Studying English can be a frustrating experience. It takes a lot of effort, time, and sometimes you struggle to improve. How can you stay motivated? Listen to the rest of this episode to find out!  

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I’m sure every single person listening to this podcast right now has struggled with motivation before. Perhaps you have felt unmotivated to learn English – becoming fluent might seem too difficult a task. What is the point of studying if you are never going to be able master English?

Motivation is not just required for learning a language. We need motivation when we search for a new job, start a new hobby, or try to make our own business. I need motivation everyday to write and record episodes for Thinking in English.

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What is motivation?

What is motivation? Motivation is a reason, or reasons, for acting and behaving in a certain way. It is what makes you do something – the reason why you act. Sometimes motivation is easy to find – when you drink a glass of water your motivation is to stop being thirsty. Most people’s main motivation to work is so they can get paid, buy food, pay their rent, and live comfortably.

Sometimes motivations can change. Let me give you an example. What was my motivation to learn Japanese? First, it was survival or necessity. I needed to learn the language. I moved to rural Japan, where no one spoke English, and I needed to learn Japanese to make my life easier.

After two years I left Japan… but I kept studying. What was my motivation now? I didn’t need to learn Japanese for survival – I was in London where everyone spoke English. Instead, I was motivated by a love of learning languages and a hope I could use Japanese in my future career.

However, this motivation, this reason for learning a language, wasn’t as strong as when I first started studying. I went from studying 7 days a week in Japan to studying once or twice a week. I just didn’t have the motivation anymore to dedicate all my time to studying!

I’m not alone in struggling to find the motivation to study languages. Learning English, or any other language, takes a lot of time and effort. It is not a quick process. And you may feel like you are not improving despite studying every day! In fact, you might even feel like learning English is something that you can’t control – perhaps you feel as though you are naturally bad at learning languages, or that your teachers are not very good, or that the textbooks you use are terrible.

This is wrong. And I’m going to tell you why.

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How to Stay Motivated?  

There are probably hundreds of articles and podcasts about motivation for English learners out there. And they probably give you advice on how to stay motivated: perhaps remember why you started learning English or reward yourself when you achieve something. And this is good advice!

But it doesn’t address the main problem people face: the main reason people struggle with motivation. So, I decided to read a few psychological studies and papers to understand motivation at a deeper level. And one concept stood out – the locus of control.

An Interesting Experiment

In 1998, Professor Claudia Mueller of Columbia University in New York conducted a study on a group of elementary school students. She gave a large group of fifth grade students some puzzles to solve individually – just by themselves. The puzzles were difficult, but every single child was told that they did better than most other students (even if they didn’t).

However, while all of the students were told that they did well… they were not told the exact same thing. Half of the students were told that they did well because worked really hard. And half of the students were told that they did well because they were naturally clever, gifted, and talented.

After they were told this information, the children were given more puzzles: easy ones, medium level ones, and some very challenging puzzles. The Professor noticed something very interesting. Can you guess what she found?

The children who were told that they were successful because they were naturally talented, gifted and intelligent spent most of their time solving the easy puzzles. Most of them didn’t try to solve the challenging puzzles, and overall they spent less time trying to solve the puzzles than before. They showed less signs of motivation (as they were not working as hard or for as long), and after the experiment these children revealed that they did not enjoy the tasks.

On the other hand, the students who were told that were successful because they worked hard spent most of their time working on the difficult puzzles. Compared to the “naturally gifted group,” these children spent far more time trying to solve all of the puzzles – a sign of increased motivation. Furthermore, they also said that they enjoyed doing the challenges.

In summary, the children were all told that were successful. Half were told that they were naturally clever and talented: these children went on to show less effort, motivation, and enjoyment in puzzle solving. The other half were told that they were really hard working: these children went to put more effort into tasks, show more motivation, and enjoy the challenges. So, what can we learn from this?

Locus of Control

In psychology there is a concept called the “Locus of Control.” In simple terms, this describes how much you believe you control your own life.

Half of the children were told that they were successful because they were naturally gifted. This is what is known as an external locus of control. An external locus of control is something you cannot control, something you cannot change. For example, you cannot control whether or not you are naturally gifted or smart. These children believed that their success was due to something they had no control over.

The other half of the children were told that they were successful because they were hard working. This is what is known as an internal locus of control. An internal locus control is something you can control, something you can change. For example, you can change how hard you work, how much time or effort you put into something. These children believed that their success was due to something that they could control.

The children who had an “external locus of control,” who believed that they were successful due to their natural intelligence, showed less motivation. When they encountered a problem that was difficult or challenging, they quickly gave up as they saw their success as linked to their intelligence. If they couldn’t solve something it was because they were not naturally talented enough – and as they had no control over this, they gave up.

 The children who had an “internal locus of control,” who believed that they were successful due to their hard work, showed more motivation. When these children encountered a problem that they struggled to solve, instead of giving up they worked harder. And this was because they saw their success as something they could control.

The Locus of Control and Motivation

Countless studies have found that the key to motivation is having an “internal locus of control.” To feel motivated, you must always feel as though you control life and that you, and you alone, are responsible for what happens in your life.

With an internal locus of control, when something successful happens you believe it is because of your own approach and the amount of work you put in. And when you experience failure, you will believe it is your own fault and only your fault. Perhaps you’ll think things could be different if you worked hard, made different decisions, or changed your approach.

Basically, with an internal locus of control you take responsibility and accountability for your own actions. People with an internal locus of control tend to have greater expectations for themselves as they believe that they control the path of their lives. Rather than luck, only hard work can bring success. This also contributes to having a greater level of motivation.

Why is there a greater level of motivation? Because you believe things can be changed! Hard work, good choices, actions, decision, effort, and dedication can alter your life. Failing or mistakes are due to your own actions – which is great because you can change those actions and improve next time!

The opposite is true for people with an external locus of control. With an external locus of control, success is seen as something fortunate, due to factors you can’t control, or because there is some natural unchangeable problem. Luck or timing is often given credit for achieving something. Situations seem fixed and impossible to change.

The outcomes in your life are not due to your own actions. Instead, things like luck, genetics, circumstances, other people, or fate are the reason why you are successful or unsuccessful!

Now, of course it is important to acknowledge that there is not a neat dividing line between the internal and external. Some things are obviously controlled by yourself, other things obviously by outside influences. If you are going to catch a plane for vacation, but there is a storm outside meaning you can’t fly, then no matter how hard you try external factors are going to stop you flying.

And if you have positive influences in your life – a supportive family, good school, money, natural ability – then of course things may be easier for you. But without also taking responsibility for your actions then these things will not be enough to make you successful.

External vs Internal Locus of Control!

Think about running a race. You are a naturally talented runner, but you lost the race. You didn’t train enough, and you came last. Why did you lose?

If you have an external locus of control, you might blame the weather – it was so cold and rainy that you couldn’t train. You might blame the equipment – you didn’t have the best shoes. You might blame your coaches – they weren’t giving you the right advice. You might blame your other commitments – you were too busy with work, so you didn’t have time. You might blame genetics – everyone else in the race was just naturally better than you.

Basically, it wasn’t your fault you lost. How can you win the next race? Well, its kind of luck. With an external locus of control, you are going to hope for good weather, hope you get rich so you can buy news shoes, hope your work isn’t too busy, hope your coach gives you better advice, and hope your opponents will be won’t than you.

With an internal locus of control, the reason you lost the race is your own fault. You realise you didn’t work hard enough, didn’t make the right decisions, and were not dedicated enough. How can you win the next race?

Work harder and make better choices. You decide to train every day (even if it is rainy). You decide to change your training method – maybe you get a new coach, maybe you look online to see what other successful runners are doing. You change the way you eat, the way you train, the way you sleep. Even if your work is hard, you still train. The outcome of the race is due to your work ethic.

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What does this mean for English Learners?

To be a motivated English learner, I think it is incredibly important to have an internal locus of control. You need to take responsibility for your own success and your own failure. One of the things I dislike so much is when people say “I’m not good at learning English” or “Learning English is so difficult.” Why?

Well, it is giving you an excuse for failing – you are blaming the difficulty of English or your natural ability for not being able to learn the language. While in a few cases this might be true, most of the time the reason people struggle to learn a language is because they don’t work hard enough, are not dedicated enough, or don’t learn from their own mistakes.

A few weeks ago, I took a Japanese language proficiency exam. I think I’ve probably failed the test, but I wasn’t too upset with my performance. Some of my friends said things to me like “Don’t worry, the test is really difficult,” or “there were probably challenging questions,” or “you tried your best.” But to me none of these reasons matter, because I have always taken responsibility for my own learning.

If I fail, I know why – I didn’t try hard enough. I didn’t study the right way (I have practiced conversational Japanese rather than vocabulary and reading most of the year). I didn’t study enough (I didn’t have a study schedule). I didn’t take enough practice tests.

However, now I know how to change my study habits to pass the text next time – I know what I need to focus on studying, I know I need to spend more time studying, and I know I need to practice more. And this is great because I, alone, control these things!

If I listened to my friends when they blamed the questions or the difficulty of the exam, then no matter how hard I work I will believe it is luck that decides if I pass or not. It is the luck of getting easy questions. And this gives you less motivation to study hard – why study if your success is due to the questions rather than your own hard work?

When it comes to learning a language, you have to remember that it is you who controls whether you will become advanced and fluent. If you dedicate the time, effort, and make the right choices you will become successful.

And if things are not working out or you are failing – that is ok! You know you can change things because you control the outcome. You can change the way you study, find a new tutor, pick up a new textbook, or download a new app. You can choose to wake up an hour earlier to study English, or study on the train, or buy that English book.

With an internal locus of control, becoming fluent in English has nothing to do with being naturally talented or lucky. What is the point in studying English if you think your naturally unable to learn the language? Instead, taking responsibility for learning yourself allows you to stay motivated. You know how to improve – try harder, try something different, and make better decisions!

If there is one thing, I want you all to remember from this podcast, it is this – The key to learning English is taking responsibility for your own actions. Stop blaming external factors for your successes or failings, and instead think about what you did right when you succeed and what you did wrong when you fail. By doing this, you know what you need to do to improve!

How to Get an Internal Locus of Control?

Only focus on things you can control

The first thing is to only focus on what you can control. Rather than spending your time concerned with things that you don’t have influence over (like the difficulty of exam questions or your natural ability), focus on the things you can control (how many hours you study a day and what kind of studying you do)!

In terms of learning English, split your goals, concerns, and influences into things that you can control and things you can’t control. Then only focus on things that you can change! Things like you actions, your attitude, and your approaches!

Always Take Responsibility

Next, always take responsibility. By taking responsibility for things, you can take control of your learning goals. Stop blaming other people or things you can’t control for failures. Even if outside things did have an impact, focus instead on the things you could control and take responsibility for that.

Importantly, also take credit and responsibility when things go right. You are not just responsible for your mistakes, but also your achievements.

Have a Positive Mindset

Rather than thinking negatively, try to always have a positive mindset. I’ve already mentioned this but one of the things I really dislike is when people describe a language as “difficult” or when they say they are not good at learning languages. You are already starting with a negative mindset.

Instead of putting yourself down, you should believe in yourself. Think about what you can do – believe in your own ability.

Reward yourself

And the final tip I’d like to give, is reward yourself! Take control of your learning, take responsibility for your failures and bad decisions, and reward yourself when you work hard or achieve a goal. This is another great way to enjoy the process of learning and teach your mind that achieving your goals is a positive thing!

How should you reward yourself? That’s up to you! Buy something nice, go for a walk, take a break, have a cup of tea, or whatever you like to do!

Final Thought

Today, I’ve tried to help all of you understand motivation. Motivation is such an important thing for English learners. One of the best ways to keep your motivation is to develop an internal locus of control. You should believe that you control your own learning process and that you can change the things that impact your English studying.

If you believe that hard work, good decisions, and dedication are the key to becoming fluent in English, you can work towards this. Learning to speak, write, and listen to a high level is thus dependent on how hard you study, the decisions you make, and how dedicated you are – things that are completely dependent on you!

Take responsibility for your actions, reward yourself, stay positive, and focus on what you can control!

How do you stay motivated when learning English?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

4 thoughts on “How to Stay Motivated??”
  1. When I am frustated and tired with my english studies but not only for that, I try to stay motivated to do something I like to do for example reading an english or in italian my native language, I love reading it is very funny and interesting for me or to watch a documentary or a film can stimulate me

  2. This podcast is really nice. Each time I feel that my motivation (in my learning process) is going down, I come to this blog and repeat this podcast. It has been useful to stay motivated. As Nina said, this is useful for life as well. I always try to share it to my friends haha.

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