because of the variety of answers, there’s something to learn from every Ask The Experts.

Also thanks to the people who sent me the questions. You too, can ask a question. You can do so here.

Who knows? Maybe your question will be featured in the next edition!

One More Thing Before I Go

Your opinion is important. It really adds to the discussion.

You can make this post even better by answering the following question:

How can You Keep Learning a Language when You No Longer HAVE to?

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Comments

  1. Sergio Rodrigues says:

    As for me, I try to keep in touch with English by listening to podcasts and interchanging with other tools like TV series, magazines and even cartoons. That’s the way I manage to keep my motivation, even though I acknowledge that it tends to fall after visiting a country where your target language us spoken and manage to get by, as happen to me.
    Thanks for this amazing post and for the valuable advice provided by the experts.

  2. I really like your positive mental attitude, I’ve tried to learn Hebrew for almost 6 years but I’m aware I only spent 5 hours every 6 months. So I know why I can’t say more than 2 sentences, and I regularly forget how to count -until I read my book again.

  3. Hi my name is Jesus I”m from Peru.
    I have studied English for almost 3 years and recently last month i experienced something that never have happened before. I began to ask my self why tocontinue my studies in English if even find a person who practicen in ENglish is very hard. But thanks to this great advice from this experienced english learners i realised that even thought the main goal for learning a new language is the possibility to someday be able to speak the language and have fluency conversations with natives, there are other things that we can take advantages too like for example : Take courses, to watch moviesn without having to follow the subtitles and all that great things that we can do if we are able to speak another language. Thanks for make me realise this.
    Take care Bye!

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