So You Want to Self-Teach? – Part I

When it comes to learning something new, teaching yourself can really be a beast. For most of us, the majority of our learning came during our school years. We had teachers and textbooks and homework. Essentially, a tour guide, telling us where to go, when, and giving us background about each stop. Trying to pick up a new skill without this roadmap can understandably lead to a lot of frustration and dead ends. Which way do you go when the road branches in impossibly many directions and the road signs give you precious little information?

Language-learning, like most skills, has many subskills to consider, rules to learn, and needs an extraordinary amount of practice to become proficient. And not having teachers to guide you, you need your own motivation, your own keen eye to determine what materials are useful and how to use them, and the drive to put yourself out there to practice your skills. It can seem daunting.

Today, we’re going to talk about motivation. Motivation is one of a number of factors grouped under the umbrella of Individual Differences, which tries to determine why different learners, who are otherwise completely comparable, have different levels of success in language-learning. We won’t cover them all here, but it’s important to know that motivation is one factor of many, and isn’t going to determine your success or failure on its own. In saying that, it’s still extremely important to have healthy motivation levels when it comes to self-teaching. Otherwise, what’s going to get you to study and practice when you’d really rather just be relaxing in a jacuzzi?

There are two main types: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is motivation that comes from within. Learning a language because you find the language interesting or because you like languages already is intrinsic. It comes from within you. Extrinsic motivation comes from without. If you aim to learn a language for career reasons, or because you want to live in a country and need to function in your everyday life, or because your partner’s family doesn’t speak your native language, etc., that’s extrinsic.

Arguments have been made for which one is the most important, but I would argue that the answer is “both”. For many people, having only intrinsic motivation can get you going, but without the accountability of extrinsic motivation (e.g. your new friend will be so disappointed you didn’t learn any even though you said you would), you might not keep up with it. Similarly, if you have no interest in it but your boss is making you, you might not put in the effort necessary to learn. As of this writing (2016), I still love the German language and personally want to become as fluent as possible. But I’d love to pursue a PhD in the country and ultimately reside there permanently. I had been motivated enough in the last few years to maintain my skills, but once I decided that I wanted to try to go to school there, that really gave me the drive to start working actively to improve my skills, since I will need to past the TestDAF in order to enroll.

So how do you find a way to maintain motivation to see it through, but also to consistently put in the required effort? Here’s a short list, the first three of which I’ll go into more detail in later.

  1. Make it a routine. Have something to do on a regular basis and make it a habit.
  2. Set short-term and long-term goals. The more specific, the better.
  3. Have a game plan. What are you going to do in your daily/weekly study sessions to achieve your goal?
  4. Make yourself accountable. Tell your friends and family. Consider paying for a service (that’s worth it) so you think “I put money into that. I should get something out of it.”
  5. Keep your motivations in mind. They’re why you started in the first place, and unless they’ve changed, they’re why you should continue.

Now it’s your turn! What are your motivations for learning languages, and how do you keep up your drive?


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