Sunday, 7 October 2007

Learning a new language – maintaining motivation

As I see it, time and motivation are the two most important factors for those who want to learn a language, much more important than individual capacity. I have already discussed the importance of creating time for the new language, since it is the aspect that I consider most people to disregard. But time without motivation does not take us anywhere. So what do I do to stay motivated?

I know of many people who have learnt one or several languages so well that they occasionally are taken for native speakers. If asked, all of these people would say that reaching that level of fluency has taken a lot of efforts. New languages can not be learnt without a true commitment, and that is why many adult learners fail. The busier we are, the more difficult is it to be motivated for projects where progress is slow.

Since many adults lament that children learn languages faster than us, let us take a look at how we differ in motivation. Adults analyze and then prioritise needs while children are direct. My sons, who are one and a half and four years old, respectively, learn Catalan by social necessity. Since people they meet in school do not speak Swedish, they adapt without much questioning. For my wife and me, on the other hand, motivation does not come by itself. We know that Catalan is good to know for daily life here, but also that it is far from indispensable. To complicate matters further, we are aware that there is a trade-off, at least short term; should we learn two languages at the same time, with the risk of mixing them up due to similarities, or rather first strive for perfection in Spanish and subsequently let that be our bridge into Catalan? No wonder we are much more likely to lose motivation than our sons are.

As readers of this blog will understand, I have already made up my mind to learn Catalan although I am still far from fluent in Spanish. To succeed as adult learners we must make a firm decision to learn a language and then immediately capitalize as much as possible on the energy of the initial impulse. Learning new words is hardly fun, but is an absolute must in any language. It is therefore my advice to dedicate the first weeks solely to the vocabulary of the target language, and come back to basic grammar or simplified dialogues only later on. Personally, I collect as many ready-made glossaries as I can find and then start to memorize words. To search up additional words by oneself at this stage is a waste of time since all important words sooner or later turn up in the glossaries. It is equally futile to exclude words only because they do not seem important or too difficult. Let us be honest, if our motivation is so weak that we feel relief in removing two words from a list of 100, we will never manage to learn all the words needed to master a language.

Fortunately enough for my Catalan, I have come through the toughest stage, that is achieving basic vocabulary. I will, occasionally, go back to glossaries to learn new words but rarely do so to revise words which I have already learnt once. I simply consider that too boring. My method for maintaining the vocabulary which I have already achieved is to read a lot, newspapers as well as books. Admittedly, this is a low-intensive way to refresh a certain set of words. However, at least for me, it is a kind of quality exposure to the new language, which I am easily motivated for, since the focus switches from learning the language to making use of it. The important thing to remember in order for this method to work is to concentrate on content and not on the individual words. Any text made for native speakers will be full of vocabulary which we do not yet master and we have to force ourselves to accept that. If we do not, but expect to have a perfect vocabulary before we start to read, we extend the time before we can make use of the new language. For an adult learner, that is an unnecessary risk to motivation.

It will sound like heresy to some, but does it really matter if we miss out on some of the meaning in a book we read? My wife and I have both recently read La sombra del viento by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. While I stayed with the Spanish original version, she gave up and switched to the Swedish translation. I admit that there are several details and descriptions in the novel which she, most likely, has understood better than I, but I can live with that. After all, none of us will have to pass a test on what we remember from the book. Except for that, because I read at a slower speed, my experience of reading the text lasted longer. This even my wife was jealous about since we both loved the novel.

I prefer reading, since it allows for me to go about at my own pace, but that is purely a matter of taste. For those who do not like books, thanks to the Internet, there are plenty of alternative tools. From our home we today have access to radio, TV and films in virtually all foreign languages. Look back ten years and you will realize what a fantastic development there has been in the conditions for learning a new language without any travelling. The tools are there, however, as before it remains a personal challenge to find our individual ways to create the time and build the motivation to make use of them.

Post scriptum: In spite of my strong drive to learn languages, there have been times in my life when I have been so discouraged that I have temporarily given up. How to gain back motivation in case you lose it, is a topic I will come back to in a later text.


Anonymous said...

I am enjoying learning Chinese on (there are many other languages too). It is an online language learning site with lessons and real time conversations with native speakers, tutors, and other learners. I've made friends with people all over the world! Speaking the language makes a significant difference in the ability to gain fluency. I can practice everyday if I want and it's free! It really helps me stay motivated! Here is the link I signed up on -

Erik Wirdheim said...

What a great idea this seems to be. I totally agree that in order to gain fluency, verbal practice is a prerequisite.

Some day in the future I hope to study Thai again. Then I will be happy to make use of this tool. Thank you for the recommendation.

Best regards,