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How to learn a foreign language without leaving home? (Part I)

Not long ago, few people talked about learning at home and even fewer about its benefits. In 2021, it is no longer a question of ‘if?’ but ‘how?’. How to prepare for learning in the best way? What methods should you choose? How to use your motivation and time in the best way? Below (and also in the second part of this article), you can find my answers to these questions with a focus on learning languages on your own.

Before you proceed to the actual learning process, you need to answer the most important question: why do you want to learn a given language? Many studies show that in order to strengthen our motivation and belief in success, we need to know why we should do something. When we have no such knowledge, we can quickly become discouraged and even the most interesting method may seem pointless.

So let us start by identifying your reason for learning a language, and therefore your motivation, external or internal.

External motivation derives from a factor other than yourself. It may be a lecturer or your boss, but it may also be, for example, a requirement for your dream job or the bleak reality of ‘this is the only course I could enrol in’. If a motivation factor takes the form of someone who will make us accountable for completing a task, many of us may work harder to avoid any possible negative consequences (e.g. failing an exam or not getting our dream job).

Internal motivation, on the other hand, stems from your inner need. Nobody tells you to do something, it is not your duty, nevertheless something pushes you to action. In the case of a foreign language, such an internal motivation may be, e.g., ‘I have always wanted to learn French in order to be able to talk to my dad’s family who live in France’ or ‘I love Korean music and TV series, and I would like to understand them without translation’. Most often, this motivation is rooted in your passions, desires and dreams. Such an emotional connection is extremely helpful in providing you with the perseverance needed to achieve a specific goal, because your motivation is deeper than ‘I have to’ or ‘I should’ provided by external motivation, sometimes superficial.

Ideally, both kinds of motivation play a role in our actions, so if, while reading this article, you can recognise one of them in you, it is worth considering whether you could also find the other one. Usually, however, one of them prevails.

Why is it useful to know your motivation for learning? It is simple: you need an anchor, something to refer to when a learning crisis inevitably occurs. Additionally, it is necessary to plan your learning.

These anchors are usually the goals you set yourself. But to be effective, you need to make them specific and give them a framework. The goal ‘I want to learn German’ is not very specific. In fact, it just tells us what language you want to learn. To make your goal more specific, you can refer to your motivation.

If your motivation is a German exam required to complete the language course, your goal could be as follows: ‘By the 15th of June I have to go through and revise 10 sections from the book, which gives me X days for each section and a week to revise the entire material’. 

On the other hand, if you wanted to spend the holidays with your family in Bavaria, you could formulate your goal as follows: ‘I will listen to songs in German on my way to university every day and once a week I will watch one episode of a TV series in German and write down the expressions I have learnt’.

As you can see, depending on your motivation, your goals may be different and thus the ways of achieving them will also differ.

So what is your goal for learning a foreign language? Try to define it in a specific way - you can give it a time frame, you can specify what material you want to cover or what certificate you plan to obtain. Just remember that your aim must be realistic. Nobody wants to be discouraged at the start! So if you have a lot of work at university and, additionally, you have a job, do not plan to study a language for two hours a day. You can use your time in a creative way, but do not expect the impossible from yourself.

If your goal is to include a learning method, you must first consider which method is the best for you. Remember that there is no one best method for everyone. We learn in different ways, regardless of the subject. 

In the second part of this article, I will discuss specific learning methods, both more and less popular ones.

Reference literature:

Botes, L., Making time for languages in a busy day, 2020. Source: (access date: 15 September 2020)
Kotarski, R., Włam się do mózgu. Warszawa: Altenberg, 2017.
Nęcka, E., Orzechowski, J., Szymura, B., Wichary, S., Psychologia poznawcza. Wydanie nowe. Warszawa: PWN, 2020.

About the author:

Marta Kubisiak is a psychologist and crisis interventionist. She works at the Student Centre for Support and Adaptation (SOWA) at the Jagiellonian University. In her free time she likes to travel and learn foreign languages.