Language coaching your interested but unmotivated partner/spouse

On this forum, I’ve seen very interesting conversations about how to help friends or even your kids learn languages. I’d like to expand this to the idea of motivating one’s partner or spouse to see if anyone can think of strategies. The challenge: coaching someone interested but not self motivated to learn a language you don’t speak yourself!

My wife is bilingual in English and French and really quite talented with languages, but never motivated to push past brief exploration. For various reasons, I know she would love to be more serious about Wolof (friends and work in The Gambia every couple of years). She has rudiments of it, but unlike me and many people at this conference, learning languages is not her natural idea of spending her free time. Now, I have spent very short periods exploring Wolof for fun before trips and have some good materials, but I really know nothing besides a few greetings (and greetings routines are insanely fun, by the way).

I’ve been wondering how I could come up with some sort of sneaky lesson plan, even at the rate of 10 minutes a day, to get her to make progress slowly but seamlessly. I think @Tetsu’s ideas regarding kids and the importance of the emotional environment could apply here.

I thought I’d start this thread in case anyone else is interested in the topic. I should make clear that it’s not about forcing someone to learn something they’re not genuinely interested in. It’s about creating an environment and little system to give a boost that would allow the person to start a journey they regularly regret not taking. Hope this post makes enough sense to start a conversation.


What a great discussion topic! Never thought my comments on the emotional environment could be applicable to spouses, but WHY NOT!? :wink:


Hello Pierre, this is an important conversation topic and I actually planned to write a chapter in a book about it. Last year I attended a Bookology Bootcamp by Gerry Robert famous for publishing motivational and inspirational books, and my idea was to come up with a book showing that you don’t need to be very talented to become a polyglot. Indeed, lack of practice slows down the learning process and the less popular your target language is, the more time you will need to reach fluency. This question requires an individual approach because very often people realize that they don’t need to learn a language in a traditional way from start to finish, but rather concentrate on the aspects they find the most attractive. Let me give you a personal example of my Wolof studies.

I had been surrounded by Senegalese music since high school due to a particular interest in world music, and Senegal is one of the major contributors to the African music collection in the world. Back in the 80-90s, most records didn’t have printed lyrics in the original language, only the basic translations. The abundance of Senegalese music kept me motivated until I went to France for studies and met plenty of Senegalese students in the university campus. The regular communication opportunity made me buy all the books I could find and study them properly within a year. That was in 2005 when more Senegalese CDs had lyrics printed in Wolof. Despite all the efforts, my friends still preferred to use French with me because my Wolof was too academic and very different from the one they used colloquially. 10 years later, in Montreal, I joined an African media founded by a Senegalese journalist from Casamance, and we collaborated a lot with the Senegalese diaspora. I used Wolof occasionally but again, I didn’t feel any improvement because the grammar and the sentence structure of Wolof are very different from most other languages. Even though it was my second Niger-Congo family language after Swahili, and I was totally familiar with noun classes, it didn’t help me much to understand the fast conversations between native speakers. It didn’t demotivate me. I downloaded most books (except the latest textbook by Assimil) and the most recent dictionaries (which don’t always agree with each other) to push myself forward. The next step is to find a native speaker with an academic background who will have enough time to do the drills with me to make myself comfortable with the fast speech and common patterns. Each language has its own obstacles and I dived right into Wolof without preparation simply because I felt a great connection with Senegal and its people. I also joined the Wolof Academy (a group on Whatsapp and Facebook) teaching locals the correct Wolof vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation. They’re planning to publish a more accessible manual of the language based on the data they will have collected from the available sources.

Now back to the initial question how to transform the genuine interest into the actual learning. Even though 10 minutes a day is a popular advice, I wouldn’t recommend forcing oneself to study daily in between other activities. Short lessons are generally not very helpful and you won’t feel being a part of the environment. I recommend building blocks or chunks of information to study at once, from the most to the least interesting. It can affect the learning process in many ways. You can learn the numerals on one day and the most common verbs the other day. Practice those chunks in the familiar environment (family dinner, etc.) for a few days in a row until it gets boring and you can move on to the next chunk. You won’t feel like you’re forcing yourself because the language might become an essential part of your daily activities which you can extend to something more context-related, for example, share your learning experience with a native speaker. It all takes time and commitment but the environment itself is not very hard to create when at least two people are willing to cooperate. I hope you find these tips useful.


Dear Lim, these are some fantastic ideas. I love the idea of the associating study time with existing daily activities like dinner etc. I do this a lot for my own learning and it seems like a good way of approaching the process with someone else we live with.
Great to see your interest in Wolof, too.