I believe in making language learning as fun as possible. Why? Because fun is fuel. And fun is, well, fun! The more you enjoy the journey, the more likely you are to keep going day after day.
But “fun” doesn’t necessarily mean “easy.” The truth is that there is no completely pain-free path up Language Mountain. There is no route that lets you completely skip the “suck.” While I hope you will enjoy most of your language learning journey by choosing modern materials, topics you love, and effective self-guided immersion activities, you will inevitably encounter days when you are unmotivated to put in the work or are too scared to step outside of your comfort zone. When this happens, chasing fun is not enough. You have to rely on two decidedly less fun alternatives: developing discipline and facing your fears. I know, I know, not exactly a recipe for a party. But this is a recipe for long-term success.
Step 1: Develop Discipline
Many people love the idea of speaking a foreign language, but few are willing to put in the time and effort it takes to actually reach fluency. It’s easy to dream of effortlessly sliding into flawless French as you order a martini shaken, not stirred, but the fantasy glosses over the hours and hours of hard work it takes to actually accomplish such feats, conveniently leaving out the awkward conversations, embarrassing linguistic mistakes, and cultural gaffes.
Likewise, many people want to play an instrument, but few are willing to put in the mountain of practice needed to produce musical music. The onstage fantasy of jamming like Ben Folds leaves out the discordant notes, hand cramps, and sweaty piano bench.
And in much the same way, many dream of being lean and strong, but few are willing to actually change how they eat and move. We want abs like Gerard Butler in 300, but the dream loses its luster one minute into the first “warrior workout.”
Dreams are easy. Dreams are fun. But actually achieving them requires delayed gratification and embracing discomfort—all of which goes against our hardwired programming to seek instant gratification and avoid discomfort. This is where discipline comes in. Discipline is choosing what you want most over what you want now. If you really want to reach conversational Italian before your trip to Rome next year, you have to have the discipline to choose to spend an hour with a tutor on iTalki today instead of binge watching Netflix. If you you really want to play the piano for your family next Christmas, you have to have the discipline to practice an hour every day instead of checking Facebook. If you you really want to lose your spare tire before your Hawaiian honeymoon, you have to have the discipline to skip the donuts at the office and hit the gym three days a week.
Eventually, it gets easier to choose the hard right thing as your discipline muscles strengthen. These conscious choices gradually develop into unconscious habits. But this transformation starts with disciplined will, not fantasies.
What do you truly want? What are you willing to give up to get it?
Step 2: Face Your Fears
Fear is one of the greatest obstacles on the path to foreign language fluency. Fear of discomfort. Fear of making mistakes. Fear of ambiguity and uncertainty. Fear of not understanding. Fear of being misunderstood. Fear of clowns. (Okay, that last one probably doesn’t belong here, but everyone knows clowns are just damn scary.)
While developing ironclad self-discipline is an important first step, discipline alone is not enough. Why? Because fear can hijack discipline and use it as an agent for avoiding discomfort. It will guide us toward safe, comfortable activities that look like language learning but actually do nearly nothing for fluency. For example, fear will lead you to diligently memorize vocabulary and grammar rules in isolation, instead of the more effective—but far less comfortable—task of learning words and structures in context. It will lead you to read about the target language in English instead of enjoying media in the language. It will lead you to take highly structured language classes instead of communicating directly with native speakers in authentic, unstructured contexts.
If you are able to develop sufficient discipline and overcome your fear of discomfort, you will eventually overcome the suck and find yourself easily conversing in a foreign language, jamming on the piano, or looking down at your shredded abs.