Sustaining Your Motivation: Tips for Language Learners

"Learning another language is not only learning different words for the same things, but learning another way to think about things." — Flora Lewis

If you’re reading this article, you’re obviously somebody who is passionate about language learning. Learning a new language does so many fantastic things for us: it opens up new worlds and groups of people, it helps us make new neural connections in our brain, it provides us with a hobby that has an accompanying set of goals and achievements we can work towards, and it is simply a lot of fun.

But anybody who has embarked on learning a new language will eventually face challenges with motivation.  Whether it be due to not having enough time to study as much as we’d like, not having enough opportunities to use the language we are learning in real life, or hitting a plateau in our learning progress, experiencing problems with motivation can be discouraging.

Drawing from my experience as both a language learner (French, Korean) and as the co-founder of Online English Teaching, I’d like to share a few effective tips and tricks I’ve gathered over the years to help myself and my students stay motivated.

Understanding Motivation in Language Learning

The first step to overcoming problems with motivation is to understand motivation better.  There are two main types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic motivation is when someone is motivated to do something simply because they enjoy doing the thing itself. This means that the person isn’t motivated by some reward at the end of the pursuit, nor are they pressured by some external factor making them feel like they have to do the thing.

For example, somebody who plays a sport simply because they enjoy the sport itself, not because they want to become fitter or win championships.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is when a person is motivated to do something as a means to an end or as a way to avoid external pressure or punishment.

If we stick with our sports example, it would be like a young person continuing to play soccer because they know that if they quit, their parents would be really disappointed.

For language learning, you ideally want to start with a foundation of intrinsic motivation.  Learning a language can be a lifelong pursuit, and if you don’t enjoy the process, it will be particularly difficult to stick with it.

That being said, extrinsic motivation can also be very valuable, especially when getting over slumps.  Sometimes studying for an important language exam, or prepping for a trip abroad where you don’t want to be embarrassed can be great motivators in getting you past those hurdles.  And don’t be afraid to reward yourself for completing certain tasks you’ve set out on your learning path.  Just be aware that implementing too many extrinsic motivating factors may diminish your intrinsic motivation.

Tip: Use intrinsic motivation as the basis of your learning, but don’t be afraid to use extrinsic motivators where needed.
Reading in a meadow
Photo by Ben White / Unsplash

Setting Clear and Achievable Goals

A surefire way to lose motivation on your path to learning a new language is to stop seeing progress.  This is bound to happen if you haven’t set any goals for yourself. When you first start learning a language, your improvements come quick and easy, so your progress is clear and your motivation is high.  However, as you improve, it can be harder to see the small advances you are making month after month.  That’s why it is so important to set goals.

One popular method for setting goals is called the SMART method.  It’s an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.

Let’s say you’re learning Mandarin. Take a look at these two goals:

  1. Get better at conversation
  2. Learn 5 new conversation topics, 10 new vocabularies for each topic, and two new verb tenses in 60 days.

Look at Goal #1. Getting better at conversing in a language is a great thing to want to do, but setting that as your goal might leave you feeling disappointed because it’s hard to really tell if you’re making progress.

Examining Goal #2 we can ask ourselves a few questions:

  1. Is it specific? Yes, we’ve outlined that we want to learn a certain number of topics, words, and tenses.
  2. Is it measurable? Sure is! 5 topics, 50 vocabulary, and 2 tenses, which we can measure using any kind of simple test we make for ourselves.
  3. Is it achievable? This one is very much based on your personal situation, but this seems like a pretty reasonable goal.  It’s not like we are saying we will be fluent in Mandarin in two weeks.
  4. Is it relevant? Yes, these language elements are important to becoming better at conversation.
  5. Is it time-bound? Certainly, we have 60 days to complete it.

You can see how Goal #2 is a much better goal to set for yourself.  And even if you don’t complete it, you can use it as a learning opportunity to see where you went wrong.  Learning is progress. Was the goal too lofty? Did you need more time? Perhaps you want to re-work the goal to add in more practice conversation with a tutor or partner.

Either way, you’re making progress. And this will help keep you motivated.

Short-term vs. Long-term Goals

It’s important to have bigger, broader, long-term goals that are supported by smaller, more short-term goals.

If you only set long-term goals, it might be hard to see your progress along the way. Similarly, if all your goals are short-term, you might lose sight of what you are working towards.

Let’s use the example of an English teacher who is going to be moving abroad to South Korea to teach English there. They want to be able to communicate effectively as they navigate their daily public lives there.

Their long-term goal might be something like “reach an intermediate score on the Test of Proficiency in Korean (TOPIK) before moving there in one year.” We use the exam here because it allows us to turn a big, lofty ambiguous goal such as “be good at Korean” into something more measurable.

An example of one of the first, smaller, short-term goals on the path to that big goal might be to “learn all 24 letters of the Korean alphabet and their sounds in the first two weeks of study.”

As we can see, both of these goals are SMART, which will go a long way in helping us track and achieve them.

Set one long-term goal, supported by multiple short-term goals that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, and time-bound (SMART).
Photo by Estée Janssens / Unsplash

Creating a Consistent Study Routine

This is one that I personally have always struggled with.  I always thought that I needed the perfect plan, the perfect time, and the perfect place to study. The truth is, the more consistent you are, the better you will get, regardless of how good your plan or situation is.

In addition to improving your progress overall, consistency always helps with motivation.  Think about how much easier it is to do a little bit every day if you’re already practicing it.

Starting from scratch or starting up again after time away is much harder to do because you feel like you have to make up for time lost. This can be daunting.  If you commit to 10 minutes every day, and you’ve done that for a month, how hard is it to do 10 minutes today?

A consistent study routine looks different for everybody.  For some people, it might be 10 minutes a day on their smartphone while they take the bus. For others, it could be once a week for three hours at their local library.  Whatever you decide, be sure to make it consistent.

And try to commit to a schedule that almost seems too easy.  If you overcommit and can’t meet your commitments, you’ll feel like a failure.  If you commit to something that seems almost too easy, you’ll be more likely to regularly stick to it, and you’ll be motivated to go above and beyond when you have the time.

Consistency is King/Queen! Pick a routine that’s easy to achieve and stick to it, no matter what.

Make things Engaging and Interesting

With today’s modern technology, we don’t have to stick to learning a language strictly through books. Books are a great way to learn the basic rules and structures of a language, but to keep your levels of motivation high, you’ll want to spice things up a little from time to time.

Try to think “outside of the book” whenever you’re looking to expand on your base knowledge of a language.

One great way to do this is through TV shows or movies.

If you’re here reading this, you’re probably already aware of Lingopie.  Lingopie is a fantastic platform to help you become fluent naturally by watching and listening to native speakers on TV.


Having exposure to native speakers of your target language is so important and Lingopie is an incredible way to do that.

Their interface even allows you to focus in on words and expressions you don’t know, add them to a list of things you want to learn, hear them repeated by a native speaker, and record your own voice to see if your pronunciation is accurate.

Here are a few other ideas to get you started.  Find some things you love to do anyway and think about ways you can incorporate the language you are learning:

  1. Use VR platforms to immerse yourself in virtual environments where the language is spoken.
  2. Follow recipes and cooking videos in the target language to learn culinary terms and practice comprehension.
  3. Play board games designed for language learners, or use popular games like Scrabble or Pictionary with rules adjusted for the new language.
  4. Listen to and sing along with songs in the target language. Translate lyrics to understand the meaning and context.
  5. Read comic books or graphic novels in the new language to make learning more visual and context-driven.
  6. Play GeoGuessr or similar geography games in the language you’re learning, guessing locations based on clues provided in that language.
  7. Use augmented reality apps that can place virtual objects around you with labels in the target language.
  8. Keep a daily journal or blog in the new language, writing about your day, thoughts, and experiences.
  9. Set up daily or weekly challenges for yourself, like ordering food in the new language or giving a small speech.
  10. Listen to podcasts or audiobooks and repeat what you hear to practice pronunciation and fluency.
  11. Pair up with a language partner for physical activities like jogging or yoga, giving each other instructions in the new language.
  12. Host a cultural night with friends where you only speak the new language, cook traditional food, and watch films or shows from the target culture.
  13. Participate in an escape room experience conducted in the target language to enhance problem-solving and language skills simultaneously.
  14. Create or join scavenger hunts that require you to find items or complete tasks using the new language.
  15. Follow social media accounts that post memes in the target language to understand slang and cultural references.
  16. Pair up with someone learning your native language and help each other through regular conversations.
  17. Join online forums or communities that operate in your target language, like Online Teaching English.

Plateaus and Burnout

One of these things is not like the other. One of these things just doesn’t belong.

Plateaus are bound to happen in any learning process. We should expect and embrace them.  After all, plateaus only happen when we reach a respectable level of proficiency, so we can rejoice in the fact that they indicate progress.

Burnout can and does happen, but it is something we should try to avoid.  Doing less, but being consistent over time will lead to better results than doing more, suffering burnout, and needing to take lengthy absences.

Overcoming plateaus

Some signs that you’ve reached a plateau include:

  1. You aren’t reaching your goals (make sure they are SMART, otherwise how can you know?)
  2. You keep repeating the same mistakes
  3. Your teachers or tutors keep giving you the same feedback, but nothing changes

There may be many other factors that indicate you’ve reached a plateau, so just trust your gut–you’ll know when you have.

If, once you’ve reached a plateau, you’re still motivated to bust through it, here are some things that might help you:

  1. Mix up your routine
  2. Challenge yourself more
  3. Find different materials or learning methods to study with
  4. Find another study partner or teacher
  5. Set different goals for yourself
  6. Seek more detailed feedback
  7. Take time to assess and reflect on your progress to date


If you’re at a point where you feel your learning is stagnant, but you have no motivation to keep going, you may be experiencing the early stages of burnout.

Here are some telltale signs:

  1. You are not interested in study or learning
  2. You make excuses not to learn
  3. You feel physically and mentally tired at the thought of, or during the process of learning
  4. You feel like you have no idea what to do next
  5. You feel overly frustrated
  6. You feel overwhelmed
  7. You procrastinate
  8. You have a negative attitude towards your learning

If you’re experiencing these types of feelings, my first recommendation would be to try and consider whether these feelings are coming from your life situation as a whole, or just from trying to learn a language.  If it’s the latter, I highly recommend you seek professional help, as those issues could indicate something more serious and are outside the scope of this article.

However, if you’re sure the symptoms are just coming from your language learning efforts, there are a few things you can do.

Remember how I said that consistency is king/queen? Well, not in this case.

If you’ve already tried to “tough it out” a little bit and that didn’t help and learning is no longer enjoyable, it’s time to step away for a bit.

How long of a break you need to take varies from person to person.  You’ll know when you are ready to get back to it.

When you do return to your studies, assess whether you were setting realistic goals for yourself. Think about whether or not your study routine was appropriate. Brainstorm some new ways of approaching your learning, even if they aren’t things you’ve traditionally done.

And if you never do return to learning that language, perhaps you’re better off.  There’s no sense in pursuing language learning if it doesn’t spark joy and interest.

You got this!

Learning a language is a long and continuous process. Be aware that you won’t always be 100% motivated. That being said, there are a few things you can do to keep your motivation levels high. To recap:

  1. Use intrinsic motivation as your base, but implement extrinsic motivation where appropriate.
  2. Set both long-term and short-term SMART goals.
  3. Create a realistic, consistent study routine.
  4. Make your learning engaging and interesting by incorporating fun ideas and media.
  5. Implement techniques to break through plateaus and take a break if you’re experiencing burnout.

Before I go, I’ll leave you with this:

May your language learning journey be as enjoyable as binge-watching your favorite series with subtitles, may your vocabulary grow faster than a teenager’s social media following, and may your grammar mistakes be as rare as a unicorn sighting.

Bonne chance and happy studying!‌‌

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