By Jeffrey Nelson
It is said that there are two main challenges when trying to learn a new language: getting motivated and staying motivated.
Over more than two decades of investigation, linguistic research has solidly confirmed the importance of motivation in second-language acquisition. It makes sense on its face, but a surprising number of students and teachers fail to account for the importance of motivation.
There are two different kinds of motivation: internal and external. Internal motivation simply means you learn a language because you enjoy doing so. Perhaps you are good at it, but ultimately it is the satisfaction of making progress that makes you feel good enough to keep going. Internal motivation makes things easier. It is arguably the most sustainable way to stay motivated in the long-term.
External motivation involves the use of rewards. The conventional language-learning classroom, like many other educational settings, is premised on external motivation. Whether it is good grades, a degree or diploma, the prestige of being fluent, or the promise of higher pay, most language-learning presumes that students need some external reward, whether real or purely symbolic, to work towards.
External motivation is a powerful force. It can drive some people to invest years of time and effort into acquiring a language, so that they eventually meet their goals. But external motivation has some big weaknesses that bear on the language-learning process. Embedding learning in a system of external rewards encourages students to move ahead whether or not they actually like what they are doing.
This is not an ideal mindset, because it denies a major psychological resource for cultivating internal motivation. That is, the best language teachers go to great lengths to make the learning process enjoyable and interesting. And the most successful students, similarly, figure out how to engage with the information in creative ways they truly enjoy.
There are several ways to do this. Start by tying the language-learning process to your interests in other areas. If you really dig politics, practice reading headlines in the target language. If you're an audiophile and music helps you stay centered, practice comprehension by listening to songs with discernible lyrics in the intended tongue. If you learn best when physically active, load your iPod with some vocabulary-rich podcasts and hit the trail.
The great thing about language is that it can be incorporated into nearly every kind of context or hobby. Don't be afraid to play with the language outside of class. Associating it with your favorite places and activities will make the process less painful and hopefully even fun. If you're having fun while you learn, you will be amazed at the ease with which you make progress.
There is a Japanese proverb which neatly reflects another major component of language-learning success: - "Fall down seven times, get up eight".
The proverb reminds us to have a holistic and realistic view of the learning process. It is, by its nature, a matter of trial and error. Many people begin learning a new language with a high level of motivation to see it through to fluency. But their enthusiasm is soon dampened as they begin to make what seems like an endless barrage of goofy mistakes, showing a tendency to garble and fumble through sentences with an (often self-perceived) embarrassing accent.
If this happens to you, is it time to give up? Absolutely not; making such errors is 100 percent normal and is a necessary step on the path to success, as the following quote states, "Challenges are what make life interesting and overcoming them is what makes life meaningful. In fact, it is quite useful."
Initially, it can make students feel like they aren't as smart and might have unnecessary difficulty moving forward. At this point, many want to give up, not perceiving the opportunity to examine their feelings and learn from their mistakes.
The solution, however, is to understand that language-learning errors are not a negative reflection on your intelligence. They are a necessary feature of acquisition. Fear of making mistakes might be appropriate in some contexts, but it has no place in language-learning.
Learn to love your mistakes and realize that everyone you make brings you that much closer to fluency and confidence. So, don't take your errors too seriously. Just smile and remember to learn from them.