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Get Motivated to Learn a Foreign Language

by Sarah Menkedick May 12, 2009
This is the first of a series of posts about skills and strategies for language learning, brought to you by Matador Abroad editor Sarah Menkedick.

I’ve seen a lot of learners and a lot of strategies pass through my classroom in the past four years of teaching English abroad. In those four years, I’ve also managed to learn two languages and am working on a third.

How people successfully learn a new language is an elusive topic – one that academics have had cat-fights about for years.

What exactly are the factors that determine a language student’s success?

Yesterday at the Nagoya International Center I came across the single most important language-learning factor:


I’d been taught about the importance of motivation in my SIT TESOL course (one of the single greatest learning experiences of my life) but, as usual, learning the concept in the classroom and experiencing it in real life are entirely different stories.

The Nagoya International Center was offering eleven 90-minute Japanese classes for 2500 yen (25 bucks). The application and interview period was from 11:30-12 on Sunday.

We got to the NIC at 11:10, twenty minutes early for the interview period, figuring hey, nobody’s going to be that eager and we’ll probably be among a small group of language nerds.


We took the elevator to the fifth floor. The entire place was jam-packed with people.

People squatting and filling out forms on the inches of available floor space. People milling around and chatting nervously. People bunching up around the desks where application forms were being handed out.

There was only one form left in English, so I let my friend have it and I filled out the Spanish one.

As we sat there, going through the requisite names-numbers-checking-boxes form, I soaked up the energy of the room.

It was a veritable U.N meeting of nationalities—there were Filipinos, Brazilians, Brazilian Japanese, Chinese, Southeast Asians, Americans, Brits, Africans, Mexicans, Spanish…

(I know because I kept peaking at the “native language” box on people’s application forms as we stood waiting in line).

All of us had the same eager, slightly nervous, first-day-at-school posture, and I realized that all of these people needed to learn Japanese. They were there because in their immediate, everyday lives, they had to use Japanese in some form or another and they’d jumped at the chance to do so for a bargain.

I’m sure if I’d asked them there, on the spot, “Why are you taking these classes?”

They could’ve clearly and specifically defined their goals:

“I want to work in an office and I need to learn polite Japanese conversation and basic vocabulary.”

“I want to open a shop and I need to interact with customers and officials.”

“I want to have conversations with people about Japan and Japanese culture.”

“I want to be able to read the newspaper and the subway signs.”

Clearly Defined Goals

And so, waiting in line at the Nagoya International Center with representatives of a dozen different countries, I saw again what I’ve seen throughout the years in my classes: having clearly defined goals and the motivation to charge at them makes all the difference in learning a language.

I’ve heard a lot of people say “I’d love to learn Spanish” or “it’d be great to speak Chinese” but their aims don’t go much further than that—which isn’t to say they aren’t motivated, but their motivation doesn’t have specific goals attached to it.

If you want to learn a language, ask yourself these three questions:

1. Why do you want to learn a language?

2. What do you want to do with it?

3. Why do you need it?

The more clearly and specifically you can answer these questions the more success you’ll have in learning a language.

Make a list of your goals and make sure you avoid general, vague statements like “I’d like to talk to people.” Be as specific as possible.

Once you’ve drawn up your list, start looking for programs or classes that fit the goals you’ve defined.

And stay tuned to Matador Abroad for where to go from there.

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