Lots of people want to learn a foreign language, but the desire often gets buried by distractions and procrastination. We think to ourselves, “I will start learning Japanese once I finish this busy project at work.” This is just like the promise many of us make to “start eating well after the holidays” or to “start giving to charity when we can afford it.” We feel a little better in the moment by outsourcing responsibility and sacrifice to the future, but when that future comes, the procrastinated action rarely comes with it. We finish that busy project at work, and fill our new-found free time mindlessly scrolling through Instagram instead of opening the Fluent Forever app. The holidays come and go, and we find our mouth full of pizza and beer instead of veggies and salmon. We get a bonus at work, but let lifestyle inflation use up the surplus instead of sending a check to Give Well. No, the future does not hold any magical power to make your dreams come true. But the now does—if you are willing to prioritize and take action.
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.
The journey to full fluency in a foreign language can be roughly divided into what psychologists call the four stages of competence: Unconscious Incompetence, Conscious Incompetence, Conscious Competence, and Unconscious Competence. You can think of progress through the stages like climbing up a mountain peak all the way from sea level. Read on to learn more about the stages and how to keep going when the going gets tough.
Creating and sustaining motivation is one of the biggest challenges in language learning. And the single most powerful way I know to get and stay motivated is having a big, chewy, powerful “why” for learning the language―a driving purpose that keeps you putting one foot in front of the other no matter how steep the trail may get. Flimsy feelings like “It would kinda be cool to speak a foreign language” or “maybe this language will be useful in my career someday” won’t cut it. Why? Because when the going gets tough, you’ll quit. You won’t have the psychological fuel to keep going. To succeed in language learning, your “why” has to be: ① strong, ② emotional, ③ personal, and ④ immediate. Like Friedrich Nietzsche put it, you can bear almost any how if you have a strong enough why.
You can often spot a new language learner by the scale of their language learning goals and daily habits. When we first start out in a new language, the excitement makes it easy to commit to big, hairy, audacious language learning goals and herculean daily routines. Perhaps we commit to listening to three hours of foreign language audio a day, reading one foreign language novel a week, or speaking with a language tutor for an hour every single day. We might keep this up for a few days, or even a few weeks, but eventually, our motivation will run out and we’ll fall off the pace. Perhaps we have a bad day at work, and cancel our tutor session. Or we have a fight with our spouse and don’t feel like studying any flashcards. Or maybe we get sick and opt to binge watch Narcos instead of listening to language podcasts. One missed day turns into two, and then three, and then weeks or months of zero language study. Most people (especially perfectionists like me) will then think, “Well, since I can’t do it all, I guess I will do nothing.” Fortunately, we can avoid this all-or-nothing-perfectionist trap by committing instead to a “minimum effective dose” of daily language study: a tiny, tiny amount of time and effort that we will hit each and every day no matter what.
We get better at what we practice most. Sounds obvious, yes? Yet far too many language learners wonder why they aren’t getting better at listening and speaking despite all the hours they’ve spent reading, memorizing vocabulary, and studying grammar rule. See the faulty logic here? Trying to get better at speaking by memorizing words and rules is like trying to get better at martial arts by watching kung fu movies. Not exactly a recipe for success.