Monday, May 17, 2010

Motivation is crucial in language learning, but must be considered together with efficiency

If you're not motivated to learn a language, you won't spend time learning a language. If you don't spend time learning a language, you won't learn a language. So no motivation means no learning.

It's pretty much just that simple, but let me add a corollary to the rule: if doing something is going to kill your motivation to learn a language, stop doing it. This gives you a free pass to ignore any language-learning suggestions (including, of course, my own) that would kill your motivation.

But if something is only going to damage your motivation and thus merely reduce the time you spend learning languages, you need to consider how much more efficient that thing is before giving it the old heave-ho.

Let's say you spend 10 hours per week on language learning using method A. Under method A, you learn on average 20 new items (vocab, grammar rules, pronunciations, characters, etc.) per hour spent. Your result is 200 new items per week.

Let's say method B offers a better return of 30 new items per hour. If you like method B, then switching to it is a no brainer and you end up with 300 new items per week.

But let's say you don't like method B, and using it hurts your motivation such that you end up spending 40% less time learning your target language. That means you end up only spending 6 hours per week, resulting in only 180 new items per week. While this still speeds up your per-hour progress, it slows down your long-term progress.

But that does not mean the rule is as simple as "if something causes me to spend less time learning, I shouldn't do it". Let's say that method C is the same as method B except that the improved return is boosted from 30 to 40 new items per hour. Even spending 40% less time than under method A, those 6 hours spent will result in 240 new items per week, increasing both your per-hour and long-term acquisition speed.

MethodItems learned per hourReduction in time spentHours spent per weekItems learned per week

Of course, it's easy to make a choice when you've got clear numbers laid out for you like this. In the real world, however, you're pretty much never going to have these kinds of numbers. This will mean you'll typically be forced to rely on guesstimates, but nevertheless you should always consider the efficiency of a language-learning suggestion together with its affect on your motivation and thus time spent.


  1. Of course, it's even more complicated than that. The other 40% of your time from method B could be used to do other things that improve your language skills, and it could very well be better than A as well.

    And of course, not all things can be measured. Skill in speaking is much harder to measure than skill in reading.

  2. Naturally if you can convert those extra hours into something productive, that's definitely the way to go. I wrote the above post with the idea that whatever you're doing is so painful that it kills your desire to focus on the language (so you go play Xbox or something).

    And this is without doubt a very simplified conceptualization. As I was writing this post, I started out with something like "If you do 40% method A and 60% method B…", and that was getting to be a big mathematical mess, so I pulled on the reins a bit because it was getting confusing.

  3. There is another angle which might be the best of both worlds... Find ways to increase motivation! If your motivation gets higher, your desire to learn and the time and effort you're willing to put into it will increase, therefore increasing how much you learn.

  4. Surely the ultimate trick, is to go beyond motivation.

    To find things that you can set up that just keep going and eventually require no thought or effort.
    Some people are fit for example not because they are motivated to exercise but because their lifestyle just makes it happen, they value being physically fit and that just happens because of what they are used to every day (whilst others have to motivate themselves to go to the gym) The classic buy an exercise bike but take the car door to door every day you go to work.

    Hard to come up with examples on the fly but I know what I mean (really I do ;)).

    Even something you do that is not particularly efficient, is valuable if once you get used it, like doing it and don't even imagine not doing, you can't sop. Over time the cumulative effect is huge.

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