Are You Learning a Second Language for Stupid Reasons?

Saint Pere De Rodes by Jose Luis Mieza Photography

Language learning, like architecture, requires a solid foundation if it’s going to stand the test of time.

There are a lot of reasons to learn a second language. These can range from the extremely practical (being relocated to a country for work that doesn’t speak your native language) to the extremely personal (you enjoy a good challenge and love to study new things) to comfortably in-between (you want to be able to make personal connections with speakers of another language or in another country).

Some people would say your reasons for learning a new language isn’t important. They’d say that every reason is perfectly valid as long as it inspires you to start learning. After all, everyone’s reasons are their own and who are we to judge and let’s all just hug and be happy.

Those people are imbeciles.

Your Success is Bound to Your Motivations

Put bluntly, if you want to learn a language for stupid reasons, you won’t learn a language at all.

I don’t think this is a terribly controversial statement to be honest, this principle holds true in just about every other endeavor you can take. If you start after something for bad reasons your chances of actually obtaining whatever it is you’re after are diminished substantially.

For whatever reason though, perhaps just something particular to language learning, I see a high concentration of people who want to learn to speak a new language for very empty reasons who then become extremely frustrated when they find they’re having a terrible time of it. For that reason I think it needs to be said – if your motivations suck you’re starting off down the road to failure.

Differentiating Good Motives from Bad Ones

I’ll be honest, determining what motives are the wrong ones can be tricky. Particularly because there’s a small element of subjectivity in play here. However there are some general guidelines that serve as decent litmus tests for the overall quality of your motivations for pursuing a goal.

The first thing you should ask is, “Am I doing this for myself, or someone else?”

What do I mean by that? Well, pursuing a goal for yourself means that you’re doing it entirely for reasons that are a benefit to you irrespective of the presence or influence of others. Your learning a language just because you want to, not because anyone else might want you to.

What are some good examples of this?

I want to learn a language to travel – The self interest here is obvious. Your drive to travel is what’s going to push you to keep going when you want to quit and you have a clear purpose in your studying and practice.

I need to learn a language for work – This one may sound like it’s for someone else, and it can certainly fall into that category if you hate your job or are being pushed into it, but in most cases this falls into the category of self-interest in that you’re motivated by a desire for a better career, a promotion or just not losing your job.

I want to meet new people and experience other cultures – Another good reason fueled by self-interest. Wanting to be able to interact with and make friends with people in their native language is a goal based around how good it feels to make connections with people.

All of these are good reasons to learn a language because they’re motivations fueled by a personal desire. You want something for yourself. You’re in control of those motivations. People with these motivations and ones like them are a lot more likely to succeed.

People who are pursuing their goal for motivations tied to others, however, tend to be much less likely to succeed. What are some examples?

I want to impress a boy/girl/spouse/friend/llama/whatever – Learning a language because you sincerely want to impress someone else may seem pretty motivating, but what happens when that person is out of the picture for some reason or another? What happens when you find out that person really doesn’t care? There goes all your drive. You don’t care about the language, you only care about the llama. That makes for poor motivation.

I think X language is really cool – This one is a bit of a gray area. I put it here though because, in my experience, what people are really saying here is that they think other people find X language cool and want to be cool by speaking it. Here again your motivation is tied to the approval of others and is based outside of yourself. You don’t really own that motivation, and when you need it most it’s likely to fail you.

The next thing you should ask yourself is, “Based on the reason I want to learn this language, am I going to still care about it in 5 years? Will I still be happy I learned it?”

If you apply this to the good and poor reasons above you’ll find it’s easy to come up with good reasons for the first set to still care years down the line. You’ll still have the opportunity to travel, your career options will still be enhanced and you’ll still be able to make friends in that language.

On the other hand, five years down the line whoever you were looking to impress might be gone. You might have also found that no one really thinks your cool for learning that language. Then you’re left having invested all this time and effort into learning something you really don’t care about.

Finding What’s Really Important to You

In the end the most important thing is to make sure that your motivations are based on things that are solid, things that are genuinely important to you in the long term. Learning a language, like getting in shape, is a long and difficult process requiring hard work and dedication. Anyone can do it, but it’s something you’ll have to fight for.

Since it’s going to be hard, picking weak motivations is just going to encourage you to give up when it gets difficult.

Do you have any tips for finding better motivations or weeding out ones that won’t work? Any good examples of helpful or detrimental motivations you’ve had in the past? Share them in the comments!

Photo Credit: Jose Luis Mieza

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at