What Motivates us To Learn Languages [w/ Thinking in English]

Level: Advanced    Reading Time: 22 minutes    Category: Podcast

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In this episode of the Podcast, I am joined by Tom from the Thinking in English Podcast to talk about learning new languages and how to motivate yourself. Both of us come from the UK but have spent time living in other countries that do not speak English as their first language.




Dan: What’s up, everyone? And welcome to another episode of the DanSensei English podcast where we try and make English fun. Today I’m going to be joined by a special guest, and we’re going to have a chat all about language learning and how difficult it is to learn a new language, especially when you’re in a country that doesn’t speak your language. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce my guest today. It’s Tom from the Thinking in English podcast. 

Tom: Thank you for having me. How are you, Dan? 

Dan: I’m doing pretty well. How about yourself? 

Tom: I’m okay, thank you. I had my COVID vaccine, my COVID booster yesterday, so a bit of a headache last night and early this morning, but I’m feeling much better now and I’m very happy to be on DanSensei show. 

Dan: Yes, I’m very happy to have you here. We’ve been talking for a while about making some podcasts together, and today we finally had the chance to get together and have a bit of a chat about stuff related to language learning. But some people here maybe don’t know about you and your podcast. So can you tell us a bit about yourself? 

Tom: Yeah. So my name is Tom, and during the covert lockdowns in 2020, I started Thinking in English. So Thinking in English is a podcast mainly for intermediate advanced English learners. And I guess my language learning goal or philosophy is to learn in English rather than learn English. Because I think once you get to a certain level, textbooks and language learning apps are not the best thing to reach those really high, most advanced business academic levels. Instead, learning about politics or learning about science or learning about philosophy in English is the best way to improve your vocabulary and grammar.

So that’s kind of what Thinking in English is. I talk about lots of topics ranging from why did the Taliban take over Afghanistan to what is a trade Union? That’s the next episode coming out next week to really anything, lots of politics. So my background is I’m a professional English teacher, or at least I was a professional English teacher for two years in Shikoku in Japan. I left my job in 2018 and I did a master’s degree in Japanese and Taiwanese politics in London. And then I lived in Taiwan for a little bit, and I learned some Chinese, moved back to England, started thinking in English, and now I’m back in Japan. I live in Tokyo and I’m a research student at Waseda University. 

We are both from the UK, but living overseas

Dan: Wow. Quite the journey. So there’s a lot of stuff to unpack there. But of course, people may be able to tell from your accent that you’re originally from the UK, right?

Tom: Yeah, I should have mentioned that as well. Yes. I come from the UK, a different part of the UK to Dan. I come from a town called Milton Keynes, which is about 30 minutes north of London on the Fast train, 1 hour on the slow train.

Dan: That’s great. And you mentioned you’re currently stationed in Japan, but it sounds like you’ve moved around quite a lot recently. 

Tom: Yeah, since the age of 18, I guess. I spent three years in Nottingham for my degree, two years in Japan, one year in London, six months in Taiwan, a year in my hometown, and now back in Tokyo.

Dan: That’s great. And so along this journey, obviously, you’ve encountered other languages. You live in Japan, you lived in Taiwan as well.

What languages have we studied?

Dan: So let’s talk a little bit about your language learning journey. So what languages do you speak?

Tom: So I currently speak, I always like to describe it as I speak pretty bad Japanese and I speak very bad Chinese. But really I’m okay in Japanese. I’m definitely intermediate, upper intermediate in the language. Chinese, I’m very much a beginner. I was quite good a few years ago, but I still try to speak to some people and I can introduce myself and say a few words, and I guess they’re the two languages I know the most of. But I have tried to learn at least four or five languages in my life. So I have a very long language learning process.

Dan: That’s cool. Let’s dive a little bit into that. So maybe you’re like me in England, in secondary school, we learn… I say learn… We take classes to learn European languages. Usually in my school it was Spanish and French. How about yourself?

Tom: Yeah. So I started with French in year seven in the UK. So I guess that’s when you’re eleven. And I did French for five years until the end of my GCSE until I was 16. But like you said, it’s not really learning French. I definitely don’t speak any French now. At school, I also took two years of German classes. German was compulsory, so I had to study it in year eight and year nine. And then when I got to year ten. So the start of GCSE, I had a choice. I could study French or I could study French and German. There was no choice for just German. Right? So it was the choice. Of course. I just took French because I didn’t really enjoy studying either language. Then for two years, I didn’t study any for three years.

Actually, I didn’t study any languages from the age of 16 until I was 19. But I went to for the first time, I kind of left Europe. I left the UK, my first ever plane flight. I flew to Malaysia and I was spent two weeks in Malaysia on a University summer school with people from all around the world, from Amsterdam and Denmark, Malaysia, China. And I kind of realised I don’t speak any languages. I don’t speak anything apart from English. I’m not even that good at English, really. So I thought I need to study something. I want to learn a language. So from my second year of University, I started studying Spanish and I studied Spanish quite a lot for two years, about two years. And then I got a job in Japan and forgot everything. So once I graduated two weeks later, I moved to Japan and stopped the Spanish studying and started the Japanese study.

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What motivates us to learn languages

Dan: I mean, yes, when you’re going to live in a country that speaks a different language, it becomes not about want, It becomes about need pretty quickly. And it turns out needing to speak a language is a pretty good motivator to make you actually learn. When you can’t live your regular daily life because of the language, that’s the wake up call a lot of people need. I think because I was the same as you, I studied for me it was French and Spanish, but I hated it. After one year of each, the teacher said, maybe you should go and study woodwork or something. Maybe language is not for you.

And then I never tried until I came to Japan. I came to Japan. Bear in mind, when I came to Japan, I was 32 years old. So that’s a pretty big old gap in the middle there with no language studying whatsoever and suddenly I came here and I thought I speak English, I’ll get about and I’m sure in Tokyo that works right? But I do not live in Tokyo. And I got here and I was in so much trouble I couldn’t do anything at all

Tom: the same here. I arrived and I might have even been living somewhere even more countryside than you are living because you still are within touching distance of big cities like Osaka and Kyoto. I was in Shikoku, I was in Ehime Prefecture. I was 2 hours from Matsuyama, the only city most people know in Ehime. So I was thrown into this world, this language that I had never even heard before I came to Japan. This is how naive I was right?

Before I came to Japan, I had never heard Japanese spoken. I had never watched a Japanese TV show. I guess I watched Pokemon when I was a child, but I’d never watched a Japanese TV show. Never read a Japanese book or anything. I’d never eaten Japanese food. I just saw a job and I thought they’re going to pay me more than the job in India or the job in Thailand that I applied for. So I’ll go to Japan. They speak English in Japan.

Dan: They don’t speak English in a lot of Japan. I remember watching like the Karate Kid movies, right? In one of those movies they go to Okinawa and everyone speaks English. And then I came to Japan like that movie is a lie. That is not how it works here. But yes, exactly the same.

Why did we come to Japan to teach English?

Dan: And I always joke with people because you get this question as well. I would imagine Japanese people love to ask you too like Dan, why did you come to Japan? And the real answer is I wanted to teach English and Japan paid a lot better than some of the other countries.

Tom: Yeah. Especially for people who are not the highest qualified –  hold my hands up.

Dan: That’s true. I did some qualifications, but a lot of people haven’t. I have some qualifications, and that’s a lot more than some people here.

Tom: Yeah. I’m TEFL qualified. And before I came here, I had a bit of tutoring experience. But my colleagues had never even, I guess, never even seen a child when they were teaching elementary school. Right. I never even talked to a child before. I think there’s a lot of people in Japan you either find people who really love Japan or what they think is Japan, and they came here for that reason.

But you also get people, I guess, a little bit more like Me and Dan, who just wanted a job and a challenge and didn’t really know what they were finding themselves in. But then they end up staying here for what? Dan has been here non stop for five or six years, and I took a gap in the middle. But I’m back in Japan now.

Dan: Yeah, exactly. I don’t want to say that to Japanese people. “I came here because the money is good” I don’t really want to say that to people. I always lie and I tell them, oh, I want to become a Pokemon master or something, some weird thing just to see what they’ll react.

Tom: I’d love to be a Ninja.

Dan: Yeah, exactly. That kind of ridiculous thing that people think about before they come to Japan. But that’s kind of interesting.

What are the biggest challenges when learning a language?

Dan: I just want to circle back to the language learning thing. What have been the biggest challenges you faced trying to learn a language other than English? And this could be challenges from any language.

Tom: So many. So I didn’t really give all of the languages I’ve ever had lessons in, so I’ll just quickly do that. I learned French and German. Spanish. I had five lessons of Hindi, an Indian language. I learned Japanese, which I’m still learning now. Chinese I learned for one year during my master’s degree in London and also six months in Taiwan. I knew the language of the Indigenous people of Northern Japan. I wrote my thesis on Indigenous people, so I spent a few weeks trying to learn a few. I knew words, corrupt it, and that’s about it. And there are so many challenges trying to learn.

I guess I’ll break it down to just Japanese and Chinese because they’re the main ones I’ve spent the most time trying to learn in my life. And there are so many challenges. These two languages English, Japanese, Chinese each have completely unique grammatical systems. English is subject verb, object. Generally, Japanese don’t even use a subject half the time object verb. And Chinese is what my professor used to always call a topic comment language. So just getting your head around that is really a big challenge.

And then you have the different pronunciation systems fortunately for myself and Dan, Japanese and British English has a relative well. Most of the sounds in Japanese are in British English anyway. But Chinese, that’s completely not true. Chinese is a tonal language. It means it goes up and down and flat and rising and falling. I’m tone deaf, cannot speak Chinese very well. And the confidence, right? The confidence is probably the biggest challenge. Finding the opportunity and finding that part of you which is brave so you can finally say something in another language. It’s a really difficult thing to do.

Dan: I completely agree. And this is a problem that a lot of people listening to this podcast probably have.

Biggest mistakes we see from students.

Dan: Being so scared of not being understood or making a mistake or looking stupid in some way inhibits you from actually using the language that you’re learning. And that’s very true in Japan, where we both are especially. You mentioned elementary schools. They haven’t quite learned that yet. They’re still pretty open to trying. But once they get to junior high school, if they can’t say it perfectly, they don’t want to say anything.

And that is so heartbreaking as a teacher, like, no, just try. If you don’t say anything, I can’t help you. But if you say something wrong, I can help it’s fine. And I’m not going to be upset or offended. If you get it wrong, I’m going to understand you.

Tom: Yeah. My favourite students when I was an elementary school and junior high school teacher, especially junior high school, were not the students who got the highest marks, never, because they never talked in class. The students who talked to me were always the ones I wanted to give the best grade, even if their questions were grammatically wrong or used slightly strange vocabulary. I just like the fact that they stood up in class and said something because there were so many kids who were so bright, so intelligent, had so many abilities, and they just sat there and didn’t want to speak any English.

And I taught at elementary school and junior high school, Dan mentioned and I went from what I taught the same elementary school and junior high school, the kids would graduate, and two weeks later I’d be teaching them again at a different school. But the difference within the space of, I’d say about five weeks from their last elementary school class to about three or four weeks into junior high school, it was a massive difference. I almost like to say the kids were broken in that period. They went from being these fun, happy, loud children who were really excited to see me and to practice some strange words or whatever we were going to do in the class, play some games. Then three weeks into junior high school, they were sat down, wouldn’t get up for my warm up games, looked miserable all the time.

Why you need to enjoy learning a language.

Tom: And I think one of the things I’ve learned is trying to put the fun back into learning a language. If you think about languages as something that you are scared of or something that you have to do but you don’t want to do it. Like myself and Dan trying to learn French, you don’t learn it and you don’t remember it. And you actually find yourself hating the classes that you’re taking.

But if you see it as something fun, enjoyable, if you like the way you’re studying, if you’ve got a teacher, you really like a textbook you find really enjoyable. If you have an app on your phone you think is quite a nice way to spend your train ride into work, that’s the best way because you’re enjoying it, you’re not doing something you hate.

Dan: Exactly. I don’t know where this idea comes from. That like studying English and learning language is this big, serious thing. It’s not. It’s like it’s supposed to be fun. I don’t know where this idea came from that it has to be boring or it has to be so serious that you can’t enjoy it because the only language I’ve ever enjoyed learning is Japanese and it’s because I thought it was interesting and I can use it in my daily life to accomplish things that are fun for me.

Tom: Yeah. Same for me. Japanese and Chinese I could use in my daily life. And I had so much fun. Also embarrassing experiences, but a lot of fun along the way, trying to use the two languages in real life.

Dan: And I totally think that that’s the key. If you’re learning a language because you have to good luck. Good luck. But if you’re learning a language because it’s fun and you want to and it’s going to improve your life in some way, you’re going to be fine. Just keep going. You’re going to be fine. 

Tips to help you succeed

Dan: And for those people who are on that journey, the people who are learning English or learning multiple languages, it can be a little tricky if you don’t have a roadmap. But if you don’t know what you need to do to get from beginner to intermediate, from intermediate to upper intermediate, if you don’t have that map, it can be quite tricky. 

I mean, I’m self taught Japanese, very few lessons, and I made a lot of mistakes along that. I learned a lot of things that I did in a really backwards way. So I want to ask you the same thing. Like, do you have any tips for people who are learning English? Like what study tips? What advice do you have for somebody who wants to improve their English?

Tom: I’m asked this question quite a lot in my old job as a teacher, my current role as an English educator through podcasts. And I always kind of give the same answer. And I guess there are two things I always say. One, we’ve already discussed make English fun. But I guess rather than fun, I should just say do something you enjoy. Don’t study in a way that you hate study in a way that you like. If you buy a textbook and then you realize that all of the topics in the textbook are boring to you, maybe take it back and return it and get a new one. Right?

Find something that you enjoy doing in a way you enjoy studying. If you have an online teacher you really like, go back to that teacher. If you find a podcast online that you really enjoy, listen to it and listen to it a few different times. If you’ve got a TV show in English that you really like watching, watch it a few times. Do what you enjoy doing. I kind of watch the same Japanese TV shows over and over again because I don’t enjoy a lot of Japanese TV shows. And the ones I do enjoy, I keep watching because I find myself like, well, I’d rather I enjoy it, then get confused and don’t like it. I guess that’s my first tip.

And then the second tip is study in as many different ways as possible. Having a varied study routine is really important, and this is something that I have fallen down with in the last few years. I think you should have in person classes, language exchanges, use textbooks, use apps on your phone, listen to ebooks, listen to podcasts, read actual books. You can read books for native learners. You can read books for children. You can read graded readers which are designed especially for language learners, and choose a few of these different ways of studying and put them into your daily routine. It’s much better to have 15 minutes a day of English study than 2 hours on a Sunday afternoon.

Dan: Could not agree more.

Tom: Yeah. So when you’re sat on the train, that’s what I do when I’m sat on the train, I’m never sat on the train. When I’m stood on the train. From where I live in the center of Tokyo, I’m always using a Japanese Kanji learning app, or occasionally recently I’ve been trying to read a magazine about Japanese coffee houses because I love traditional coffee and that’s kind of what I do on the train. I spend a few minutes studying.

I also take classes. I’m fortunate. I’m a researcher, so I can use the classes for free at the University. So I take public speaking class, a debate class, and an emotional feelings class. Right. So the only reason I took these classes is because they’re all conversation and they’re all skills that maybe not emotional feelings, but they’re all skills I’m good at in English, but definitely not in Japanese.

Do I need to study for 8 hours a day?

Dan: Well, that’s really interesting that you said a lot of people get sucked into this idea that to seriously study a language, you’ve got to study six, seven, 8 hours a day. It’s got to be your whole life. And to coin a phrase like, ain’t nobody got time for that.

Tom: Some people do. So when I lived in Taiwan, that was my life. I was on a scholarship to study Chinese. I spend 3 hours in the morning in classes. I spend another hour in an optional class. And then I would study myself for three more hours, and then I would go to a night market and say something. Right. So that was my life. And I got really good at Chinese in a very short time. But I haven’t studied since because my routine in Taiwan was impossible.

When I got back to the UK and I started working two different jobs, I would teach English for five or 6 hours in the morning. I take a break, I’d go to a supermarket and work for another five or 6 hours. I’d get home and I’d write a podcast. So I had no time. When was I going to study Japanese, let alone Chinese?

Right. If you can study 7 hours a day and if you’re in the position for it to be your job, I’ve got a friend who’s a diplomat. He’s paid to learn Chinese at the moment. But most people are not paid to learn a language.

It’s something you do in your spare time. So whether it’s when you’re watching TV at night and you put on an English show instead of Japanese or whatever language you speak show or on your commute to work and you read a book or you use an app or in your lunch break and you learn a few vocabulary words or phrases, or you take an English class three times a week online. I think doing a little regularly is much better than a lot inconsistently.

Dan: I completely agree. Ten minutes a day is better than 2 hours on the weekend every time. That’s very good.

Wrapping up:

Dan: Nice. And the last thing then for you today is please promote yourself. There’s people listening that maybe want to learn more about yourself. So please tell them what they can do to find out.

Tom: Yeah. So if you’re interested in checking out Thinking in English or myself, you can find Thinking in English on all podcast platforms. Apple, Google, Spotify, Castbox, Everywhere, Thinking in English or Thinking in English podcast.

You can find me on Instagram Thinking in English podcast as well. I’m trying to get to 4000 followers by the end of the month. And yeah, that’s the main two places. Also my blog Thinking in English Blog, where I put all of the transcripts and some other articles and things online. And yeah, if you’re interested, I’m sure Dan will put some links in.

Dan: Yeah. Just in the comments. If you check the show notes, there’ll be links to everything. So be sure to check out Tom and the wonderful Thinking in English podcast. So, Tom, thank you so much for coming on. It’s been a pleasure. I hope you enjoyed it, too. 

Tom: Yeah. Thank you so much. No problem. Let’s talk again soon

Dan: So, yeah, that was my interview with Tom from The Thinking. So yeah, that was my lovely conversation with Tom from the Thinking in English podcast. I was also recently a guest on his podcast talking about the British accent and slang and all that good stuff. So if you’re interested in hearing that, be sure to check out his podcast and links are in the show notes. So that was my conversation with Tom from the Thinking in English podcast and I enjoyed it a lot.

I was also recently a guest on his podcast talking about British accent and British dialect and all that good stuff. So if you want to check that out, search for him on everything. I know he’s very active on Spotify so go check out his podcast and hopefully you’ll enjoy it.

And as always, I want to remind you that here on the DanSensei English podcast we’ve got a lot of cool stuff for you over on dansenseienglish.com lessons and videos and cheat sheets and study hacks guides and all that good stuff. So be sure to check that out that’s dansenseienglish.com – One more time shout out to Tom for coming on the show. Really enjoyed it and that’s it for today, this podcast and I’ll catch you in the next one.


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