One of the biggest difficulties with self-study language learning is motivation. Meh.
Chances are that you’ve felt at least one of the struggles I’m going to share in this blog post. Don’t worry. You’re not alone.
In this post, I’m sharing some of my own experiences and how I’ve overcome each struggle.
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There’s nothing worse than not knowing where to start. As soon as we take the step from classroom to self study, this is one of the biggest struggles we face.
When I first started learning Japanese, I really didn’t know where to begin. I knew that what I’d seen of written Japanese looked like something I could never grasp, I knew that the Japanese language had levels of politeness, and I didn’t know what to start with.
In comparison even to when I studied alone with the Open University when I had set books and a study calendar given to me to set me on the right track, I had nothing.
I had a small handful of books (most of which were no good to me at the very beginning) and I had some italki credits. That was it.
Was that enough? What else did I need to buy? What should I start with? How much should I study each day? Argh!
I decided to focus on getting a solid basic speaking level with a tutor on italki first, then took things slowly from there.
How to avoid feeling overwhelmed
My advice here is to remember that it’s ok to take things slow. You don’t have to do everything at once.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, take one thing, work with it until it’s routine, then only step things up when you’re ready.
Language learning isn’t a race.
There’s nothing more demoralising than feeling like you’re the only one in the world who enjoys doing what you do. For a long time, language learning was one of these hobbies.
I used to find myself taking up random languages and never getting further that chapter 3 of the book because it was just a hobby. I had no one to tell the amazingly interesting things I’d discovered about these new languages.
“Did you know Polish has 7 cases?!”
“So the writing system for Russian is actually really easy to learn! Have you tried it?!”
I couldn’t share these little nuggets with anyone. I was a lonely language learner and it kinda sucked. These languages never went far and I never did well.
In the past couple of years, I’ve noticed a huge growth in the online language learning community. I was aware of people like Tim Doner whose video of him speaking 20 languages went viral, even amongst people who don’t necessarily enjoy studying languages; and I was aware of people like Benny Lewis, whose blog Fluent in 3 Months opened the door to others sharing their language learning.
In October 2014, I went to my first event for language learners, the Polyglot Conference in Novi Sad Serbia.
I’d been going to the Language Show in London for years, but it was very much aimed at teachers and students in academic environments.
The Polyglot Conference was different. For the first time in my life I had the chance to be in a room surrounded by people who loved what I loved, who didn’t judge you based on the number of languages on your badge, and who just wanted to talk and share language.
It was amazing! I was no longer alone.
Even if the day to day process of my language learning is solo, there is an ever-growing online community of people just like me (and you!) who love studying languages just for the heck of it. You’re not alone.
How to never feel lonely again
Attend a language event, find a local meet up, join an online group for serial language learners.
It may not be possible right now to book a spot for the next big language event (incidentally – May in Berlin and October in Thessaloniki – see you there?) but it is possible to find someone online to relate to your love of language.
Try searching Facebook for the word ‘polyglot’ or ‘language learners’ and see which groups appear…
When you study with others, you can laugh at the words that sound rude, you can ask for help with the tricky tenses, you can whinge about cases.
However, studying solo, not having this outlet, as we’ve said, it can be hard to share. It can therefore also be hard to keep going without getting painfully bored and giving up altogether.
After all, it’s solo study, no one will know if you give in so it doesn’t matter, right?
When I was studying with the Open University, I was sometimes bored senseless with the materials.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and would highly recommend it to anyone. But, you see, the thing is that they were making one course to appeal to many. Chapters on the environment and politics bored me.
Of course I care about the environment, and politics is important, but I was studying a language degree.
For me, I wanted to analyse the language, study the culture of the people who speak it, and learn about the other languages that coexist alongside my language of study.
Yet for some, that would be the boring part.
When it came to the chapters on politics or the environment or science, I didn’t study at my best.
I made no effort to learn outside of the materials, I made no effort to advance what I was learning, and (shh!) I skipped most of the parts I considered dull.
I was bored.
Instead of finding ways to make the topics enjoyable, I glossed over them and skipped to the good bit.
Looking back, I wish I’d identified my boredom and tried to think of ways to overcome it by working through the materials in an enjoyable way rather than just skimming.
Live and learn.
How to avoid getting bored
Have you ever heard the saying ‘if you’re bored then you’re boring’?
I don’t think this is strictly true when it comes to language learning. I think ‘if you’re bored then the materials you’re using to study are boring’.
And if it’s boring?
Don’t do it.
Why waste your time on something that doesn’t inspire or engage you in a positive way?
You want to have positive associations with the language you’re learning to make you want to keep doing it. If that’s not there, then what is?
Mix things up, keep it fresh, and don’t be afraid to take a break.
Lack of direction
When we start anything new, learning a language or otherwise, we’re often left feeling a little like Alice when she meets the Cheshire Cat. What are we supposed to do to advance with our languages?
When I started learning Polish, I just found things randomly and tried to use them to learn. Have you ever heard me speak Polish? You’ll know that I don’t, which means that this isn’t the way to be successful as a self-studier.
It seemed like such an impossible task that I had no idea where to start.
How to find the right direction
Set yourself some killer goals and you’re half way there. This post (+ bonus worksheet) will get you started on the right path.
Lack of reason
A foreign language holds such a sense of exotic excitement that sometimes we just roll straight into learning it with no reason other than curiosity.
If curiosity is enough to keep you engaged for longer than a couple of months, then hats off and congratulations. But I think it’s fair to say most of us need a little more.
This is the exact reason my Italian isn’t as good as it should be. I did enough to pass my exams and then I’ve never been to Italy since, I have no Italian friends, and I haven’t found an Italian musician or film director I’m obsessed with. I have no reason to maintain my Italian, so it doesn’t happen.
If I want to improve my Italian, I would have to find a reason to do so, which granted, wouldn’t be hard if I wanted it.
How to find your reason for language learning
Take a step back from ourselves and our studies and ask ourselves why we’re learning the language(s) we’re learning, it gives us a fresh boost of motivation to keep going. Hooray!
What do you struggle with as a solo language learner? Share your thoughts in the comments!