I am often told miracle anecdotes about people who learn fluent Swedish in three months. Apparently, this makes others feel inspired, and it is also concluded that such fast progress is due to motivation. “She really wanted to learn.” As a teacher of Swedish since the last nine years, I am very sceptical to all of this.

First of all, this is not true. Naturally, you may come really far in three months, if you study hard with a systematic approach, and you can definitely make much more progress than most people do. I do agree it is a matter of definition, and the word ‘fluent’ is in itself very blurry. But you could compare that to that a Swedish adult should be able to know 50 000 words to be able to function in society. So just counting words, not grammar, pronunciation, listening skills, etc., this could be a reasonable measure. So 50 000 words in three months? Well, that would mean acquiring 330 words per day. For three months. Most of my students struggle with three words per day!

Added, reaching a high level in listening comprehension (which is the skill that is the most difficult to acquire, and, ironically enough, also the one everyone overestimates their own proficiency in) takes several years, however much you study and consider yourself a natural talent.

For reference, the fastest I have seen someone reach low level B2 (CEFR) is 6-7 months of full-time studies. In these cases, it has been people of nearly psychopathic levels of intelligence, who have invested plenty of time (all their time), energy (all their energy), and money (all their money, I do not know, but I would guess a hefty proportion of it), on first-class training, full time, with really good teachers.

Second, we should be very careful with telling these stories. They may sound inspiring at first, but when you are in the middle of struggling to memorise three words per day, such a role model will not seem very friendly any more.

Last, and of course, most importantly, the whole concept of motivation is misunderstood, or misused.

Motivation will not help you if you are a beginner in an environment where everyone speaks ‘authentic’ Swedish, that is, without adapting their language to you. In contrast to children, adult learners lack that flexibility of the brain to pick up and make sense of a language they are exposed to. Nor will motivation get you far if you are yourself an advanced learner and put in a group of beginners. Willpower will not do the job if you are short on time, sleep, money, or someone who can help you with your homework. However much you want to pronounce sjuksköterska without difficulty, it will not happen unless someone shows you to find that sj sound (try to whisper ooo-sjoo, ooo-sjoo, and you will see).

A long-term goal is too easily clouded by a teacher whose explanations are contradictory, or monotone classes where you get one minute only to try your Swedish voice. Your grand plans are easily crushed during hours of lectures that bear no relevance to your reality.

Motivation is not so much something that enables learning, but rather something that grows from a good learning experience. And a good learning experience is one where you are making perceivable progress. So if you are about to start learning a new language and worry about your lack of motivation, this is not something that should set you back.

Ah, and you want to impress me? Tell me about someone, who, year after year (because let us face it, it takes years to learn a language fully), spends 10 minutes every day on taking notes of a new word, reading a new chapter in their course book, listening to audio files on their level, sitting down with their homework. In fact, this is a much more tangible and effective goal than going from nothing to everything within three months. And, A, if you are reading this, I am truly amazed.