Posted on by Peter Rettig

2 Language Learning Essentials: Motivation and Engagement

GamesforLanguage: Motivation and Engagement Why is language learning such a challenge for many adults? People often say that they are "not good at languages" to explain why they didn't stay with a language that they started to learn.

But there may be a better answer: Adults who start a language get discouraged easily, stop much too quickly, and don't trust their own abilities enough.

How can you keep yourself from giving up too easily? As with any long-term project, you have to stay really motivated, ideally with specific interim goals in mind. But this is not enough, you also need continuous and wholehearted engagement.

Good and Bad Reasons to Get Started

For adults who set out to learn a foreign language (I am excluding school children here), there may be good or bad reasons for getting started.

Among the “bad” reasons one could include: trying to impress somebody; falling for a quick learning scheme; keeping up with the Joneses.

On the other hand, “good” reasons for learning a language are those related to work, travel, living abroad, family and heritage, friends and lovers, professional interests and study, curiosity about language and culture, just to name the most common ones.

And, for any of these, the real NEED to know the language makes the most powerful motivator.


Motivation - Gamesforlanguage.comIt's no secret that many adults that start out learning a foreign language give up after only a short time.

Surveys show that “keeping up the motivation” and “not enough time” are the two principal difficulties that learners list when learning a foreign language.

And while the excuse that there's “not enough time” may also hide other reasons, most adult learners are usually quite motivated at the outset, only to realize that real progress is slow and takes more time and effort than they had anticipated.

Also, there clearly are different levels of motivation. The need to understand and speak a new language may be different for someone who has a new job assignment and career in a foreign country than for someone who intends to travel there for a short vacation. But “keeping up the motivation” is certainly a difficulty that cannot be underestimated.

There are very few things (if any) in life we can really learn halfheartedly. As children we seem to learn many things playfully, but it takes us quite a few years to fully acquire our first language, as well as complex skills such as playing various sports.

The motivation to learn is likely both genetic (“wired” for language, walking, running, winning, etc.) and environmental (copying, competing with, encouraged by siblings, friends, parents, teachers, etc). As adults, the goals and challenges we set ourselves arise from various sources, family, friends, jobs, as well as our own interests, desires, fears, etc.

Learning a foreign language as an adult is one activity that will show progress only if we have regular and frequent exposure to the language and use it with increasing frequency. Those learners who engage themselves with the language in many different ways will also find that they will stay motivated.


What does “engagement” mean in this context? To be “engaged” in learning a foreign language implies that you do more than just attend a language class once a week, listen to a couple of CDs or online lessons once or twice per week or open a vocabulary app or a course book from time to time.

"To be engaged" means that you have been bitten by the language bug and are getting involved with the new language in many different ways. You'll be reading newspaper articles and book, watching TV and movies, regularly listening to audios and podcasts, and meeting people to talk to, either in person or online.

(Talking with native speakers is really the best way, and many believe the only way to practice speaking and to improve your fluency.) Fun Menu-

You may be planning a trip to the country where the language is spoken and start learning about its culture, history and politics.

If the country's food or wine interests you, great – another entry point to learn about it and get engaged in discovery. 
Just imagine how engaged you are with any activities you consider fun.

The more you can connect the target language with those aspects of life that are fun to you or you feel passionate about, the more engaged you will be, and the more fuel you will add to your motivation.

So deciding which language class to attend or which online language course to subscribe to are only initial steps in your long-term learning project. Maybe you'll even hold off on that decision until you have thought further about what really motivates and engages you.

Once you understand and accept that learning a foreign language as an adult is a long-term, even a life-long project, you can go about making a plan for how to accomplish it. (In a previous post, P.M. Tools for Language Learning..., I had also suggested that applying certain project management tools to such a long-term project will be helpful.)