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10 reasons why most people fail learning a language

Who wouldn’t like to be fluent in another language? Learning Spanish or Mandarin Chinese has numerous benefits, be it professionally, socially or personally. Many have a dream about speaking another language, and quite a few actually start taking courses or studying from home, but unfortunately, most of those who set out end up throwing in the towel before reaching their goal. This list of common mistakes in language learning is meant to be a help to you, who’d like to acquire another language, but who wants to avoid some of the errors that lead many to give up.

So without any further introduction, let’s start with the first reason:

1. You haven’t dedicated the time to study regularly

clock time landscape

This is why my blog is called “My Love of Mornings.” I get up each day before everyone else in the house in order to study for about one hour. Sure, I get a little tired and my wife thinks I’m weird, but to me, the morning is the best time of the day for studying. Having nobody else to worry about, no stress or nothing else to do, provides the perfect setting for concentrated study. The morning is also a privileged moment for your brain. It’s relaxed and empty for everything that accumulates through the day.

Other than my mornings, I also spend my “dead time” studying. Doing the dishes, riding the bus, waiting for dinner (unless you’ve got to cook!) – try adding up all of these moments during the day, and you’ll realize that you have a lot of time available.

Even if you can only squeeze in 30 minutes a day, it’ll add up to more than 150 hours in one year.You’ll be well on your way!

2. You are studying uninteresting material

grammar book

I sometimes get obsessive with whatever study material I use. “I just HAVE to finish this book even though it bores me to death and I hardly understand anything“. This is obviously of very little use, but sometimes you need to remind yourself. Don’t waste your time with something you find boring. Chances are that it’s killing your motivation, and you’re sure to progress very slowly. What you chose to study should be interesting and engaging. Sometimes it can be difficult to find things that are easy enough and interesting in the same time, but this is where you might “cheat” – read the plot of the book beforehand, read a translation of a novel you’ve read 10 time in your native language. Watch cooking shows and decide that if you can decipher the recipe, you’ll make the dish!

And come see some of my recommendations for easy books for language students

3. You feel that you don’t progress

We’ve all been there. I feel like this all the time. If you really aren’t progressing – try changing your study method, pick up another book, or find some fascinating documentaries on travel or science. Chances are, however, that you are advancing, but that the very gradual improvement makes it difficult to notice. Try brushing off the dust of that book you used in the beginning, and begin to read a few pages. I bet that you’ll be surprised!

4. The words and concepts just won’t stick

Whenever I study I come upon those words. The ones that I recognize because I’ve looked them up tens of times, but I still don’t remember what they mean. This can be quite frustrating, and it can feel as if I’m going nowhere!

One of the reasons that these words won’t stick is, that you’re working hard, but from only one angle. Each time you learn something, your brain makes new connections between neurons, or synapses. Imagine that you’re working with planning the infrastructure around a town. What’s most important? A highway going from point A to point B, or several smaller roads coming in from all directions? Imagine that the town is the word you’re trying to learn, and that the roads and highways are synapses in your brain. One big, fat highway won’t help much if you’re in the middle of a corn field. This is when you’ll make a small pathway, then a road, and you’ll arrive to the town.
In other words, you need to spread out your studies and work with the vocabulary from many sides at once. Coming upon the same word again and again in the same article doesn’t help as much as suddenly hearing that same word in the radio. Attack from multiple fronts, and you’ll get a much better grasp of the difficult vocabulary.

5. You feel discouraged because you have nothing to show for your work

notes crumbled paper

I’m one of those language learners who focuses a lot on input. More than 90% of my study time is dedicated to reading and listening, and whenever I do speak or write, I try to worry as little as possible. Sure, you need to get used to speaking and forming sentences and using grammar, but you won’t learn the language by hearing yourself speak. You need to build a library in your head of words, phrases and proper use of the language, and you learn this best by repeated exposure. When you’ve heard a word used in many different ways, you start getting a natural and intuitive idea about how it’s used. At some point you can hear when something is wrong, like in your native language, and you’ll automatically choose the right words without thinking about it. The trick is to not rush it. Almost all of the learning happens when reading and listening. Actually forming your own sentences is a very insignificant part of language learning. It’s only about activating the stuff you already know. So don’t sweat it. It doesn’t matter if you can’t speak yet! If you are starting to understand, you’ve already passed the hardest part!

6. grammar study and drills are really boring

Why, yes they are! And that’s why I never do them. To me, drills are for testing, and grammar is strictly for reference, not for actually acquiring the language. When you speak English or another language that you know well, you never think twice about conjugation, agreement, tense and so on – you just speak, and if you read a sentence with bad grammar, you immediately notice. The truth is that you learn grammar from experience. You’ve heard it said thousands of times in your upbringing, so you know when it’s right or wrong. Curiously, this also applies to generalized language mistakes. Think about how the English language has evolved in only a generation or two – we still consider a lot of language use as “bad” or as mistakes, but we all make them, because they don’t evoke that knee-jerk response any longer. This is how languages evolve.

Learning a foreign language may be much easier than you think. You don’t need a high IQ or a talent. All you need is patience. People who succeed don’t do so because they master grammar concepts, but because they listen and read repeatedly. You’re not going to learn grammar any faster by doing drills and studying conjugation tables. You can do that as a supplement if you feel that you must, but the only way to really learn, is massive amounts of input. Which is also way more interesting than conjugation tables to me!

Here are 5 ways to go about reading in language learning

7. You lack proper motivation

Now, this is one of the big ones! So somebody told you that learning Mandarin would be a great choice for your career. You want your career to advance, so you take up Mandarin. Don’t get me wrong – learning languages to further your career as a great reason, but it isn’t really as motivating as a passion for the language in itself. Sitting around learning Hanzi characters won’t feel very fulfilling if what you dream about is a better position in your workplace. The key is to make an emotional link with the language. If you’re fascinated about business, try reading about business in Chinese. Or what about looking for a great Chinese blog about sports, cooking or intercultural exchange? If you want to learn a language, the best thing you can do, is fall in love with it, its culture and its people. Let’s take French as an example. French is a language that’s easy to fall in love with. Try imagining yourself as a stereotypically French person. Go buy some cheese – listen to Edith Piaff, read some Moliere!  A language is a gateway to a culture. Each culture has an almost infinite history of art, literature, philosophy and thought. Learning a language is about discovery. It’s like a secret code hidden from you behind the encryption of the foreign tongue. Your job is to decipher and deconstruct it in order to discover something new. Did you know that the majority of people on the planet prefer to drink their water warm? Or that the most common family names are Li, Zhang and Wang? Or that “sacre bleu” is never said in France at all? Or that the real meaning of “Jihad” is to make an effort?

8. You don’t have anyone to talk to

speaking talking

Well, first of all: Do you have to? If your reason for learning the language is to make friends, then obviously, you need to talk to people. Depending on what language you’re learning, there normally is a huge amount of people online who’re willing to speak with you. Perhaps they, too, are learning a language (one that you speak), and could use your help. Many cities in the world also have a great international community. If you’re learning Arabic, then why not try and pass your order in Arabic with an Arabic shop clerk? I bet that he or she will be surprised, and you’ll probably find yourself answering questions from the shop clerk as well as the other clients!

The primary language I’m studying right now is Arabic, and unfortunately, because of the crisis in Syria, I have lots of people to talk to. My primary goal with Arabic, though is to understand it. Learning a language is 90% reading and listening, and with the huge amount of Arabic language material available on the internet, this is easy. If your goal for learning languages is to read books and watch movies, then don’t worry about not speaking it. Speaking is not essential to learning!

9. You rely on a teacher

Most beginning language learners think that the only way to learn, is taking a class. This is wrong.

Most successful language learners are autodidacts. When you study on your own, you set the pace, you study whatever you like, you set your own goals and you have the freedom to close the book, if there’s something you find boring. In a language class, even if the teacher is great and has an individualist approach, you’re forced to follow the pace of the class and the other students. You have to sit and wait while the teacher explains something that you already know well, and depending on the teacher, you may be asked to study something that is ineffective to your advancement in the language.

Language courses are expensive – I once paid $200 for ten sessions of a French course. I ended up stopping after two classes. I figured that my time was better spent learning on my own. Everyone was casually discussing in Danish about this and that, and only spoke some French when the teacher woke them up. The lessons were focusing mainly on grammar and on vocabulary I had already acquired on my own.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for a language instructor in your learning routine, but I don’t think a language can be taught – you acquire a language from exposure to it – if the only exposure you get is a little chit chat for two hours a week, you’re not going to learn it, and you could fill your book case with great books for the money that the course will cost. A language instructor should, ideally, take on the role as a coach. Language classes, at their best, can be discussion groups. The teacher, if there is one, can stimulate the conversation and be a source of native input as well as vocabulary and corrections if some of the participants are having a hard time.
As a beginning language learner, I recommend that you check out the Assimil language learning methods.  The link is for their French method, but they’ve got editions available for over a hundred languages. Assimil is my favorite beginner course, and when you’ve finished the book you can start studying things you find on the internet. Read more in depth how I study with Assimil

10. You’re reading articles like this one in English instead of studying

I’m guilty of this! Sometimes I spend way too much time looking up methods and guides for language learning. I read forums, articles and watch YouTube videos about language learning, and at some point I realize that I should be spending my times studying the language  – not studying how to study! There’s a great community online of language learners, who discuss methods and ideas about language acquisition, but all of this mostly happens in English – so may this be an encouragement to get started! You’re not learning any Spanish by reading this article, so get down in that couch with your Assimil!

Gem

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