Learning a language is like being on a diet.

What do language learning and diets have in common? I’ve been reading a lot recently about motivation and discipline and also willpower. Did you know willpower is finite? And flexible? Sometimes you have a lot of it, sometimes you don’t. Willpower is used to motivate dieters and language learners, but it’s not the best way to do either of these things.

Willpower is not a good thing to rely on because it comes and goes. You know the feeling: you wake up in the morning ready to take on the world, you’re going to achieve all your goals and no junk food today! About 11am you’re firing on all cylinders getting through your list, eating healthily. Then Lunch Time, nice healthy salad, and crossing things off your To Do list. Then the afternoon gets a bit sleepy, and you are starting to get a bit lazy, just one cup of coffee to get going again, maybe a bit of chocolate….  You might find a bit more motivation just before the end of your working day, but by bedtime your reserves of willpower are used up and it’s back to Netflix and ice cream on the sofa.

If there is something you need to do, eating healthily, writing an essay, cleaning the bathroom or learning 100 English words, relying on willpower doesn’t work in the long term. That’s why you end up cleaning the bathroom just before your Mum visits, and writing your essay right up to the last minute, and why you let yourself have ice cream on the sofa in the evening  – because you were good all day.

Discipline on the other hand is reliable. If you create a rule or a get into a habit it’s really hard to break out of that. Think of something that you do everyday, without fail. Brushing your teeth is a very good habit, that most of us do at least once a day, without really thinking about it. It’s just part of your routine in the morning or evening. We are disciplined about doing it.

When it comes to language learning we have to be disciplined. You might be really motivated after your holiday abroad and have loads of willpower to buy lots of books and apps, but six months later, the willpower has gone, the motivation is AWOL. But if you have created a habit, if you have made your practice time non-negotiable –  for example always doing your flashcards at lunch time  – you’re much more likely to be sticking to it.

Make a rule for yourself. If you’re dieting:”I do not eat cakes,” is much stronger than saying “I do not eat cakes until the weekend.” Smokers use this technique to picture themselves as non-smokers. When you start saying “I’m a non-smoker”, suddenly you are. When you say “I’m a X language speaker ” you are. If you make a habit of learning the language, and doing a little  towards that aim then with discipline that cannot be negotiated everyday, you will be a successful language learner.

So dieting and learning a language have something in common. It doesn’t take willpower to succeed, it takes discipline.

Are you disciplined? What rule will you make for your language learning success?


Published by Abbie

English teacher, coach and writer. Helping English learners and teachers get more confident in their skills.

One thought on “Learning a language is like being on a diet.

  1. The title is so true and the post is super amazing. It’s really inspiring and helpful. I loved it so much 😊


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