Many linguists maintain that personal motivation is the single most powerful force which leads to success in language learning. For a significant percentage of people sitting in ESL classrooms, their job and income depends on them learning English.

To be a civil servant in many countries in the world you must pass an English exam. In Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines, Singapore, Hong Kong, India, much of the Arab world, and many, many other countries, nearly all higher education is taught in English. In some countries entire faculties, such as medicine, computer science or aviation are only taught in English.

Getting the job you want is a good motivator.

According to data published by the FBI, in 2007, they had only 40 field agents who were fluent in Arabic. Apparently, knowing you can keep your job as an FBI agent without learning Arabic takes away the motivation factor. I bet all of the Arab secret police guys speak English.

A lot of westerners living overseas say things like, “People from that country (pick a country) are all so smart. They all speak English.” In my opinion, they speak English because they aren’t stupid, not because they are smart. They speak English because they have to. They speak English because they are forced to. They speak English because they don’t want to work as a street sweeper.

In your country, is everyone over the level of street sweeper smart?

Westerners say, “If my Chinese was half as good as his English…”

First of all, English native speakers have grown up listening to people speaking our language with a foreign language. We are good at understanding them. If you spoke Chinese half as well as he spoke English, no one would understand you. Westerners attribute their inability to be understood in a foreign language to their own inability to learn. Sometimes this is the case. But actually a significant factor is the superhuman ability of English native speakers to understand people with horrible accents and grammar. Asians lack the experience of hearing non-native speakers speak their language, and so lack the ability to understand them.

Another pet peeve is when westerners say, “The people of that country (pick a country) are really gifted language learners. They all speak English so well.” Or “They all speak both of the official languages of their home country and speak English so well.”

First off, if you are raised with two languages, you speak two languages. If you are raised with three languages you speak three languages. Most of my Shan friends were raised with Shan, Thai, Burmese and one more tribal language. And yet, this doesn’t have any bearing on or give any indication of whether they are good language learners or not. In fact, I would imagine they would not do very well in a Japanese class or in my French class in Tennessee.

You don’t “learn” your mother tongue or tongues. Or maybe we should say, they aren’t taught, so we don’t know if you are capable of learning a taught language or not.

As for English, it’s not a foreign language. People everywhere are exposed to significant quantities of English and western/American culture from the time they are born. For most foreign nations, English is becoming a de-facto second language.

So, if you are struggling to learn a foreign language, don’t judge yourself too harshly. You have had months or a few years to do what “they” did over the course of a lifetime.