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The ONE thing that will ultimately lead to success

| 45 comments | Category: positive mentality

After years of investigating what separates successful language learners from unsuccessful ones, I believe I have found the one thing that those who ultimately succeed and speak the language fluently, all have in common.

It’s not the course materials they use, or their ability to travel, it’s not a particular aspect of their “method”, it’s not their wealth, and it isn’t even their natural born intelligence.

It’s PASSION.

Oh, but I’m passionate already! I “really really” want to speak the language! you may say – not good enough.

In fact, that’s way off what I’m talking about and even if you “really really” want it, you can still ultimately fail, as many have. The desire to speak a foreign language has to be so important to you that you would do anything to achieve it.

What are you willing to do to speak the language?

As part of the audio of the Language Hacking Guide, I had the chance to interview some successful language learners like Khatzumoto from AllJapaneseAllTheTime, Moses McCormick, Professor Arguelles and several others. Some of them may have extremely different approaches to learning a language compared to me, but each interview (each one about 45 minutes long) was nothing but agreement.

Rather than nitpick at our differences, I wanted to see what we all have in common despite our different backgrounds, end-goals and reasons to learn languages. If I had to summarise it briefly it’s simply that we would all do anything to reach our goals.

To show you what I mean, here is an excerpt of the interview with Moses McCormick. Definitely have a listen to see what he is willing to do to get some practise of his target languages: (click through to the website if you are reading this by RSS/e-mail).

Moses audio sample

Do you see what I mean? Moses was so passionate to get some practise of Hmong, that when people didn’t want to help him practise he did what was necessary to make it happen.

Would you have done the same in his situation? No? Then I’d say you aren’t passionate enough about your language.

I could party with other foreigners the entire time in my travels and that would give me a short-term “fix” of fun, but instead I decide to embrace making mistakes, avoid speaking English, and socialise almost exclusively with locals for the purposes of my language mission.

Sometimes it is very hard and stressful, without any of the glamour of travel you might think of – but I’m passionate about my goals, so I get results. In the short-term I make certain days much more difficult for myself, but in the long-term I reap the benefits of truly exploring local culture.

Would you be willing to do these things if you were abroad? If you “really want it” then the answer may still be no. Nearly all expats I meet who never learn the local language still “want to” learn it. Their problem is that they simply don’t care enough.

Stop comparing yourself to others – it’s your own journey

Maybe it’s easy for me because I travel? Or it’s easy for that some guy you know because he can afford private tutoring? No. These things don’t make a difference if you aren’t passionate. Any “perfect” method or situation is wasted on someone with no passion.

To continue from this, Khatzumoto gave an excellent metaphor of comparing language learning to the Olympics and how futile it is to just look at the end result of other people’s language learning and feel like you could never achieve that:

Khaztumoto audio sample

[The full version of both of these and more interviews are included in the  Language Hacking Guide]

If you are truly passionate then you are willing to put in the work to reach that end-goal. Don’t look at me or Khatz, or Moses or your friend who learned a language and think we have some advantage you don’t. Each one of us had to go through our own struggles and have put more hours of work into it than you can appreciate.

Speaking a language (or running in the Olympics) is an amazing thing, but the steps needed to get there are something that anyone can do. The problem is only the truly passionate will put in the work to make it happen, so this is why it’s so “rare”. The true passion is what is really rare.

There have been days where sometimes the thought comes to me that maybe I’m not “good enough” to speak this language – maybe I’ll fail miserably and it isn’t even worth trying. These days happen to everyone – rather than letting that pessimistic view dominate my mission, I squash it whenever it appears and get back to work.

Can you become more passionate?

Your devotion to your language learning project is your choice. If you are too lazy and want to just learn a language while you sleep or do something else, then frankly you don’t care enough.

If you are willing to make the time to get some genuine focused work in every day, and to get over your fear of talking to strangers to give yourself opportunities to practise in person, or to do whatever is needed in your own situation to make sure you are constantly making progress, then you are passionate and you have paved the road for things to happen.

Stop telling yourself that you are too stupid, or that you are making too many mistakes. These “mantras” are what are holding you back! I’ve met many many people who tell me that they are “too stupid” to learn a language and I can tell immediately that they most certainly are not. This idea of them being too stupid is what is holding them back.

Make a new mantra of I will master this language no matter what and do what it takes for this to happen. Change your vague “want” into a desire that goes well beyond even I need to speak this language. Make it a priority in your life and it will happen.

…or just nod as you read this and think “that makes sense” and get back to a vague half-assed investment and wonder why you aren’t making progress at a useful rate. The choice is yours.

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If you liked this post, please share it on Facebook and twitter.

Otherwise share your thoughts with us below – would you pretend to be a girl (if you’re a guy) to get a chance to practise the language? Would you put yourself in unfamiliar situations that force you to speak the language with no preparation?

Or would you just want to enrol in a course and think that by simply attending you are doing your “work” and fluency will happen magically by itself? Is passion really the “one thing” you need to be successful? Share your thoughts with us!

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  • etondreamer

    Definitely an eye-opener for me!

    I am currently learning Norwegian and it does get hard at times for me to find the time to actually do it…I’ll be starting university, plus I’m working part time and almost every spare time probably would be spent either studying or catching up with sleep, well that’s what I think would happen…(oh! and forgot to mention I’m studying for an upcoming exam as well)

    So yeah…my point is that reading this post made me realise my priorities. Yeah, I know I want to learn the language now so I can learn more, but judging from my commitments …I’d probably just set it aside at the moment (or probably find time for it in the future)

    I’m not saying I’m giving up though…I just want to assess what I’m heading into first before overwhelming myself…

    Oh and by the way…nice post Benny… haha… :D

  • Jarda

    zdárek Beny, jak se vede? chtěl jsem se jen zeptat, proč nemáš v tom sloupci napravo mezi těma jazykama co umíš i češtinu, když už jí taky umíš? :)

  • http://www.fluenteveryyear.com/ Randy (@Yearlyglot)

    Unfortunately, as they say, you can't teach passion.

  • http://www.inspirationpalace.com Mario

    Totally agree with you Benny and, taking it a bit beyond, passion is actually a key to success in EVERYTHING you do. You can't do something as monumental as learning a new language or changing your life if you don't have a burning ambition and passion to really do it.

    And by the way, one reason I love this blog is that you show off your passion in every post. It's takes a lot of effort to learn languages as fast as you do, you really need to be craaazy for it!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Maybe not, but I am passionately going to try ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Crazy = passionate :D
    I actually find it annoying when people say it is “easy” for me, as if I will learn a language automatically just by going to a country. Without the passion and ridiculously hard work I put in, it will never happen. Hopefully I don't make it seem like a walk in the park!
    You're right of course – what I said in this post can be applied to everything!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Even coming to that realisation is important. Just be careful with “probably” and “later”. I'd focus on your studies and get some good sleep first and when you have control over that THEN take on the language challenge seriously. :)
    I'm glad this post has made you try to realise what your priorities should be! Thanks for the comment ;)

  • WC

    Passion can be fleeting. There, I said it.

    The only thing that I see that will get you there for sure is: Just keep going. Just keep working on it.

    Whether you do so through passion or willpower, it doesn't matter. Just keep plugging at it.

    As for being willing to make sure it happens… Sure. But that doesn't really give a good feel for how low the bar actually is for that. You don't have to give up anything to learn another language, except time. And even that doesn't have to be seen as a 'waste'. Learning a language should be fun in itself. Using the language should not be the only fun you get from the experience.

    In your case, Benny, it appears that your method for learning and the actual using of the language are the same thing. That pretty much assures that you will have fun during the learning. I honestly think more people should try doing it like you do. I think many of them would be better off for it.

    For people like me, we need to enjoy the studying of the language because that's how we learn best. And I do enjoy it, with the right tools. When I was using tools that don't work for me, it wasn't fun at all.

    So if you want to learn a language, use your passion, willpower, or sheer cussedness to just DO it.

  • http://www.fluenteveryyear.com/ Randy (@Yearlyglot)

    This is still just an observation in my head, and I'm not calling it a law, but it seems to me that there are those of us with passion and those without. I find that passionate people excel at many things in life, and they're rarely limited to one field of interest that they're passionate about. And conversely, those without passion seem to dwell in mediocrity their whole lives. Again, I'm still in the observational part of this theory, but it seems like this all boils down to something as simple as personality types.

    I think the second type can often be temporarily inspired and motivated by the first type, often to very positive results. But I think they eventually find their level again. So maybe the key is not to try to inspire their passions so much as to inspire their habits during the period of inspiration, such that when the contagion of passion wears off, the positive habits remain. :)

    Of course, this is all still a bit theoretical for me.

    • Alchdemon

      i disagree, and from personal experience. here my story. I used to be extremely addicted/passionate about an online video game once(4+ years ago) where i would spend hours playing and researching the fastest way to make money and stuff. i took tons of auto steps to get there, such as taking faster showers, eating faster, and other stupidities to get as much in the game done.

      Anyways time went on, the game changed, i started hating it, i quit, watched some anime, and then got obsessed with japan. I wasn’t pasisonate about anything for around 3-4 months, i was kind of just in a limbo, watching anime and playing stupid flash games (good ole middle school eh?) then, i started learning a bit of japanese, nothing big, i wasnt pasisonate about it, but then i met a guy who was learning japanese, and suddenly i felt it, the same drive, the same overwhelming amount of energy and focus i had when i was obseesed with video games surged within me, for the next 4 months japanese became an obsession, everyday i would learn substantial amounts 200 kanji in just 4 months, and that was without me knowing any cool tips until i found this site. after that i quit japanese, and ever so often it comes back up, but i haven’t been overly motivated about it.

      conclusion: anyone can learn to be passionate, to learn it consciously requires constant motivation and repition, and most importantly; action. i you arent passionate about something or a language just start doing some research on it, start dreaming about speaking that language or whatever you wanna do, dream about how you will use it, what experiences it will generate, etc. Also, use stagnant time to your advantage, when you’re in your car think about translating random objects, or if you already know how too, start saying it out loud, start making connections, asking questions about your target language so you can search up and clear doubts later. It is amazing what we can do when we are truly passionate

  • http://tomfrompoland.com Tom from Poland

    You are right, Benny. Passion and motivation are the most important in do anything. If you have passion, you see opportunities not excuses. Like http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Helen_Keller as you wrote on LHG.

  • Dávid HUN

    I think I'm passionate, unfortunately I'm passionate about grammar (that might not be true for my english though…). I've recently started learning german, and at the very beginning I decided I would do what you do. However, I bought a book about german grammar, I've read the whole thing like 4 times. I'd say this could my favourite language, I spend a few hours every day learning, but I can't put down that book… Therefore I don't even know the basic words yet, just a few, but I know all the endings for adjectives in every cases, and so on. Of course it's useless for the time being as I don't know enough words…
    Anyway, this article of yours just made me realize that I've got the passion, but I should use that 'power' in the right way, and concentrate on the important stuff… I say goodbye to my grammar book, and hello words!
    Regards

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    A guy passionate about languages inspired me 7 years ago and the temporary nudge seems to continue to stick ;). If I can “temporarily” inspire people for a few years long, it's a pretty good start!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    The line between willpower and passion is very blurry. Passion creates willpower. Then again willpower without direction might not be so great.
    Your grammar focus is fantastic, but if you channelled it to other aspects of the language you'd be speaking it in no time ;)
    But as you say, the best thing is to just do what is working! Your in-depth grammar background will give you a huge head start over many people for speaking :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Czech was an interesting experiment for me, but I decided not to maintain it (the work involved in maintaining each of my languages is a huge long-term investment). I'll go into more detail on this work later, but lack of maintenance has meant that I have lost my pretty-good level of Czech unfortunately!

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Exactly ;)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Grammar without words is like a building construction plan without the concrete! Learn some vocab and start speaking! Channel that passion and power for grammar into other aspects of the language and put that book aside (looks like you've got a case of the perfectionism-itos!), learn the words and then USE THEM :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/Pablo432 -Pablo-

    Nice post. Sad that I'm just not that passionate about anything! :'(
    Despite that I have managed to speak acceptaly well three languages apart from my own, but it has taken me more or less a decade and still I can't speak them fluently (or as fluently as I'd want). I wish that passion was contagious. ;)

  • Jarda

    Thank you for your answer. I understand. I was only curious about it. I help people with their Czech.

  • Alex

    The last bit made me laugh, since I identify with it.

  • Brianna

    I couldn't agree more with the points you made here. A few months ago, I posted on a thread about your accomplishments over at how-to-learn-any-language.com, saying that one of the reasons I was planning to buy your eBook was because of the polyglot interviews – I wanted to see if I could find some common ground to link the sometimes very different (or even seemingly contradictory) methods of the successful polyglots I admired. You replied in that thread that while it's true that there was nothing but agreement during those interviews, and while it's surprising how much you all have in common, I shouldn't expect to find some kind of magical, one-size-fits-all recipe for success.

    It turns out that I'm very glad I purchased it, because I did end up finding what I was looking for – just not what I THOUGHT I was looking for! ;) In other words, I found that single magical recurring factor that lead to success in each polyglot's case, but it wasn't method-related, it was their attitude. It was their passion. It was their willingness to find a solution to any obstacle (real or imagined) without making excuses. After this realization, a ton of things I only half-understood or waved off as unimportant started to make perfect sense to me (for example, your mention of Helen Keller's story as an example of not letting anything be an obstacle, your complaint in one of the comments along the lines of 'people tell me to cut out the stuff about attitude and get straight to the learning strategies, but they don't understand that the attitude is everything!') Now I've learned not to get hung up on methods, because this takes the time away from actively pursuing my passion. Based on what I've learned, I've developed a new mantra for myself: 'No Excuses!', which I'm also using as the title of my language log :)

  • http://addictedtolanguages.blogspot.com Lisa

    Being a girl in chats and also, language exchange sites (people seem to think that's just another word for dating site) isn't always that good :(

  • Direhunt

    Hello Benny:
    Nice blog there, you are truly inspiring. What do you think about Russian? Why not that language instead of Hungarian or Esperanto?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    You could always do the opposite of Moses and say you're a guy :)

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    As I said in my About page, my language destinations are influenced by finances. I know there are cheap places in Russia or that speak Russian, but I get the most enjoyment out of living in international capital cities, so I would have to go to Moscow for a 3 month mission for Russian. Moscow is the second most expensive capital in the world, so I will have to wait until my budget improves. Luckily that may be easy if this site continues to increase in readership and traffic (due to more sales of the Guide). Hopefully I'll learn Russian next year!
    But no matter how many or which languages I'll learn, someone will always say “Why not Korean/Hmong/Greek/Swahili instead of ….” :)

  • Direhunt

    Well, that is understandable. I know Moscow and St. Petersburg are quite expensive.
    Anyway, you'd agree with me that Russian is far more important than Hungarian or Esperanto. Access to endless amount of quality literature, poetry or whatever; not to mention the great economic impact of Russia nowadays. That's why it surprised me when you picked Hungarian instead of any other “more important” language. However, I must say that's a hard challenge and you'll know things that many other people don't excepts Hungarians, so that's a kind of “elite” point that you get.

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    I'm going to be living in Budapest for the next few months. In Budapest Hungarian is far more important than Russian, Chinese, or English.

    For my first week I will be attending an Esperanto event in Pécs, and for that week Esperanto will be more important than Spanish, French or Italian.

    The importance of a language depends on who you are with. My focus is always on speaking, so mountains of poetry isn't going to convince me to speak one language over another if I am more interested in living in particular destinations to get to know people ;)

    I am definitely interested in Russian, but its “economic impact” is the last thing on my mind. I will gladly learn the least economic language in the world if I feel it will lead to an enjoyable three month experience :)

  • Quokka

    I totally share your view, not like it, though :-(
    I came to the same conclusion namely making a habit out of it would pose a solution.
    But I am not sure if a conscious approach leads to success.

    I once read in “The Luckfactor”:
    “We are conscious of only a tiny fragment of the factors that
    influence the way we think, decide, and behave.”

    A conscious approach (at least for me) often fails, because it's ridiculous to make complex decision on little information
    (even if you write things down … compared to what's in your unconscious mind I would still consider that little information) Intuition would be the key.

    Unfortunately (this doesn't hold true for language learning, I think there are always ways to do it) many people don't have the possibility to flourish.
    A-not-so-good-example: think of a family that needs to be feed on a daily basis. Let's suppose the dad is a highly gifted actor but has a low-paid job due to low qualification. How likely is it that he is going to pursuit a career in film?

    I know, I know the example is really bad but I guess you get the picture.

  • http://www.cruiselinesbest.com/ Max White

    I agreed!!!

  • Jiri

    Benny, your are right, when you want to learn a foreign language, passion is the most important thing. Or in other words, to give the study a lot of one’s time and effort. But your approach seems very strange to me. I mean this. You have mentioned in the discussion that to keep the knowledge of a language requires a huge investment. This is also my experience. In fact, when you learn a language more slowly, you have to repeat what you have learnt. Maybe that is why can be effective to learn a language in a short time. However, when you do not repeat the language, when you do not use it, you lose very quicky what you have learnt. It seems to me that it would be better to improve your German than to start a new language (Hungarian). There are more reasons, you very close to the C2 level, but you have not reached this. And the part you have missed the exam seems to me the least difficult. Also, when you stop with your German, you will soon forget a lot. I learnt German myself and after 2 year of not using the language I forgot most of it. And I learnt German for more than 2 year before. But I forget more quickly than I learn something new. Less importantly, knowledge of German is much more useful for most people. You invest a lot of time and effort and then you lose most of it.

  • http://eldonreeves.wordpress.com/ Eldon

    I don't think passion is quite the right word. Enthusiasm? Perhaps. Motivation? Probably. Passion though is on another level entirely. I've never been able to take the idea of being passionate about things ever since seing this rant :p

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bz2-49q6DOI

  • Liam123

    Passion has been a bit diluted in the modern world, like lots of words in English.
    Surely most people are talking about enthusiasm here. If you admire someone who is passionate about many things, they are just enthusiastic/dedicated, true passionate people rarely venture beyond one area (how can you ;)).

    Having said that surely you have to be careful about what you are passionate about. You Benny are passionate about language learning and enthusiastic about a few languages. Some people are passionate about a language (they couldn't walk off and leave it, wouldn't be satisfied with just refreshing it occasionally, it they live in the target country they may well live there for the rest of their lives). Do the same rules and methods apply equally in both cases?

  • http://howlearnspanish.com/ Andrew

    This is the secret to success in…umm…just about anything ;)

    I should also add that the reason that passion is important is because it's what keeps you going when you really, really, REALLY don't want to anymore, when you are at your lowest, you're disheartened, you're discouraged, you feel defeated and like it's hopeless, passion is the motivation that gets you to push through all that and come out the other side (it gets better, it always gets better, it's just an issue of being able to weather the storm so you can get to the bright sunny day on the other end).

    Cheers,
    Andrew

  • Dustbuster

    To me, there's a difference between passion and enthusiasm. You can still be passionate about language learning and have some bad days where you don't want to do it. But if you're only enthusiastic, not passionate, then you're likely not to keep going past the enthusiasm honeymoon.

  • Dustbuster

    I think I fall on some middle ground, probably closest to “not passionate”. I have an aptitude for language and have almost always done well in my language classes in the past. The first language I'm would like to learn to fluency (keywords being “would like”) is French, and when I learn, I like to listen to music in the language and sing along, and if I run across somebody speaking it I'll have my handy dictionary out, and I'll browse sites in French if the option is there, all of which I really enjoy, because I really believe that just opening a textbook and learning solely from that won't get me anywhere.

    … but usually, that's all I do, because I'm too lazy to develop the self discipline to actually open said textbook every day and learn some more phrases, and if I come across people who do speak French I don't know enough to have a clue what they're saying.

    I'll be in a French class next year, though, with a teacher holding me accountable. It's not as amazing as getting off my butt and doing it myself, but it's something, and I'm okay with that. Hopefully combining that with what I already do will give me enough of a kick up the arse to take off, but if not, well – that's my responsibility. It's up to me.

    I do agree that you can't teach passion. I believe, however, that you can spark other people to discover their passion. I didn't know how much of an interest language was for me until I came across your blog, because the way you learn looks a hell of a lot more fun than the way I learned languages in school, which didn't really inspire me beyond a passive “Hmm, this looks interesting” attitude.

    Thank you for this post. :) I love your blog! Are you ever going to start a forum or something?

  • http://easyenglisheasychinese.blogspot.com/ Chris

    Passion is something I need to beef up. I've been slowly learning Chinese for four years but I really want to up the pace in the next three months. So I'm taking your advice (well, I think it's yours – I'll credit you with it any way) and starting a blog on language learning. I'll post a video of my current Chinese level and outline clear and measureable goals. I think you said once, that publically post your aims is motivation in itself.

    Thanks for this post and congratuations. I think I was one of your first followers but I've been mainly passively following your projects and posts. I think you've done extremely well. Thanks for all the information you've shared. I plan to use it at last.

  • Christopher

    I agree that passion is necessary. But “willing to do anything to succeed” is perhaps going over the top and is an unrealistic requirement. In real life, people have competing interests, responsibilities, etc. I am passionate about my language, sure. But am I willing to do “anything”? No. To that end, I have to adjust my goals so that they are more realistic and more enjoyable to pursue. Otherwise it's very easy to get frustrated.

  • http://lr-expatgermany.blogspot.com/ Stuttgartgirl

    Great info! I am trying to learn German and realize I could be more passionate about it, but when I get tired, I get lazy and revert back to English. Thanks for the kick in the butt.

  • http://amhoanna.blogspot.com 暗生番

    Hi, Benny, I’ve got a similar urge to yours, to learn different languages and go out there and speak them… But it’s something I can’t really explain. I mean, I don’t know why I do it. I’ve got some ideas which I won’t get into right now, to avoid straying off topic. But how about U, if U don’t mind me asking? What makes U tick, in this regard? Is it just a desire to be able to communicate with the people in your surroundings? Or is it something U actively seek out?

  • http://www.fluentin3months.com/ Benny the language hacker

    Best of luck finding your passion :)

  • http://rivanathans.tumblr.com riva

    First interview: hilarious! I’d do that if I weren’t already female.

  • http://www.spanishwithskype.com/ Mike Stone

    Hola.  Gracias por el blog.  Hace mas de 20 anos que peleo con espanol.  No se porque me gusta hablarlo pero es y ha sido mi passion.  Otra personas como mi esposa no entienden esa pasion, pero como dicen en Mexico, ni modo.  Creo que lo que a mi me gusta sobre idiomas es que tenemos la abilidad de cambiar nuetros mentes.  Podemos no solamente cambiar lo que pensamo sino tambiencomo pensamos cuando penamos en otros idiomas.  No dijo nada sobre los cambios culturales que sentimos cuando aprendemos otros idiomas.  Es impresionate, el cambio cultural.  Mira, esto no es un anuncio (lei que vas a borrar cualquier referencia a sitios web) pero tengo que decir que lo que me ha ayudao mas que nada es hablando con otra gente por internet.  Uso sharetalk.com y tambien spanishwithskype.com  Dos buenos lugares para mejorar su espanol. Gracias.  Chao Chao

    Mike

  • asdMisa

    In other words, if you’re properly motivated, you’ll reach your goal? No shit! It’s the same with anything; the same with academic study; the same with getting and staying in shape; the same with working on any project.

  • Kieran Maynard

    Benny, you are so awesome! Seriously, I get so much energy just from reading your posts! (Though I skim a lot; gotta limit the English, right?)

  • José Constantino

    I am a lazy guy by birth lol, So when I want to learn something or I have to do something and I really want to do it, if I am not passionate I JUST DO IT! :D

    http://www.fluentin3months.com/how-to-start-learning-a-language/