The Truth About Why You Can't Learn a New Language

The Truth About Why You Can't Learn a New Language

Bored, tired and overwhelmed. Learning a new language can be exhausting.

Comparing yourself to that amazingly fluent student in your language course?
Feeling so bored you can't even picture yourself writing a simple sentence, let alone conjugating verbs? We've all been there.

Language learning is a game of the brain. It is a dance, a partnership with our gray matter. As such, this partnership is likely to suffer from time to time.

Here are the true devastating obstacles we all face as language learners, and some specific tips on how to fight back! Let's get real!

Learner's anxiety.

1) You Feel Overwhelmed

Symptoms include

  • Feeling slightly anxious whenever you think of language learning;
  • Regular thoughts that you will never be able to learn the language, especially when confronted with new material that is unfamiliar;
  • Avoiding the language altogether to avoid feeling inadequate or dumb.

Possible causes

You expose yourself to advanced materials too soon. In language learning as in everything else in life, you must know yourself, understand your rhythm and occasionally stop to think about whether the strategy you are following is the correct one for your profile. If you are the type of learner who is likely to feel frustrated, scared, or extremely uncomfortable when confronted with large amounts of unfamiliar content at once, quit torturing yourself by looking at academic articles you don't have the tools to understand (yet), super fast-paced YouTube videos, or training courses for C2 level students.

You choose the right materials, but follow the wrong strategy. You may be using appropriate materials for your level (texts, videos, songs, a manual, and so on), but you may be overwhelming yourself by studying entire lists of vocabulary in one afternoon, or forcing yourself to memorize words you will never even use in real life.

You compare yourself to others. You sit in class and start feeling uncomfortable, nervous or even sad when you see just how well other students are doing. Or maybe you have just witnessed a YouTuber showcase their foreign language skills - fluently speaking five or more languages. Or perhaps you heard a native speaker and you think "Wow, there's no way I will ever reach that level...". If you identify with any of these, feel free to jump to point 3 of this article.

What You Can Do About It

Start seeing language as a process, not as a finish line. Compare language learning to learning how to drive, rather than running a marathon or winning a race. As is the case with driving, your goal with a target language should be to try to make it a habit, as it becomes more and more effortless with time and practice. At first you will feel overwhelmed and frustrated at the amount of rules, signs, conditions and multitasking you have to adapt to. You may even cry, feel anxious or wonder if you should just give up - maybe you are just not cut out for all of this, right? But after some practice you will wonder why you were so scared to begin with, and feel proud you kept insisting and did not listen to that evil twin inside your language-loving brain!

Prepare study material in smaller bites with more regularity, rather than all at once. Consistency, consistency, consistency. Trying to force your (already busy and slightly overwhelmed) brain to deal with humongous amounts of information in a foreign language is a recipe for disaster! Your brain is likely to rebel and ask for some time off, rather than absorbing anything you are trying to cram for 2 hours. Divide the chapter, unit, level, topic or goal you are currently trying to complete in much, much smaller units and make sure to devote quality time to very specific content. Do that every day or every two days.

Take a break from studying and try to enjoy the language again. It is so easy to get stuck in that grammar rule, that horrible word you can't seem to pronounce, or that article you feel you should understand by now. Language is so much more than a bunch of words you need to memorize. Try exploring the beautiful places where your target language is spoken (check these awe-inspiring Russian spots!), perfecting and appreciating the beauty of Chinese calligraphy, watching a fascinating TED Talk in Spanish...your call!

Face the fact that language learning is a never-ending process. It is perhaps one of the deepest frustrations language learners face. Although we often see languages divided into levels, stages or goals, we eventually come to the realization that language learning does not end...ever. But think about it this way: when it comes to your native language, do you feel upset, ridiculed, frustrated, inferiorized or even angry when you come across a word you hadn't seen before? Of course not! You either just ask what it is, or you are able to understand it in a given context and just move on. Perceive this as a natural part of the challenging process that is language learning, and appreciate the fact that you are devoting your time to an art that took centuries to develop!

Get your motivation back on track.

2) You Get Demotivated

Symptoms include

  • Postponing your study sessions or practice time...indefinitely;
  • Sudden loss of interest in the language;
  • Feeling lazy or like any other activity seems more interesting than language learning.

Possible causes

You're not seeing results. There are only a couple of things more frustrating than investing your time and money on something out of passion, dedication and the will to self-improve...only to find you're not moving forward at all. Perhaps there was a time when you would spend hours practicing, listen to music in your target language all day, even try meeting new people to practice...but you've just given up because none of these seem to help.

You're bored because it's not challenging anymore. Perhaps you enrolled in a language course that keeps feeding you the same content or repeating the grammar rules you've been exposed to dozens of times by now. You're bored by YouTubers, bored by language manuals, dictionaries, language apps and even social networks. Who can get any type of energy or drive out of something that just seems so repetitive?

One word - burnout. Regardless of how often we treat our brain as our enemy, it has a lot to say about what we should do next, and it is usually right. A burnout should be taken very seriously, and not just perceived as typical laziness or lack of willpower. If you have been through a particular tough moment at work or in college, perhaps you feel like sleeping all the time, or like you are simply unable to process anything the way you normally would. If you feel like disappearing, staying in bed all day and forgetting your responsibilities, it is time to pause.

You lack clear objectives. As previously stated, learning a language is pretty much a neverending process and will keep surprising you along the way. However, "learning German" is quite a broad goal, wouldn't you say so? Even "speaking fluently" or "learning how to write" can hardly be defined as clear goals.

What You Can Do About It

Identify the source of your demotivation. There are several types of demotivation, and therefore different ways to recover from them. Could it be that you are demotivated by fear of failure? By the overwhelming amount of topics you're supposed to cover? By how easy or effortless everything seems to be when it comes to your language learning? Define the source of your feeling.

Take tiny steps rather than giant ones. And think tiny, tiny! Joining a course, trying a new language app or buying a new manual would be considered big steps in this context, because they require some decision making, a degree of investment, energy and time. Opt for ridiculously small steps. If it's jotting down 3 sentences in your target language every day, so be it. If it's challenging yourself to sing along to your favorite song in your target language, then do it.

Establish a small, achievable clear goal. Again, if you feel demotivated, think small. Make it your goal to read a full article in your target language. Or perhaps writing a short text about yourself. Not all language study has to be organized by topic (learning about food today, about clothing tomorrow, and so on). Challenge yourself to produce something. You are much more likely to get motivated by something you have achieved rather than a couple of words you have managed to memorize.

Try new literature, music and movies. Not all language learning inspiration has to come from other language learners or polyglot celebrities. Often, you will find the weirdest sources of inspiration can give you that little push, whether that be a new Indie band you've just found, a character from a movie, or the author of your new favorite book. By taking a break from manuals, apps and YouTubers and exploring your target language in its different forms, you are giving it an opportunity to impress you again.

Comparing yourself to others.

3) You Compare Yourself to Others

Symptoms include

  • Reading articles about popular polyglots on the web, watching YouTube videos of super young talents exhibiting their language skills, or listening to other students in your class speaking your target language perfectly - and feeling inadequate.
  • Feeling like you have decent language skills, but falling apart as soon as you see somebody you believe is better than you are.

Possible causes

Competitiveness. It is easy to get stuck in the game of who speaks the highest number of languages, or stressing about who finished that language course first. It is also no secret that some people live for competing, racing, winning and defeating. Without a doubt, this type of attitude can help us develop fantastic personality features - strength, resilience, versatility. However, be careful if you feel it is not serving you anymore, but damaging you instead. If all you have been feeling lately is bitterness, anger, anxiety and unrestfulness, you should welcome a different approach.

Feeling pressured to succeed and meet expectations, especially if you are learning your target language with a larger purpose (such as moving abroad, impressing your partner's family or working for a special company). Language learners often have very personal reasons to want to explore a new language, whether that be their own heritage, a new relationship or the dream to study abroad. It is here that we are more vulnerable, and tend to compare ourselves to those who have already achieved success. Have you ever compared yourself to actual native speakers and felt really silly afterwards?

What You Can Do About It

See language for what it is. A tool. A means to an end. Anything but yet another reason to compare yourself to others. Would you feel inferiorized or humiliated if somebody said "I use this deodorant better than you do"? Or maybe "The way I use this mug to drink coffee is so much better than the way you use it"? Of course not! It seems so silly! So when you find yourself in a moment of stress and comparing yourself to others, try this very quick technique to calm yourself down: think of language as a tool. Think of it as a toothbrush, a wallet, a pair of glasses, or a pen. While language can be passion, heritage, history and love, it can also be simplified as a means to an end when you need a reality check. The end? Becoming an effective communicator.

Get inspired, not intimidated. How often do you check other language learners online, only to get demotivated and even feel intimidated by their level of expertise? Perhaps you have even tried attending a language exchange event, only to realize others are way ahead of you. The trick is to mentally get them on your side of the picture. Aren't they trying to master the exact same tool you are? Why not try sending them an email, a tweet or a private message, stating how you feel about their skills and that you would love to have some feedback? As soon as you get in contact with a person rather than creating your image of them from afar, you will start seeing a source of support, inspiration and feedback and stop perceiving them as geniuses who stand above you.

Let go of the fear of making mistakes. It is always funny when language learners state something like this: "I am a perfectionist, I don't like making mistakes". Some even claim they are afraid of making mistakes. That is absolutely contradictory, because the only way of perfecting yourself is by making mistakes. You can never achieve a level of near-perfection (if that is what you are after) without discovering your deepest flaws, struggles and doubts, and that only happens when we fail, make mistakes, throw ourselves out there and experience something unfamiliar. Embrace mistakes. Embrace the uncomfortable silences, the occasional flawed pronunciation of a word, and the wrong choice of words that invite an awkward blank stare.

Language learning is all about partnering with your brain to find the best method that works for you, and you only. Hopefully these tips will give you that soft push you were looking for to get back on track!