Let's Face it, Learning a Language Isn't Easy

Let’s Face It, Learning a Language Isn’t Always Easy

For most of us, learning a language from scratch isn’t always a walk in the park.

It takes a lot of time and a lot of energy. It can be confusing, tiring, demoralizing and often intimidating when it comes to building up the resolve to begin, or when it comes to finally speaking to a real flesh and blood person.

There’s no shame in admitting that it exhausts you, or that it takes a lot more dedication to learn a new language than you can always muster, and while there are countless strategies, methods and resources available to most learners, even the most effective, despite their claims, aren’t exactly major shortcuts.

I sometimes worry that the constant call for readers and community members to be working, working, working on their language projects, constantly placing pressure on you to learn, might be more demoralizing for some folks than it is motivational. I hear comments like this a lot on the Facebook page, in the various other social media groups and pages I follow and on the sites or comment sections of other language bloggers.

I’m not always the best about this either. I frequently find myself pushing the language learning process on others, even while struggling with my own difficulties more than I’m often willing to admit.

Being told that something is easy to do, only to then find yourself struggling against, can really get in the way of progress, so I’ll not lie and say that it’s “no big deal” or that “It’s so easy a gorilla can do it!”

A lot of experienced polyglots, news articles and language learners like to claim that learning a language is easy. I genuinely feel that most of them are simply saying this in an attempt to offer motivation to their readers, or sell a product, but sometimes it can really come across as little more than arrogance.

There will undoubtedly be people who disagree with my assertion – there usually are. Some people will naturally find that language study comes easier than others – and that’s alright – but it doesn’t seem fair to a less experienced or less confident learner to hold them to the same standards, or expect them to hold themselves to the same standards.

Some people make learning a language look like a piece of cake

Benny Lewis
– often looked upon as one of the most influential figures in the language enthusiast community –  bases his blog, his books and his reputation on the idea that he can reach fluency – or come damn close at least – in three months of intensive study.

He usually does pretty well.

At first glance, you have to assume he’s either showing off or insane. Perhaps he is to a degree, but it’s all part of building his brand – a brand that has managed to inspire thousands of people to get up and start learning.

Mr. Lewis doesn’t truly expect his readers to all just go out and reach fluency in three months – nor does he really encourage them to try, instead suggesting a more customized and realistic goal.

He has based his career around his intensive immersion and study lifestyle whereas most of us, even the most dedicated learners among us, aren’t in positions to have our lives revolve around our projects, nor do we have hundreds of thousands of followers clamoring for content, keeping the pressure on us.

He may make it look easy to the casual observer, but if you follow the man you’ll notice that it’s anything but.

He manages to learn a language so quickly because he works at it so incredibly strategically. He has also more or less mastered many techniques to maximize his time and energy right down to restricting his caffeine intake and timing his sleep schedules.

This includes having entirely sworn off alcohol. Would you do that? I wouldn’t.

Did I mention he’s done this with something like ten languages? It may never be easy, but it certainly becomes easier with every new language that you compound onto your repertoire.


The challenge is part of the fun

For some of us however, the challenge itself is a motivating factor. The trials and the slow mental burn – like the warm pain you feel after exercising – make it worth the time and effort. Just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it needs to be unpleasant.

I hope that this post doesn’t serve to scare or intimidate you. If you’re having a hard time you’re not alone in your struggles and shouldn’t feel disheartened the next time someone tells you “Oh, Spanish is such an easy language to learn!” Effort, motivation, and dedication are key to success and you can manage all three.

Do you feel that being told a language is easy to learn helps or hinders your motivation?

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he’s not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

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Brian Powers

Brian is the creator, owner and Apex Editor of Languages Around the Globe. When he's not hanging around with linguistics nerds and learning languages, Brian works full time at Kolibri Online, a Hamburg based international content marketing and translation agency as a copywriter, human dictionary and general doer of great things.

  • dandiprat

    It just rubs me the wrong way when people say “such and such language was easy.” Maybe I’m jealous and they have superior ability but I always get suspicious they’re with learning according to different standards or fooling themselves about how good they are. I shouldn’t let it get to me, but I feel like I’ve been working pretty hard for longer than some of them have been alive with a lot going on in my life so I’d like faster progress. Sorry to rant, I just needed to get this off my chest.

    • I understand completely. I struggle as much as anyone – which is hopefully the tone I try to write from on this blog. I’m frequently lumped in with the “Polyglot bloggers” niche which I’m proud to be close to, but it’s still not how I identify.

      There are naturally going to be some people who have an easier time – whether they’re naturally more determined or talented (which I doubt) or they just have the right resources and technique (which I imagine is true), that’s fine. But I dislike it when people say it’s easy too!

      Thanks for your comment.

  • Gamesforlanguages

    Great post, Brian! Yes, it takes single-minded dedication to learn a new language as an adult in three months – and even then you are not really fluent. Even Benny and other polyglots will admit that it’s a long way from understanding and being understood in casual conversations (with mistakes!) to mastering all four language skills. And then keeping current and reasonably fluent is another matter!

  • David Cooper

    Learning a lanugage can be easy or hard, but the main factor that determines which of those it is (or how far between the two) is the quality of the learning materials available to you. With some language courses, progress is made almost impossible, but others make it very easy, and a lot of luck is involved as to whether you are using the right course or not. Once you’ve learned a few languages, you soon get to know what works and what just wastes your time, at which point you can look quickly through a course and see whether it’s a good or a bad one, but a beginner doesn’t know what they’re looking for, and because most courses aren’t designed well, they only teach people how to fail and then leave them with a belief that learning a language is extremely hard. Their experience of learning a language in school doesn’t help either as the methods used there are generally abysmal, and especially so in English-speaking countries.

    I’m a linguistician (working on an AGI system build) and I spent a couple of decades doing little else other than learn the basics of many languages in order to study their grammatical structures, all with the aim of trying to get a handle on what goes on deep below the surface with the grammar thought. My priority wasn’t to learn any of those languages properly, but I did have crazy ideas about getting to the point where I could read books and newspapers in perhaps a dozen of them, and I’m just about reaching that point now.

    What I’ve discovered about language learning is that learning to understand a language should be your initial goal rather than trying to speak it. Instead of getting bogged down trying to learn to say lots of really basic things with a small vocabulary which restricts you to deeply boring conversations, it’s much better to go for maximum understanding up front and to move on quickly to reading material which you would still enjoy reading in your native language. By working this way, you will feel that you own the new language much sooner, gaining an extensive knowledge of its structures and phrasing which will guide you when you start trying to speak it later on, and if you need to ask someone a question in the language you’ll have a much better chance of understanding their reply than you would if you work the other way round and ask a grammatically perfect question before being blasted with a string of words you’ve never heard before in your life. The way I work now with a new language is to avoid trying to learn anything deliberately: I don’t stare at lists of words or use flashcards, and I don’t learn grammatical rules, though I do read through word lists once wherever they appear and read any parts of courses that explain the grammar. My main focus though is simply to look at lines of text and try to understand what they mean and how the words work. I don’t do the exercises in the book unless they involve reading the langauge and translating into my native language. If they ask me to translate from English into the language I’m learning, I look up the answers in the back instead and work the other way round. Translating into the langauge can wait till stage three, after I’ve gained a fluent understanding, and by that point I’ll be in a much better place to learn to speak the language without making any mistakes that might become fixed in my head and keep me speaking it wrongly. My goal is to fill my head with good examples of the language rather than mangled examples of my own making.

    Finding a language course which provides translations of all texts is a high priority, and the best ones have literal translations, though those are very hard to find (which tells you everything you need to know about why people think learning languages is hard – the best ways of learning are not being made available). I tried to learn Turkish from a book which required me to waste 99% of my time looking up words in a dictionary instead of letting me to get on with learning the actual language, so I was forced to give up about a third of the way through and have never gone back to it, but I could see that it wasn’t a hard language at all – the sole difficulty was in the way it was being presented.

    I had a long struggle with Russian too. The first Russian course I worked with hit a barrier where I couldn’t understand what it was talking about, so I got stuck there, unable to cope with anything that followed. A few years later I bought a different course and it took me straight past the difficult bit with ease, then I got stuck with it somewhere else and went back to the original course to find a way past that obstruction. Different courses have different places where they let the learner down and you may need to work with several different ones. Another advantage though of working with more than one course is that it gives you lots of revision without the need to read all the same boring stuff again, so it’s much less dull. I always worked in the past with language courses of the “Teach Yourself” style where you have a single book that introduces you to all the essential grammar of the language along with perhaps the first 1000 words. Incidentally, the tapes or CDs are never particularly useful other than for getting the pronunciation right – the efficient learning always happens with the text (although that won’t be the case if you intend to do most of your learning in a car while driving, but audio-based courses were always way beyond my budget). I always try to read through the book as quickly as possible, not hanging about anywhere to try to memorise anything: I simply allow words and phrases to write themselves to my memory in their own good time, the mechanism for that simply being repetition. This stores words and grammar in your head in a more natural way, like with learning your native language – if you try to force words in, you store them in different places and they aren’t properly accessible when using the langauge: you actually have to learn them twice to store them correctly, and that second learning is done by meeting them repeatedly, so you might as well give the first method of learning them a miss altogether and save yourself all that needless effort. The more often you meet a word, the better it will stick, and it’s completely effortless: all I do is read the texts and try to understand them. If I get stuck and can’t go on any further with the book, I return to the start and race through it again, and when I get back to the point where I stopped on the first attempt, I can usually race on past it the second time without difficulty. If I do get stuck there again though, it’s always because of a design fault with the course, so I abandon it and look for a different course to work with. I can now get through some of these books in as little as twenty hours, and once I’ve done so, I’m ready for stage two.

    The second stage is to find a novel to read in that language which is also available in English, and I then read through it while comparing it directly to the English version to avoid the need to look new words in a dictionary. It’s usually only at this point that I begin to get a proper feel for the language, because up to this point I’ve only seen an artificial collection of example sentences and texts which fail to introduce many common words which you’d expect a language course to cover, but which they fail to do. Working through the first few pages is always hard going, but by the time I reach the end of the first chapter, I can see that I have speeded up considerably, reading two or three pages in the same time as it took to read the first page. The speed gains just keep on coming as I work through the rest of the book, and by the time I’m into the last chapter I can read whole pages without having to look at the English version at all. It is an exhilerating way to learn a language and provides you with big rewards early on – you can’t speak the language yet, but it’s already in the bag and you know that you’ll never lose your ability to read and understand it. The next step is to go back to the language course and work through it again, but this time doing all the exercises the way the book tells you to, translating into the language instead of out of because the aim now is to learn to speak it, and that task has now become hundreds of times easier as you already know the language well. The way you are learning is much more like a young child learning to speak their native language – they learn to understand long before they learn to speak it.

    Finding good reading material is easier today than it was when I did most of my work on learning languages, and particularly as you can now throw things into Google Translate to get a near-literal version of anything. When I reached the end of my Russian courses, I couldn’t get hold of any book to read that would take me to a fluent understanding of the language, so I got stuck at that point, but just at the beginning of this month I found a Russian translation of Arthur Ransome’s “Swallows and Amazons” (which is perfect material for learning any language) and I’m now making ridiculously fast progress with it just by putting it through Google Translate bit by bit. I try not to look at the English translation, but it’s there whenever I need to check an unknown word or one I’m not fully sure of. I also have the book in English to look at whenever Google Translate falls short, which it often does. When you work this way, not only is learning a language transformed into an easy task with rapid progress, but it’s fun and deeply rewarding too, and the hard work is minimised. There is also no point at which it is in any way boring. [In case anyone reading this is also short of Russian reading material and is a fan of Ransome’s books, you can find Ласточки и амазонки here: http://www.e-reading.club/book.php?book=1027770 – I downloaded the HTML version.]

    Some languages put other barriers in the way, and I was stuck for a long time with Japanese as I have no desire to learn to read Japanese until after I’ve learned to understand it fluently, but it’s very hard to find anything to read in furigana. Someone recently told me of a trick you can use though with Google Translate: if you set it to translate from Japanese to Japanese it turns it into furigana for you. It makes a bit of a mess of it with the word boundaries, but it turns an impossible task into an achievable one. What I want you to understand here most though is this: if you’re finding it hard to learn a language, the problem is most likely with the way you’re trying to learn it and not with the langauge itself or with your abilities. Don’t flog a dead horse for a hundred hours before giving up in disgust: find a better course to work from and use it your way instead of sticking to its rules. Focus on understanding first and don’t worry about speaking it at all until your understanding is fluent, though it is certainly a good idea to read things out loud (or whisper) as you go along.

  • Thanks a lot for reading and for your comment! Links for more resources are always great to have!

  • Great article, this is my first post here… I recommend this language-exchange website: http://www.languageforexchange.com/ . Some time ago I joined and found a good few people to practice with.

    • Thanks a lot for reading and for your comment! Links for more resources are always great to have!

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