We get it: learning a language is no walk in the park, but the rewards are worth it! Here are 8 reasons why you’re struggling and how to overcome them.
Main reasons why it is hard to learn a new language
One of the most common questions we get is “Why is it hard to learn a foreign language as an adult?” Well, being perfectly candid, children do have some inherent – yet not defining – advantages when it comes to language learning.
First, according to a 2018 study, your chances of reaching native-like fluency in a new language apparently decline greatly after turning 10. This has to do with our brain’s ‘neural plasticity’ and its ability to form new neural connections earlier in life. However, learning vocabulary and communicating considerably well in a new language is perfectly attainable at any age.
Second, toddlers tend to spend more time hearing and thinking in the language they are learning than your average adult with a 9-to-5 and a weekly language course. Third, they’re unapologetic about speaking a new language, willing to talk in a strange tongue, and fearless of potential mishaps and embarrassment.
Having said that, anyone, regardless of age, can achieve fluency in a new language. Period. The main culprits behind the challenges we face as grown-ups stem from two things: how we approach learning a new language and self-doubt.
Why is it hard to learn a new language, then? There are plenty of specific challenges, really, but just as many solutions, too. So, keep your chin up, and let’s find out why it is hard to learn a foreign language and why it doesn’t have to be.
Before we begin, and in case we’ve rekindled your hopes and motivation to learn a new language already, why don’t you give a tried-and-tested method a go?
So, make sure you download the Fluent Forever app to get a neuroscience-backed solution to language learning in the palm of your hand. But why stop there? Give our Live Coaching a shot to boost progress with the help of a personal native speaker coach.
1. The language you’re learning is remarkably difficult
When it comes to language learning, not all second languages are created equal. If your target language has an entirely different morphology – or language structure – from that of your native tongue, the former will be remarkably difficult.
For instance, Japanese will be harder to learn for a Spanish speaker than Portuguese. So, the choice of language could be a main reason as to why it’s hard to learn a new language.
Solution: Go for an easier language first
While you may have your sights set on a significantly difficult language, it might be good to consider going after an easier one first. While this might seem like you’re evading the actual problem, in practice, it can aid you in developing language learning strategies and skills that will also be useful for other languages. At the same time, it will show you what’s needed to reach your fluency goals. When you’re done with this first language, you might find it easier to tackle more complex ones.
Hint: You can check out the difficulty ranking that the US Department of State’s Foreign Service Institute has for different languages for English speakers.
2. Your fluency goals are not your own
Who or what decides what fluency looks like? Is it a school test grade? A preface in a book? Your language teacher? Fluency can look different depending on your personal goals. If you want to learn Spanish for weekly coffees with your Mexican mother-in-law, you don’t need to reach a university professor’s fluency level. You might be struggling to reach unnecessarily lofty language objectives set by someone else.
Solution: Define your own ‘personalized fluency’
Gabe Wyner, Fluent Forever’s founder and CEO, talks about defining your own ‘personalized fluency,’ which is learning to speak a foreign language for a specific, personal purpose. Think along the lines of becoming fluent in Italian to order coffee at your local Italian restaurant and have pleasant conversations with the Italian waiters, instead of mastering the entire language for the sake of it. Finding your personal fluency goal can help you make a previously complex 2-year project into a smaller, more manageable 2-month endeavor. Once you do it, you might find that learning a language is not that complicated anymore.
So, why is it hard to learn a new language and make swift progress? Sometimes, it’s simply a matter of shifting the endgame.
3. You’ve plateaued
When you’re starting to learn a new language, progress can seem fast. Everything is new, and you’re motivated to absorb everything you read and listen to. However, after a while, your learning may plateau. Aware of everything you’ve learned, you might feel like you’re suddenly not as good as you thought you were.
When people plateau, they tend to face similar discouraging linguistic issues: limited or repetitive vocabulary, persistent errors, and conversational difficulties.
Solution: Practice with native speakers
Enter practicing with native speakers. Feedback from native speakers is an invaluable tool for language learners. Most of the specific challenges people who plateau face can be addressed by consistently practicing with someone who speaks their target language natively. For example, conversational topics tend to be diverse, engaging, and dynamic, meaning that new vocabulary is introduced constantly. Second, persistent errors will be pointed out by the native speaker. Lastly, speaking confidence is likely to increase with continuous real-life practice.
Hint: Start practicing with a native speaker today by joining Fluent Forever’s Live Coaching program!
4. You haven’t trained your ears
OK, so listen up: Why is it hard to learn a new language? Lend us your ears, and we’ll tell you.
Have you ever heard a foreign name, only to forget it seconds later? That’s because our brains and ears are programmed to hear the sounds of our native language. As children, our brain’s high neural plasticity allows us to create neural connections easily so as to absorb our native tongue continuously, like a sentient sponge. As we grow up, our brain becomes increasingly accustomed to the sound and pronunciation of our first language, which hampers our ability to listen to, comprehend, and pronounce new foreign words.
In short, the inability to identify a foreign language’s unique sounds makes learning and retaining new vocabulary in that language extremely difficult. Therefore, it’s important to pick up this skill at the beginning of your language journey.
Solution: Rewire your ears with minimal pairing
So how do we fix our hardwired ears? By rewiring them, of course! You have to train your ears to be able to pick up your target language’s sounds. You do this through the awesome power of minimal pair testing!
Minimal pairs are words that sound almost identical, but not quite (for example, “sick” and “thick,” “du” and “doux”). Minimal pair testing is done by listening to an audio of one of the two words, picking one, and getting feedback on the correct answer. This helps to improve your ears’ ability to identify, learn, and remember your new language’s pronunciation. In turn, this makes learning new vocabulary easier!
Hint: Download the Fluent Forever app and get access to the hundreds of minimal pair tests available for the 11 languages offered!
5. You’re learning vocabulary the wrong way
Usually, people learn vocabulary via direct translations. Regrettably, this is an ineffective method for learning new words because it makes them easier to forget. Consequently, it makes learning a new language harder. It’s why apps like Duolingo, which operate on a translation-based method, may make it difficult for you to retain useful vocabulary. The result is that you’ll find learning a new language frustrating.
Solution: Skip translations, embrace flashcards
Instead of learning by using your native language as a base, you need to think in your target language. Making flashcards with images, pictures, and drawings, and practicing these using spaced repetition systems (SRS), will help you achieve this. You’ll soon find that this approach is the easiest and fastest road to progress.
6. You lack motivation
Sometimes, the answer to Why is it hard to learn a new language? is good old motivation. You see, when it comes to learning a new skill or language, motivation is key. Without it, language learners may find their progress slow, tedious, and – you guessed it – more difficult.
On the other hand, a motivated student will be more eager, interested, and pumped to keep learning and overcome obstacles.
Solution: Create motivation for you!
There are several ways to create motivation during your journey to fluency. First, you can write down the reasons why you’re learning a language and use them as motivators. Are you planning a trip abroad? Preparing for a language placement test for your dream job or exchange program? Jot it down and place it somewhere you can always see it.
Second, find a learning buddy who can hold you accountable for your progress and tasks, and cheers you on during bad days. Ask a friend to be your language partner, or buddy up with an exchange partner on Facebook or through websites like My Language Exchange.
Third, plan to test your skills periodically during the year. Think about it: if you know you’re taking a test, you’ll be on your toes and motivated to keep on learning. There are different tests you can find online: the ACTFL Oral Proficiency Interview (OPI) includes various languages and is widely popular, while ESL, HSK, and JLTP assess Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese, respectively.
7. You’re not using your language enough
This may seem obvious, but you need to use your language to be able to speak it well. If you don’t do it enough, you’ll struggle when you actually do. As a result, you’ll feel like you’re not progressing despite all of the study hours you’ve put in. Additionally, this could demotivate you and make things even harder.
Solution: Immerse yourself
Do as many things as possible to experience using the language you’re learning. And there are many things you can try!
First, find ways to interact with native speakers in your community as much as possible – say, volunteering in a community group or getting a job at a business frequented by native speakers. Second, consume media like movies, series, magazines, and books in your target language. Third, Change the language settings of as many personal electronics as you can: cellphones, tablets, laptops – the whole lot. Lastly, try fun new activities in your target language. These can range from following a cooking recipe to playing a board game or going through an old video game.
8. You’re afraid of making mistakes
Making mistakes is an integral part of the language learning process. The more we err and correct, the fewer errors we’ll make in the future. On the other hand, an unwillingness to try and fail hampers any learning journey, making it sluggish and difficult.
As children learning our native language, we’re fearless pioneers babbling our way to native fluency. We’re willing to make blunders and are immune to embarrassment. Somewhere along the way, we lose this skill and become terrified of speaking in foreign languages, making the journey more grueling than it needs to be.
Quoting Gabe, “We learn to feel self-conscious later on in life, and in the process, we build sophisticated defenses against that feeling. We make sure that whatever we’re saying out loud is brilliant, correct, or well thought through. That works well enough in our native language, but the moment we try to speak a new one, we lose our carefully constructed defenses, which often leaves us feeling exposed and inept.”
Solution: Relax and be proud of your progress
Sometimes, the biggest challenge we face is ourselves. We allow our fears and insecurities to block our progress by placing imaginary barriers in front of us. The best you can do is relax and realize that you’re not the first person who’s learning a new language, and that you’re also not alone for the ride.
It’s OK to make mistakes. The sooner you learn to embrace them, the easier, more enjoyable, and faster the journey will be.
And there you go! Here are the answers to why it is hard to learn a new language, and tips on how to make it easier to succeed!