Science-Backed Tips for Language Learning Motivation

How to increase and maintain your motivation to learn a new language

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The motivation to learn a new language is not something many people naturally have. Their motivation to learn a language might be extrinsic, rather than intrinsic.

But that’s OK because you can cultivate motivation and internalize external motivators. In this article, you’ll learn all about the self-determination theory (SDT) of motivation and how you can apply it to your language learning.

Let’s take a quick look at the science of motivation. And then we’ll break down 12 science-backed ways to stay motivated in learning a language.

Self-determination theory of motivation

We can’t go over every theory of motivation — there are way too many for that. But let’s take a look at one theory that is popular (and well-tested) in education: Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan’s self-determination theory.

You might have heard that intrinsic (from the self) motivation is good and extrinsic (from outside) is bad. According to SDT, it isn’t so black and white. Intrinsic and extrinsic motivations are good when a person’s psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness are satisfied. When this happens, extrinsic motivators (like external rewards) become internalized. And the low-quality extrinsic motivation becomes high-quality extrinsic motivation — and in some cases intrinsic motivation.

Instead of thinking about intrinsic and extrinsic, think of it like this: At one end of a scale, you have completely self-determined behaviors. Things you do because they’re interesting and satisfying. At the opposite end of the scale you have nonself-determined behaviors you do because of external demands or rewards. For example, a job you hate (but you need the money).

When tasks meet those three needs (autonomy, competence, relatedness) the motivation moves along the scale towards the good stuff. The self-determined behaviors. And the better quality of motivation.

Let’s take a look at those three psychological needs in more detail.

  • Autonomy. This is about choice. People want to feel in control of their lives. They want to feel acknowledged — like their feelings are important.

  • Competence. People want optimal challenges. Challenges that are not too difficult or too easy. People like to get positive feedback about their performance.

  • Relatedness. People want to belong. They want to be part of a group. They want to connect with other people. People want to be respected and cared for. And they want safe social environments — without competition, cliques, and criticisms.

Stay motivated to learn with Busuu

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Self-determination theory and language learning (plus some tips to stay motivated)

Alright, enough theory. Let’s get practical. Here are some ways to enhance your learning using SDT and the three psychological needs.


  • Learn for the right reasons. If you learn a new language only for external rewards, your motivation will suffer. So do it for the right reasons.

  • Make your own choices. Be in control of your own language learning. Choose the methods and materials you want to learn from. That doesn’t mean you can’t follow suggestions from tutors. But, ultimately, you’re in control of what, when, where, and how you learn your new language.


  • Select difficulty carefully. Trying tasks that are far above your ability is a surefire way to hurt your motivation. An optimal challenge is challenging but doable. It’s not too easy either — when you finish, you’ll have a sense of accomplishment. For example, don’t try to read a novel if you’re still B1 level. Choose graded readers instead. It won’t be easy to finish (if you choose the right level), but you will finish.

  • Pat yourself on the back. It’s easy to find the negatives when reflecting on your performance. Unfortunately, that can hurt your motivation. Be kind to yourself. Praise your performance. You won’t be perfect but focus on the good rather than the bad.


  • Join a group. Language is social. To learn you need to interact with other people. Luckily, interacting with other people is a key to increasing your motivation. So find a great bunch of people to practice with. People you feel comfortable making mistakes in front of. People who you can have fun but also get support from.

There are language exchange groups in most towns and cities. And don’t forget online groups — Busuu’s huge community of native speakers and language learners allows you to find people to practice with. People you can build connections with. People who you can support, and who’ll support you.

Connecting with other people is a great way to boost and maintain your motivation. And Busuu makes building those connections a breeze.

7 more tips to stay motivated

Learning a new language is a long — and sometimes bumpy — process. The more ways you have to stay motivated, the better your prospect of hitting your goals. Here are some simple ways you can maintain motivation (with the psychological need they address in brackets).

1. Set clear and achievable goals (competence)

Setting achievable goals is key to maintaining motivation. They need to be specific and measurable. Include time limits when possible. And make sure they’re relevant to your big-picture goals. Let’s look at some examples.

Bad example: I will improve from A2 level to B2 level in the next 6 months.

At first glance, this isn’t too bad. It’s measurable. It has a time limit. And it’s relevant to the general goal of learning a new language. But it’s difficult to achieve — six months isn’t long enough to achieve that goal. It also isn’t specific enough. For example, we don’t know if it means B2 in all four skills or not.

Good example: I will improve my speaking skills from A2 level to B2 level so I can get a job in a multinational company after I graduate from university in 12 months.

This example is specific, measurable, relevant to a specific goal, and achievable. This goal is unlikely to harm your motivation like the previous one.

2. Create a language learning routine (autonomy)

Consistency and motivation go hand in hand — having one without the other is hard. Planning a routine that works for you is a big help with this. Think about when you perform the best, how much time you can commit each week, and what resources you have available. Then you can plan a routine that works for you (while maintaining your autonomy at the same time).

When you plan goals, they need to be realistic. It’s exactly the same when you’re planning a routine. Don’t put too much on your plate or it could backfire and damage your motivation. Be conservative at first. Slowly add more study time to your plan when you’re sure you’ll get around to it.

Remember, you’re in control of your learning. Do what you can and don’t beat yourself up if you miss a session. And if you need some help, say hello to Busuu’s Study Plan. It helps you plan for your goals and predicts when you’ll hit them. Use it to take the guesswork out of your study plan.

3. Find ways to make learning fun (autonomy)

I’m sounding like a broken record at this point, but you’re in control of your learning. You choose how you learn. You don’t need to follow traditional methods. Maybe you’d prefer to learn on a mobile app. Or maybe you’re a gamer and want to practice by playing multiplayer games. There are so many options available to you.

When you do something for fun, it is totally self-determined. You do it because you want to. That’s it. No external pressure at all. This leads to the best quality of motivation. So find ways to inject fun into your language learning and you’ll be motivated to stick with it.

4. Study with a friend or family member (relatedness)

When you have connections with people, motivation is increased. Think about it. If you have a lunch planned with your best friends, you get excited. If you have a lunch planned with an annoying colleague, you get a feeling of dread. The only difference is the kind of connection you have.

Motivation for any task benefits from human connections. And there’s no one you have better connections with than family or friends. Learning a new language with your bestie would be fun. But it also has a deeper benefit because it meets the need for relatedness. Succeeding and failing together, supporting each other, and creating a safe environment in which you can both learn and grow are great for your motivation.

5. Reward yourself (competence)

Celebrate your achievements. No matter how small they are. Learning a new language is tough. It takes time, effort, and perseverance. When things go well, reward yourself. This kind of positive feedback is great for motivation.

Set yourself mini goals and reward yourself when you achieve them. For example, you could say “This week I’ll study 15 minutes everyday. And if I do it, I’ll treat myself to a croissant at my favorite bakery on Sunday.” Set small goals and big goals. But always remember to celebrate your achievements.

6. Track your progress (competence)

You need to maintain a study habit and reward yourself for your achievements. Tracking your progress is essential for this. Busuu’s steak feature keeps track of when you take lessons or do a Smart Review activity. Combine this data with specific and achievable goals, and you’ll know how well you’re doing. And — most importantly — when it’s time to treat yourself for your efforts.

7. Make it easy to stick to your habits (competence)

Remember how your goals need to be achievable? Well, so do your study plans and habits. It’s no good saying you’ll study for one hour every day if that’s not possible. It’s much better to set yourself sustainable goals like 20 minutes per day. Many little sessions are better than a few marathon sessions for habit-building.

Luckily, Busuu’s short and easy-to-digest lessons are perfect for daily practice. They’re not long, overly complicated, and overwhelming. You can create sustainable habits by doing one per day for example.

Increase your motivation to learn a new language

By meeting your psychological needs of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, you can maintain your motivation. Learning a new language is a long and difficult process. Motivation can help you see it through to the end. It can help you be consistent.

Think of ways to increase autonomy, competence, and relatedness in your own study and you’ll enjoy the journey of learning a new language.

Master a new language with Busuu

With Busuu, you're just a few swipes away from a community of millions to interact with. You can practice with native speakers, complete free online courses, and learn in your own way, on your own schedule.