Learning Polish is like mountain climbing: Tiring, but the higher you climb, the better the view. But how do you get the motivation to keep going?

Motivation is a fickle thing.

Over time, I’ve found that the key to staying motivated is necessity. Having a need to learn and acknowledging the consequence if I didn’t did more for me than any amount of immersion ever could.

This post will tell you exactly how to stay motivated learning a language – any language – with a heavy emphasis on Polish (for obvious reasons). It will also point out five things which might demotivate you on your language learning journey.

Read on to find out why I’ll never stop learning Polish and why you shouldn’t either.

Necessity – the key to staying motivated

The key to staying motivated to keep learning Polish is making sure that you have the following two things:

  1. a need to learn some Polish
  2. a consequence if you don’t learn some Polish

This not only makes sense, but it’s even backed up by research. A 2008 study entitled “Workaholics and Drop Outs in Organizations” in fact. It found that people would rather not lose something than gain something. Because humans by nature are loss averse, we’d prefer to avoid a negative outcome (e.g. getting punched in the mouth) rather than gain a positive one (e.g. being given a chocolate bar).

The sad reason that I started learning Polish

This loss aversion can even be seen in my personal reasons for learning Polish in the first place.

I was invited to Ola and Anthony’s wedding in Wrocław since my then-girlfriend (now wife!), Anna, was Ola’s maid of honour.

At that point, my entire knowledge of Poland was constructed solely of hearsay that I’d heard growing up in England. I didn’t even know where Poland was on a map, so you could have told me anything and I’d have believed you.

Sadly, one rumour that I kept hearing was that Polish people were “racist” and “don’t like black people”. Considering I was dating a Pole at the time and I’d been invited to another Pole’s wedding, I knew that couldn’t be true. I also didn’t know that Poland had two black politicians at the time, John Godson and Killion Munyama.

Regardless, I thought that I had better equip myself with the resources to get myself out of a sticky situation should it arise.

The first thing I did was buy a phrasebook. I wanted to be able to get hold of the police, get to the hospital or find the British embassy if I needed to. In short, I learned anything and everything that would get me out of trouble should a pitchfork-wielding gang chase me out of town.

My impression was that not many Poles spoke English, particularly those who grew up in communist Poland, so I thought I’d struggle to communicate.

Suddenly, I had a need to learn (being able to buy food, check into a hotel or ask for a translator) as well as a consequence if I didn’t learn (being beaten up by an angry mob of racists).

The angry mob didn’t actually exist, by the way, but the fear in my mind was enough to keep me motivated!

Needs and consequences

Ever since then, my entire learning journey has been driven by needs and consequences:

  1. Need: Learn enough Polish to make small talk with Anna’s family.
    Consequence: Sit in silence for the duration of every trip to Kraków, waiting for Anna to translate everything.
  2. Need: Be able to communicate with my language partner. Consequence: The awkwardness of having a random Polish person stare at me on Skype for half an hour while I search for words.
  3. Need: Speak Polish well enough to get married in Poland. Consequence: Fork out hundreds for a sworn translator to appear at my wedding, simply to check that I’m aware that I’m getting married.

Your need could be as simple as “understand what Cleo is singing about in her song”. A consequence could be as weak as “not knowing what Cleo is singing about in this song.” However, the greater the need or the worse the consequence, the more motivated you will be to succeed.

Why immersion doesn’t cut it

When people talk about immersion being the best teacher, it’s not immersion they’re talking about. Oh no – it’s necessity.

It’s simple. Imagine you live in Poland and have Polish TV and Polish radio and a Polish speaking boss and Polish speaking customers. If you don’t speak Polish, you’re not going to get very far.

The real reason why people do so well in immersive environments is simply because they have no choice. Unless they spend all of their time speaking the language(s) which they already know, they’re forced to learn to speak the new language in order to live.

It’s pretty easy to stay motivated learning a language when you need it to put food on the table.

What motivates you?

What’s motivating you to learn to speak Polish? What’s your need and what’s your consequence?

Nowadays, the biggest need and consequence that keep me motivated to speak Polish are my future children. Unlike me, they will be native Polish speakers.

To make sure that they are and since my wife and I don’t live in Poland, our home language will have to be Polish so that they get enough exposure.

If I don’t speak Polish as well as encourage them to speak it, I’ll be robbing them of an opportunity to learn the language. It would also take away the chance to connect and communicate with their mother’s side of the family.

If they can’t speak Polish, they could not only miss out on a vital part of their identity, but also their history. I personally know second and third-generation Poles who cannot speak the language and they’re devastated. I don’t want that on my conscience.

When you can identify a suitably strong need and a significantly scary consequence, you too will be driven to succeed.

Five things that will demotivate you and how to beat them

You’re likely to come across the following five demotivators at some point in your language journey. Don’t let them kill your motivation. Here’s what they are and how to get around them:

  1. People who talk really fast. Just ask them to talk slower and/or get them to write things down.

    Personally, I used to just let people talk as fast as they wanted while I’d listen out for the words which I did understand. If I couldn’t guess what they were saying the first time around, I’d ask them to repeat themselves.

    Over time, I realised that they weren’t speaking fast at all, I just hadn’t learned enough Polish to understand them.
  2. Not being able to understand anything. It’s not rocket science: The less Polish you’ve learned, the less you’ll be able to understand.

    Simple solution: Pick a few words that you don’t know and learn them in context. That’s what I did, using computerised flashcards.

    Over time, you’ll understand more and more until eventually, one day, you’ll comprehend everything. You just have to keep going!
  3. Not knowing how to say something in Polish. It’s annoying but it happens. Either act it out or phrase it differently.

    Embarrassingly, I didn’t know the Polish word for “turban” during a language exchange, so I said “blanket that people from India put on their head”. My partner instantly knew what I was talking about and told me what the correct word was. It turns out that the Polish word for “turban” is “turban”. Instant facepalm moment.
  4. Not feeling like you’re getting anywhere. Keep track of your ongoing process. You could post on Facebook, Twitter or even start your own blog. (If you do, let me know!)

    Personally, I started keeping a log of my conversation exchanges in an online spreadsheet so that I could see my progress and so that others could see my progress.

    It not only shows how many Skype calls I’ve had, but also how many hours I’ve been speaking in Polish in them.

    Any corrections that I receive or interesting words that I hear, I write down while I’m on Skype. Afterwards I add any useful ones to Anki so that I can study them later.

    Having a log like this is important, because you can easily keep track of progress. It’s hard to feel like you’re not getting anywhere when the numbers only ever go up!

    You don’t need anything as comprehensive as my log though. Anything simple will do!
  5. You will lose all motivation and want to give up. Scale back your learning. Do less Polish, but do some Polish.

    If you’re currently learning 20 sentences a day, try 15. Maybe even 10 or 5.

    Find something that you enjoy doing in English and do it in Polish instead. That could be watching TV, reading the news, listening to music – anything. As long as your progression never stops, you will inevitably learn the language. After all, the one way to ensure that you don’t learn Polish is to give up.

My motivation

I’ll never stop learning Polish – and you shouldn’t either I’ve wanted to quit on several occasions.

In fact, I actually did quit learning Polish twice and then started back again.

Why did I start again? The consequences were too great.

Now, I’ve been welcomed into a Polish family – as an equal, not as an outsider. I’ve managed to connect with Polish people in their language and do things that I never thought were possible. I want you too to experience the joy that I have felt.

A year from now, you’ll be glad you started today. Pick something that you want to do (or better yet, something that you need to do) in Polish. Once you acknowledge the consequences of not learning the Polish required to do it, you too will be too driven to fail.

If you really can’t think of a consequence, make one yourself. You can even put money on the line using an accountability website like stickK. Although I haven’t used that website myself, I’ve found that putting money on the line really helps with motivation.

I once promised Anna that I’d go a whole day speaking in Polish. Not even a single word in English.

If I couldn’t do it, I said I’d give her 500 zloty solely to buy make up.

How’s that for motivation? Not only did I have an eager referee, but with 500 zl on the line, there was absolutely no way I could slip up. (I didn’t.)

Don’t just study Polish, use it too

One thing to always remember is that Polish isn’t a book, an audio course or a weekly lesson – it’s a living, breathing language.

Polish is a tool for communication between human beings. The more you use it as such, the better.

When you first speak Polish for an hour, you realise that – with the right motivation – you could probably speak Polish for two hours. Maybe a whole day. Perhaps a week. Possibly forever.

A journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step. Just make sure that you keep stepping.

Summary

To stay motivated to learn Polish, you have to identify a need to learn some Polish – a goal that you want to achieve, a person that you want to speak to or something that you want to understand – and a consequence if you don’t learn it.

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