Focus and endurance: Long-term motivation for learning languages

What keeps you motivated to learn languages?
What keeps you motivated to learn languages?

Thousands of tools and tricks and methods exist to learn languages on every platform, on- and off-line.  All you have to do is use those tools a few hundred times, and you’ll be fluent.  Why, then, doesn’t everyone know another language yet?  The deciding factor is motivation.  Most people lack something that will drive them back to those tools again and again, months and years after the initial shine has worn off.

Fluency will come when you have studied for a long time, which requires sustained motivation.  Motivation requires focus, that is, the ability to decide to do this same activity when other activities also cry out for your attention. The deeper the motivation for learning the language, the longer you will stay focused.  Motivation and focus also depend on endurance.  Focusing a few times won’t suffice for learning a language, only a few thousand times.  Different factors motivate successful language-learners.  Love and curiosity trump economic reasons for learning a language because the focus runs deeper, though curiosity can sustain endurance longer.

The motivators

1. Love

When we desire in our heart to connect with someone, we can stay motivated to learn a language.  The need to understand someone else deeply, and to be understood by them, can drive us for years to learn a language.

Love drives humans to do things in way that no other motivator can, and we see this in the area of languages.  Like I said in my last post, the love can manifest itself as a desire to teach to another person’s heart an important message.  One can also develop a deep love for another culture.  A good friend of mine fell in love with Latin American culture, and so learned Spanish to a very deep degree.  One can also fall in love with someone who does not speak your language.  The strong desire to communicate with that one individual–and perhaps his or her friends and family–will motivate you for a long time.

Love drives us hard, but can end.  If we break up with the object of our desire, or leave the area of our mission, our love may taper off.  As love disappears, so may our language-love.  I became fascinated with Welsh culture when I went to Wales at 15, so I studied some Welsh.  After I was back in the US, my love of Welsh–and motivation to study Welsh–tapered off quickly.  Love, nevertheless, motivates like no other force.  If love detaches from a single object, such as a particular individual, to aim at a broader object, such as “the poor” or “humanity,” love can sustain itself longer.

2. Curiosity

Language reflects the human brain and culture.  As I said elsewhere, language allows a human to move out of his or her mind and connect with another human.  This uniquely human ability fascinates many.  As sports display the beauty and strength and agility the human body is capable of, so language shows the flexibility and creativity of the human mind.

Curiosity can drive us to all the different ways that language manifests human wisdom and ingenuity.  This curiosity can manifest itself in a love of abstract grammar processes. This drives us to study linguistics and Universal Grammar.  Also, curiosity can drive us to read poetry in various languages, just to see what the human mind can think of next.  One might collect proverbs or untranslatable words from different languages.  Like my young language lover friend, we might just end up collecting books and websites of all different sorts of languages and learning as much as we can of and about them.  Polyglots tend to fall in this category.

For humans being, curiosity rivals love as a motivator.  Curiosity can be a love of an abstract concept.  A biologist does not just really want to know about biology; she loves biology.  In the same way as love, curiosity can die when the object of our inquiry is no longer there.  Because curiosity lies mostly within us, however, curiosity can motivate us with less fickleness.

3. Economic necessity

Language love might start out with this, one of the weakest, motivators.  Many people throughout the world began learning English because of this motivation.  Parents probably offer this to their children to influence them to learn a language.  For this reason, Mandarin immersion schools are popping up all over the world.  In the history of the world, many learned languages so that they could speak to more potential customers in the local or distant markets.

Economic benefits from learning another language are clear.  In third-world countries, knowing English might give you access to some of the best-paying jobs around.  Large companies may encourage workers to learn languages so the company can gain market share in important areas.  The government or military may need linguists in order to attain a particular objective.

This motivator can be short-lived because they depend on the economic situation.  I met someone who learned Chinese in the Air Force.  He spent eight hours a day in a plane on the edge of Chinese airspace listening to and translating conversations they picked up.  He said it was a boring job.  When he got out of the Air Force, he forgot his Chinese.  During the period of the Soviet Union, the USSR’s relationship with East Germany encouraged many Russians to learn German.  With new relationships with the US and the UK and the world English-speaking community, very few people learn German in the former USSR any more, and those who knew it have largely forgotten it.

Depth and endurance

Motivation requires depth and endurance.  Scholars and psychologists have looked at the quality of “grit” recently and it relationship with successful learning, and these may be related.  Love and curiosity offer greater depth, but curiosity probably offers more endurance.  Economic motivation can offer endurance, but not necessarily depth.  These areas can overlap and morph from one to another.  Interest in a language from economic motivators can engender love for the other culture, or an overseas work assignment can lead to falling in love with someone from that culture.  Curiosity in language can turn to economic motivation for continuing with that language.  If you are stalled in learning your language, check out your depth and endurance for sticking to it.

What motivates you to learn your language?  Where does your motivation come from?  Did I leave any motivators out?  Please write your motivators in the comments.

Photo credit: h.koppdelaney / Foter / CC BY-ND

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3 thoughts on “Focus and endurance: Long-term motivation for learning languages

  1. Pingback: Weekly favorites (Aug 12-18) | Adventures in Freelance Translation

  2. Pingback: Focus and endurance: Long-term motivation for learning languages | Bui Bui

  3. Pingback: Your brain loves language–feed it more | Loving Language

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