Motivation more important than technology

A new Youtube video from Steve:

Now of course he’s got a point. In many ways the internet has caused a massive explosion of language learning opportunity and potential. No doubt it could be even better still in some of the ways he suggests - such as having broadcasters make transcripts and mp3s available for download, etc.


But I’m also going to call Steve out for BS here.

Most of the languages that he learned (including the ones he knows best) were learned by him decades ago - long before the internet was a thing.

In my opinion the horror filled saying about the future The bomber will always get through - Wikipedia applies retrospectively too - at least as far as Steve Kaufmann is concerned!

Internet or no internet, transcripts or no transcripts, Steve was always going to find a way through - because he has motivation, iron-hard discipline and superhuman mental stamina!

Motivation is key. Only the motivated will succeed. The internet just makes their ride a little easier.

There’s no doubt that motivation is crucial, but my experience suggests the value of the internet is also. I am now making rapid progress in learning Italian and also learning photography, both of which I tried many times before. In photography, it’s not just the internet but the arrival of the digital SLR that has made my progress possible (I didn’t have a darkroom in the old days), but it’s also that I can follow fabulous teachers online, take classes, ask questions and get rapid answers–and even increase my motivation through contact with others like me who are passionate enthusiasts. As for learning Italian, which I compare to the process of learning French, which I did in college and also by living there for two years, the internet has enabled me to make the very same progress in less time and with so much less aggravation to my impatient soul. So I’d say it’s 50/50, but if you have motivation to learn a language in this day and age, you’ll be able to maximize it in a way you couldn’t do before.


I tend towards praising the internet for making things possible. I’m a maniac when it comes to learning new things, which is what drove me to learn Russian and Serbo-Croatian. Now this mania has driven me to buy a guitar, a mandolin and a Russian string instrument called “domra”, which is basically a mandolin and which I bought from Romania because for some reason there aren’t too many good domras on ebay. The internet enables me in my “insanity” and if it wasn’t for it I probably couldn’t have told people today that I haven’t had my TV turned on for over a year. I’d probably watch TV instead, which would be… sad? Still, if you want it badly enough you’re doing it, though It might be difficult without the internet and take you a lot of time.

A domra is great for Red Hot Chili Peppers: Любовь — Задание на лето - YouTube Ужас какой! ))

And it’s not a matter of motivation vs. technology, it’s motivation + technology. The former is absolutely essential. The latter is a great enabler for us lesser beings.

“And it’s not a matter of motivation vs. technology, it’s motivation + technology.”

Well put, @khardy!

Isn’t it what Prinz_Skjegg meant? :confused:

The internet just makes it quicker.

I can’t imagine trying to do it 20 years ago when i had no internet.

Now, i can get a multitude of languages in any format at my fingertips for free. If i need to hear a phrase again i can press < and it jumps back 5 seconds. I can slow it down. Speed it up. Listen over and over. I can get a dictionary definition in seconds without leafing through anything. I can get word lists. Translations. Google helps with idioms and phrases that aren’t obvious. I can watch live TV from other countries. I can speak to people in other countries without going there. I can get apps. Flashcards. Grammar explanations on tap. I can get a tutor without leaving my bed. I can participate in discussion forums without having to leave my bed. I can write without needing paper and pen.

Imagine 20/30/40 years ago. Glossaries. Rewinding VHS tapes. Little opportunity to use the language locally or at all. Paper dictionaries. Paper flashcards.

Balls to that. Yes the motivated would still succeed as they always have done but with the internet and technology everything should be much faster. Our brain can’t work any faster but it can get more input, quicker, with less time wasted doing things like rewinding or flicking through books to find specific pages or content.

I thought you were linking to a video with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in which someone live on stage hauled a domra out of the background and began playing it in front of the skewed looks and wtf’s of the audience. By the way, I had to check that the girl wasn’t this girl:

Better technology - good.

Internet - good.

But I still say, it’s motivation which is key. Back in the bad old days, learners like (young) Steve Kaufmann didn’t have the internet. They had reel-to-reel freaking tape and vinyl disks! But it didn’t stop them. No, it most likely just filled them with rage against the obstacles - which they re-directed into positive learning energy!

This is, essentially, how Steve learned French, Chinese, Japanese, etc - he drove through powered by white hot motivational energy.


Only the motivated will succeed. Technology’s role is to lower the threshold of motivation level needed by reducing frustration.

Of course, motivation is the key. But… I wish I had the same abundance of native material available, internet and other resources when I was trying to learn English in my adolescence and later in life. I had plenty of motivation. I was studying English in school for many years, then in university and in my free time. So much time wasted with very little return using “old school” approach (grammar drills, very little native input etc etc).

It’s a double edged sword!

The internet is (as I keep saying!) A GOOD THING. It does open up possibilities, it makes things easier. Yet, especially when it comes to high performance learners like Steve, I do have to ask whether it could also take away their “edge”?

Anyone who has read Steve’s little book, “The Way of the Linguist” will know the lengths he went to learn Chinese back in circa 1970 in Hong Kong. I believe he was literally working out Bruce Lee style in a cramped apartment while listening to reel-to-reel tapes in the background. He was writing those badass characters by hand - for hours on end!

That’s the level of iron-hard commitment we need! That’s the level of near-fanaticism that will smash through the glass ceiling that keeps 99.9% of Westerners who try to attain fluency in Chinese right in their place (i.e. as damned failures!)

My fear is that we have things too easy today - almost - and that it can lead to a kind of mental flabbiness.

Steve is (as far as I understand?) more or less retired now, and living in some kind of Golden Oldie bungalow in California.

Okay, so he is logging on with his super-dooper tablet device, etc. He is getting Arabic resources online and expecting it all to come together in seamless digital format, etc.

If he had been learning Arabic in (let’s say) 1980, he wouldn’t have had his cosy feet up like this - he would have been road running while listening to Arabic on a Sony Walkman! He would have been writing Arabic by hand for X hours every day!

Maybe we actually need the pain?

Maybe the pain is how we learn?

I mean, I’m just thinking aloud here. I’m not a Luddite. I like technology. If technology can help me, bring it on!

But is it helping me? Or is it conning me into thinking I can do stuff?

(Example: 10 or 15 years ago I could write German reasonably accurately by hand. But now I have a nasty sneaking feeling that I would quickly feel the ‘Abwesenheit’ of my Macbook’s multilingual auto-correct typing if I tried to go bareback! That’s just one little example of how the computer can make us THINK we can do stuff…)


I agree totally i just think that motivation + the ‘powered up’ way and speed at which we can get tasks completed nowadays is a huge boost.

If you imagine, as a theoretical example, watching a 1 hour long video in say Spanish. You then sit for 5 minutes while it rewinds and watch it again. Online you click and it’s back on instantly from the beginning. For every hour you lose 5 minutes with a VHS compared to a youtube video.

In 1000 sittings of that video, if my maths is correct, you lose 80 odd hours with VHS. That’s not to be snuffed at, especially with a language like say Arabic where 3000+ hours to fluency would mean a few hundred hours literally wasted doing nothing.

Obviously the smart person would do something else whilst waiting for it to rewind but in terms of extra effort and time efficiency modern tech wins hands down.

I also agree with most of this.

I think the easy access to things can make us more lazy, more unwilling to take the harder route.

If you read forums, everyone is looking for the magic bullet. That’s why people ask stupid questions like ‘if i listen first then read, will that be better than reading first then listening !?’ - they’re searching for the magic and there isn’t any magic. Good old hours put in is still going to win now just like when Steve started.

I bet i’ve spent more hours on ‘language learning theory’ and discussion than i have on actually spending time with French. Yet i’ve come so far i can only imagine if my ease and comfort were restricted what i could have achieved.

Rote learning, old style hard graft, hours slogging, it does work. If you can stomach the boredom.

People have always been looking for a magic bullet and technology did not change it. It’s human nature. I do not entirely understand the argument in this thread… Technology is just a tool and a very useful tool. Can you learn a language without technology? - of course! But you cannot learn any language without the right amount of motivation. But do you think that Steve would use exactly the same tools today that he used more than 20 years ago? I doubt it. If the point is that technology makes us lazy. I don’t believe that as it has nothing to do with your personal approach, level of motivation and work ethic. I would even say that technology helps us in staying motivated (available content based on personal interests, different learning methods etc). The only negative I can see is that sometimes having too many choices can be a bad thing too. Many people can get stuck in “analysis paralysis” mode. But I really wouldn’t want to go back in time when there was no internet and I could not find a wealth of interesting content in target language.


I do think that sometimes the way you study is more important than to be motivated. As an example, what about those classic philology students that after graduating are unable to read comfortably, just because the programme of their universities focused too much on grammar-translation techniques? I’m sure they were motivated, those who study this type of major almost always are.

It’s a long video. Please tell us at what time in the video he says that technology is more important than motivation.

“…Please tell us at what time in the video he says that technology is more important than motivation…”

I don’t know whether Steve would agree with this contention?

In his video he is wittering on in general terms about the bodacious excellence of the internet for language learners, and how broadcasters need to put transcripts online, etc. Yadda-yadda-yadda.

Yet - as I pointed out in the OP - he himself learned many languages before the internet even existed (at least in its present form and accessible to the general public.) And arguably they are the languages he knows best too.

So it is MY contention that (while technology can be a boon) it is motivation and hard work which are key.

And I also wonder whether some of the old-school way of learning things - though painful - could have been more effective than just pulling things up on a freaking screen?

BTW I’m just thinking aloud here - I kind of hope there is an App for everything. Some of the hardcore pattern learning I did as a student of German was…well…it was a tough road to tread! Looking back it seems unreal that someone would even do those things. :-0

And yet…

“…But I really wouldn’t want to go back in time when there was no internet and I could not find a wealth of interesting content in target language…”

Moi non plus :slight_smile:

If I had had the internet when I was a little younger, well, I hope I would have adapted my techniques to exploit it to its full extent, yet without becoming completely soft, so to speak.

What is needed is not so much a crude return to Proto-Kaufmannism as a new reinterpretation thereof!

Pound those pavements, but with bluetooth earbuds and micro-sized mp3 player - instead of with a chunky walkman!

Still write stuff by hand - but use an Apple pencil and iPad instead of paper and biros.

Still do old style flashcards - because writing them is actually part of the learning.

LingQ…yeah maybe…but only as part of a wider package.