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What holds you back from speaking another language?
Perhaps you tell yourself:
- I’m not good at language learning. I flunked languages in school.
- This language was okay when I started, but now it’s too difficult.
- I don’t have enough money to travel the world and properly learn this language.
- I’m too old to learn a language.
- There’s no point learning a language because so many people speak English.
Do any of these sound familiar?
Let’s take a look at these excuses in depth, so you can break through the barriers that hold you back from language learning and actually get on with learning a language.
“I was no good at languages in school, so I’m not cut out to learn languages”
I hear this one a lot. You studied a language for years at school and never got good grades. Or maybe you did get straight A’s, but shocked yourself at how badly you did when it came to using the language in the real world. Either way, it convinced you that becoming fluent in a foreign language was never “meant to be”, and this made you feel better about your apparent defeat.
The exact same thing happened to me in school, and I told myself the same thing.
I managed to convince myself for years that I didn’t have what it takes to learn a foreign language. The truth is, all I needed was to look at language learning from a different perspective. Once I found the way that worked for me, I realized that my grades in school were in no way related to my ability to learn (and love!) other languages.
Regardless of the subject, you should never use your performance at school as a predictor of your future success or failure.
When Charles Darwin was at school, all he studied was Ancient Greek, Latin, as well as a little geography and history. Science didn’t enter the equation. And he didn’t even do well at school. In Darwin’s own words:
“When I left school … I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard of intellect.”
Imagine if Darwin said, “Well, I’d like to learn about the natural world, but I wasn’t smart at school, so…meh!”
The way languages are taught in school doesn’t suit everybody. As an adult, you can develop your own approach to language learning.
Languages are particularly well-suited to this. There are tons of ways to study languages! I use a variety of methods, and have refined them into a language learning system that works for me. My approach might work well for you, too, but if it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to experiment to find the ways that do work for you.
“The language I’m learning is too difficult”
Have you ever stalled in your language learning and felt that the language you’ve chosen is too difficult?
It happens to all of us.
Over the years, I’ve discovered that a language’s difficulty is purely in the eye of the beholder. If you’re ready to throw in the towel on one language, chances are, you’ll end up doing the same thing on the next one, even if it’s supposedly “easier”. This is because for every comparatively “easy” feature of a language, you can find another comparatively “difficult” feature. The level of difficulty ends up balancing out among languages. Therefore, your perception of your chosen language as “too difficult” really comes down more to attitude than to the actual difficulty of the language.
Try to focus on the easy aspects of your chosen language to boost your motivation. Are you finding Hungarian difficult? Well, at least you don’t have all those tones and characters like Mandarin! Are you studying Mandarin and finding it hard? Well at least you never have to deal with all those noun cases like Russian, which has seven!
I could go on, but the point is, any language can be “too hard” if you choose to look at it from that perspective. In my case, Spanish was my most difficult language to learn, because it was the first new language I learned as an adult. I lived in Spain for months without learning anything beyond the basics. Spanish was difficult because of the mental hang-ups I had about language learning – not because it’s a difficult language to learn.
“It takes years to learn a language”
This is a really common myth, because it’s partly true. Reaching mastery in a language does take years.
I firmly believe that anyone can start speaking a language as little as a week.
Think about why you want to speak another language. Most people want to learn another language to communicate. To connect with other people. This absolutely does not require mastery of the language.
Do you need to understand Shakespeare to have a chat in English about your city with your taxi driver or to order a rum and coke at a bar? Of course not! So why put these demands on yourself to do the same thing in your target language?
Drop this perfectionist mindset and focus on short-term goals instead of your endgame. If you truly do wish to master your foreign language to native-like proficiency someday, that’s a really admirable goal. If you’re determined, then you will get there eventually. But right now, focus on what you want to learn today, or this week.
Remember: every time you learn a new word or phrase in your target language, that’s something extra you can communicate to a native speaker. Fluency is nothing more than a series of small victories like this. And it can be achieved in much less time than you think.
“There’s never a good time to start”
So you’ve been meaning to sit down and start learning a new language, but every time you decide to do it, something gets in the way and postpones your plans.
Yes, life happens to all of us. But if life continuously gets in the way of your language learning, then you need to ask yourself: Am I really committed to language learning?
Suppose you’ve been planning a big birthday party for a friend, but on the day of the party, you find out that the custom cake order you had placed at the bakery got lost, and now there’s no cake! What do you do?
A) Cancel the entire party. Without that custom cake, what’s the point?
B) Postpone the party to another day when the custom cake is ready.
C) Head to your local supermarket or bakery and pick up a generic cake, and have the party today anyway even though it’s not exactly what you had planned.
I bet you picked option C. Sure, the conditions aren’t perfect, your funny birthday message wasn’t written on your friend’s cake and it’s not their favourite flavour, but I bet it still ends up a fun party!
Why, then, do so many people choose the equivalent of option A or B when it comes to language learning? Instead of treating their study plan like a birthday party that could easily go ahead despite a few hiccups, they treat it like a shuttle launch at Cape Canaveral that could be a question of life or death if atmospheric conditions aren’t perfect!
Believing that “someday” the conditions will be perfect enough for you to start some task is as much a lie in language learning as it is in the rest of your life. You don’t ask your professor to postpone the final exam because you don’t feel ready for it. You just go in and do the best you can with the amount of studying you managed to squeeze in. You wouldn’t skip dinner because you don’t have enough time to cook that filet mignon you’re craving. You’d just cook something that takes less time. And you shouldn’t put off studying the language you’ve always dreamed of learning simply because the conditions aren’t perfect.
Allow me to let you in on a secret. You will never see the “perfect” conditions for studying your target language. Stuff might come up that eats into your study schedule. If you were planning to study for an hour today but can now only spare twenty minutes, don’t just skip your studying altogether. You’ll end up filling those twenty minutes with an episode of The Simpsons or something (unless it’s an episode dubbed in your target language, in which case, carry on!). Meanwhile, you could have spent that time learning two new sentences patterns in your target language, reviewing what you learned yesterday, or memorising ten new words of vocabulary.
Even if you can only spare five minutes today, don’t skip it. That’s five fewer minutes you’ll need to spend tomorrow. All those small chunks of studying will add up to some huge strides in your language skills.
Remember: “A year from now, you’ll wish you had started today” —Karen Lamb
“I’m too old to learn a new language”
More lies! If you’re alive, and alert enough to read this sentence, then you’re not too old to learn a language.
There’s a common myth out there that children are better at learning languages than adults, which is nonsense. Popular opinion is easily swayed based on one flawed, but highly publicised, research study when another one might come about with other data that contradicts it. Then everyone just takes the result for granted, and never questions its validity.
It can take years, even decades, for the damage from such studies to be reversed.
Wherever this old, worn-out myth about children and languages came from, we’re finally seeing modern, verifiable research that proves adults are actually better at learning languages than children.
Not that I really needed to see the research to know that it’s true. Adults of all ages, myself included, are constantly proving that they can be successful at language learning. And so can you!
Just look around you at all of the successful adult language learners out there, and take your inspiration from them.
“English is all I need anyway when I’m travelling”
It’s true that the tourism industry around the world largely operates in English. When you go on holiday in a foreign country, this can give you the impression that everyone in that country speaks English at an intermediate level. Stray from the main tourist areas, however, and you’ll likely get a big wake-up call about the English skills of the average citizen of that country.
If all you ever want from a vacation is to stick to the beaten path, and for all your interactions with foreigners to be completely dependent on their competence in English, then sure, I suppose English is all you need.
But what if you want more?
Many people want to experience the world differently. They want to speak with people that they never would have been able to otherwise, at a level beyond average, superficial daily interactions. They want to get deep inside a culture and see what it looks like from the perspective of someone who speaks the local language. If this describes you, then English is definitely not all you’ll ever need.
“I don’t have enough money to learn a language”
Do you have enough money to afford an internet connection? Then you have enough money to learn a language.
Language exchange sites like italki are free. Omniglot is a free site featuring a list of useful phrases for every language imaginable. Self-study apps like Duolingo are free. There are hundreds of free podcasts for practically any language you could want to learn. The internet is full of free web forums for language help and encouragement. You might have to do a bit of digging to find resources that work for you, but trust me, they’re out there.
It’s true that free language-learning resources can vary in quality and usefulness. If you have a little bit of money to put toward your language mission, there are also some highly affordable and cost-effective paid products and services out there that provide a huge return on investment.
For instance, you can pay a community tutor on italki for regular Skype lessons that fit your schedule and goals. They can be as frequent or as occasional as you like, and you and the tutor can work together to tailor the lessons to your needs and wishes. They’re also generally far more affordable than an in-person private tutor, or even a full-sized language class.
You can also spend a few dollars on joining a good community such as the Add1 Challenge (now the Fluent in 3 Months Challenge). This allows you to get together with like-minded language learners to share language learning tips, work together toward a common goal, and keep one another accountable.
Things that you don’t have to spend big bucks on to effectively learn a language include expensive software with lofty promises, a plane ticket to the country where your target language is spoken, and local language school courses with a dozen other students whose goals are vastly different from yours.
Don’t be deceived by the notion that you need to spend, spend, spend to achieve your language goals. Far better to carefully target your dollars into effective language products.