9 ways to stay motivated in learning a foreign language

avatarMille Larsen
12 mins read

Learning a new language takes a significant investment of time and perseverance. You're not going to get very far in three months and after two years you might still feel like a beginner. Language learning is a marathon, not a sprint, and like long distance runners, you need to keep your blood sugar high enough to keep going. How do you stay motivated when you're on a journey that takes several years? In this article, I've tried to come up with a few tips on how to keep your motivation so you can reach the goal line!

1. Rise early

The number one useful habit that has been helpful to my language studies is getting up early. I've found that I learn the most the first few hours of the day, when my mind is fresh and relaxed, I've nothing to worry about and nothing stressing me. I like to spend at least one hour by myself every morning, reading in silence with only the distant sounds of the neighborhood waking up in the background. When I am able to get a good, undisturbed study session squeezed in in the beginning of the day, I feel great. The day starts with an achievement, and although I might feel tired, I also feel stimulated. Doing your language studies the first thing in the morning also does away with any tendency to procrastinate, and you won't feel guilty or that you're wasting your time. Moreover, if you start the day with something positive, you're more likely to stay motivated until the evening.

2. Get attached

There are many ways that you can get attached to your language. One is to make an emotional connection through friendship. If you learn a language for purely practical reasons and only consider it a tool, chances are that the language will remain foreign to you. Many multilinguals will tell you that they make less progress in languages they don't relate to as much personally. Try making friends through the language. These days I'm speaking Arabic a lot with refugees who are new to my country. I help them with their Danish, and they help me improve my Arabic. In the process I make new friends, and for each new person I meet through the language, it's as if the language in itself becomes more personal. Try thinking about language stereotypes. The French are romantics who adore food and that kind of thing. When you discover personalities, you start making a kind of positive stereotypes concerning the language, and these will help you create meaning and make the language part of you. Many polyglots report how they learn a "persona" along with each language. Benny the Irish polyglot goes all in and plays along with his positive stereotypes, and it serves to make the connection more authentic. When he speaks Portuguese, he becomes a stereotypical hyper-social Portuguese all along with the gestures, the melody and the tone of voice. I think that this is great advice.

3. Pick up a new passion through your target language

Like headline number two, this is also about attachment to the language, but perhaps more in a passive way. In your native language you probably have a favorite news site, a preferred TV series, or a magazine that you read every month. Well, for each language that is out there, there's an equal amount of media, entertainment and literature out there, and I encourage you to start and substitute a few of your native-language media sources, for some in your target language. Once you start listening to Spanish comedy, Algerian Arabic music, or reading news in French, you'll discover that these are all things that would be worthy of your time, even if they weren't a means to learn another language. The trick is to find these things, and to make them understandable enough for them to be easily consumed. I recommend that you start with music. Look up popular music in the language that you're learning, and start digging. Read about the artist, follow the lyrics. You may even want to sing along! Do you like to stay updated? Look up news and current events in your target language and compare the articles to the English ones on the same subject. You'll learn a lot about the world from reading news from two cultural perspectives. And then there is cinema! Hollywood has the budget for special effects and giant marketing campaigns, but if you think that the best cinema in the world is American, think again! Almost every country in the world has a long and deep history of great movies to watch, and they're sometimes very different from what you're used to!

4. Measure your progress (once in a while)

Sometimes you might feel stuck and as if you're not improving. Learning another language takes dedication and a lot of time. You need to work at it every day for maybe two or three years. The enthusiasm that a beginner has gradually matures as you progress, and the aggressive consumption of learning materials turns into a study routine. There's no problem with that, but you might feel discouraged when you realize that the quick improvements and numerous successes you had in the beginning, now seem less impressive. The fact of the matter is, however, that you're still improving. The pace is most likely not lower, but higher that it was in the beginning, only, the new things that you learn after a year of studying just feel less significant in the great scale.

In this case, it could be be useful to try and measure your progress. If you don't feel it, you need something else to prove it. There are many ways of doing this. You can read the same chapter every once in a while and count the number of unknown words and then compare, or you can study by aid of a tool like  LingQ (check my review of LingQ or Learning with texts, which measures your "known words" over time. When you're stuck and don't feel that your effort is making any difference, just look up your stats, and you might notice that you now know 20% more words than you did a few months back. All of this doesn't mean very much - it's just a number after all, but to me at least, having some kind of arbitrary measure that tells me that I'm moving forward, keeps me motivated.

5. Rethink your study method

What does your daily study routine consist of? Trying to wrap your head around complicated grammar points? Translating page after page? Reading children stories? OK, fine, but do you enjoy that? I've found that one of the keys to successful self-study, is to enjoy yourself. You don't have to roll on the floor laughing, but language learning needs to be something that you personally feel like coming back to. If you'd rather be doing the dishes, you're doing something wrong. Think about what other pastimes you have. Why do you keep coming back to those? Certainly not because they hurt your brain! Motivation in language learning is all about positive associations. You need to emotionally connect the activity of studying language with something positive, and for this to work, your study routine should be something that you enjoy doing. Maybe you learn more from translating entire pages word by word, but if you hate doing it, chances are that you'll make up excuses next time you have the time. You need to watch great movies, read jokes, books and why not watch cooking shows in your target language. If Tolstoy is boring, or you don't understand, put it down, and have a go with Agatha Christie.

6. Reward yourself.

Ultimately, using the language in itself will be the perfect reward. But maybe you're not quite there yet? One way of finding out could be to give it at try. Find a native speaker and say hello in their language. Then wait for their reaction. Even if you're far from perfect, chances are that you'll be met with almost exaggerated awe and praise from the few words you've mustered up. Every time I approach someone in Arabic, the people that I'm speaking to are extremely flattered and encouraging. Maybe they'll give me some advice or help me with my pronunciation, but they'll most certainly ask a lot of questions and praise my helpless Arabic much more than it's due! The reaction you're getting might depend on the language and the place, though, so don't expect this kind of reaction if you're trying to speak French to the hotel receptionist in Paris!

There are also other ways of rewarding oneself. If you feel that you really must study a few grammar drills, reward yourself with an episode of a comedy series in your target language, or your favorite target language song. Chocolate and cakes also come to mind, but be careful! - There probably are many health blogs in your target language too.

Most importantly is that you have to focus on your achievements, which bring me to the next point:

7. Have goals, big and small.

Obviously, the ultimate goal is you mastering the language. You'll get there in the end, but it will take hundreds of hours of work, tons of small achievements along with a few failures spread out over several years of going at it. It's not always enough to just have that distant point in the horizon as a goal when there still is so far to go.

This is why you need to set more goals. There are small goals, big ones and that huge one in the end. Back when I were learning French, I set out a little aimlessly with only the main objective in mind. I want to be a fluent French speaker, and I can't wait! Quickly, though, it dawned on me that it would take a considerable amount of work and time to reach the end goal, but I kept at it, switching learning materials and books every so often, when I felt that I weren't progressing. It went on for a while, until I became aware of the possibility offered by my university to become an exchange student for a semester in another country! I immediately signed up for a school in Paris, and suddenly, I had a goal. Being able to study in another language is still setting the bar a little high, but it was less arbitrary to have a deadline and a specific objective. I started reading tons of books, even though I didn't understand a lot. Finishing books became small goals in themselves, and for each book I finished, I continued with a new goal. I found a series of travel documentaries that I understood the most of, and I made goals to breach over to other genres. I eventually met my goal of speaking enough French to somehow get by in Paris, and the distant goal of speaking French fluently had suddenly become much more achievable.

8. Realize that you get more critical as you go

In point number four, I suggested that you measure your achievements in order to prove to yourself that you're progressing although it seeming slow. It's also important to realize that as your grasp of the language improves, achievements that you were proud of before now seem less impressive. This is because you're getting better, and your standards thereby are getting higher.

Try recording yourself speaking once a month and keep all of the recordings stored somewhere together. Once in a while, try listening to yourself speaking in the beginning of your studies, and compare. The pronunciation you think you nailed six months back? Well suddenly it's not that great. Now imagine if you could return to the level that you had six months ago, and then listen to your future self. That would be a whole other story!

9. Variation

This is important, not only for motivation, but for progressing! Seeing a new word or a grammar concept in multiple contexts makes it much easier to learn it. When you see the same word somewhere else, you suddenly remember, and even though it isn't that solid in the beginning, recognition is the beginning of solidifying new knowledge. It can't be understated that variation is immensely important to motivation as well.  In the beginning stages of my Arabic studies, I studied thousands upon thousands of flashcards, sometimes over three hours per day, and I didn't do much else. Focusing on only one thing is not only ineffective, it's also something that leads to burnout. You may trick yourself into thinking that you're able to do it in the beginning. This is because you're highly enthusiastic about reaching your goals, but sooner or later you'll realize that there's a long way to go, and that you seem to be going nowhere from doing the same thing over and over again. Variation is key. If you're going to do flashcards, do them in moderation and while doing several other things in the same time. Spend some time daily listening to the radio, read along the lyrics while listening to music. Read books, magazines and newspapers. And don't be afraid to let go of a boring novel or a too difficult podcast. There's no need to waste your time with something you don't enjoy. Substitute it with something else!

You might also want to read my other article "10 reasons why most people fail learning a language".