What Failing at Korean Taught Me About Motivation in Language Learning

In the last few years I’ve begun work on several different language projects ranging from Quechua to Kyrgyz to most recently Japanese, with some having come almost naturally, some put on hold for a while, and others that didn’t work out and were more or less tossed aside.

Looking back on these projects – successful or otherwise – I’m forced to reflect on what made certain languages stick and what caused others to fall flat.

Of course a number of factors come into play; personal and work life, learning strategies, and of course the similarity of my target language to my native English.

But the overwhelming factor in any of my personal successes has been my motivation to learn the language.

Last summer I was faced with the exciting prospect of spending a year teaching English to elementary students in South Korea. I had been through several interviews and had already sent away for my federal background check. I was gathering everything I needed for a Visa, planning living arrangements for my family and making plans to suspend my cellphone contract here in the US.

The job was more or less a done deal.

I was thrilled about this prospect not only because I’d be visiting another country, doing what I love and participating in a rewarding cultural exchange, but also because it meant I’d be getting the perfect opportunity to learn a new language in a total immersion setting.English: Hangul and hanja characters Português...

In anticipation I began working on the language immediately after I was more or less certain I had landed the job.


I was already studying Russian and Spanish, but due to the immediacy of my upcoming trip I set those aside and focused all of my attention on my new project. I was in for a huge surprise.

Korean was hard. I mean, every language is difficult and I didn’t expect it to be a breeze, but never before had I attempted to tackle a language with a writing system so alien to my own. Sure, Cyrillic is a little different from Latin, but it had nothing on the Korean writing system – Hangul.

Everything about this language was brutally difficult and I found myself struggling more than I ever anticipated.

Unfortunately for personal and medical reasons my plans to move to Asia fell flat, a fact that still bothers me from time to time. But what bothers me more is that hearing that I would no longer be going to Korea all but destroyed most of the interest I had in learning the language.

I told myself I would continue working at it, at least to learn some basics, because I dislike giving up so easily, but after a few weeks I found that I had returned to Russian and Spanish, my failed attempt at Korean little more than a black mark on my soul.

I don’t think the difficulty is what defeated me so much as the lack of motivation.

I don’t mind a challenge, but with so many other languages with which I was so much more advanced to return to, Korean no longer seemed as pressing – and obviously without the prospect of traveling abroad I no longer had that sense of immediacy.

So what can you do to keep your eyes on the prize?

  1. Identify your reasons for learning early on – before you even get started if possible. If you can’t think of at least 2-3 good ones, you may want to consider choosing a different language more suited to your interests and goals. The language isn’t going anywhere, (hopefully) you can always come back to it another time.
  2. Come up with at least 2-3 learning strategies. If you choose the wrong style of learning for your own needs you may find learning to be less entertaining or more difficult. These things contribute to a loss of motivation.
  3. Use the buddy system. A friend or family member willing to learn along with you not only provides you with someone to speak with, but also offers a support system. If you find yourself or your partner losing interest, work together to pull each other back up!
  4. Forget about fluency! At least for now. That may be the ultimate goal but for now it doesn’t matter. If you’re comparing your current beginner ability to that of an advanced learner or even a native speaker you’re only going to drag yourself down. It’s important to remember that yours is the only competition that matters.
  5. Tie your language learning in with something else that you love; a hobby, an art or any other activity that you enjoy. Anything that you can do to make learning fun and keep your head above water is going to help when the going gets rough.
  6. Don’t kill yourself. Don’t try too hard. If things are getting out of control and the frustration is mounting, just give it a rest for a little while. Part of the reason that so many people find that structured language classes often fail them is because they feel trapped. Many of us – myself included – perform at a lower level when we’re forced into something.

I often find that after a day (or maybe two) away from my language learning project, I experience more success and a renewed sense of accomplishment upon returning.

Without proper motivation it’s extremely easy to see our language projects fall apart before our eyes. We become disillusioned with language learning and may find it harder to get back in the saddle with future projects as well.

As I stated previously I have just begun a brand new language project: Japanese. Much like Korean, Japanese will undoubtedly pose many of the same issues I faced before, especially the fact that rather than one bizarre new writing system I get to learn three at the same time! (Hirigana, Katakana and Kanji.)

One day I would like to return to Korean, but for now I’m going into this one with my head held high


and with a far more refined sense of purpose. I’m looking forward to writing more on the subject in the weeks and months to come!

What inspires you to choose your language projects? How do you keep yourself motivated? Leave a comment!

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Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • Indeed! Unfortunately my time machine is the shop.

    Thanks for reading and for your comment!