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Key to Korean #7: Check your Motivation, it’s what drives you

Why do you want to learn Korean?

Is it to get a girlfriend? To get a job in a Korean company? To go to school in Korea? To pass an exam? To speak with your in-laws? To understand Kpop?

Chances are, if one of these is your primary motivation to learn Korean, then your progress will be slow at best – but if all of them are driving you to learn Korean, you’ll pick it up much more quickly.

Turns out that MOTIVATION is the primary key to language learning (that’s why I post about motivation twice per week on this blog – Mondays and Fridays). Your second language ability will only ever be as good as your motivation is. If you are deeply moved and inspired by the language (and all aspects of the language), you’ll pick it up quickly. But if your motivation is superficial, your practice that language will be too – and we all know you never learn anything new without practicing.

A motivational TEDx Talk

I recently stumbled upon this video by Benny Lewis about Hacking Language Learning where he discusses motivation for learning a language. He says:

What I found is…the reason those polyglots are learning the languages is that they’re passionate about that language. They’re passionate about the literature, and the movies, and being able to read in the language, and of course to use it with people. And when I changed that priority – of being able to use the language with people – then I was able to learn the language myself.

Benny is a self-declared language dunce. But he now speaks at least 11 languages! So, how did he do it? By becoming passionate about the languages he’s learned and everything those languages encompass in their various cultures.

My native-English-speaking Japanese friend

When I went to university, I met a variety of international students. The majority of the students I met had little conversational English ability when I first met them. Most of them seemed rather quiet and shy, not speaking much, and trying too hard to speak perfectly when they did speak. This is the way most of us try to speak a second language. We’re afraid of making mistakes, so we keep our mouths shut until we are confident we will say the right thing, perfectly.


But one Japanese friend I met named Daisuke absolutely destroyed my concept of international students of English. He was nothing like the quieter students I’d met. He was bold and boisterous and spoke English fluently – idioms, slang, and allwithout any noticeable accent. 

Dai was a transfer student, so he’d been immersed in English-speaking environments for a while. But he was so good at English that I literally thought he’d either been born in America or had some supernatural talent for it.

When I asked him how he’d gotten so good at English, he admitted that the beginning wasn’t pretty. He’d been to England for a while and had spoken horrible English at first, but after many mistakes and many years, he’d finally gotten good at it.

What drove Daisuke?

Funny thing is, most international students see English as a tool to use to further their educations. So they work hard academically in English to write better papers and get better grades. Dai was different. He was an excellent student (straight A’s from what I remember), but he hardly paid attention to academically improving his English. In fact, sometimes the academic aspects of English got in the way of his true passion: the creativity and expressiveness of English.

Dai was a Communications major, and he was most passionate about 6 things:

  1. Producing radio shows
  2. Rock and roll
  3. Star Wars
  4. Movies (blockbusters and cult classics)
  5. Pop culture
  6. Japanese Anime

His room was filled with toys, models, posters, and props from his various passions. When he produced radio shows (as part of his coursework), he liked to add various sound effects from those passions and play rock and roll music. His brain was a literal encyclopedia of the greatest American and British music over the last 50 years (he introduced me to Johnny Cash and Muse). And when he spoke of the music, he did so with all the pride and passion of someone who’d grown up listening to it and being part of that culture.

Why was he successful with English? Because he was deeply passionate about certain aspects of it, and he spent a good deal of his free time investigating those passions and using English in ways related to those passions (like jamming with other musicians, going to parties, singing karaoke, and so on).

What drives you?

When I was learning German in high school, I thought it was cool to find German rock bands like Rammstein and be able to understand what they sang.

When I was learning Chinese, I was passionate about Chinese music, Kung-fu movies, Chinese writing, and traveling to China. Those passions helped me pick up the language more quickly and focus my study on those aspects of Chinese.

When I was learning Japanese, I was passionate about Japanese rock and Japanese animation. Those passions kept me listening to Japanese longer so that when I started speaking, I didn’t have much of an accent.

Now that I’m learning Korean, I’m passionate about Korean rock and roll, design, technology, and Running Man.

I think I can finally understand Daisuke’s passion. Now that I’m learning some of the history of Korean rock and roll, I feel pride in the music and a desire to get deeper into the language so that I can share at least that part of this culture with the natives.

So, what drives you? Rock and roll is the single thread through all of this that drives me. If I ever choose to pick up another new language, I know right where to start.


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4 thoughts

  1. Because I spoke English and had my computer crash, I could meet you. Without those things, I would have been lonely and with a comuputer full of viruses!!


    1. Right. And I remember pulling the whole Toshiba laptop apart piece by piece down to the DVD drive. それはその後壊れていた?(Was it broken then?) Geez, gonna have to brush up on my Japanese too for someday when we come visit you.^^

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