You’ve decided to learn a language.
Maybe you’ve downloaded a few apps, have bought a course book, and have even booked an online lesson or two. But when you sit down to begin, you find yourself overwhelmed.
The tools you’ve selected are intended to help you figure out this new language, but you feel lost and begin to wonder whether or not you’re going about learning a language the right way.
You start to study, but nothing seems to stick so you begin to question whether or not you’re cut out for this whole language learning thing.
When you look at language learning as a whole, it can seem terrifying. I mean, you feel like you need to learn an entire language.
You’re afraid, so you convince yourself you can’t do it. But here’s where you’re wrong. You can do it.
Discomfort isn’t a sign that you can’t do something. Rather, it’s the first step to learning to do something new.
Feeling uncomfortable can be one of two things. It can be:
Since you’re here, congrats. It’s clear that you fall into category two. And in this post, I want to help you see that you can learn a language. In order to do so, you first need to see past many of the myths we tell ourselves about why we can’t learn a language. I’ll share what many of these are and how you can “bust” them. Next, I’ll share why you need to take a hard look at why you want to learn a language. Doing this allows you to craft a study plan that keeps you on a direct path towards your goals so that you can avoid ever feeling lost or unsure of what your next step is. And finally, I’ll share many of the stumbling blocks that hold you back and can lead to you losing confidence in your language learning and how to overcome them.
First, let’s take a look at a few of the myths we tell ourselves about language learning and how to overcome them.
There’s a myth that we often tell ourselves. It’s that some of us are born with a language learning gene while others aren’t.
The way language skills are often showcased online doesn’t help. Usually, you just get to see the results, not all the background work that went into producing that video. Or even the mistakes they made along the way. All the background work, study sessions, and mistakes are hidden from view. Instead, all you see is a polished conversation — the final product.
The intention here isn’t bad. We tend to want to just share the things that make us look good and not the things that aren’t flawless. This can make it look as though the language was picked up magically.
Yes, there are some people who may be better language learners than others. But this isn’t genetic. And it definitely doesn’t mean that everyone else is a bad language learner. Just different. You’ve got to go your own way.
Memorization isn’t a superpower or a special ability. Memory is a skill. This means it is something that we can learn, develop, and improve.
In an article on Lifehacker the writer shared, “According to one study from MIT, it might simply be how meaningful an image is and if we can connect it to other knowledge. If you can connect that image to something else, it increases the chances you’ll remember it later. Like learning, memory is all about context.”
A study from How Stuff Works stated, “to properly encode a memory, you must first be paying attention. Since you cannot pay attention to everything all the time, most of what you encounter every day is simply filtered out, and only a few stimuli pass into your conscious awareness… What we do know is that how you pay attention to information may be the most important factor in how much of it you actually remember.”
And let’s not forget about multitasking… That thing we all feel obligated to do (and even sometimes when we study). This requires your brain to switch back and forth between activities, and in result, short-term memory is disrupted. When learning new vocabulary, this isn’t very helpful.
So how do you get better at learning vocabulary or at just remembering in general?
By paying better attention and by making an effort to connect what you’re learning to things that you already know, you can and will improve your memory.
The languages that I’ve most successfully learned were those I studied on my own outside of school as an adult.
In fact, as an adult, you have loads of tools at your disposal that an infant doesn’t.
The most notable is the fact that you’ve already learned a language. And because you’ve already learned that language, you have it at your disposal to use to learn a new language quicker.
Think about it. It takes a child at least a year to start saying individual words in a way that someone else understands. Even longer to start forming basic sentences. As an adult, you can do both of these things from day one.
Don’t believe me? Try it.
Open up the Drops app on your mobile device, choose your language and scroll down to “Essentials”. After a quick five-minute study session, you’ll be familiar with how to say:
If that’s not enough, I’d like to take this as an opportunity to introduce you to Mary Hobson. She’s an impressive woman who started learning Russian at 56 and is now an award-winning translator.
Perhaps you studied a language at school. If you’re like most former classroom learners, there’s a good chance you remember very little from years of learning the language.
Failing at language learning in school may be the fault of the classroom environment and not due to an inability to learn languages on your part.
As an independent learner, you can use your strengths to learn a language. In the classroom environment, you’re at the mercy of the course curriculum.
Take advantage of your new learning environment and build a study routine that is catered to your needs as a learner.
In this day and age, we’re all really busy. We have a constant stream of pings, dings, and duties that demand our attention. Finding the time to squeeze language learning into our schedules with so much going on is tough. It can quite literally seem as though there aren’t enough hours in the day.
But the trick isn’t in having more time. It’s in making more time.
You see, “I’m too busy” is an excuse we offer ourselves when learning a new language isn’t really as high on the priority list as we’d like it to be. If it was important, we’d find the time to do it.
That’s why an app like Drops is perfect if you’re “too busy” to learn a language. You only need five minutes to study. And who doesn’t have five minutes of free time at some point in their day?
If you’re having trouble finding that five minutes, it’s a matter of getting creative and figuring out how to squeeze it in. On hold? Do a quick study session. Waiting for your lunch in the microwave? Open up Drops. Standing in line for a coffee? Use language to fill that wait time.
The possibilities are endless.
Making mistakes or even failing at learning a language doesn’t mean that you’re a bad learner. It just means that you’re going through the process of learning a language. It’s normal.
For years, I was an average language learner at school. But today, you’d never know it. You see, there were other students in my class who always seemed to get it. Most of the time, I felt like I just didn’t. Who would have ever thought that student would go on to successfully learn several languages?
Now that all of the excuses for why you can’t learn a language are out of the way, let’s talk about what you can do to learn a language successfully.
Take a moment to think about why you want to learn a language.
It’s time to get serious.
Don’t quickly come up with a superficial reason. Rather, sit down and really reflect on your “why”.
There’s not right or wrong.
It doesn’t matter what your reason is. Or whether or not other people will think it’s a “good” reason. If it’s enough for you to want to learn that language, then go after it.
Some people learn new languages for work. They may have an opportunity for a promotion or raise by learning a language. Or maybe there’s a new job entirely that they’re interested in and knowing another language is a way to make a great impression. Others learn languages for family or because it’s something they can share with their friends. And others still may learn because they love the culture, because they have a trip planned, or well, just because.
As I said before, there’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to your “why” for learning a language.
Once you have your “why”. Write it down.
This is the most important part of this step.
Writing down your goals increases the odds that you’ll achieve them. Because when you write down your “why”, it suddenly becomes much more real.
In a ten-year study at Harvard University, students were asked to create goals. Only 3% of those students wrote down their goals. But guess what? The 3% that wrote down their goals earned as much as 10% more in their jobs than the other 97% of the class combined.
Now imagine that in terms of language learning. By writing down why you want to learn a language — you could have 10% better results.
“When you don’t have a plan, you don’t know how you will reach your destination.” (source)
When deciding what your goals are in language learning, it’s important to be specific and to have an end date in mind. For example, “I want to learn to speak Korean fluently” is probably not a great goal on its own. It’s vague — I mean, what exactly does fluent mean? Not to mention the fact that there’s no deadline.
So what are good language learning goals?
Here are just a few to help get you started:
I will be able to hold a fifteen-minute conversation in my target language at the end of three months.
I will be able to order my entire meal in Spanish when we go out to eat at our favorite Mexican food place.
I will be able to confidently use public transportation and ask for directions or recommendations on my trip to Portugal in six months.
Do you notice a pattern?
Each of these goals has something specific that the learner is aiming for and a time by which they want to get there.
This goal doesn’t need to be your final goal. In fact, it’s important to have both “vision goals” and “path goals”. Your “vision goals” are what you ultimately want to end up doing (being “fluent” in the language or finally reading that 900-page novel in its original language) and your “path goals” (the things you do each day to one day arrive at that vision goal).
Now that you have your goals written down, you have a finish line. With it in sight, you can map out the path you need to take to get there.
One of the reasons it’s important to figure out your goals and then write them down is because they help you design a language plan.
You want to focus on studying the things that get you towards your goal so that you don’t have to sweat all the other stuff.
Let’s look at the three example goals from above and break down the do’s and don’ts of what to include in your language learning plan:
I want to be able to hold a fifteen-minute conversation in my target language at the end of three months.
… Spend a lot of time listening and speaking
… Load up on vocabulary
… Find an exchange partner and practice your language
… Focus on reading and course book exercise
… Get buried in unnecessary grammar
… Try to get conversational on your own
I will be able to order my entire meal in Spanish when we go out to eat at our favorite Mexican food place.
… Focus on food vocabulary in Spanish
… Role play ordering with a tutor or exchange partner
… Figure out how to say “hold the onions” or “extra salsa on the side”
… Look up that restaurant’s menu and decide what you want to order in advance
… Get distracted by all the extra words about utensils, dishes, etc.
… Get distracted by word lists or vocabulary completely unrelated to the restaurant environment
… Try to learn the entire menu
I want to be able to confidently use public transportation and ask for directions or recommendations on my trip to Portugal in six months.
… Prepare for the scenarios where you’ll need to speak the language (Train station? Taxi? Bus?)
… Ask a local what the public transportation systems are like
… Role-play with a tutor or exchange partner
… Try to learn everything
… Forget to write down the addresses for where you want to go just in case
By deciding on goals for your language learning, you get to plan your own language studies rather than rely on a curriculum someone else has designed. This means that you get the best return on your study investment.
You can plan study sessions that go over relevant material and skip the rest. That way, you can spend time with the parts of the language that matters most to you.
I like to reframe my goals as decisions. That extra certainty almost always guarantees I’ll achieve them.
What does this look like? Here’s what I mean:
I want to try to have a fifteen-minute conversation after three months of studying. (X)
I will be able to hold a fifteen-minute conversation in my target language at the end of three months. (√)
In three weeks, I want to go to my favorite Mexican restaurant and try to order entirely in Spanish. (X)
In three weeks, I will be able to order my entire meal in Spanish when we go out to eat at our favorite Mexican food place. (√)
I want to try to get around on my own using public transportation in Portugal in six months. (X)
I will be able to confidently use public transportation and ask for directions or recommendations on my trip to Portugal in six months. (√)
I want to speak French fluently. (X)
I am going to meet my 5-minute study goal on Drops every day. (√)
I’m going to try to pick up German when I go to Hamburg this summer. (X)
I’m going to use German when I go to Hamburg this summer. (√)
In many cases, the change in wording is subtle but powerful. I highly recommend trying it out.
Now that you have your goals and an idea of the path you’d like to take to reach them, the planning stage is complete.
In the past, I was as guilty of planning and not doing as anyone. I spent a lot of time planning to learn languages. I’d read review after of review of different language products in order to determine which resources were the best. I’d read countless posts by established polyglots on how much time I needed to spend doing listening versus reading, whether or not I really needed to work with a tutor, how to find the best tutors, and to try to figure out if I was studying the right way. I’d then compare articles on complex grammar topics or sociolinguistics to decide which explained everything in the clearest way only to bookmark them for later (rather than figure out how to learn those things now).
I’d make lists of what I needed to study, what resources I’d use to do it, and those lists would have lists.
Then, with everything I needed to do planned out, I’d think, “Okay, I think I have it figured out, but let me look up just one more thing.” Suddenly, I’d have a fifty-plus item list of things I wanted to check out before getting started on the actual learning and an overwhelming feeling of “I’m not getting anything done!”
You see, actually sitting down to learn the language intimidated me. And I’d had enough frustrating study sessions to feel overwhelmed by the idea of studying. So instead, I found ways to put off the study that didn’t make me feel so guilty. If I was planning how to learn the language, or figuring out how to study, I was still working towards that goal. Right?
It’s all about intention. If I intend to do it, that’s just as good as actually doing it. Or is it?
Planning isn’t doing.
You have to put a limit on the planning stage.
It can seem like we’re never ready for big decisions. That new job offer? That house? That relationship change? You just do your best to prepare for what’s coming at you, then adjust course depending on how things roll out.
Language learning isn’t any different.
Out of context learning a language might not seem like a big decision. It’s just something that you’re learning. But when you step back and look at it big picture and realize that it’s something you’ll spend years on, it suddenly looks much more intimidating.
But it doesn’t need to be.
Often, you don’t even know exactly what you should be doing until you’re already in the middle of doing it. There’s really only so much you can plan for.
Really, the solution is simple.
Drops is a great way to do this.
Within just five minutes, you can take your first step towards building your new language learning habit.
You get it done. Right then and there.
By taking action immediately, you don’t have the time to come up with extra steps or projects you need to do before you do the real work on your language. Within just five minutes, your language learning for the day it is done, over, and out of the way so I can keep going on with everything else.
Here are a few tips to help you stop planning your language learning, and start learning.
By keeping a language journal, you can note down specific things you need to work on as they come up. That way, you don’t get thrown off track by changing up your study plans for the day. Plus, you know exactly what you can work on the next time.
Some planning is unavoidable. So the next best thing you can do is limit yourself to how much time you can spend on it. For example, I might allocate about 45 minutes every Monday to plan out what I need to do for each of my languages during that particular week to keep moving forward. Once that 45 minutes is up, I start doing action tasks and don’t allow myself to plan anymore.
If you make certain parts of your language learning routine (a series of habits), then you don’t need to plan. Instead, what you need to do just becomes a normal part of your schedule that you just sit down to do because it’s a habit.
Here are a few examples to get you started:
When you get into your car, listen to language learning podcasts or audio lessons. Tie driving to language learning. That way, you never need to think about what you’ll listen to in the car or when you’ll get in listening practice.
Take language lessons at the same time each week during your lunch breaks at work. Schedule them in advance so that all you have to do is show up.
At the end of every week, take all of your notes from your lessons and put them into flashcards. Do this all in one batch on the same day at the end of each week so that it becomes automatic.
Study flashcards and new words with Drops each night before bed.
But it’s important not to get carried away. It may feel productive to read advice on learning languages, to spend time looking for the best resources, or to plan how you’ll learn the language, but be careful not to spend so much time doing those things that you don’t spend any time with the language itself.
But what if you’re unsure and you worry about what you’ve chosen as goals and what you’ll do to get there. Or if you even have the ability to get there?
Feeling inadequate as a language learner?
It’s tough not to get sucked into the comparison game. Especially now that it’s so easy to connect with other language learners online. It’s hard not to feel a bit intimidated when there are people out there that are not just polyglots but hyperpolyglots.
If you’re feeling self-conscious or lack confidence in your abilities as a language learner, there may be a way to take a peek at where those feelings originate.
The good news? When you know the root cause, they all become areas that can be given attention. And by giving them attention, you can boost your confidence in those areas.
Let’s take a look at a few of the biggest hurdles to becoming a confident language learner and how to leap past them.
When you try to speak your language, does it feel like whatever’s going on with your mouth is getting in your way? Perhaps your tongue isn’t doing what it’s supposed to or the words just don’t come out right.
Pronunciation is a big reason why many language learners lose their confidence. When you feel awkward speaking your language, it’s tough to work up the courage to do it. And the trouble is, the only way to improve your pronunciation and speaking ability is by speaking.
If you’re uncomfortable with the idea of using your language with someone else, note that speaking a language and conversing in a language are two different exercises. There are a number of ways you can get speaking practice without conversing.
If you feel held back by your pronunciation, speaking practice is essential to building confidence. Here are a few reasons why:
Muscle memory: You’re training your brain, mouth, and tongue to coordinate with one another to produce the correct sounds and shapes at the correct time. You physically need to train your muscles to speak a new language. Not practicing speaking the language before diving into your first conversation would be like going to the gym and trying to lift the heaviest weights there without working yourself up to them first or trying to run a marathon without doing any prep or training. Maybe not impossible, but you’re not going to walk away from the experience feeling super great.
Production: Again, when you produce in the language that you’re learning, you’re further developing your understanding of the language in a way that just consuming it allows. The spoken language is often different from the written language and the only way that you’re going to gain that part of the language is by engaging in situations that expose you to it. You could argue that films and movies do this to some degree, but even that medium is fixed. You’ll never get the spontaneity and improvisation that come with real-life speaking.
Verbal communication is about more than words and grammar: And again, this is where things like tone, speed, and so on come into play.
Not sure where to start? Here are just a few ways to help you get the ball rolling:
While learning a language, there is a stage you’ll go through where you understand everything just fine while studying, but feel completely lost in real life situations.
When this happens, it’s hard to feel confident in your language abilities. It may even lead to you shying away from opportunities to use the language.
In a situation like this, language islands become an effective strategy. In his book, How to Improve Your Foreign Language Immediately, Boris Shekhtman developed the idea of language islands — fluency on certain topics to help you when speaking is still too stressful or overwhelming.
Essentially, you pick a topic that you find interesting or relevant. It can be anything from:
Once you’ve selected a topic or “island”, you learn vocabulary surrounding this topic, the grammar structures that support you, and focus on this topic in your language until you become comfortable discussing it. You then move on to a new island and do the same. Eventually, you’ll have as many islands as Sweden! But more importantly, you’ll start to feel confident chatting about a variety of topics.
When faced with a fluent speaker who throws out words faster than you can understand them, formulating an appropriate response when you’re still trying to figure out what you were asked in the first place can seem like one step too many.
You’re straining to understand what you’re hearing, so trying to stick words into coherent sentences when your brain is still spinning is overwhelming.
Whenever I get stuck or lost in a conversation, or when I just can can’t seem to keep up, it comes down to one thing 100% of the time. I didn’t have the vocabulary I needed.
The good news is that getting through situations like these gets much easier over time and with practice (especially if you’re building language islands!).
In the meantime, keeping a script on hand during your chats is a good way to keep the conversation going.
What’s a script?
Contrary to how it might sound, a script isn’t a word-for-word text that you’ll read out. Instead, it’s an outline of useful phrases or questions you can fall back on if you ever feel at a loss for words.
For example, whenever I have a language exchange or tutoring session, I’ll create a list of phrases or words I’d like to use during that conversation. These are usually things that are relevant to me and the topics I think I’ll chat about often (my language islands). I’ll also include questions that I can ask when I get stuck or don’t understand.
These might be:
I’ll also figure out how to say, “Can we talk about…” so that I can redirect the conversation if it starts to head into unfamiliar territory.
Another reason language learners don’t feel confident with their languages is because they feel that they make too many mistakes.
But mistakes are a part of the process.
Accepting that mistakes are inevitable, however, is easier said than done. But by reframing how you respond to the mistakes you make is a big step in the right direction.
When you make a mistake, there are three common reactions:
You’re embarrassed — this is often our initial reaction, but if you learn to allow yourself to feel that embarrassment (albeit briefly), you can learn to move through this first stage of making mistakes quickly.
You roll through it — once the embarrassment has passed, you can roll through the mistake and keep going. The more practice you have making mistakes, the easier this second stage becomes.
You learn from your mistakes — the final reaction is to view your mistakes as learning opportunities. This is an excellent way to not only progress quickly in your language, but to begin to accept that mistakes are a part of the process.
By viewing mistakes as learning opportunities, the inevitability of making them becomes easier to swallow. Many of the negative and stressful emotions that surround mistakes dissipate and you equip yourself with a new strategy for moving forward in your language quickly and efficiently.
There are a number of reasons you may not feel confident in your language learning. But identifying why you feel unsure gives you something specific to improve. In fact, I recommend making one of your goals tackling the thing that you feel the most uncertain about. Conquering that fear will not only help you improve your language skills, but will also clear your path forward. What this is will change as you go, but by keeping an eye on what parts of the language make you feel nervous is a great way to determine which parts of your language studies need the most work.
When getting started with a new language, it can feel like there are a number of obstacles standing in your path. The first step is to recognize that most of the reasons we’ve convinced ourselves that we’re unable to learn a language are only myths. They’re things we tell ourselves because, for whatever reason, we feel that we’re not ready to learn a new language. But once you’ve recognized these as the myths they are, you can create a plan to keep them from holding you back.
And that leads us to our next step — creating clear goals with a deadline. With clear goals, you can create a study plan that helps you move in the right direction while simultaneously building confidence in the areas where you’re unsure.
We’d love to know what your language learning goals and stumbling blocks are! Share them with us in the comments below.
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