How Motivation Affects Your Memory When Learning A Language

Portrait of Camilla Hallstrom for her guest post on Magnetic Memory Method's blog

Check out this guest post by Camilla Hallstrom. She teaches you how to use powerful psychological tools to make finally crossing that language off your bucket list simple and fun. Take it away, Camilla!

Have you ever started learning a language only to find yourself still no better than a beginner years later?

If so, you’re certainly not alone.

Learning a language is often considered extremely daunting and takes a long time.

After all, you’ll have to cram all this information into your brain. For example, you’ll have to memorize new vocabulary, including regional variations, slang, cultural concepts, grammar rules, and numbers. If you’re not some sort of a memory prodigy, you’re in it for the long term – and who has time and energy for that?

But here’s the thing:

The conventional wisdom that learning a language is a long and arduous path is…


Just Plain Silly


As a native speaker of two languages, Swedish and Finnish, and fluent speaker of three more languages, English, French, and German, I can communicate in two other languages, Norwegian and Danish, and I’m a beginner in an eighth language, Italian.

Am I a language prodigy? No way.

Do I have superhuman memory skills? Not really.

Is it in my genes? Nope. No one in my family speaks as many languages with the same fluency.

The key to every language that I’ve learned is that I have learned how to motivate myself to keep on learning and memorizing.

Being motivated to learn a language might sound intuitive, but still, this is one of the most basic things language learners struggle with.

Motivation also applies to learning in general and learning memorization methods that can be applied to other things.

For example, you know from Anthony’s Magnetic Memory Method that there are structured frameworks that can be applied to language memorization.

And if you’ve used the Magnetic Memory Method, you know it works.

Yet, it’s easy to fall back on the same old excuses – you don’t have time to create those Memory Palaces right now, you don’t have time to learn the techniques, etcetera.

So how do you continue to motivate yourself to keep on learning? How do you master those Memory Palaces and learn a new language?

Read on to learn exactly how you do this – once you’ve mastered motivation, there are no limitations to your learning.

(Note: I’ve put together an eBook at the end of this post that will give you 19 actionable ways get motivated and achieve your goal.)


What Does Motivation Do to Your Memory?


Years ago, back in high school, I wasn’t very diligent. German was one of my least favorite subjects. Yet, I had to undertake a rigorous and important exam at the end of my senior year. Everything that I had ever learned in my German classes throughout school was going to be tested.

I didn’t have very much time to revise. Also, I had to take three other exams at the same time. I pretty much gave up at the starting line.

Instead of trying to frenetically revise grammar books and dictionaries a month before my test, I decided to do something unconventional.

Quite simply, I watched my favorite movies, read my favorite books, and watched the news – all in German. I did this for a month and I enjoyed doing it.

At the end of that month, the result for my exam took me by surprise – I scored nationally in the top 20% and was one of the best in my class.

This success happened despite the fact that I had been one of the poorest performing students just a few months earlier. How come?


Don’t Overlook This Little Known Secret:
It Supports All Successful Language Learning


The fact that I enjoyed the way in which I was revising for my test meant that I was motivated to do the tasks I did.

And as it turns out, motivation can affect cognition. In fact, many of those who achieve success in learning a language are highly motivated.

Of course other things play in as well.

When learning a language, your success is – beside motivation – determined by your aptitude skills:

Working memory. Your working memory is what enables you to both temporarily store and process information. Working memory is crucial for our language learning because it enables us to understand and communicate in our target language.

Associative memory. Your associative memory helps you remember associations between unrelated items, such as the name of someone you just met and it helps you connect old and new information. For example, when learning a language, your associative memory can help you build links between words in your native language and your target language.

How strong your mechanisms are for implicit learning. Implicit learning is what you learn without realizing that you’re learning. For language learning, implicit learning means that you unintentionally learn complex and subtle regularities in a language. Implicit learning is common for children, but for adults it can be more challenging.

However, you’d think that my classmates were also motivated. Some of them had been much more successful language learners throughout school – why, then, did I perform better?

What was it that set me apart from other students – those who were diligently reading the textbooks set out in our curriculum?

To answer this, we need first to understand how motivation works.


Here’s Exactly What Motivation Is And How It Works


There are different forms of motivation, intrinsic and extrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation is our internal motivation. For example, hobbies are often driven by intrinsic motivation.

Intrinsic motivation builds on:

  • The natural motivation to direct our lives.
  • Being able to continuously improve something.
  • Being part of something that is bigger than us.

Beside these motivational factors, intrinsic motivation can build on different factors, such as having a clear goal.

Clear goals should be defined goals that:

Have personal meaning to you. Intrinsic motivation builds on our internal motivation. Subsequently, your goal should build on something that’s important to you and not caused by external motivators. In other words, know your why.

Are attainable. Self-esteem is tightly linked with motivation. If you don’t believe that you have the capacity to do something, it’s hard to muster the motivation for it. Subsequently, if you don’t gain momentum, you lose self-esteem for that particular task or goal and as a result, you lose interest in your goal. You need to find the sweet-spot between attainable goals and too easy or unachievable goals.

Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is external. It refers to incentives that come from outside of the individual. Such incentives could be a good grade or monetary compensation.


What Motivates You To Learn A Language?


Intrinsic motivation is key both to mnemonic processes and specifically, language learning. Consequently, intrinsic motivation has a huge impact on how you use the Magnetic Memory Method or any set of memory techniques. Extrinsic motivation, again, has shown not to be as effective as intrinsic motivation when it comes to learning a language.

Some people are naturally intrinsically motivated to learn a language. For example, intrinsic motivators for learning a language are:

  • Learning a language for a trip to a country.
  • Learning a language to communicate with friends and family.
  • Learning a language to be able to read a certain book in its original language, watch a certain movie, and so forth.
  • Learning a language when moving to a country.
  • Learning a language as a hobby.
  • Learning a language to better understand a culture.
  • Learning a language because it appeals to you, e.g., because it sounds beautiful.

Now that we know what motivation is, we can return to why I performed better than my classmates in my exam despite not having performed as well in the past.

I was intrinsically motivated to watch movies and read books as these things are things that I would have done even if I hadn’t had to prepare for my exam. I was preparing for the exam because of an extrinsic reason, but I was able to turn it into something that I liked doing. This gave me intrinsic motivation.

My classmates, on the other hand, were – at least for the most part – extrinsically motivated. They took the tests to get good grades. This, again, isn’t as effective as intrinsic motivation.


What Can You Do When Your Motivation Fizzles?


It’s worth noticing that motivation is not static.

It changes according to circumstances, like your mood and your goals.

For example, if you have a particular task – like I had in my example – you might experience a sudden burst of motivation. The risk is that you lose that motivation once you’ve completed your task.

This, again, can lead to a serious problem – procrastination.


What Is Procrastination Anyway And …

What Makes It So Bad?


Motivation fluctuates. As we’ve discussed, intrinsic motivation has a big impact on your mnemonic processes. The risk is that once you become unmotivated, you don’t take the actions you should.

However, while there are times when you’re not motivated to do something, there are ways in which you can ensure that you continue to work towards your goal. In this case, it’s learning a language and therefore, continuing to create Memory Palaces.

So how do you keep up working on memorizing your target language even when you don’t feel like doing so?

First, it’s key to understand why you procrastinate when you lose your motivation.

You procrastinate because your decisions are processed in two different parts of your brain.

Take the limbic system. It’s a primitive part of the brain. It assesses the instant rewards of any decision. It’s also the part of your brain that makes you procrastinate.

For example, you might decide not to build a Memory Palace, which has long-term rewards, and instead log in on Facebook, which has instant, but useless rewards. By swapping Facebook for memory methods, you immediately do what you want to and not what you should for long-term gain, which is learning a language.

The prefrontal cortex, on the other hand, evaluates long-term gain and processes decisions accordingly. To keep from procrastinating, you should always consider what consequences your action holds for you in the long run.

Of course, isolating these consequences is much easier said than done. However, there are ways in which you can optimize that you’ll make a decision based on these consequences.


Never Settle For Multitasking


For example, you should focus on few goals at the same time, and never settle for multitasking. This way, it’s easier to keep your goal on the top of your mind at all times and consequently, make decisions based on it.

You should also make a plan for how you will achieve your goal. This way, you always keep up with what your next step is. Also, when you’re tired or hungry, your decisions are processed in your limbic system. Sleeping enough hours and eating regularly helps you identify what consequences your actions have in the long run.

Now that you know why you lose motivation and procrastinate, we’ll look at what remedies there are for this in relation to language learning and memorization.


How Habits Help You Achieve Your Goals …

Even When You Lack Motivation


#1. Seinfeld’s productivity secret as a habit-building method

First, by establishing habits, you ensure that you continue to build your memory palaces and learn your target language.

Habits are behavior patterns that are constantly repeated and ultimately become almost inevitable.

For example, you brush your teeth and shower almost by automation.

Even if you feel like not brushing your teeth, you do it – it’s more difficult not to do it than to do it. In this case, you don’t even make a decision, and therefore, you don’t need to worry about the limbic part of your brain interfering with your action. Consequently, you don’t have to determine the long-term reward of your action, which means that it’s hard to procrastinate on your task.

Habits can naturally be applied to your memory goals.

By building Memory Palaces and using them as part of your language learning activities every day and making the process a habit, you keep up the practice.

To hold yourself accountable and make the habit-keeping process easier, I suggest that you make use of Seinfeld’s productivity secret.

Seinfeld’s productivity secret is a habit-building system.

It’s quite simple: get a wall calendar and a red marker. Now, decide the habit you want to build – right now, that habit is building and using Memory Palaces. For each day that you complete the task (more like a game, really), mark that day with a big, red X.

Soon, you’ll have a chain that grows longer and longer. Your task is not to break the chain. That’s the only task – keep the chain growing.

After a while, you have a habit that sticks.

#2. Tiny habits as a habit-building method

Another habit-building technique is building tiny habits. According to Mark Channon, tiny habits are easy, digestible habits that take you closer to your goal – small steps you take to approach your goal.

For example, if brushing your teeth isn’t already a habit, the smallest step you could take is to place your toothbrush so that it’s right in front of you when you wake up. The next step would be to brush one tooth, then another, and so forth.

In this case, you want to learn a language. (And if you’re reading this, but for some reason don’t, here are 15 Reasons Why Learning A Foreign Language Is Good For Your Brain.)

Take the smallest step you can and program your mind to repeat it at a set time. Let’s say you want learn vocabulary in your target language every day. Your tiny habit might be to put paper and a pen on the table.

By making the habit small and specific, you significantly lower the threshold to getting started and in the end, your habit becomes automatic.

If you memorize just one word a day using just one Memory Palace and make this a habit you can build upon, your language learning will skyrocket. And once you’ve done just one, it will be hard for you not to do another.


To Skyrocket Your Language Learning – Find Your Intrinsic Motivation


As already discussed, I used movies and books to learn a language, because I like doing these activities.

Even if I was learning German for an extrinsic reason (getting a good grade in my exam), I was intrinsically motivated to read books and watch movies. Subsequently, I used methods for my language learning that I was intrinsically motivated to do.

In the same sense, when you feel unmotivated to use memory methods and learn a language, you can do activities that you’re intrinsically motivated to do, and that help you reach your goal.

The action itself is already an immediate reward and therefore, you don’t procrastinate on it.

And how do you decide whether the activity in question is worth acting on?

In her celebrated TEDx talk, relationship and career expert Mel Robbins gives a good rule of thumb for these situations.

If you come to think of something and don’t act on it within five seconds – kill the idea.

To take action on an idea or activity, you could make a note of the first step you should take, Google if you can find a certain book, check if the movie you’re looking for is available on Netflix, or check if you can find a language partner online.

As to specific activities you can undertake to learn a language, you could watch a relevant travel program in your target language, read a book on fishing if you’re interested in fishing, keep a journal in your target language if you like writing or play a memory game in that language.

However, to properly use this method, there are a few things to note.

First, you don’t want to overwhelm yourself with a difficult movie that’s impossible to follow in the language you try to learn. This kind of choice will only lead to procrastination.

Instead, you should choose movies and books that:

  • Are easy to understand.
  • A movie or book you’ve already seen or read in your native language (or any other language you fully comprehend).
  • Don’t have subtitles in your native language.
  • In best case scenario, you’ll read a book in your target language and then watch a movie based on it to fully understand the plot.

Second, optimize your activity for memorization and language learning.

Actively apply the Magnetic Memory Method and the use of mnemonics to get the most out of your language learning.

For example, you can pick one of the locations in the movie (or book) – the location that is most appealing to you – and reconstruct it in your brain. Now, build a Memory Palace using words from the movie. Maybe there are characters and other details that help you construct your Memory Palace?

I’ll give a specific example to help you out.

In the movie The Intouchables (Les Intouchables), one of the main characters (a street kid), gets to live in a fancy room in a mansion. I could reconstruct that room in my Memory Palace (or use it as a Memory Palace itself) and then name its different objects in French.

I could add other associations, both from the movie and outside of it. In the room, there’s a painting of a man – now, I’ll remember that “painting” is masculine in French (“un tableau”). And voilà – I’d have a new Memory Palace full of French words.


How To Pump Up Your Motivation And Learn a Language


Now you know exactly how motivation affects your memory and language learning and what you can do to prevent procrastination.

You also know what to do when you lack motivation. The key is to either be intrinsically motivated to learn a language and if not, then build lasting habits or do activities you’re intrinsically motivated to do.

There’s just one thing left…


This is what I want you to do. Go ahead. Get something to write with. I promise, it will help you.

  • List the language you are trying to learn and why you’re trying to learn it. Are you already intrinsically motivated to learn that language? Are there parts of the learning process that you’re not so motivated to complete?
  • If you need to find intrinsic motivation to learn your target language, you should list 5 things you love doing in your spare time. These should be things that you could do anytime and that are effortless to you.
  • Now, determine how you can use these five things to help you get your memory exercises done and consequently, move towards learning your target language.

Let’s say you love watching Keeping Up With The Kardashians (Don’t worry, I’m not judging you!)

This TV-series is probably dubbed at least in the most commonly spoken languages. You can use that TV-series to your advantage and build memory palaces out of it with your target language (I can also imagine that you could have great fun doing so).

Remember, this method works even if you’re not naturally intrinsically motivated to learn the language, as long as you’re intrinsically motivated to do the specific activity in question.

So that’s it – that’s the secret to how I’ve successfully learned so many languages.

And I know you can do it, too.

Want 19 more tips on how you can achieve any goal through motivation? I’ve put together a free eBook that helps you with just that.

Sound good?

Then keep learning about the benefits of language learning by understanding why bilingualism makes for a healthier brain. And if you’d like to learn multiple languages at the same time, consider these important points before getting started.

14 Responses to " How Motivation Affects Your Memory When Learning A Language "

  1. I’ve always loved that TEDx talk by Mel Robbins. It’s excellent.

    The thing is, you need to re-watch it from time to time for it to stick.

    If not, you’ll return to your old unproductive ways….

  2. Tor Refsland says:

    Great article, Camilla.

    I really liked this sentence: “And as it turns out, motivation can affect cognition. In fact, many of those who achieve success in learning a language are highly motivated.”

    That is so true, and it`s one of the reasons why entrepreneurs who are passionate about their business will often do better than those who are not.

    Have a great day.


  3. Esther says:

    Thank you Camilla for this fantastic article. In the light of what you write, it makes so much sense why I could learned German, and why I did not learn Russian. I was only 10 years old when my parents first sent me to Dresden to friends for a month. And I loved it. During the school year back at home I continued diligently to learn the language, I wanted to impress my German friends the next summer.

    On the other hand I did not put any energy learning Russian. Russian was the synonym of everything evil in my head due to the suffering my grandparents had to endure under the communist regime. When Russian troops left the country, I declared openly in the classroom that I can not be forced any more to learn the language, many of my classmates followed.

    My takeaway is that I should look for that intrinsic motivation in everything I want to learn and make it fun to do.

    • Thanks for sharing your language learning experiences, Esther. It’s interesting how deeply our personal histories are intertwined with how we learn languages. I have a similar thing going on that stands between me and my progress with French.

    • Thanks so much for stopping by, Esther, and thanks for the kind words! Your examples show just how important it is to find intrinsic motivation to really learn a language.

  4. Renan Dias says:

    Great article, Camilla. I´ve printed it for others to read, specially my students. People like you make us keep going. Many thanks.

  5. Agnieszka says:

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Camilla. I absolutely agree with the point you make about self-esteem and self-belief, and their impact on motivation/language learning success. Good to discover 99 Smart Ideas too! 🙂

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