Reader Colton writes that motivation is not the holy grail of language learning. Even if you are highly motivated, other practical concerns come to mind such as ability to pronounce correctly, remembering vocabulary, and assimilating grammar.
Let’s examine motivation in a bit more detail, and discuss some other vital factors in language learning.
9 Vital factors in language learning
1. Internal or external motivation
To begin with, there are different types of motivation. If you are externally motivated- your boss is forcing you to learn, you have to do it because it’s a requirement to graduate- that is what I call outer, external or imposed motivation. The other type of motivation is internal or inner motivation. This is the case where you simply have a desire to learn the language. You like the culture of a Spanish-speaking country, you like language/languages in general, and so on. Internal motivation is much more useful in terms of moving your toward fluency in your target language.
2. Truthfulness in motivation
I have talked with endless Spanish students who happily proclaim that they are very motivated to learn Spanish. I talk to them about internal and external motivation, and they point to internal motivating factors as being their primary reason to learn Spanish. After some more extensive conversation with them, it turns out that they are highly motivated to know Spanish– they really, really want to speak Spanish, but they aren’t very interested in learning Spanish. What is the difference between wanting to know Spanish and wanting to learn Spanish?
Wanting to know Spanish skips all the hard work that is required to meet that goal- learning Spanish implies a learning process that will be work.
When evaluating your motivation, you need to be very honest with yourself. Really examine what you really want. Do you want to be able to speak Spanish or do you want to traverse the Spanish learning process. These are two very different concepts.
Now let’s move on and check out some other important language-learning factors.
3. Musical ability
Many people give me a blank stare when I mention the idea that musical ability could affect language learning ability. Notice I said “could”. I haven’t found any formal research to support this idea, but It’s something I’ve seen in casual observation. Students that have some ability in music- playing an instrument, singing- seem to often have an easier time with listening comprehension and pronunciation in the target language. They can “hear” the unfamiliar sounds of the target language easier, and can reproduce them with more accuracy. I feel that musical ability helps expand the mind’s ability to hear and produce a wider variety of sounds.
4. Interest in grammar
Many linguists prefer a grammar-less approach to language learning (language acquisition), but grammar can give you a shortcut to a language in some cases. If grammar does not scare you, if it’s something you’re interested in of its own right, then directly studying the target language’s grammar can be helpful. In many cases grammar can (unconsciously) raise a barrier to language learning, since its a topic that’s not widely appreciated or studied. If grammar is not your cup of tea, it’s probably better to learn the rules of putting words together in Spanish via unconscious analyzing of input language- you simply use and listen to the language and your mind should eventually deduce the language’s grammar rules without you consciously studying them. If you like grammar, studying the rules consciously can be quicker.
5. Attention to detail
An attention to detail can be quite helpful too. There are many aspects of a language (grammar, pronunciation, usage, vocabulary) that elude the learner, because they are not meaningful parts of the learner’s native tongue. If you have a special attention to detail, you will begin to pick up on some of these things.
6. Interest in the culture of the target language
An interest in other cultural fields related to Spanish can help you to continue learning the language to help you better understand the cultural interest you have in the people or country. This is a good example of using language for meaningful communication, something that will mature your understanding of the language.
7. Love for languages
If you are intrigued by languages, you will obviously be interested in investigating all areas of Spanish that you don’t understand. When someone tells you that the plural of “el agua” is “las aguas” and that waste/sewer water (greywater) is called “aguas negras”, your questioner turns on and says: Is that word feminine or masculine? What’s going on there? This inquisitiveness will push you to learn more.
8. Ability to remember things
It’s obvious that you need to remember a lot of things to learn a language. If you are adept in finding methods to remember vocabulary, grammar, conjugations, etc, you’re going to progress more rapidly than others who get stuck in the beginning stages, always returning to look up words that they have seen many times. My favorite memory advice is to use any method you like to remember words- mnemonics, flash cards, rote memory, carrying around a notebook, repetition- the point is to remember the word long enough to use it a few times a day in conversation for a few days, after which the word will be “yours”. You will no longer depend on the crutch to artificially remember the word, you mind will simply know what it means.
9. Make your Spanish learning goal part of your daily life
I think I’ve saved the most important advice for last.
It’s very simple, yet at times hard to do.
Make Spanish learning part of your daily life. As far as vocabulary goes, take all the object you use in your daily life and learn how to say them in Spanish- write the Spanish word on the item or write it down in a notebook that you carry with you at all times, and practice that vocabulary. Have conversations with yourself in Spanish. Everything you need to say in English all day long– translate it into Spanish in your mind. Practice your pronunciation by practicing the sounds of Spanish all day long. Listen to music in Spanish and try to understand it. Follow along with the lyric sheet and look up the words you don’t know. If you really saturate yourself in your target language, it’ll start seeping into you and you will have more success in learning.
Now go do it.