Some thoughts on language learning and emotions

Emotions can influence the way we learn a language. Positive emotions and motivation go together, but it took me a long time to realise it. Being aware of how we attach particular emotions to our target language is the first step to building a better long-term motivation.

I consider that learning a language is an activity closely linked to emotions. I am sure that there are studies out there that have covered this subject, but I am not familiar with them. I will use my own experience to see how these emotions can be used to maintain our motivation.

How negative emotions can influence language learning

I am not an expert, but I feel that there is a difference between learning a language and learning something else. If I learn cooking, for example, and someone tells me that what I made tastes funny, it won’t prevent me from going on studying recipes. There are things that we learn and stay, somehow, distinct from us. If what I cook tastes awful, I would feel annoyed but not depressed or sad. What is unsatisfactory is my cooking, not me. But when we learn languages, we can’t say “I learn Japanese, but I won’t let it become a part of me.” Languages become closely attached to us because we use them to speak and even to think. If I experience shameful or embarrassing moments while speaking my target language, it is hard not to feel discouraged. I would even feel a mistrust of the language: “when I try to express myself in this language, I experience bad feelings.” This, in my case, tends to lead to a dislike of the language itself.

The most obvious example I can give is English. We spend years reading texts and doing translations at school to finally wake up in a world where most people expect us to speak English fluently. With my absence of active vocabulary, my strong French accent and a general lack of self-confidence, I have soon associated speaking English with embarrassment, low-esteem and shame. English and I tacitly agreed to avoid each other as much as possible. My desire to believe that I could do without English pretty well may have triggered my passion for learning other languages.

Another example is Spanish. I learnt it at school, as second foreign language. As far as I can remember, the different teachers I had during the five years of my learning Spanish were all very focused on speaking. Of course, this is a good thing, but at that time I was shy and dreaded more than anything to open my mouth in front of the class. As a result, the Spanish class was a stressful time, but that was not unbearable.

The problem was one of our teachers’ system. At the end of the month (or was it a trimester?), we had to auto-evaluate ourselves on our attitude in class. We had several categories like “Did I actively participated in class?”, “Did I help to correct my classmates when they made errors?”, “Was I prompt to answer the teacher’s questions?” and so on. For each category, we had to give ourselves a mark. I can tell you that those minutes I spent evaluating myself were so distressful that I still remember it clearly now. It was a time when I was forced to look at myself and admit that no, I hadn’t been active in the class in spite of my good resolutions. I was afraid to give myself more value than I deserved and always ended up equating myself with a bad mark. This system may have had positive repercussions for others, who were active and loved Spanish, but to me, it was only a painful moment of self-depreciation. As a result, I took a real dislike in Spanish and stopped learning it as soon as I could. I hope that one day, I will be able to go back to learning Spanish.

These two examples are not the only ones. But instead of staying focused on what did not work, I now realise that I can use the couple “language-emotion” to cultivate positive feelings while learning a language.

Positive emotions and language learning

As I have no clue how our emotions affect the learning process, I can only start with what I have experienced myself.

Let’s start with English! For a long time, English has been a language that made me feel “not good enough,” and if I sometimes thought that I should do something to improve my English, it was more to avoid embarrassing situations than because I wanted to study English. Now, it has become the language I like and want to master the most with Japanese.

So, what has happened?

Well, it is all thanks to this blog. When I started it last year, I thought that it would be a good idea to write it in English, since more people would be able to read it. It was a practical decision. But then, I began to spend more and more time on my blog, and it soon became a cosy personal space where I like to be. Naturally, the pleasant feelings associated with my blog began to attach themselves to English with the result that I now feel the desire to read novels in English and work to improve my writing style.

Another example is German. When I started learning German, I was very unhappy with my job. It was stressful, I would bring a lot of work home every day, and my stomach hurt all the way to my working place. I don’t know why exactly I started to learn German at the time. I didn’t have a lot of free time, so I decided to wake up earlier to secure at least one hour of study time every day. Learning German soon became some secret place where I felt good, a shelter from depression, something that I owned that protected me from the rest of the world. I quit my job, and things got much better, but even now, every time that I hear German, I immediately feel good.

Cultivate positive emotions

When I was facing my auto-evaluation in the Spanish classroom, I don’t think that I could have fought my negative feelings, because I was not aware of all these mechanisms. This does not mean that we cannot do something to encourage positive emotions and try to ignore the negative ones.

It is hard to give tips because this process will be different for each person. The important thing is to find something that works for you. Nonetheless, having a personal space associated with your target language can be a good start. Seeing how well it worked for me, I now think that writing a blog in your target language is one of the best ways to do it. Not only because it makes you practice writing but because it will create a place that is yours, that you can customise as you wish and that will reflect who you are.

I am thinking of starting a new blog in Japanese. When the idea first came to me, I saw it as a way to practice writing. But now that I see how this blog changed my vision of English, I think that doing the same thing for Japanese may encourage me to study further. As I am not preparing for the JLPT anymore, I feel like I am not making much progress anymore. Sometimes, I don’t even know if I am still studying Japanese or if I just satisfy myself with my current level.


I have always tried to find the motivation to study in mainly two ways:

  • Looking for fields of interests and cultivate my hobbies or passion. For example, I would say: I am motivated to learn Japanese because I am interested in Japanese literature. I would feel that I will never stop learning Japanese because I love so many aspects of the Japanese culture.
  • By setting strategies to stay organised like making a study plan, measuring my progress, setting new goals and so on.

But we all know that having both a real passion for the Japanese culture and a set of learning strategies does not prevent us from feeling a lack of motivation from time to time. Maybe, working on our emotions can help us building a more reliable, long-term motivation to self-study.

My English Notebook

I am reading a book about how to improve writing, Barron’s Painless Writing by Jeffrey Strausser. I realised that I am doing everything that contributes to making your writing “dull” as the author says 😳. I am only at the beginning of the book, but I can say that I overuse prepositions and the passive voice. I did my best to get rid of unnecessary prepositions in this post, and I hope that there is no passive voice at all.