Accountability, community and motivation

If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you will have noticed that sometimes I mention the language learning community. If you’ve no idea what that is, it refers to the large collection of geeks (… okay, and some respectable academics) that come online and proclaimed their affection for a language (or many) in a place where others share their ideas… be it a forum, a wiki, Youtube, a blog, the moment you’re out there, you belong to the community. Regardless of whether it is a real life study group, other goers to a conference or gathering, or just people you’ve met in one of the many language forums on the internet… they’re in the same boat as you are.

What does all this have to do with motivation?

You may remember that on my last post, I mentioned lack of recognition for your work as one of the reasons people get burnt out. Just imagine this scenario: you’re toiling away at a language, doing the hours, scheduling the sessions, remembering your new vocabulary each night… and yet, in spite of making a huge effort to participate in what’s in essence communication itself, you feel very lonely. Why?

Oh, human, you social animal.

I’ve mentioned before that languages aren’t taught, but learnt. Your teacher, tutor or friend may work their butt off trying to get you to understand cases, conjugations and particles, but you’re the one that will be applying them in real life, and it takes a bit of solo work to get to the “practical language” phase. That said, some people don’t work well solo. (It’s not a bad thing, just a trait of their personality.)

Now, if you think “working solo” is the antonym of “classroom learning”, you’re getting me wrong. They can go hand in hand. What I mean by solo work is the period of study where you’re pulling your own weight and getting to understand your target language on your own. If you’re doing it right, this kind of work often results in a succession of tiny eureka moments–however, very often you’ll also have huge question marks floating on top of your head.

Having a support network of people with whom to share all these moments may help improve your productiveness in unsuspected ways, because you’re no longer completely on your own. In a way, you’re making your language something social. Almost without noticing, you’ve become accountable for your own language learning.

But WHAT is accountability?

According to Wikipedia, accountability is answerability, blameworthiness, liability, and the expectation of account-giving. Goodness gracious, that sounds rather severe! No wonder people don’t like speaking of accountability.

However, and in regards to us as language learners, accountability means publicly taking charge of your own learning process. It means you telling everyone who cares that you’re responsible enough to keep track of yourself, to understand WHY you don’t understand, to evaluate where you’re good and where you’re… not. It means telling others that you commit to ask for help when you need it, instead of sweeping the problem under the rug and allow it to stink.

In paper, all this sounds unexpectedly easy, but you’d be surprised at how much of a nuisance one’s ego can be to accountability. Ask anybody who’s uploaded a language practice video to YouTube, how hard it is to admit that you aren’t all that good in your target language–then ask them why they’d ever do something as crazy as uploading a video of oneself speaking a language they don’t know perfectly. About 5% may say they uploaded the video for bragging rights; the rest will say they’re looking to connect, to get corrections, to be part of something bigger than themselves. That, my friends, is trying to remain accountable–being ready to get the ugly along with the nice in language learning.

So how do I hold myself accountable?

The short answer is “tell someone who cares”. (Yes, I know that sounds incredibly dismissive.) As long as that someone is interested or excited about your intention and progress, they will help you stay motivated. It may be through asking “how is Chinese going?”. They may even want to participate: “Hey, I found this movie in the language you’re learning. Want to watch it together?” It may be a parent or sibling, a friend, a teacher, or even an acquaintance from the language learning community.

I mentioned this last one because there’s a whole other dynamic to accountability in language learning forums that is very much worth checking into if you haven’t already. It depends on the type of forum and number of users, but many forums (both multilingual and language-specific) create teams and challenges based on things such as languages in common, real life locations, reading goals, etc.

One last word of warning: do not be fooled into thinking that because you’re paying them, all teachers will be willing to be your accountability buddy. Some will be very glad to be the one keeping you honest, but not all teachers do.


And thus, Motivation Month has ended. I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether it helped you or not! Remember that my goal is to make The Polyglotist into as useful a website as I can, and I can’t do that without your cooperation. See you next month, with a new interesting theme! I promise it’ll be completely different, just in case you’re a bit sick of hearing about motivation. 😉