Why Language Learners Quit – The 7 Key “Motivation Killers” (Plus, How to Beat Them)
Have you ever met someone who speaks another language, and been amazed at what you hear when their mouth opens…
You have no clue what they’re saying, but they’re having a real conversation – using sounds that make absolutely no sense to you. It’s like a small miracle, right in front of your eyes.
It’s a miracle you can work too, if you can do one thing right. You’ve got to overcome the biggest obstacle that all language learners face.
Can you guess what it is?
It’s not vocabulary. It’s not grammar. It’s not pronunciation, or reading, or writing.
It’s not even speaking (though that’s really important).
Even though you might not have guessed it yet, I can guarantee you know this obstacle really well.
Because… it’s you!
You have everything you need already to learn a language (after all, you did a great job with your mother tongue).
The only trick is to make sure you keep coming back, even when things are hard.
Stick with it, and you will learn another language.
In my work as Community Manager for the Add1Challenge (now the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge), I’m super lucky because I get to chat with language learners every day. These are incredible people from all around the world, who have decided to work the miracle of speaking another language.
Usually, these learners get in touch because they’ve hit a roadblock (though sometimes people just want to say thank you, which is always lovely), and they need a helping hand facing it to get their language mojo back.
Here’s the deal: Coming face-to-face with a roadblock will destroy your motivation unless you know how to get around it. That’s why I call these roadblocks “motivation killers”.
So, let’s dig in. You’ll likely recognise yourself in at least one of these roadblocks. They’re the most common (and so, most powerful) motivation killers language learners face — you’ll want to be ready for these dragons so you can slay the beast when it creeps out of its lair.
Motivation Killer #1: FEAR – “I’m afraid to talk with other people”
I know this feeling well, because I’m naturally shy. It’s something that comes up a lot in the Add1Challenge too. And there’s a good reason for that — even if you’re not shy, meeting someone new for the first time can be a little intimidating. Throw a new language and some strangers into the mix, and it gets downright scary!
But, let your fear take control of how you act, and it will hold back your language learning. Most people (myself included) learn a language to connect — to meet interesting people from around the world.
So it’s all too easy to start thinking “what’s the point?” whenever you’re feeling overwhelmed by the thought of actually using your new language.
Here’s my three step solution to smashing through this motivation killer:
Step 1: Take Small Steps Outside Your Comfort Zone
If you’re terrified of having a conversation in your new language, start by challenging yourself in smaller ways. The next time you’re out shopping, ask the cashier if they’re having a good day. Strike up a conversation in your workplace with someone you’ve never spoken to before. Give a compliment to a stranger in the street.
Each small step will build your confidence in speaking with people.
I love how the Add1Challenge is designed to help with this. Right from the get-go, challengers are gently nudged outside their comfort zone.
The very first task of the Add1Challenge is to create an application video. For many Add1Challengers, this is the first video they’ve ever made of themselves, and certainly the first video they’ve shared with anyone other than friends and family.
Want to try this for yourself? Why not make a video of yourself speaking your target language, and share it with the Fluent in 3 Months community?
Step 2: Have Your First Conversation with Someone Who “Gets It”
Not everyone you meet who speaks your target language will want to speak with a beginner. Even so, it can be all too easy to take things personally when things go wrong.
That’s why I recommend having your first conversation (and ideally your first few conversations) with someone supportive. Chat with a friend who speaks your target language. Or find a language exchange partner or tutor using a service such as italki — these are people who are used to chatting with learners, and who are much more likely to be understanding when your langauge skills aren’t perfect.
Step 3: Keep Yourself Accountable to Turning Up
Facing your fear is a big challenge, which is why I’d never recommend going it alone. Find a friend (or friends) who have got your back, and who’ll keep you on track with your goals.
A simple way to stay accountable is to book a language exchange session, or a language lesson with a tutor. I’ve found that this helps me show up, because I don’t want to let the other person down.
Even more powerful is to find a community to keep you accountable — that’s why the Add1Challenge is so effective, because you’re working with dozens of others, keeping one another accountable towards the same goal.
What’s more, experienced Add1Challengers have been in that place of fear, and can offer advice and support for how they conquered their fear to have their first conversation.
It’s a HUGE help to see others all around you being open with their fears taking the plunge, and finding the buzz you get from speaking a new language.
Motivation Killer #2: FEELING MISUNDERSTOOD — “No one gets why I like languages. I feel alone.”
When I first found my passion for languages, I didn’t know anyone who enjoyed learning new languages as much as I did. In fact, only a few of my friends cared about languages at all.
Because of my language skills, I felt like I was the “weird” one in my family and among my friends…
And let me tell you, being seen as a goofball is not AT ALL motivating.
I only started to feel accepted for my language passion when I met other language learners online. And being accepted helped me to see for myself that my language skills are pretty damn amazing.
The online language community has given me what I was missing in person: friendship and support.
That’s why I feel so privileged to lead the Add1Challenge — I help other language learners see for themselves just how amazing they are.
The Add1Challenge is by far the most supportive community of language learners I’ve found. Everyone there has signed up because they need support and they want to support others.
Want to try this for yourself? As well as the Add1Challenge, you can also meet other language learners on:
- italki – find language tutors and language exchange partners
- HelloTalk – text chat with people who speak your target language
- Meetup – many cities have Meetup groups for different languages
- Facebook pages such as Fluent in 3 Months – interact with other followers as they comment on posts, and get inspired by their enthusiasm
Motivation Killer #3: SELF DOUBT — “I’m not sure if I’m doing this right.”
There are tons of excellent courses on the market for self-study language learners. Some of them, like Speak in a Week, are even free! And we’d recommend these courses.
So what’s the problem? When you learn a language on your own, you have a lot of opportunities to doubt yourself.
When you design your own curriculum, measure your own progress, and work at your own pace, it’s hard to gauge how well you’re doing. You don’t have the opportunity to nail down the mistakes you make and correct them, get feedback on your pronunciation, or even try out what you’ve learned.
In short, there’s no one to compare notes with.
The go-to advice in this case is to find a tutor or a language exchange partner. But that can lead right back to Motivation Killer #1 — feeling scared!
So what’s a learner to do?
Take a look at the steps above for addressing your fear. And consider joining a community of language learners. It’s even better if this community helps you connect with people learning the same language as you (spoiler: the Add1Challenge does this, though you probably guessed that already!).
Motivation Killer #4: BOOKWORM SYNDROME — “I do all this study, but I still can’t speak the language.”
Whenever I hear this complaint, I think back to where I was a few years ago with Italian. I poured hours and hours into learning Italian but couldn’t speak a word.
Even not that long ago, if someone walked up to me and spoke to me in Italian, my eyes would have grown into saucers, I would have muttered something incomprehensible, and then stepped away feeling awkward (in fact, there were a few times where that’s exactly what happened).
Afterwards, I’d beat myself up about how awkward I’d been, and at how little progress I was making with Italian.
But then I saw my mistake: To speak a new language, I had to speak the language.
Books and flashcards alone wouldn’t produce the results I was looking for. I needed to practice doing the thing that I wanted to do.
Let me give you an example of what I mean.
As well as learning languages, I’m a musician. I play saxophone.
I’m a pretty good saxophonist. And there’s a reason for that.
I learned to read music. I memorised how to play notes and patterns in different combinations, keys, and styles on the saxophone. I had a teacher who explained how to have a good tone and intonation on the sax.
Yet even with all that, what it all boiled down to was playing the saxophone. Often very badly, when I was just starting out. I had to play badly to reach where I am today — a professional, gigging saxophonist.
If I had approached my music training the same way I approached my language study (sticking to reading and writing), I’d still be a bad saxophone player.
Simply memorising vocabulary, or listening to tips on pronunciation are no substitute for getting out there and speaking. So even if you feel the fear (see Motivation Killer #1), do what it takes to put yourself out there and speak.
Motivation Killer #5: WORD SCRAMBLE — “I don’t understand what people say when they reply to me.”
This motivation killer happens after you’ve taken the plunge and started speaking — it often happens during your very first conversation.
You’ve listened to loads of podcasts, perhaps you’ve even prepared a cheatsheet, and you jump on the call.
The introductions go well, you’re killing it — and then the person you’re speaking to says something that makes no sense. You don’t understand a single word.
You smile awkwardly, ask them to repeat what they said and maybe this time you can pick out a word or two. But still, you’re flummoxed.
Why does this happen?
Here’s the deal: the way people speak out in the real world is often completely different to how they speak on podcasts or language courses. They don’t always speak clearly. They often string words together so you can’t tell them apart, and may have a different accent than what you’re used to. Their word choices may be different to the vocab you’ve learned.
The solution has two steps:
Step 1: Have a Plan for When You Don’t Understand
Learn the following phrases in your target language:
- “Can you repeat that please?”
- “Can you speak more slowly please?”
- “What does [word] mean in English”
- “Could you type that word out for me?”
By learning these four phrases, you’ll know exactly what to say when you don’t understand.
When you come across a new word in your conversations with native speakers, be sure to add it to your Anki deck (or your equivalent tool for learning vocabulary).
Step 2: Focus Your Listening
When you’re choosing lessons or podcasts to listen to in your target language, make sure they cover topics that you want to speak about. That way, you’ll be more prepared for topics that come up in conversation.
It’s also a good idea to practice active listening, following the techniques outlined in this article.
Most importantly, don’t let this motivation killer stop you from speaking. If your lack of understanding makes you feel nervous, follow the three step remedy in Motivation Killer #1.
Motivation Killer #6: FEELING STUCK: “I’m not making any progress.”
More than once along your language learning journey you’ll hit a plateau. You’ll feel like you’re wading through mud and getting nowhere.
No matter what you do, you just can’t seem to improve.
When this happens, it’s not that you’ve stopped improving. It’s just that you’ve reached such a high level in your language, you can’t see the improvements you’re making.
Here’s why that happens:
When you start learning a language, your very first word gives you infinitely more knowledge in the language than you had. Your second word? Just 100% more (because 2 is 100% bigger than 1). And the third word is just 50% more knowledge (because 3 is 50% bigger than 2). When you know 100 words, a new word is only 1% more knowledge. The percentage keeps getting smaller the more you learn. And because that percentage gets smaller, it’s harder to notice.
Let’s say you know about 1,000 words in your language. Another ten won’t seem like a big deal. But when you were starting out and only knew around 100 words, those ten new words made a difference.
It’s all about perspective — and finding your mojo again requires a perspective shift.
You’re still making steps forward, they just don’t seem as big. And that’s a testament to how far you’ve come.
Whenever I feel stuck, I document my progress. I’ll often record videos in my target language on a regular basis.
Over a period of three months, I might not feel like I made a lot of progress. But if I’m doing the work daily, then when I go back and compare my Day 0 video to my Day 90 video, I’m surprised at the difference.
(By the way, this is what we do in the Add1Challenge — you’ll record monthly videos of your progress so you can see exactly how far you’ve come. It’s super powerful — and it makes me so happy to hear the virtual squeals of surprise from people looking back at their earlier videos).
Motivation Killer #7: FALSE STARTS — “I can’t keep a consistent study routine.”
There are a ton of amazing language learning resources out there, and it’s easy to want to try them all (I know I’m always attracted to the new and shiny).
That said, it can get tempting to bounce around too often from resource to resource. The result? You never really settle into a routine.
Let me talk about my journey learning Italian again (yep, I made a lot of mistakes with Italian but thankfully I’ve learned from them).
When I started learning Italian, I had several italki textbooks on my desk, all at the same time! When one book started to get advanced, and felt uncomfortable, I’d push the book out of the way and crack open one of the others.
In doing this, I kept reviewing the same material over and over rather than learning anything new. I felt like Austin Powers in that scene where his cart was stuck sideways in a corridor. Nowhere to move forward, nowhere to move back:
Resource-hopping might not be the only reason you have a hard time keeping a routine. Perhaps it’s because you feel you have no time. Around work or school, social obligations, and other interests, it can be hard to fit language learning into your life on a regular basis.
If this sounds like you, you’re probably what is known as a ‘false beginner’. This is someone who has started learning a language a few times. You have basic knowledge of a language, but have started learning it from the beginning again and again and again.
What can you do to finally commit to your language learning for good so that you don’t have to keep picking it back up from square one?
Commit to a specific period of in-depth study. This could be as little as 30 days, although three months is ideal.
Why a specific time period? Because no matter how intense it gets, you can reassure yourself that eventually, it will all be over.
What’s more, you’ll find that over the period you study, you’ll start to build a language habit and you’ll fall in love with daily learning. You’ll also get far enough into the language that when you return to it, you won’t be going back in at beginner level — you can pick up where you left off.
I did this a few months back with Italian. I studied Italian at university to a comfortable level, but shortly after I graduated, I put the language aside. Later, fellow Fi3M team member Holly asked me if I’d help her record a video in Italian and I jumped at the chance to reactivate my Italian skills. I spent an intensive three days picking things up where I left off and doing some review in order to prepare.
Holly and I had a good conversation, and I even got a little farther with my Italian than the level I was at when I hit pause.
You Can Smash Through Your Motivation Killers — We’re Here to Help
If any of these seven Motivation Killers feels all-too-familiar, you aren’t alone. I’m able to write about them because I’ve known them myself!
The solutions here are an excellent starting point, but sometimes, we need to tackle them head on.
In fact, one of the reasons I love running the Add1Challenge is because I get to help language learners smash through these motivation killers in just 90 days. Not only that, but everyone who takes part ends the challenge with a 15 minute conversation in their target language — guaranteed.
Would you like to join us? You can sign up to hear more about the Add1Challenge here.