No one decides to start learning a foreign language one day, follows a magic formula for language learning, stays super motivated throughout the whole process, and then miraculously speaks just like a native a year later. Language acquisition doesn’t work that way for 99.9% of us.
Our interests, our job, our hobbies, and other aspects of life can fluctuate as time goes on and that’s completely normal. But when you’re seriously trying to improve your foreign language skills, a dip in language learning motivation can majorly hinder your progress.
So what can you do to help yourself stay focused and interested?
When you lose language learning motivation
Learning a foreign language has been anything but a linear journey. Do you know the saying, “Two steps forward, one step back?” That’s how it’s been for me. The early years were not easy!
Maybe you can relate. You feel good about learning some new words and then you realize you missed half of the movie you were watching due to lack of comprehension. Or you understood that article in the newspaper you read but then froze up when talking to some French people on the street.
You have little wins that are chased by an equal number of setbacks and that is all normal. But the setbacks seem to stick with us and affect our motivation more than the wins fuel us to keep going.
I’ve felt all of the reasons I list below at one time or another and even several at the same time. It’s important to remember that if you’re currently lacking motivation, you aren’t alone. You haven’t failed and can get back on track.
Why do we lose language learning motivation?
1. We lose motivation because other things take priority in our lives. Despite having the best of intentions, life can get in the way. An important work project, exam, family obligation, or something else monopolizes our free time. Language learning can rank pretty low on our to-do list when more pressing tasks take priority.
2. It’s not fun anymore. Maybe your new teacher doesn’t have the same energy as your old one. Or you feel pressured to do well because it’s a required college course. Or you feel like you’re not making progress. When language learning loses its spark and is no longer fun, it’s easy to lose motivation.
3. Because we get fed up. This ties in to #2 above. For me, frustration and motivation are directly related… in all areas of my life. The more frustrated I become, the less motivated I am.
So if I have a bunch of frustrating encounters in French, it tanks my motivation and I don’t want to crack open a book in French or study anything. Feeling frustrated can last for a few minutes or weeks or more.
4. No support system. This one is huge. If you’re in this alone, you have no one to hold you accountable except yourself and that can backfire. When you have nobody to push you or encourage you, it means you also have no one to challenge you or laugh with you either.
5. It just seems too hard and you keep getting knocked down every time you feel like you’re making progress. French grammar is no joke. Pronunciation isn’t easy. Nothing is easy, and if you stick with it, you’re going to come up against aspects of the French language that majorly challenge you.
6. You don’t have a good reason to continue. If you don’t have a goal or reason for learning French, it’s easy to let it fall by the wayside when your motivation starts to wane. These reasons that follow may motivate some more than others, but you get my point. It’s important to know your “why” and then keep it in mind when life gets busy or frustration sets in.
Reasons like: Your son or daughter-in-law is French and you want to speak a little of their language, your new colleague is from a French-speaking country, the person you’re dating speaks French, you want to mentally challenge yourself, you’re planning a vacation to France next year, you love learning new languages, you love the way French sounds, you need to improve in order to work, etc.
7. Because you don’t NEED to improve. You’re good enough where you are. That means if you live in France, your level is good enough to get you through your day. People understand you and you understand them.
Things are working just fine. If you don’t live in France, well you probably don’t speak French that often and it’s not something you desperately need in your life. It’s just for fun.
This one is the most dangerous. When you get complacent, dig deeper because there’s probably more going on. Are you really good enough where you are or are you just afraid of hard work and being challenged?
I’m speaking from experience. Remember, fear is just false evidence appearing real. (Heard that on The Mission podcast and it reframed fear for me. Genius). It doesn’t own you and certainly doesn’t dictate what you’re capable of achieving.
So here’s what you do to get your motivation back:
Something I always tell myself is that learning does not have an end date. You haven’t already failed even if it feels like it. It’s not too late. Wherever you are, you can pick it back up and improve. Getting back on the horse, so to speak, is something to be proud of. Small wins mean you’re making progress and that’s enough to fuel your motivation.Language learning does not have an end date. You haven't already failed. Wherever you are, you can pick it back up and improve. Small wins mean you're making progress.Click To Tweet
1. Try something new. Things like a new speaking partner, a new class, a new book, newspaper, watching a TV series, whatever. Just try something new to put the spark back in your learning routine. For those interested in learning online, I highly recommend Lingoda for language learning. It’s an online platform with classes taught by native speakers, on your schedule.
2. Focus on what you like. Yes, grammar is important but if you quit 5 minutes into the lesson every single time, work on aspects of the French language that excite you. In a classroom setting, you may not have any control over what is being taught when, but on your own time, it’s so important to train yourself in a way that works.
For example, comprehension is something I didn’t focus on enough before I moved to France, so I wish I watched more TV series to help me understand French in real time with actual people. From home makeover shows to real estate shows to dramas and movies, there’s no shortage of great programming to give your comprehension a boost.
Seriously, if grammar is making you want to quit altogether, then just quit grammar. For a while, anyway. If you can’t bear studying the subjunctive or any one of 10,000 grammar rules, forget it and put your time and energy into comprehension, reading, speaking, or writing.
Listen to music. Read magazines. The point is when you’re in control, choose activities that will motivate you to learn more and not force you to give up.
3. Commit to learning. Write down your goals and then hold yourself accountable. Put a “Learn French Time” alarm on your phone if that’s what’ll get you to consistently do it. Even if it’s just 10 minutes per day on your morning commute, download an app like Duolingo or read an article in French.
Review new vocab while warming up on equipment at the gym. Listen to podcasts in French when you’re cleaning or cooking. Just make yourself do it in a way that works for you. Nothing is too silly or small to count. Like shopping? Head over to Sephora France or Galeries Lafayette online and browse listings in French. You’ll learn all the vocab.
4. Take a break. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder. In the case of mental overload or burnout, forcing yourself to continue to learn is a formula for disaster. When you aren’t feeling it, the best thing you can do is to give yourself space.
There’s no harm in taking a break from language learning. As I said, there’s no expiration date on learning. The French language will be there for you when you come back to it, refreshed and ready to jump back in.
5. Do something that will boost your confidence. Teach a friend at a lower level something new. You’ll feel good about sharing what you do know and it’ll give you a boost. Try an exercise at a lower level than where you currently are, so if your reading comprehension is a B1, start off by reading an A2 level text that you know you’ll understand.
Make a brag book of your little wins in the back of a notebook, or why not make a notebook entirely dedicated to your wins. I have a bit of a notebook addiction and am proud to admit it. Keep a list of daily wins that you can refer back to when you’re having a bad day. Remember how good you felt when you had that win.
Then, stay consistent.
How do you deal with a lack of motivation when learning a foreign language?
Caitlin Veteto says
I needed to hear this today. For a combination of what you mentioned I have not maintained my language skills. I used to have access to TV5 Monde and found some programs on there that I really enjoyed watching. It was so much easier to motivate myself to turn those on than pulling up something like the daily news broadcasts online. I so still find those interesting seeing the way US news is reported from outside my country. No one speaks French where I live (Oklahoma) and I rarely get to travel to a French speaking country to have any reason to use the language. That doesn’t mean I can’t or shouldn’t find a way to get back into the language and find a fun way to do it. Thank you for the suggestions!!!
Keith Van Sickle says
I’ll echo #2, to focus on what you like. I find that, for me, it changes over time. Sometimes I have energy for grammar, sometimes I have energy for reading, sometimes for watching French TV, etc. So I go with the flow, focusing on one for a while and then something else. I figure it all evens out in the end.
Niculina McClanahan says
You have given some good advice to language learners out there- I’ve always admired your analytical mind. You are so encouraging to so many people who are struggling with a foreign language.
I suppose that the motivation to master a foreign language depends on individual circumstances. For someone learning another language just for fun, there is an initial focus, but as you and I know, a language that’s not spoken and not immersed into the corresponding culture becomes idle. However, it can be reactivated once the opportunity to speak it arises.
For someone living in the foreingn language there is a completely different approach to the process. The pressure to become competent and functional in the foreign language is the main drive and man, that is a very strong motivation! I mean, one needs to earn a living and navigate daily tasks so one better keeps at it, right? But I must admit that after I have brought myself to the functioning level I give myself a break and although I’m continuing my learning, it’s not so intentional as once was. I wouldn’t call it the lack of motivation though. It’s more like aquiring a certain wisdom about learning a second language, a deeper understanding that if I already have mastered a significant area of the language, I can always use the same strategy to expand my grasp of the language in other areas that I’m not yet very knowledgeable about.
In my native language, I used to be an avid reader and I would enjoy reading poetry and novels, fiction and non fictional, even philosophy and schools of thought books. In my second language, I had years when I couldn’t even read the newspaper, I couldn’t get the jokes from Comics…it was awful. Then I discovered a passion for interior design and I started reading magazines and I even took a couple of college classes for it. I credit the beauty of interior design for leading me into expanding my language skills. I’m still building my reading passion back to where it once was, but even after two decades, I still find myself not knowing a word or two, or feeling uncertain in some areas- boiler plate texts on legal documents get me everytimeSo yeah, it’s a never ending process but I made peace with it.