Posted on by Peter Rettig

Wanting vs. Needing to learn a foreign language?

Wanting Vs NeedingMany adults still have bad memories from their foreign language learning days in school.

Unless they had a family connection to the foreign language they were learning, had friends who spoke it, or just had a natural curiosity about language in general, children and teenagers often saw required language classes as a necessary evil.

However, as adults they may come to see the benefits of speaking a foreign language. They may encourage their children to do so and – motivated by TV or web-based marketing campaigns – may even want to start learning a foreign again themselves.

“Wanting” to Learn

Learning a foreign language has never been easier than today. A couple of decades ago, options included traditional classes, books, records, self-teaching tapes and CDs. Now you can learn with online self-teaching courses, online personal tutors, you can skype with language partners, listen to MP3 audios, watch videos, join language community networks, etc.

But as LingQ's Steve Kaufmann, somewhat provocatively states: “Nobody can teach you a language. – You have to learn yourself.” And while this notion may be argued by some language “teachers,” most of us adult language learners also know how hard it is to stay motivated.

Radio, TV, and online marketing ads by companies such as Rosetta Stone and others make many “want” to learn a foreign language. But sustaining the efforts through the many months that it takes to become proficient or fluent in a new foreign language are much harder.

And those that are enticed by marketing slogans such as “Learn a language in 10 days” or similar ads, are the first ones who are disappointed when this proves to be just wishful thinking: “Wanting to learn” usually has to be supported and sustained by strong reasons, if the learning is not to be abandoned early.

“Needing” to Learn

In the language teaching community, it is no secret that an adult's strongest motivation for learning a second or third language is the “need to learn.” Such “need” is often caused by external circumstances: moving to another country, wanting to learn the language of one's significant other, fulfilling an educational or an employer's requirement, following a particular career path, etc.

Even when we marvel about how easily young children pick up a second language, we should not forget that they also do so most naturally when they need to be understood by their caregivers and/or playmates. (Games, play acting, etc. can also motivate them during more formal instruction!)

The “need” to be able to communicate in a foreign language is by far the strongest motivator for learning it. So what are you to do when you don't really “need” to learn but just “want” to?

Setting Goals and Staying Motivated

Even without external “needs,” we are all able to accomplish the goals that we set our mind to, i.e. goals that we “want.” In respect to learning a foreign language, this just requires that we set realistic goals and are deliberate about how to stay motivated.

We explored this topic in previous posts: “7 Ways to Stay Motivated When Struggling to Learn a New Language,” and “7 More Ways...

But it also requires that you settle on the right learning method for yourself. This may take some time. For some, attending adult education classes may both be possible and effective; others may find the audio-only lessons work best for them; both free, as well as fee/subscription-based self-teaching courses can easily be found on the internet and often tried out before committing.

In “3 Tips...Part 1:Beginners” and “5 Top Tips...Part 2-Non-Beginners,” we suggest how you can begin and continue learning a foreign language. And when “wanting” and “needing” merge into each other, then staying motivated will be a breeze.