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Tips for Language Learners: Intrinsic Motivation

Language learning is not always the easiest path. I am currently in Japanese Advanced Level One, and I ask myself why I spend hours drawing miniature kanji, glaring at grammar notes, and breaking pencil tips over vocabulary I can’t remember after a week of studying. The reason I persevere though is as easy as this: I have intrinsic motivation to learn this language. Intrinsic motivation are the reasons you give yourself to act. These are not the pressures of school or from parents. Intrinsic motivation will not be taken away by a low grade on a test or a poorly written textbook that makes you want to tear your hair from your head. To succeed, your motivation to learn a language should reach far beyond the classroom. I believe it is essential for language learners to find a personal drive so that no matter the grade on a midterm, final, or even chapter test, you can continue to learn something which will bring you immense joy and enable life experiences for years after moving on from the classroom.

Find your own motivation

In elementary school until my sophomore year of high school, I studied French. When a “D” in French appeared on my report card, a switch flipped in my head for what my goals were. I reflected on my disappointment, and resolved to clearly define reasons why I want to learn a language in the future. I was a highschool student with only a handful of language classes to choose from, so I glanced around at the language resources available, the different locations I could go to for study abroad, and finally which culture and people I was most interested in at that time. My answer was Spanish language and cultures. Fortunately for me, the Spanish classes were across the hall, I had family in Mexico, and I had always wanted to learn how to salsa dance. My decision was made, and I went through the same process when deciding to study Japanese, my unrequited love in the language world.

The first step in the process to choosing a language is to look inside and around yourself. Second, identify the resources you have available. Then plan the locations you want visit which speak that language. Finally, consider whether you have a genuine interest in getting to know the people who speak that language.

The Learning Phase: Your Hobbies are Learning Materials

Image Copyright: Yotsubato

Use your hobbies as inspiration in pursuing the language of your choosing. For example, if you like reading, there are plenty of books in Temple’s library in a variety of foreign languages. There are always movies, music, podcasts — with the technology we have available today much of the media you digest can be in another language. When I go running I like to practice Spanish comprehension by listening to Duolingo podcasts. When I have more time, I indulge in one of my favorite manga (Japanese comics) Yotsubato, in elementary level Japanese. Even Netflix, everyone’s favorite website, allows you to change your country’s source so you can access more international movies with more subtitles in Spanish, French, or whichever language you are dying to learn. The Spanish version of Coco is a fan favorite.

Track your Learning Through Tests

If you are good test taker or are looking to work abroad one day, this technique could be especially useful. There are a variety of proficiency tests that language learners can take to officially declare their skill. The advantage of these tests is that they look great on resumes. If you like structured learning, there are textbooks and courses which can help you learn the material. Sometimes, job opportunities will perceive more credibility in a high score for proficiency tests rather than a degree in a language.

Here are some proficiency tests available for language learners to take:

And many more are available.

Surround Yourself with the Language

Around my room, I have hung up little posters in Japanese. I have kanji scrolls on my wall that I am unable to read perfectly yet. I also have little Japanese essays I wrote in class that remind me that I am improving and have to improve even further. Other decorating tips you can do are getting tattoos, buying clothing, writing notes to yourself or to friends, all in the language you want to learn. You can even go so far as to change the language on your phone so that you are constantly reminding yourself of your motivation to learn the language.

Small Successes

The other day I made a long call in Japanese that I was dreading, more like terrified, to make. Before I left Japan, I ran out of time to cancel a cell phone plan which was charging me 50 dollars per month. The only way to cancel was through the phone or by mailing them a form (sometimes Japan can be archaic about legal contracts). August of this year I had tried to make the phone call and in the end, it took me one hour to exhaust the teleprompter’s patience. I finished the phone call without ending the plan and continued to pay the fee each month. I called again this October, to once and for all cancel. I was able to understand much more of the grammar, ask her more questions and comprehend her responses. In just a few months I shortened the phone call time from one hour to only 15 minutes! That is very measurable progress.

For example, your plan for action might involve picking a book or passage at the end of your language textbook and trying to read it. At the end of the semester, go back to that same passage and try to read it again. See how far you manage and continue with this same method to measure your progress.

Learning with Others

Learning a language doesn’t have to be lonely

There is no reason to go through learning a language alone. This should not be a surprise, but learning a language by yourself is not even practical—one of the key reasons you decide to learn a language is to communicate with others. To practice, try to connect with your teachers and attend their office hours. In my own case, I felt that my relationship with my teacher improved dramatically after I met with her for only fifteen minutes. If this is too much for you perhaps some upperclassmen who have taken proficiency tests or who are exceptional language learners can help you find study resources. Try to join a club or a meetup. Meetups from meetup.com are community events which anyone can attend. In Philadelphia, I attended a Japanese meetup at an Irish Bar and made friends with Japanese people who I can meet or message with in Japanese. If you are unable to find a meetup, maybe create study groups with your classmates with Groupme. Or join/create a language for Temple University students studying the same language as you. Finally, Temple’s Writing Center offers free conversational tutoring in some languages including English, Spanish, Japanese and Arabic. There are plenty of options for any of your preferences, it only matters how driven you are to reach out to these people. The most difficult part, approaching, becomes easier over time.

Online Games and Interactive Services
If you have not heard of Quizlet, Duolingo, lang-8, memrise, mango languages, Hi-Native, Italki, or other language learning services, then I highly suggest taking time during weekends, vacations, or down time, to explore these services. Although some are introductory lessons (like mango languages), they make language learning seem like playing a video game or like chatting with strangers on an online chat site. If you are someone who likes staying inside and learning all about the world from the screen of your computer and the comfort of your bed, I suggest taking advantage of these interactive services.


As a final note, I am sure you are aware that frustration can arise during language study. Even so, the only reason I continually pick up the pencil again is because of my intrinsic motivation. I turn to sources of media, such as Japanese music, that fill me with admiration for the Japanese language, or I call up my friends in Japan to have a quick chat without the restraints of a classroom. By embracing intrinsic learning you will be able to learn a language you have true passion for, ignore harsh comments from teachers or classmates, and find satisfaction in media or external goals you set for yourself. When you graduate from college and continue on with your life, the languages you choose to learn can either be letters on a report card or they can be useful, rewarding consequences that begin a lifelong hobby of learning how to express your thoughts in the words of another culture.