It’s Time to get Realistic About Language Learning

It's Time to Get Realistic about Language Learning

When was the last time someone came to you with the miracle cure for language learning difficulties? The last time someone told you that you could learn a language in a matter of weeks. What about someone telling you about their one simple trick? Don’t be fooled by these claims, and don’t expect a cakewalk. It’s time that we got realistic about language learning.

Language, Marketing and You

It’s not rocket science that the companies that try to sell you language products are using successful, proven marketing tactics in an attempt to get you to buy their stuff. I’m not saying that they’re necessarily bad products either. What I’m saying is that it’s imperative that we all learn to see through the bullsh*t that we’re bombarded with on a regular basis and come to a realistic realization of what learning a new language is really going to be like.

For as long as there has been language (so, you know, several tens of thousands of years or so), there has been a desire and a need to understand others.

This never has, nor will it ever, change. We all recognize that learning a second language is a really, really good idea. We know it’s practical, beneficial, interesting, and can lead to many great opportunities in life. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t already know that.

Marketers exploit this knowledge to sell you their product. There’s really nothing wrong with this either. A business is a business. It exists to make money and to provide you with a good or service – in this case language products or lessons. That business may actually genuinely care about your education and the fostering of a multicultural and multilingual world – in fact it probably does.


Most language product creators are language learners, educators or enthusiasts themselves and they have to support their passions and work via the sale of their product, products that they believe are doing the world a service. And generally speaking they are.

This article isn’t about tearing apart businesses looking to make a buck or sell their product. There’s a wide range of products that I love and highly recommend. It is however important to see through what is just a marketing tactic and what is actually a valid claim about language learning.

Before we can do that, we first have to agree upon one thing:

Language learning is hard!

It really is. Don’t let them tell you it isn’t. It doesn’t have to be as difficult as you may think, but it’s never going to be easy, either. Learning a new language takes a lot of hard work, dedication and time.

Don’t let that discourage you, but we need to be realistic about language learning and stop towing the line that it’s going to be a snap, that you’ll sit down at your computer with your headphones, a notebook and a pencil and in a few months you’ll be speaking like a pro.

It doesn’t work that way, it won’t work that way. You can learn a lot in a few months, you can learn to communicate somewhat effectively, but you’re not going to be fluent, so don’t kill yourself trying.

Why am I saying this? It’s definitely not to turn you off to language learning, only to make sure that false expectations are not being planted in your mind by product marketing and career polyglots with finely honed language learning skills and years of practice. You can absolutely learn a language, no matter your age or inclination, but if you set the bar too high too quickly you’re likely to burn out, lose interest, and see your language learning project fall apart.

No product beats real, authentic human interaction

You probably don’t need me to tell you this at this point, but humor me because I really can’t say it enough.

You can study for months or years using your apps and your software and your books. They’ll give you a decent outline of how things work, how to read at the very least, and you may have fun in your safe little study cocoon. That’s great. Do lots of that.

But lets remember why most of us are learning new languages; to communicate with other people.

This may seem obvious but I know first hand just how easy it is to become complacent studying Memrise German courses on my iPhone, listening to Pimsleur and trying to switch all my devices to my new language as well. I know it’s easy to fall into that rut, to feel like you’re making progress.

And then it falls apart. You walk outside, you find native speakers, they talk to you and suddenly everything you thought you knew flies out of your ear, up into the clouds and you’re stuck sitting there with a derpy expression on your face, drool trickling from the corner of your mouth and eyes glazed over while you struggle futilely to find the words you need to construct a very basic sentence.

You’ve repeated the exact sentence you need 712,415 times, your pronunciation is “perfect” and you make it sound so good when you’re pacing around your bedroom talking to yourself like a weirdo, but when it comes down to crunch time all that squeaks out is an awkwardly pronounced “sprechen Sie Englisch…?”

Believe me, I’ve been there. I am there, right now. That was me earlier today when asked by a Hamburg bus driver about where I wanted to go. I know the city. I know the words. But they failed me.

Your nerves tense up, you can’t think straight, and even after the exchange that lasted all of 4 seconds, which for you was emotionally taxing, disheartening and way overthought, you stand there for 20 minutes, kicking yourself for not knowing what was said and questioning your ability to get through this thing alive.

The only way you’re going to learn to speak is to speak. That’s the point. It’s why you’re here. It’s why I’m here. It’s always going to be hard if you don’t do it, a lot. So you need to do it a lot – like every single day, not just occasionally.

So what’s wrong with language products?

The problem with language products is that they tend to promise you impossible things. They attempt to sell you a world of possibilities using a myriad of marketing tactics to make you think that this time, their product, their software, their mobile app is going to be the difference between your success and failure.

You can’t learn a language without really speaking and listening to a human being. Speaking to an AI while following a spaced repetition course is a great way to practice, but it’ll never get you where you’re going all by itself.

So what can you do?

Finding people to speak with is easy for learners of most major world languages. If you’re learning something really obscure your options may be a bit more limited but there are still options that can be taken advantage of.

If you have the opportunity to go outside and meet people who speak your target language, this is obviously one of your better options. If you live in or near a large city, chances are that finding a native speaker population and someone willing to speak to you is easier than you might think.

But if you’re not really an outdoorsy person, as so many language learners seem not to be, there’s always Skype and other online platforms such as WeSpeke and Tandem that can help set you up with language teachers or others looking to exchange languages around the world.

Don’t let yourself be suckered into an expensive language product purchase because of some outlandish claims that it’ll boost your proficiency in record time. You don’t have to stop using other learning strategies such as mobile apps and software, just remember that you need to diversify if you want to succeed.


If we want to get realistic about language learning we need to understand and appreciate that learning a language is hard. It’s a long term project that you’ll likely spend years at. If you’re not making the progress you were promised in that book you read by that career polyglot you like so much, don’t feel too bad.

That’s not to say that their advice isn’t accurate and that their methods aren’t sound, but even they don’t expect you to reach fluency in a matter of weeks or months. Still, it’s easy to get it into your head that things will be easy and when that happens you set yourself up for disappointment when language learning turns out not to be all sunshine and daisies.

It’s also important to remember than language products aren’t going to make you proficient overnight. Use them, abuse them, do what you want with them, but remember that there is no panacea for your language learning struggle. You’ve just got to grin and bear the pain for as long as it takes.

It gets easier, eventually, I promise.

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  • David Cooper

    Getting to the point where you can speak a language fluently is certainly hard and takes a long time, but there are ways to make rapid progress which don’t get you bogged down in unnecessary difficulties early on. Most people give up because their progress is too slow and the work is too hard, but they’re invariably making the mistake of trying to learn to speak the language before they’ve learned to understand it and before they have anything like the kind of feel for the language that they need to have before they try to speak it.

    When children learn their native language, they don’t make that mistake – they learn to understand it fluently first (not the whole language, but all the stuff that is most relevant to them), and then they learn to speak afterwards. You really can learn to understand a language in a few weeks, but it takes a lot longer to learn to speak it because production of language is many times harder (which is also why bright animals can understand a lot of what’s said to them but lack the ability to reply), and that’s why I always recommend that people learn to understand the language first, because that leads to them owning the language sooner and reaching a point where they will never lose it again because they know enough to maintain it through reading: they can then take their time to learn to speak it (which will come automatically over time with practice).

    Get a sensible, inexpensive language course with interesting texts accompanied by full translations (CDs are useful for getting the pronunciation right, but otherwise they slow you down and you’re better off working with printed text). Don’t do any exercises that ask you to produce sentences in the langauge you’re learning – you aren’t ready to do that on the first run through the book and it will only serve to slow you down and lock you into a pattern of making errors which you may find hard to unlearn later. Just expose yourself to lots of sentences and phrases and make sure you can work out how they say what they say. Reading all the notes on grammar is essential, but don’t try to memorise any of the rules. The sooner you can get away from artifical texts and onto reading real articles and books that interest you enough to make you want to read them anyway, the better – it gives you the motivation you need to do the work, and provides continual rewards, but you need to get through the course first so that you’ve been exposed to the full range of how the language works.

    Once you get beyond the course and onto real reading (which you should do by using electronic texts in combination with Google Translate), you will also find that you rapidly get quicker at working through the things you’re reading because the words will fix themselves into your memory simply through meeting them time and time again (the most important ones first because they’re more common), and you don’t need to try to memorise any of them because they will fix themselves automatically in their own good time. Read, read and keep reading – you will be astonished at how quickly you speed up, but it is still hard and you have to cover a lot of ground.

    Once you’re able to get the jist of everything straight off without depending on the translation, you’re ready to go back to the introductory course and read through it again, this time doing all the exercises that you missed out before because you are now ready to try generating phrases and sentences in the language you’re learning. Find people to talk to in the language too, and your progress will be a lot more comfortable for the fact that you will already understand most of what they say (although you will likely have to ask them to speak slowly). Importantly, you aren’t going to be wasting their time by spending most of it trying to work out what they’re saying, so you can focus on finding ways to reply and allowing them to suggest better ways of saying things, thereby making much better use of the time while both of you have a much more interesting conversation than you could have done otherwise.