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“I wish I was motivated to learn a language! I’ll get started when I’m ready.”
Like most kids, I took a language class throughout high school as a requirement. I picked Spanish because it seemed like a better option than French or Latin, and I dutifully did my work because I had to.
Like most adults, as soon as I could stop taking languages classes, I stopped studying and practising and forgot nearly everything I learned.
It wasn’t until I set out on a trip around the world that I stumbled across a quirky Irishman named Benny who taught me WHY learning a language is so freaking awesome.
Inspired by Fluent in 3 Months, I immersed myself in Spanish, living with a family in Spanish for a month where I only spoke the native language. Thanks to being fully committed and motivated to the cause, my Spanish quickly came back to me, and I loved being able to interact with a family in their language. It was game-changing for me, and taught me just how enriched your life can become when you can speak multiple languages.
You’re reading Fluent in 3 Months, which means you’ve probably had a similar realisation: speaking a second language is a goal of yours, but you might struggle with consistently practicing it. We all say things like “I’ll work on the language when I’m motivated to learn it,” but the reality is that we know we can’t rely on motivation and willpower to get us to do something that we KNOW will enrich our lives. It’s not just learning languages either, but the same is true with exercise, learning a musical instrument, or writing a book. Motivation gets us started often, but after a few weeks we’re stuck wondering “what the heck happened?”
So what do we normally do? We wait. We sit around waiting for that magical motivation to kick in, or wait for us to get REALLY inspired to learn a language. And year after year, we realize we’re stuck at the beginning and haven’t made any progress!
If you’re somebody that loves the idea of learning a new language but can’t seem to get yourself to make progress, I’m going to teach you today how your favorite old school video games and heroes will help you finally learn a language, and in record time!
How to Turn Your Language Learning into a Video Game
Video games are amazingly addictive. And I should know – I’ve spent far too much of my existence getting lost in one game after another ever since I was a little kid with a Nintendo. I imagined I was Link from The Legend of Zelda, couldn’t wait to slay more bad guys as James Bond in Goldeneye, and loved slaying dragons as a powerful wizard in the online RPG, EverQuest.
Games are great because when you’re playing them, you’re trying to reach a goal. You’re trying to level up and – ultimately – complete the game. It’s a challenge, and yet you keep coming back for more.
What is it about games that keeps us motivated to return to them again and again, even (or especially) when they’re difficult?
Games can teach us how to accomplish goals in our lives that we’ve struggled with. Taking a “gamified” approach is ideal when it comes to learning a language.
Even if you’ve never played a videogame in your life, don’t worry! This will still make sense.
So, what’s so powerful about games?
1. Games show us how to make progress: Are you aware that we are happiest when we are making progress? We love making progress so much, in fact, that we actually enjoy it more than getting the thing we wanted in the first place! It doesn’t need to be big progress, just enough that we realize we are moving forward, improving, and getting better. Incremental improvement can actually be addictive…which is why video games that exploit this mental mechanism can be so addicting… from World of Warcraft to Candy Crush. We get to see instant progress and immediate feedback and gratification.
These short-term wins release dopamine— the happiness chemical—in our brains, and thus we crave more. This is referred to as the “Progress Principle” in psychology. We too can find a way to make small improvements and recognize this progress in our lives. So instead of just “practicing a language,” prove to yourself that you’re improving. Give yourself somef way to show you’re making progress! I suggest creating mini checklists with learning tasks that you complete each week.
2. Games show us rewards: Games are fantastic at getting us to go “just one more level,” or “try just one more” or think “after I finish this quest.” Every time we complete something, there’s a reward that triggers our brains again (yay dopamine!), and that reward encourages us to keep playing.
How can you add a reward system to your language learning? What if you complete a quest of 15 minutes of language learning every day for the next month, you unlock a reward of buying your favorite book or comic in your target language? Or a pass to the next language learning conference in your town? Reward yourself with things that reward you back by helping you further advance your learning.
3. Games teach us accountability: “Game Over” screen is an ever-present reality in games. The threat of “dying” adds a challenge that keeps us fully engaged and excited.
Life is no different! Where’s the accountability if you don’t practice your language? Right now if you skip your language learning, you get to just watch more shows on Netflix. However, what if every time you skipped your language practice you had to give your friend $20? And they have donate that money to a political cause you hate? Welcome to the real world of accountability!
4. Games have boss battles: In games you slowly advance and level up, earning better weapons so you can take on the big boss at the end. Your skills are tested. What better way to hold yourself accountable when it comes to learning a new language than by adding a boss battle to keep you focused on the target: actually conversing in the language? What if you booked a plane ticket to the country where your target language is spoken for 6 months from now, and a boss battle of speaking with a native speaker for 15 minutes while there?
Suddenly this shit just got REAL! Now you can reverse engineer your task/quest each week to build yourself up to that goal. This has really helped me stay on target with goal setting and completion. I like to say that I also speak and study the language of music, so I’ve used the above tactics and techniques to become a busker on the streets of New York City, and even started learning to play the violin about 18 months ago. I know how powerful this system can be when applied properly, so I’ve actually created an entire system that allows you to create a character, add missions, and level up as you complete them! I’ll tell you about it at the end of the post.
The Batcave Guide to Language Learning
Okay so now you’re ready to gamify your life. Solid work. However, if you really want to supercharge your language learning, you need to adjust how your environment subtly influences you.
I like to think of it like the Force in Star Wars: you’re being subtly pulled in a direction by everything around you, so why not structure your environment to win!
If I only played the violin or exercised when I was motivated to do so, I would never practice and I would rarely exercise!
If you only practiced a language when you felt like it, you’re never going to make progress. That’s why we need to restructure our environment to
And to do that, I’m going to recruit two close friends, Batman and Superman.
Be like Batman
Bruce Wayne needed to build a batcave, an immersive environment that helped him prepare for the bad guys. You need to build a batcave that makes your default behavior “I’m going to practice a new language every day.”
Here are two big strategies to create your own immersive environment:
- Add steps between you and a bad habit that’s keeping you from practicing your language more often. If you spend four hours a day on Facebook, what if you installed Facebook NewsFeed Eradicator to make sure you’re not checking it 120 times a day? What if you cancelled your Netflix (GASP!), or got rid of your cable?
- Remove steps between you and a good habit relating to learning a language. Put stacks of flashcards all over your house that you can quickly pick up and go through when you enter a room. Turn certain electronic devices (like tablets, phones, TVs, or even sites like Facebook) to your target language.
Be like Superman
Superman has a Fortress of Solitude that he retreats to when he needs to get away from day to day life. What if you created a Fortress of Language Learning in your home? It doesn’t need to be a whole room, but it needs to be a deliberate location. Benny actually makes a part of his home (even a single chair or particular corner) the “target language only” zone, where he knows that he's reading, listening, or Skyping in that language.
Remember: Language Learning is a Multiplayer Activity
Language learning is a multiplayer game. Why do you study flashcards and read language books?It’s so you can connect with other people from different places and cultures.!
So far, you’ve learned how to structure your life around mini goals and quests, and how to create a “target language only” zone. Now you need to recruit a group of allies to help you on your missions.
I heard once from somebody that you are the average of the people you associate most with. Just like we are influenced by our environment, we too are influenced by our allies. Might as well recruit a damn good group, right?
Think about who belongs in your party:
- A Mentor: This is somebody who is actively teaching you on a site like italki. These people are not afraid to correct you on your mistakes and help you get a little bit better each time you interact.
- Group language speakers: Attending language meet-ups in your city to practice your language with other speakers. The app HelloTalk can help with this.
- A partner in crime: This can be a fellow learner who you keep accountable and vice versa. You can do this on the Add1 Challenge.
The more you practise your language out loud, the more people you speak with consistently, the faster you’ll get to conversational fluency (and a boss battle victory). So give yourself all the chances you can!
Power Through the Suck, Speak from Day One!
The first time you ever do anything, you’re most likely going to be terrible at it. Whether playing an instrument, playing a new video game, or speaking a new language: you have to “learn the ropes” and get started. This isn’t a reflection on who you are as a person, the “suck” comes with the territory!
This is why you need to embrace the suck. Be okay with being not good at your target language. It’s why Benny recommends “speaking from day 1.”
The sooner you start talking, the sooner you start making mistakes, the faster you start learning, and the sooner you get to your boss battle! As you are getting started with your language, fake it 'til you make it. It’s okay if you think you sound foolish or you mispronounce things; how else are you supposed to learn?
Make this year the year you learn a language and become a multilingual superhero!
To recap on how to make serious progress on your language learning:
- Add mini quests and missions to your language learning: gamify your language learning.
- Add rewards and accountability to stay on target
- Create a boss battle that you work towards, and commit!
- Structure your habitat with a “target learning zone”
- Surround yourself with allies that help you succeed.
- Speak today; get through the “I suck” part.
I’d love to hear from you how you’re planning on implementing the above with SPECIFIC examples. Leave a comment, and Benny will pick five comments send them a copy of my new book, Level Up Your Life, in bookstores and on Amazon now!
Level Up Your Life will help you make progress on your big goals (including language learning, adventure, travel, and fitness) and have fun along the way. We’ve even built a character system where you can gamify your language learning goals and level up your life, literally!
Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to practicing my Spanish for an upcoming trip to Costa Rica!
And finally... One of the best ways to learn a new language is with podcasts. Read more about how to use podcasts to learn a language.