Motivation can sometimes seem like a scarce resource. Simply wanting to achieve, for achievement’s sake, might not suffice to push you over the finish line. You need a bit extra.
I found myself in this situation recently, working on a goal that straddled both language learning and software development. For some time, I’d wanted to create something completely different from my usual fare and out of my comfort zone: an app for learning and practising verb meanings in Mandarin Chinese. A couple of weeks ago, I decided to go for it.
Learning through making
Now for me, Mandarin Chinese is a totally new and exciting departure. I haven’t studied many non-Indo-European languages (some Modern Hebrew and a tiny bit of Japanese barely count). Putting together apps in new languages is one route I use as an introduction to them for my own learning. Therefore, the idea of working on a brand new one filled me with positive anticipation!
That was, at first. Getting started was easy. With reliable sources for the learning content, and a solid framework app to build it into, I got off to a good start.
However, I soon slowed down to a halt.
What was wrong? Was the language content no longer captivating me? No, not that – I still revelled in the new words and concepts I was learning along the way. Was the technical side losing its fascination? Not at all, as I was still spending quality time on similar technical projects without any signs of boredom. So what had happened to my motivation?
The problem, I realised, was this: it is hard to work in a bubble.
Humans are social creatures. We are built to be involved with other people in all of our exploits. Working with others, either through study buddying or teaching, can be a real shot in the arm for language learning, for example. We simply work better when we are not isolated.
The truth is, my Chinese app endeavours had become divorced from this fact. I was a lone ranger, operating in a bubble. The issue was not simply that I was developing alone. There are plenty of very successful, lone app developers! Rather, I was creating it with nobody in mind (beyond myself).
This resulted in fuzzy goal definition. No deadlines, no direction, no sense of wider purpose. Instead, just a vague ambling towards an ill-defined end point, where I would have eventually created something I deemed useful and learnt a bit along the road.
So what to do?
The obvious answer was actually right under my nose the whole time. A good friend of mine is currently learning Chinese at level A1-2 and is an iPhone user. Via Apple’s TestFlight platform, I could easily roll out test versions of the app online for my fellow linguist buddy to test out. What better audience could I wish for?
At this point, you might wonder how on Earth it took so look for that solution to occur to me. Moving in language learning circles, I have countless friends studying any number of languages at a given point. You’d think I would be badgering them constantly with new app ideas.
The issue is that sometimes, the idea of an audience for your work / efforts / brainchild / ambitions is downright scary. We all crave approval from our peers. Self-doubt gets in the way. It requires no small degree of bravery to put yourself out there, open to criticism (constructive or otherwise) from people you think a lot of.
Will they like what I produce? Can they be honest with me about it if they don’t? Would they think less of me if my initial attempts miss the mark?
It is utterly normal and completely human to be put off by this kind of performance anxiety.
Perhaps the best advice I’ve come across is simple optimism: think the best of your audience. If you enlist the help of friends, then already, the most supportive people have your back. Most people, in my experience, truly do want to help, rather than knock you down.
Needless to say, initial reports from my tester friend are warm, well-meaning and positive: new words learnt, fun had learning them, and genuinely useful feedback given.
And that feeling of being helpful provides a ton of motivation.
Language learning for an audience
The example I’ve given might seem like a very specific case of language learning tech. But you can apply the same principle to language learning, pure and simple.
First, ask: who could my audience be? As a linguist, there are myriad scenarios you can imagine as end goals for the task of communicating.
Do you have workplace colleagues you can make smile with a few words in their native language? Are you planning a trip to the target language country and want to attend an event where you have to speak that language exclusively?
It needn’t even be a speaking task. Perhaps there is a social media group you’d like to join in with. I recently joined a Norwegian music discussion forum on Facebook, for example. The desire to chat with fellow fans is a great audience-based motivation to brush up my norsk.
Once your audience is defined, let go of your performance anxiety. Have faith in the kindness of others to help you reach your goals. Use humour, as it can really break down barriers. And above all, enjoy the interaction!
Whatever your chosen audience, incorporate it into your goal planning and let it become your motivation. That single social aspect will so much more sharply define your language learning objectives!
Incidentally, if any iOS users are interested in being a tester for my nascent app, please let me know!