One of the hardest parts of learning a language, especially over the long term, is maintaining the motivation to do so. Deciding to learn a language is easy, and it is easy to think of reasons to do so. However, a job promotion five years down the road or a graduate program in another country can seem very distant. These big goals often do not really motivate people to continue working hard day after day. Successful language learners know this, and they compensate by setting attainable goals to help themselves to maintain a good attitude.
Many successful language learners look at more immediate factors to motivate themselves. Some students think of reactions they want from special people, such as their teachers or family. These students aim to get smiles or praise from people they know. Other students get motivation from their sense of accomplishment. They consider everything they do to be a victory: Learning new grammar is reason to cheer. These students focus on finishing every day and every lesson. Instead of looking at a goal that is three or five years away, they focus on goals that they can reach right now, and these reaching these goals makes them happier to keep working hard.
When setting these short-term goals, good learners are always realistic. They start small. Good learners aim to learn 15, not 150, new words over the next 24 hours. They focus on improving their scores on the next quiz, and not on getting a perfect score, which is an unreasonable goal. Good learners also set weekly goals. For example, they may aim to read 40 pages of the target language by the end of the week, or on Sunday, they make a list of 50 words that they want to learn by the following Friday.
Once they reach these goals, they reward themselves. The reward can be something as simple as an especially delicious lunch on one day, a reward for learning new words, or it can be a sweater they really want, a reward for scoring above 85% on a quiz. The important thing is that they set the reward to the task, with small rewards for small accomplishments and big rewards for big successes. When they reach these goals, they celebrate; the immediate reward, even just a piece of candy, is enough to make them happier and associate learning the language with good feelings.
Sometimes, of course, even good learners fail to reach goals they have set. When this happens, however, they never think, “I’m too stupid.” Instead, they consciously make an effort to encourage themselves. They tell themselves, “C’mon, you can do it. You just didn’t try hard enough this time.” Some students make a list of things to tell themselves: You just have to try a little harder; It’s not as hard as it seems; OK, so it was too much at once; Maybe the topic is not as simple as I thought. Good learners remember that even geniuses have limitations. When they fail to reach a goal, they understand that the goal may have been unrealistic and set their sights a little lower the next time.
In short, good learners identify what motivates them, set attainable goals, and reward themselves once they attain them. If they fail, they make a conscious effort to encourage themselves, no matter how frustrated they may feel. Doing these things helps them stay motivated and keep working hard over the long term.
(Written by Mr. John Ring, English Coordinator at the Language Training and Testing Center)