Learning a language can seem like a pretty daunting task.
It isn’t something that happens overnight, or even over the course of a few months, and it can take a while to be able to feel comfortable having even just a simple conversation in your second language. So it’s not surprising if you find the process of learning a new language difficult, frustrating, and at times even anxiety-inducing.
While these feelings are normal, they’re still pretty unhelpful, so let’s talk about some of the things that should help you to stay motivated, according to researchers. But before we get into all that, let’s briefly note that, while there are lots of factors researchers think might affect motivation, it’s likely that not all of them are under your control. Here, we’ll only talk about things you probably can change. Specifically, we’re going to cover three main topics: goal-setting, avoiding competition or comparison, and the idea of focusing on mastering a skill over how well you perform at that skill. Finally, we’ll briefly touch on one or two things that you might find demotivating, but that you probably don’t realize are affecting you.
Set long-term goals. Then, break them down.
Many of us have have heard this advice before: if you want to accomplish something - especially if it’s difficult or takes a long time - it’s important to set goals to help you achieve it. This is perhaps particularly important when it comes to second language learning. Something to keep in mind is that technically, learning any language - even your first - is a lifelong process. While there are some parts of language you can learn pretty quickly (for example, basic verb conjugations or how to form plurals), some aspects of language learning continue throughout your entire life. Take vocabulary, for example: for any given language, there are probably tens of thousands of words that almost nobody actually knows (you probably haven’t ever heard the words cacomistle or yogh, for example, but they are English words). Furthermore, new words - like hangry, biohacking, and glamping - are constantly being coined.
What this all means, of course, is that, in a sense, you’re never really “done” learning any language, even your first.
Whether you find this delightful or just plain exhausting, what this means is that goal-setting in language learning is really important: without clear goals, there’s no way to know what you’re aiming for, since there’s no obvious “end point” to language learning.
Simply setting any old goals, however, doesn’t appear to be enough; the type of goal also matters. In particular, as argued in Lee and Bong (2019), it’s important to have goals that are challenging, yet specific enough that it’s immediately obvious what you should do to achieve them. In a 1967 study by Bryan & Locke, college students were given a series of math problems to try to solve; the only instructions they got were to “do their best” to solve as many as possible. After they were done, the researchers picked out two sets of students from the participants: one set who had done relatively poorly (i.e. had not solved many problems), and one set who had performed relatively well. Both groups were then given a new series of math problems, with one difference: the group that had performed poorly was now given a specific goal - i.e. to solve a certain number of problems - while the group that had performed well was again just told to “do their best”. Bryan & Locke found that the students who had initially performed poorly but were then given a specific goal improved not only in their scores, but also in how many problems they tried to solve in the first place, as well as in their interest and concentration in the task. Meanwhile, the group that had initially performed highly but was given a general goal experienced a decline not only in their scores but also in their interest and concentration.
Similarly, in 2012, Moeller, Theiler and Wu came up with an intervention program to help high school students in Spanish second-language programs set better goals. Students were asked to set challenging goals, break them down into more specific goals, and to write journals on their progress over the course of five years. What the authors found was that students who set more challenging goals and then broke them down into more specific action plans had greater achievement in writing, speaking, and reading their second language than students with less challenging, less specific goals. If you think about it, this is perhaps unsurprising: as stated in a 2002 article by Locke and Latham, “If the goal is to cut down 30 trees in a day, people have no way to tell if they are on target unless they know how many trees have been cut” (p. 708) - in other words, specific goals are important because they provide learners consistent feedback on how they are progressing, thus allowing them to adjust their efforts to meet their longer-term goals if necessary.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that you only need specific, shorter-term goals; Lee and Bong (2019) also states that “mindless pursuit of only proximal goals (e.g. memorizing 6 words every day) without keeping a distal goal (e.g. becoming a fluent reader in [the second language]) in sight can make the drill and practice meaningless and result in the loss of intrinsic motivation” (p. 10). That is, if all you do is focus on short-term goals without a long-term goal in mind, you can forget what the point of all those short-term goals was in the first place.
This is something I often noticed when I was working towards my Bachelor’s degree: although many of the undergraduates around me did indeed have meaningful reasons for wanting a degree (for example, being able to have a career in social work or medicine in order to give back to their communities), a lot of them would also get really hung up on the idea that they needed perfect grades in every class, or even on every assignment. Often, they would end up getting really upset over the one or two bad grades they did get. But of course, the only reason many students care about getting good grades in the first place is that they hope to eventually do something useful with the knowledge they’re gaining. The grades themselves, which will cease to matter the moment they exit their program, are not really the point. Having a meaningful long-term goal in mind, and importantly, periodically reminding yourself of that goal, can be really helpful for remembering why you set out to learn a second language in the first place. That, of course, is much more motivating than simply focusing on something like the fact that you promised yourself you would practice German or French for fifteen minutes every day - a goal which, in and of itself, really has no immediate purpose. It’s the way in which those small goals fit into your long-term goal - i.e., the eventual mastery of the language - that really matters.
Don’t Compare Yourself To Others.
There’s another piece of advice all of us have probably heard before: don’t worry about anybody else; focus on how you yourself are doing. This particular piece of advice can be found everywhere from elementary school classrooms to self-help books aimed at adults. But it’s not without reason that it’s so common, since research seems to show that competition with other language learners is harmful for second language learning, too. In a review of the major motivation theories in second language learning, Oxford and Shearin (1994) notes that “when relative performance is the goal, learners are concerned with being judged able, they value normatively high outcomes, and they believe that ability is shown by success, outperforming others, and achieving success with little effort” (p. 22). In other words, when people focus on how well they’re doing compared to others, they tend to stop caring about learning anything, and instead focus on trying to do better than everyone else without actually wanting to do what it takes to succeed.
Needless to say, this attitude isn’t very motivating; it also tends to make people think they’re doing a worse job than they would without the competition (Oxford & Shearin, 1994:2). So for the purposes of second language learning, the best thing to do is probably to just avoid unnecessary comparisons in the first place. For example, you can avoid participating in activities, or using applications, that place a heavy focus on your achievements in comparison to those of others. Instead, try to find resources that focus on your own progress, and that give you feedback on how well you’re doing now in comparison to how well you did in the past, which can further aid you in the goal-setting process.
Focus on Mastery, not Performance.
This brings us to an idea that ties together both of the things we just talked about: it is related to goal-setting, but it also has to do with the types of attitudes people can adopt when it comes to second language learning.
What I’m talking about is the focus on mastery goals over performance goals, a topic which is discussed extensively in Lee and Bong (2019). We can understand how these two types of goals differ by thinking about how people tend to act when they adopt them. As described in Lee & Bong (2019), students who focus on mastery goals “strive to develop and improve their competence by acquiring new skills” and believe that their abilities can improve with effort, while those who focus on performance goals “strive to demonstrate and validate their competence”, and think that their abilities are fixed. So basically, mastery goals are those that focus on acquiring and developing new skills (with the belief that those skills can be improved), while performance goals are those that focus on showing how good you are at the skills you already have, without the belief that you can actually get any better.
Studies indicate that students with mastery goals outperform those who focus on performance goals. This shouldn’t really be surprising; after all, mastery-goal learners typically believe they can improve their language-learning abilities, while performance-goal learners don’t. And if you think it’s impossible to improve at something, you’re probably not going to try very hard at that thing in the first place.
What’s particularly sad about these findings is that most language learning apps and classes focus on performance goals (think scores, grades, levels, etc), rather than mastery goals. This actually tends to be the focus of a lot of our learning in general. For instance, think of the classes you’ve taken: you probably weren’t given points just for showing up and improving over time (which would have shown a focus on mastery goals), were you? Instead, you were most likely asked to demonstrate your skills, and at times, put in positions where direct comparison between your abilities and those of your classmates were inevitable, for example, when everyone in the class was made to go up to the front and give individual presentations. This focus is further exaggerated in some university classes, where the grades are placed on a curve, such that your score is directly dependent on the scores of all the other students in your class.
This is especially unfortunate when you consider the fact that most second language learners’ goals are probably mastery-oriented: unless you’re just taking a language class to fulfil a requirement and have zero interest in the language itself, what you probably care about is learning to speak the language pretty well, and this is fundamentally a mastery goal. However, it can be easy to lose sight of this when you’re constantly being graded, evaluated, and compared to other learners, so it’s important to try to keep focus on why you’re really learning the language instead of the way in which you might be being evaluated.
Another thing that a number of researchers have suggested is to focus on communication rather than speaking “perfectly”. Of course, while it’s easy to give this advice, it’s not always so easy to take it. Many people find it really uncomfortable and embarrassing to not be able to speak the way they do in their first language; I’ve often heard people express frustration at the beginning stages of language learning, and at suddenly being placed in a position where their linguistic ability is so poor they feel like they sound like a child when they talk.
Something that might help to know, however, is that in a sense, sounding “like a child” is actually totally appropriate for the early stages of learning a second language. In order to understand this, we need to learn a little bit about how language learning works. For this, we can draw from a subfield of Linguistics called Language Acquisition, which studies both the way in which children develop their first language, as well as the way in which adults develop a second language.
One basic fact that you’ll learn in any Language Acquisition course is that while it’s true that children make many grammatical errors, they do so in a predictable fashion, passing through certain clear stages as they learn their first language. When a child makes a certain error over and over again when they speak, this reflects a guess they’ve made about the way that language is structured. For example, a child who says mouses or childs instead of mice or children is demonstrating that they have learned that in English, we generally add an -s to nouns to form the plural. They’re also showing that their current guess about English is that all plurals are formed that way - a guess that they will eventually revise when they encounter enough irregular words. In a 1969 paper titled The analogy between first and second language learning, Vivian Cook states that similarly, the grammatical errors that second language speakers make reflect their guesses about the language they’re learning (based in part on the grammar of their first language), and these errors therefore reflect a natural part of the learning process.
The lesson you should take from this is the following: when you make the same mistake over and over again in your second language, you should not take this as a sign that you are failing to learn that part of the grammar; it’s actually a sign that you are passing through a natural stage of language learning that is not only predictable, but probably necessary. As Cook argues, it’s likely that you actually need to make those mistakes so that you can eventually revise your guess about the language and move on to the next stage.
Think about things that might be demotivating.
While it’s important to know some things that can help you to stay motivated, it’s also important to think about what things might be keeping you from feeling motivated. While this probably differs from person to person, and there are all sorts of things that can be demotivating, in this section, we’ll talk about two that seem common, but which you may not have thought of.
You can teach an old dog new tricks (or even a new language).
There’s a belief that many people seem to have that you can’t learn a second language as an adult. Needless to say, this is pretty unhelpful if you yourself are trying to learn a second language, since it makes all your work seem pretty pointless: after all, what’s the point in trying to learn a second language if research has shown that adults can’t do it? This would of course be a perfectly valid concern if research had shown this, but luckily, it hasn’t: many studies have documented adult second language learners who were able to perform at native-like levels, sometimes even well enough to “pass” as native speakers. If you find this hard to believe, I highly suggest reading this article, where I talk about the effect of age on your ability to learn a second language. Here, I specifically address this belief, and review a number of studies in Linguistics that argue both sides of the debate - you can even check out the original studies cited there and read them yourself if you like.
It’s really important to convince yourself that it’s not impossible for you to improve your second language skills, because this belief isn’t just common - it’s also apparently pretty damning. In a 2016 study, Lou & Noels examined the effects of these kinds of beliefs on 150 university students enrolled in a second language learning course. The students were told that their language ability would be assessed via a reading comprehension task, after which they would be given a questionnaire about language attitudes. Prior to testing, the students were also asked to read a scientific article about language learning ability. What they didn’t know was that they had been randomly assigned to two different groups: one group read an article that claimed that language learning ability was fixed, while the other group read an article that stated that language learning ability can be improved with practice.
What the authors found was that students who read the article claiming that language ability could be improved were more likely to set mastery goals, described past setbacks in language learning more positively, and expressed a stronger intent to continue learning the language regardless of how they rated their second language skills, while students who believed they had strong second language skills but read the other article were more likely to express helpless feelings and to respond more negatively to failure. What this means is that your beliefs about your ability to improve in a second language seem to predict how well you’re going to do before you’ve even started learning. So one of the easiest and perhaps most helpful things to do is to do your research, and convince yourself that it is possible to learn a new language, regardless of whatever age you might be.
Understand how learning a second language can affect your sense of identity.
When it comes to second language learning, there’s something else that’s likely at play, even though it doesn’t seem to get talked about or researched a whole lot, and that is the way in which being a second language learner can affect your ability to express your identity in that language - especially early on in the learning process.
In order to understand why this is, we need a little bit of background, and for this, we turn to the field of Sociolinguistics, and the concept of linguistic registers. According to Alessandro Duranti’s Key Terms in Language and Culture, a linguistic register is “a linguistic repertoire that is associated, culture internally, with particular social practices, and with persons who engage in such practices” (p. 212). That is, it’s a way of speaking that identifies you as a member of some particular social group.
It’s important to understand this concept to be able to see how closely bound up your sense of yourself - and of those around you - is with the way that you speak. Duranti gives an excellent summary of the degree to which linguistic registers affect us, when he states the following:
“The existence of registers results… in the creation of social boundaries within society, partitioning off language users into distinct groups through differential access to particular registers and to the social practices that they mediate; through the ascription of social worth or stigma to particular registers, their uses, or their users; and through the creation and maintenance of power, privilege, and rank” (p. 213).
In other words, the mere fact that registers exist enforces the division of people into different groups within a culture, and the people in these different groups can be easily recognized just by the way they speak. This happens because even though, for example, everyone reading this article speaks English, there are lots of different ways to speak it - and we don’t all have access to all those different ways of speaking.
To get a sense of registers, think about the kind of English you hear when watching a sitcom: it’s easy to understand, and (in the case of most sitcoms), pretty much any English speaker would be able to follow along without any issues. Now think of the way scientific articles or legal texts are written. Clearly, not just anybody can understand that kind of English, and those who can are able to exclude everyone else from the conversation just by choosing to speak that way. You’ve probably felt the exclusionary effects of register yourself, although you likely didn’t know it: any time you’ve encountered a piece of writing you felt was too complicated, or found yourself unable to understand the way “young people today” speak, or passed anyone on the street using slang or jargon you didn’t understand, you were encountering the boundaries between you and the people in those groups, and the resulting constraints placed upon you by your lack of access to their register.
Registers aren’t inherently negative of course; they’re just different ways of speaking. But the interesting thing about them in the case of second language learning is that a massive amount of social information is passed via language - some of which is communicated by which register a person uses. But of course, all of this is lost to you as a second language speaker, at least when you’re still in the early stages of learning. As Walt Wilfram states in an essay on Sociolinguistics posted to the Linguistics Society of America website, “in the normal transfer of information through language, we use language to send vital social messages about who we are, where we come from, and who we associate with”. So being in the early stages of second language learning can be really difficult because of the loss of information and identity that you experience when you try to move through the world in an unfamiliar language: not only do you lose the ability to recognize the different registers people are using, but you also lose the ability to express yourself and show people who you are by using different registers as well.
While there doesn’t appear to be much research, if any, on this aspect of second language learning, it’s worth at least being aware of it, because once you are, there are some common-sense measures you can take to make this part of second language learning a bit less difficult.
For one thing, you can look at the positive side of the situation: for example, since you can’t tell what register people are speaking in in your second language, you now have the chance to talk with people you might normally never speak to, and you might even surprise yourself with the friends you end up making. In other words, it’s a chance to look at people as people, without the burden of the value judgements ways of speaking can normally carry. You can also look at it as a chance to start a new linguistic identity, with a clean slate: in your first language, you don’t really get to choose the registers you use - a lot of it just depends on the people you grew up with, and how your parents speak. In your second language, you can take time to see how different groups of people talk and decide how you want to speak, and in some sense, who you want to be (or at least how you want people to think of you) - a chance you never got in your first language.
Finally, you can get creative. For example, if you would usually use a broad range of vocabulary to show that you’re a literary person, you can try to express that part of yourself in other ways - for example, by using more metaphorical language. And even though it might seem counter-intuitive, you might also try reading some more complicated literature, if that’s closer to what you’d normally read in your first language, thus rebuilding the access to that kind of speech in your second language. You might actually find this more comfortable than reading simple texts you’d normally never read, even if it means you understand a lot less of what you’re reading.
On the other hand, if you normally pride yourself on knowing all the latest slang, try taking it upon yourself to look it up online, watch television shows directed at younger audiences where they might use that language, or even find a native speaker tutor or language exchange buddy who can help you to learn! In other words, customize your learning process to reflect what kind of language user you want to be and the way in which you feel most comfortable expressing yourself via your language. While there isn’t really much you can do about losing access to the registers you’d normally use when you start learning a new language, you don’t have to give up on them completely - just spend a little time getting parts of those registers back so you can feel more like yourself again.
Let's Briefly Review
This article was a little bit of a longer one, but the lessons to be taken from all this research can be stated pretty concisely: to help stay motivated while learning a second language, make sure to set challenging long-term goals that are meaningful to you, and then break them down into shorter-term goals that are easily achievable; focus on improving over time, rather than how well you’re doing in comparison to anyone else, and take a little time to reflect on the way in which learning a second language affects your sense of yourself and your identity. And finally, remember that, regardless of what you might have heard people say, it is possible to learn a second language as an adult - as long as you’re willing to try (and keep trying) in the first place.
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-  Wolfram, Walt. Sociolinguistics. Retrieved from https://www.linguisticsociety.org/resource/sociolinguistics