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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