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No, You Don’t Have to “Work Hard” to Learn a Language

A better way to look at language learning

Language teachers and coaches will tell you that you must work hard if you want to become fluent in a language.

You must read, listen, write, and speak as often as you can.

You have to make time for learning, keep yourself motivated, have conversations without worrying about mistakes, embrace confusion, overcome anxiety, and be patient, persistent, and proactive.

You must also study how the language works.

Grammar, vocabulary, punctuation, verb tenses, patterns, text organization, sentence structure, spelling, syntax.

You can’t master a language in 30 hours. You can’t master a language in 300 hours. You’ll master a language only after years and years of hard work.

Read that again.

YEARS AND YEARS OF HARD WORK.

The formula is: hard work + time = mastery

I disagree.

I’ll explain why and suggest a more positive perspective. I’ll also tell you how you can adopt such a perspective too.

The problem with “work hard”

A sign that says "WRONG WAY" to indicate that hard work is not the way to go.

I’ve been an English language learner and a teacher for years.

As a learner, I would spend hours doing grammar exercises, reading books, listening to radio programs, and watching clips and video lessons.

I asked the people I had conversations with to correct me.

I would often carry a heavy English dictionary in my backpack to check words. I took language courses and several English language exams too. I studied. I practiced.

None of this ever felt like work to me.

Learning English was a joy. It was fun, motivating, and rewarding.

Completing vocabulary books was like doing crosswords. When I discovered new expressions I would feel fascinated like a kid seeing a new creature for the first time. Grammar rules excited me.

A child who's fascinated by watching fascinating creatures in water
Photo by Charles Tumiotto on Unsplash

This is why I have a problem with the formula hard work + time = mastery.

The definition of the verb ‘work’ is to make efforts to achieve something.

But I never made efforts. I had fun — for years.

So I prefer this: fun + time = mastery.

Would this formula make you more excited to learn? If so, how how can you turn language learning into a motivating activity that doesn’t require you to work hard?

How to develop a passion for learning

Folded book pages forming a heart
Photo by Hush Naidoo Jade Photography on Unsplash

I fell in love with learning my second language. This is what really helped me master it and it’s the reason why I never really worked hard to improve.

How did I fall in love with it? How can you fall in love with learning too?

Some good and bad news.

The bad news is that you can’t force love. You’re either in love or not. The good news is that you don’t need to be in love with language learning to learn a language.

You just need a clear goal — a life goal, not a language one.

I had a clear vision: I wanted to become a teacher of English. I had spent years doing jobs I hated and the idea of working as a language teacher seemed so exciting and fulfilling.

Finally I could have a job that made me feel human and this gave me a clear reason to learn.

Find your own reason.

Why do you want or need to learn the language you’re learning? 

Do you want to travel to a specific country and communicate with the locals so you’ll learn about another culture? 

Do you want to read books or watch movies in their original language so you can appreciate stories more? 

Or maybe you want to advance your career so you can earn more money and send your children to the best schools?

Look at the bigger picture and ask yourself BIG questions:

  • What will this language help me achieve in life?
  • How will learning this language change my life for the better?
  • Who do I want to be and how will this language help me be that person?

When you have the answers to these questions, everything becomes easier.

You won’t just be learning a language. You’ll be pursuing a bigger goal, a vision of the person you want to become. With each new word, grammar rule, or conversation, you’ll be getting one step closer to that goal.

You won’t work hard anymore.

Instead, you’ll be highly likely to enjoy every single thing about learning a language.

Conclusion

Arnold Schwarzenegger became the youngest-ever Mr. Universe at the age of 20 and won several Mr. Olympia titles in the 1970s. In 2018, he was invited to give a speech about success at the Power Weekend seminar.

The following is an edited excerpt of his talk:

“People always asked me when they saw me in the gym, “Why is it that you’re working out so hard 5 hours a day, 6 hours a day and you have always a smile on your face? The others are working out just as hard as you do and they look sour in the face! Why is that?”

And I told people all the time, “Because to me, I am shooting for a goal. In front of me, there’s the Mr. Universe title. So every single set that I do, every repetition, every weight that I lift will get me a step closer to turning this goal into reality.

So I couldn’t wait to do another 500-pound squat. I couldn’t wait to do another 500-pound bench press. I couldn’t wait to do another 2,000 reps of sit-ups. I couldn’t wait for the next exercise, for the next half hour posing and all the kind of things that you have to do to be a champion.”

Arnold never worked hard either.

And you can be the next Schwarzenegger of language learning.

Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. You can find out more about him and his work by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.