Motivational sabotage

How to avoid motivational sabotage

Getting to the point where you can hold a conversation in a foreign language is undescribably satisfying, and most language learning courses and products will try to sell you that fascinating feeling without showing you the fine print–that getting anywhere with a language requires a sustained effort. Regardless of how long you need to do so (a language can be learnt in anywhere from some weeks to a few years), the bottom line is that you need to keep at it with .

This is where knowing how to handle your own motivation becomes important. You see, it isn’t difficult to find your motivation for learning a language, but it’s not that hard either to sabotage yourself. When this occurs, one of two results entail:

  1. Your language project putters out before it’s even really started, or

  2. You start great, but then proceed to burn out like a dying star.

Either way, you feel like a failure and have a hard time getting back on the linguistic horse. In order to avoid this, here are a few pointers you need to know about how not to sabotage yourself.

You can, and you will

One of the biggest demotivators you’ll find is the so-called “impostor syndrome”. You know you have it when you find yourself thinking “What am I doing? I was never good at languages in school. I’m probably not going to do this right. My memory’s terrible. The teacher’s going to get angry at me for making mistakes“, and other related negative thoughts.

Let me make this clear; in general, school language classes are the worst possible indicator of a person’s linguistic aptitude. Anybody, as long as they have eyes, ears and a mouth (or hands in the case of a Deaf person), can learn to speak another language. It’s not about how your brain is built, it’s about how you use it.

Remember your goal

When faced with the real work load of learning and speaking a language, it’s frighteningly easy to forget why you started learning a language in the first place. To keep this from happening, there are two pieces of advice I cannot emphasize enough:

  1. Make it a point to always remember your reason for learning your language. If it’s a loved one, keep a picture on your desk, tablet, or anywhere it’s visible. If it’s a book, leave it where you’ll always see it. If it’s a trip or you like the culture of your target language’s country, keep a post card or photo you like of the place within visual range. If it’s food… well, you know what to do.
  2. Reward yourself after achieving short term goals. These are the practical ones you can easily track–having studied every day for a week, taken an Italki class, spoken a bit with a native. Do not, however, mistake short term goals for circumstancial steps–by this I mean, buying a dictionary or starting a course does not qualify as a short term goal if you do not actually use them.

Keep living your life

It sounds absurd, right? You’d be surprised how many people think piling on the hours is the key to becoming fluent.

Don’t allow languages to take over your life. Your body, mind and energy all have limits, and finding the balance that allows you to learn a language while living a normal, productive life is about one of the most satisfying (and difficult) parts of becoming a seasoned language learner. It takes some trial and error to discover your limits (mine is about two hours per day, usually not in a row), but after you do, I most wholeheartedly recommend you stick to it. Even if your limit is 30 minutes, that’s fine.

Recognize the signs

In connection with the last point, it’s important to know when you’re burning at both ends. The point of learning a language is getting to a level of fluency you’re comfortable with, not cramming that language to the point of hating it. This is something that will unavoidably kill your motivation. If you’re frustrated or tired, take a break and do something else.

I have to admit that in my particular case, I keep an “emergency language” on the background for when I’m fed up (right now, that language is Esperanto). This way I don’t abandon my daily ritual of learning a language, but don’t put mental energy into a language I don’t want to study at that point. This is an useful way to stay on track, but it doesn’t mean you have to do the same. You can go swimming, take in a film, do just about anything that isn’t related to the target of your frustrations. Take that time to vent and refresh your mind, and when you’re ready, go back to the fray.


Have you ever accidentally sabotaged your own motivations? How did you fix the problem? Is there anything you’d like other readers to know in order to avoid doing so? Share your ideas and experiences in the comments!