Issue 4 |

Common reasons for avoiding language study and what can be done about them

by on September 1, 2015

We live in a world where self-directed language-learning is—or should be—easier than ever before. Apps and programmes such as Memrise, Duolingo, Livemocha, and Mango Languages—many of them free or with free components—beckon from our smartphones and computer screens, promising to cater to diverse learning styles and delivering lessons in everything from Armenian to Zulu, various sign languages, and even Klingon! Gone are the days of thumbing through that dusty, out-of-date “Teach Yourself” book full of dry grammar lessons and endless written exercises; instead, language-learning has been overhauled into something fun, hip, accessible, and applicable to daily life. Now, we can tailor our French lessons to focus specifically on wine and cheese vocabulary! We can learn to flirt in German, subscribe to any number of language-related YouTube channels, and practice what we’ve learned with native speakers half a world away. But despite its now-instant availability to anyone with an Internet connection, the study—and particularly the self-directed study—of a foreign language remains a concept that is daunting to many of us. This is understandable, but it can be overcome; the key to doing so lies in re-shaping our idea of what it takes to learn a new language, as well as in remembering to take advantage of the resources that surround us.

Below is a list of five common reasons given for avoiding language study, along with my best advice (backed by personal experience) on how to take charge and overcome them:

1. “I don’t have enough time to learn a new language!”

There’s no way around the fact that successful language learning requires daily—or at the very least consistent—practice. And with the busy, over-scheduled lives that most of us now lead, the idea of adding yet another task to that already-formidable to-do list can no doubt be a daunting one. What prospective learners often fail to realise, however, is that most language-related goals can be accomplished—over time—in as few as ten or fifteen minutes each day. A single Duolingo or Memrise lesson can often be completed in only five minutes—while waiting at the bus-stop or before a class or appointment—and it typically takes just five or ten more to run through a deck of flashcards (whether virtual or paper). So replace a few minutes of Facebook time here and there with the above strategies, or get up a few minutes earlier each morning to make time for language practice, and you’ll be glad you did. Small sacrifices can make a huge difference!

2. “I just don’t think my brain is built for language learning.”

The truth here is that all human brains are inherently “built” and wired for language acquisition—what else would explain the ease with which children learn to read, write, and communicate in their native tongues? When it comes to foreign language-study, however, many of us decide—perhaps due to difficulty in language classes in school—that we simply do not have what it takes to master any language other than our own. The key to changing this mindset lies in two simple concepts: passion and learning style. If, for example, you are a visual learner but were forced to study French in school by memorising dialogues and endless verb conjugations, then it makes perfect sense that you might not have done well—particularly if you had no desire to actually learn French in the first place. The language learning tools available today, however, make it easy to identify a learning style that suits you and stick with it—gaining confidence as you go. Use them to help you cultivate a genuine passion for and interest in your target language, and realise that the joy of successful language learning is available to anyone with the motivation and desire to pursue it.

3. “I don’t plan to travel anytime soon, and everyone in my area already speaks my own language. So what’s the point?”

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that language learning is a pointless pursuit, as many of us do at one point or another. The truth, though, is that there are many benefits of studying a new language that go far beyond its immediate practicality—enough to fully justify spending time on it even if you don’t plan to interact with its speakers anytime soon. For one, the challenge of language-study helps to keep our mental gears oiled, so to speak—allowing us to think in new and diverse ways as we begin to comprehend a foreign communication system and ideally the culture of those who use it. And if that isn’t enough, you never know when you might stumble upon a sushi bar or a Mexican palatería where your Spanish or Japanese skills impress the owners or employees and allow them to better communicate with you. Your next best friend could be a native speaker of the language you’re learning, as could new neighbours, co-workers, or classmates who will probably appreciate any attempt to use their language on your part—even if you’re still far from fluent. Studying a foreign language, in other words, does not have to be a matter of sheer practicality; it can just as easily be one of making human connections while cultivating sensitivity and respect for linguistic diversity. And if all that still doesn’t convince you, the ability to communicate in multiple languages looks impressive on any job application or résumé.

4. “I’m too old!”

We’ve all probably heard time and time again that young children are the most natural language-learners—a fact that might cause us to wonder as adults whether trying to pick up a new language is even worth it. Two easily-overlooked factors are at play here, however, the first being that there is a major difference in the ways adults and children are typically exposed to foreign languages. While the kids acquire language in an interactive manner—using games, bright colours, movement, and stories—, adults have traditionally been expected to learn from grammar charts, exercise books, and other methods not typically seen as appealing. The good news here, though, is that this is rapidly changing; a variety of programmes available today strive to make language learning enjoyable for all ages. Taking advantage of this fact will do wonders, as will simply changing your mindset. After all, if you truly believe that you’re incapable of language learning due to age or any other factor, your outlook could very well become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

5. “It just seems so difficult! Why even try!?”

There’s no denying the fact that language learning can be a challenging and at times frustrating pursuit, especially when it is self-directed. Without the right mindset, it is easy to feel as though you’re only muddling through one difficult concept after another; you know that you aren’t completely understanding them but also aren’t sure what to do to change that. Giving up altogether may seem like your best option at this point, but keep trying! Perhaps take a few days off to remember why you wanted to learn a new language in the first place: this alone could be enough to give you a fresh perspective and allow you to begin viewing difficulties as challenges to overcome rather than impossible feats.

You could also try adjusting your methods to better fit your learning style: if, for example, you are tired of learning from lists of vocabulary and grammatical concepts, you might benefit from supplementing them with music, movies, or television in your target language. Use a website like My Language Exchange or to find a pen-pal who speaks the language you want to practice, or spark your curiosity by learning about the culture of the areas where that language is spoken. And finally, stay optimistic: even the native speakers of a language can struggle with certain aspects of it. Try to remain focused on the bigger picture, and hold yourself to standards that are reasonable for your background and levels of exposure and experience. Language learning should be an enjoyable challenge, so don’t let the occasional difficulty distract you from all the progress you’ve made!

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