Language Learning: The Importance of Making It Fun (and How to Do It)

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Language Learning: The importance of making it fun and how to do it

By Andrew
Photo credit: Ernst Moeksis

Hi, I’m Andrew,  I run a website called How to Learn Spanish and I’ve been reading MultiLingual Living almost since it started.

Today I’d like to talk to those of you who are learning or teaching a language (whether you’re teaching children or adults is irrelevant, this applies across the board to everyone) about what I believe is, by far, the number one reason that people fail to learn a language and how it can be largely prevented.

Why most people fail

The most common reason, by far, that people who try to learn a language fail is that their reason (motivation) for learning the language is not sufficient to overcome the pain (difficulty, boredom) of the actual process of learning the language.

Learning a language is hard and typically requires quite a bit of effort, or at least that’s how the process feels for most language-learners.  Their motivation simply cannot overcome their pain.

What we’re going to talk about today is:

  • how to change how that process feels
  • how to reduce the amount of effort that is required to get the same results (effort is entirely subjective, it’s all about how much effort you perceive)
  • how to reduce that “pain” as much as possible
  • how to increase your motivation as much as possible.

So we’re going to deal with both sides of the equation here: reducing pain (effort, boredom) and increasing motivation (make it fun and interesting).

Pain

What do I mean by pain?

I mean anything we don’t like or anything that causes us to feel negative emotions (oh yeah, boredom is definitely a negative emotion, find me someone who says they love feeling bored).

I mean the amount of effort we have to put forward (people hate putting forth any more effort than they absolutely have to), the time we have to take to do it, the trouble we have to go to, the feeling we get of not seeing much in terms of results after putting forward what felt like a great deal of effort. It is about that feeling we have after several months of study when we realize we  still can’t have a simple conversation with a native speaker.

And the problem, the real problem that causes us to quit, that causes us to fail ultimately, is that our pile of pain is larger than our pile of motivation (imagine the two side-by-side in your head, like two mounds of dirt). The very second that we realize that our pain pile is larger than our motivation pile, that we don’t have enough of a reason to overcome that particular amount of pain, we quit.

We say “This just isn’t worth the trouble.”

Now, as you can imagine and have probably been told, you can always just grit your teeth and push through it: yes, you can, anyone can, but why would you (we’re back to motivation now)?  And that’s why you don’t, because you just don’t have enough of a reason to do it.

If your job depends on you learning this language, then yeah you’ll learn it, you’ll grit your teeth and, for example, force yourself to pay attention in class to do the boring, confusing, difficult homework – you have enough of a reason to (but even then, why make it any harder for yourself than it has to be?).

But that’s not most people who want to learn a language!  Most people want to do it because they’d like to have access to a little bit bigger slice of the world. Essentially, they just want to be able to communicate with people who don’t speak their language, primarily for enjoyment (they don’t need to be able to talk to these people, they’d just like to).

Or maybe they just think that learning a language would be a fun thing to do (it can be! if you do it right). If someone were holding your kids hostage and threatening to throw them off a cliff if you didn’t learn this language in 3 weeks or something, oh sure you could do it, and you could do it no matter how boring or dry the learning material you had to work with was.  Sure.

But that’s the problem, isn’t it?  You don’t have that kind of motivation.

Make it fun

If it’s not fun, I want nothing to do with it. Yes, I said “I”! I’m not just picking on you here. I’m the same way, and I’ve learned this the hard way over the years.

The best way to do this is to make it as fun and entertaining as possible for yourself instead of trying to fight it and beat yourself into submission with discipline and boring textbooks and lessons and whatnot.

Remember what I said above about motivation and pain?  Well, the more fun it is, the more motivation you’ll have to do it and the less effort (pain!) that will be required and the less boredom (pain!) you’ll have to endure: making it fun simultaneously increases your motivation pile and reduces your pain pile, if that makes sense.

The more fun and enjoyable it is, the more of a reason (motivation!) you have to do it, plus making it fun eliminates boredom and also makes it require less effort which results in less pain that you have to overcome.

Yes, you, unlike a 3-year-old, can force yourself to concentrate on something horribly dull and boring, and to learn it, for 30 or 60 minutes at a time or even longer if it’s absolutely necessary.  And you can do it tomorrow. And the next day. But for how long, ultimately?

Let me save you the trouble: not very long. In the long run, you’ll lose.  You’ll quit after a few weeks or months and say “well, I guess I just can’t learn languages, you have to be a kid for that or born with the right genes” or blah blah blah whatever the excuse you come up with is.

Don’t do this, just make it fun, and require as much of your learning material as possible to be fun and interesting and you won’t ever have the problem of it becoming boring/frustrating/difficult/etc.

I understand that sometimes it can’t be fun – occasionally you just need to read a grammar book or memorize some vocabulary or whatever and you can’t make it fun. When that happens, just do your best.  However, the majority of your learning material should be fun and interesting.

How to “Make it fun”

Just how do you make it fun?Use stuff you’ll enjoy! Simple!

Ok, maybe that could use with a bit of explanation: what do I mean by “stuff”?  I mean the material that you’re going to learn the language from.  For example…

Movies

I want you to pick a movie that’s in your target language (and preferably has subtitles in that same language e.g. a Spanish movie with Spanish subtitles – it makes this so much easier), and that you think you’d enjoy based on the description.  Then, I want you to sit down and watch it (either on your computer or in front of your TV with a laptop if you have one) such that you can immediately pause it the second you don’t understand something. When that happens, reference the subtitles to see what they said, and then look up that word or phrase using online resources like an online dictionary, Urban Dictionary (best reference I’ve ever found for looking up foreign language slang and curse words), and the WordReference forums for anything you can’t figure out with the dictionaries or Google.

Amazon’s foreign-language movies section, sorted by language (look to the menu on the left and select your target language), is by far the best place to start looking.  Like I said, I highly recommend movies with subtitles in the language that the movie is spoken in.  Three of my favorites that I always recommend to people learning Spanish are Maria Full of Grace, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Ladrón que Roba a Ladrón.  Oh, and a great one for kids is the Spanish version of Ratatouille!

Music

I want you to find some music online that you like (check with YouTube first, that’s your best bet), and then get the lyrics for it (I’ve yet to find a song I couldn’t find the lyrics for online very easily – just google “[song name] lyrics”). Go through the lyrics and look up and learn everything you don’t know so that you understand everything. Then go back and play the song while reading the lyrics.

Do this several times and then start playing the song without the lyrics in front of you and keep doing this until you can listen to the song all the way through, from start to finish, and understand everything.

Now that’s actually quite an accomplishment, isn’t it?  I’ve demonstrated this several times with various Shakira songs on my blog if you’d like to see how I do it, such as this one: Learn Spanish from Music Videos: Shakira’s Lo Hecho Está Hecho aka ‘Objeción (Tango)’.

Books

Harry Potter.  Seriously, hands down, over and done with.

Just get a copy of a Harry Potter book in the language you’re learning (it’s been translated into over 60 languages) and a copy in English to serve as a translation for you and there you go.  Of course you can do this with many other books but Harry Potter is one of my favorite recommendations because it’s so universally loved and because it’s so fun and well-written (plus it’s good for children and adults).  Anybody, almost no matter what their age, can learn a language from Harry Potter and have a ton of fun doing it.

Conclusion

I really hope this helps you and gives you some good ideas for how you can make you or your child’s language learning experience much more fun, effective, and most importantly, likely to be successful.

Please let me know what you think in the comments and feel free to ask any questions you might have; additionally you can reach me through my blog’s contact form.

Cheers,
Andrew

Make sure to also read Andrew’s famous post The Telenovela Method of Learning Spanish (or any other language) – you won’t regret it!

I’ve been passionate about learning languages since I was 12 and have previously worked on (primarily on my own) French, Russian, and Swedish, and am currently teaching myself Spanish and Japanese.

I run a site on how to learn spanish where I share the various techniques and resources I’ve discovered over the years that you can use to learn Spanish on your own. The idea behind the site is to help people who want to teach themselves the language entirely on their own from home without resorting to formal classes and to focus on using resources that are available online for free. Please come by and check it out.

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{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lynne Friedman November 2, 2012 at 1:06 am

Thank you for your post. As an ESL teacher for the past 40 years, I have always believed in the idea of making learning fun, no matter what the topic. Another consideration is to keep activities varied and relevant.
I have started a Facebook page under the name Lunchroom English Project with motivational posts on topics I think my students would like to read outside of class, thus giving them a reason to “spend more time in English.” Most of the posts are short.
I use crafts instructions, songs with lyrics, recipes, TED talks (the Interactive Transcripts are fabulous!), articles about Spain in English (who doesn’t want to know what others think of their own country abroad?), and relevant topics to the general age group in my target group, which is mostly adults in business settings and university and Master’s students. I use the same type of articles in class as you can find on the Page, devising ways to get students to express their opinions in English in class. You can take a look at the FB page here: https://www.facebook.com/lunchroomenglish
Motivating your students to learn a language also entails living as an example. I study Japanese in order to empathize with my struggling students and encourage them by making them want to work as hard for me as I do for them.

Reply

2 Andrew November 2, 2012 at 11:45 am

Thanks, Lynne, I’ve actually gotten similar feedback from other language teachers concerning this philosophy when I talk about it, I really think it is probably the most important factor in learning a language, whether you’re teaching yourself or someone else. I’ll be sure to check out your FB page.

Cheers,
Andrew

Reply

3 Annika Bourgogne November 2, 2012 at 4:25 am

A great post! We have two bilingual children, and my motto has always been to make it fun for them to learn their minority language. It may be a lot of work for us parents to engineer situations and activities that are useful for the children’s language skills, but they should be completely unaware of this and just have fun. Just last weekend we did a treasure hunt in our minority language for our children and their friends. In all honesty it was a lot of work for us, but so much fun for our kids! If you want to read more about it, here’s the link: http://journalofabilingualfamily.wordpress.com/2012/10/29/halloween-treasure-hunt-in-french/

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4 Andrew November 2, 2012 at 11:47 am

Thank you, Annika! I think you can expand this philosophy of “make it fun” from language learning out to nearly any other subject, and making it fun is actually really hard work when you’re doing it for someone else, especially kids who can be simultaneously easier and more difficult to entertain than adults (easier in that what entertains them is simpler but more difficult with regards to determining what is certain to entertain them, which can be very hit-or-miss since you’re not a kid).

Cheers,
Andrew

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5 Joselyn November 5, 2012 at 7:28 am

I very much agree with you that as teachers/parents we should improve our students’ motivation. Making the learning process interesting and fun is one of the best ways to do so. However, we can’t forget the importance of the “boring” part. In my opinion, achieving a high level of competence without learning grammar is very difficult (unless you live in a country were the language is spoken). One more point, reading books and watching movies is a great way of learning a language. But I would say you need at least an intermediate level of the language to do so. I would recommend beginners to start with adapted books and videos instead of using originals. Beginners may also use comics or cartoons as they have lots of images which help to work out the meaning of unknown words.
By the way, your blog is a great resource for Spanish students!

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6 Andrew November 7, 2012 at 4:52 pm

Thank you, Joselyn, and I generally agree with you, it’s why I’m such a big advocate of learners, especially beginners, using children’s movies and books and such, because that language is more at their level than adult material in their target language is.

I think learning grammar is very helpful, I think it should be done at some point, however I don’t think it’s absolutely necessary. I would generally recommend that people bother to at least get a basic understanding of it, little by little as they go along, as it does help.

Cheers,
Andrew

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7 Jodie August 11, 2013 at 2:32 am

I agree that learning should be fun and not boring. I’d also like to add that playing online games on the language that you’re learning will add happiness too. But you should also have a self-control because it can be addicting at times.

Reply

8 Andrew August 11, 2013 at 1:53 pm

That’s actually an excellent strategy that a couple other people have explored a bit (I don’t play video games so it never occurred to me), thanks for mentioning it.

Cheers,
Andrew

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