Language Learning for the Dispassionate

How to keep going when you're not feeling it

The Passionate

For some people, learning a language is a passion. It is an activity that they could happily do for hours a day for the rest of their lives. I admire those people, but I am not one of them. Like many of you, I like the idea of learning a language in the same way that I like the idea of always eating healthy and exercising every day. I do an okay job of doing those things, but I won’t be running a marathon any time soon or writing a nutritional blog.

Diminishing Returns

If you’ve made it past the honeymoon phase of learning a language (ie, you’ve been working at it semi-consistently for over a year) then you know it can be harder to find the motivation to put the time in every day. It’s not your fault, it’s in large part due to the fact that learning a language is a long tail process. It can be relatively easy to make a lot of progress in the beginning because a large percentage of the words people use every day are made up of a relatively small number of words. As you continue learning a language there is diminishing marginal utility associated with every new word you learn. You may have only seen the word for “spatula” once, but if you suddenly find yourself helping out your friend’s abuelita in the kitchen, it might be a handy word to know. It’s a word that doesn’t have much value until it does.

How Most Apps Try to Help

One way to help with this problem is to make learning a language more fun. Apps like Duolingo do a great job of gamifying the experience. The problem with this approach is it is hard to apply it effectively to learning a language once you start hitting the long tail of the marginal utility curve. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that it’s easier to build content when everyone is starting from the same place.

Langliter’s Approach

Langliter takes a slightly different approach. Rather than gamifying the experience, it tries to mirror the experience of apps you would use in your native language. Rather than force you through guided lessons, Langliter presents you with recent news articles on a variety of topics which you can filter based on your interests. It also lets you read your own books. When you’re reading things that are relevant to the world and your interests, it is more likely you will stay engaged.

Another approach is to remove all excuses that might prevent you from studying. Are you more likely to go to the gym if it is a block away or all the way across town? The act of finding content is passive (Langliter just automatically shows you new articles), so you can focus on actively reading. It also works completely offline, so you don’t have to factor in when or where you need to be in order to incorporate a study session into your routine.


In summary, it is normal to not feel super passionate about learning a language. It’s a result of the law of diminishing returns in action. As the value of each additional word decreases, the ammount of time and effort you are willing to spend to learn it naturally decreases. So whatever tools you end up using, make sure they maximize the amount of time you spend actually studying the language. This lowers the “cost” of learning those additional words or concepts and makes it more likely that you will reach your goals.