So you want to learn a language? But…

So you want to learn a new language? But…

  • you don’t think you’re smart enough
  • you think your memory sucks
  • you don’t plan to go to a country where it’s spoken
  • you don’t have time
  • you don’t know which one
  • you don’t know where to start
  • …you keep coming up with excuses!!

I’m going to address each of these points in no particular order.

…You keep coming up with excuses!!

No one ever succeeded at anything by telling themselves they couldn’t do it. So the first step is getting out of that headspace of constantly coming up with reasons you can’t do it and start finding reasons why you can! And that applies to pretty much anything in life that you want to do.

You don’t think you’re smart enough

The fact that you’re reading this post is a testament to you already having learned one language. Learning a language is like running a marathon race. The only real difficult bit is working out how you’re going to do it, and then getting started. What ends up getting you over the finish line, or to fluency or whatever your ultimate goal is with your target language, is just consistency. Like with running the marathon race. Go to hard and you’ll burn out. Go to light and you won’t finish it. You just have to work out the pace that works for you, begin and don’t stop. Seriously, I can’t emphasis this enough… DON’T STOP. That’s the secret to finishing any race, whether or not you win it, just don’t stop moving forward.

You think your memory sucks

As I mentioned above, you already speak a language and thus know 1000s upon 1000s of words. We have this unrealistic expectation that we should learn a word or a grammatical rule the first time we’re exposed to it. Anything less is met with frustration and the silly idea that ‘my memory must suck’ or that ‘I must just be bad at languages’. Do you think your learnt and remembered every word in your native language the first time you were exposed to it?

Unless you’re a savant with a photographic memory, then that’s not how your memory will work and be glad that’s the case. Our brains forget things on purpose so we don’t end up with a huge amount of useless information stuck in our heads. What our brains are good at doing is filtering out the useless crap we don’t need to remember, and hold onto the things that we keep getting exposed to again and again. Effectively, you have to show your brain that something is worth remembering and that’s simply through repeated exposure.

You don’t plan to go to a country where the language is spoken

This is a pretty weak excuse today for one huge reason… The internet! You can learn to do pretty much anything in the confort of your own bedroom using the internet. There is so much material out there one Google search would give you 100 lifetime’s worth of it.

It has never been so easy to find and connect with people from all over the world, and there are numerous websites that allow you to do just that with respect to language learning. Furthermore, if you’re reading this post it’s more than likely that your fluent in English, and that my friend is a resource that is in high demand in the realm of online language learning. So join Hello Talk, Speaky, iTalki or any of the other countless online language exchange sites to find people to chat with whether via skype video conversations or simple text message chats.

I’ve met people so keen on learning English from me, whilst I learn French from them, that I’ve had 2-3 hours of video calls with them each night for weeks at a time. Find people you connect with online, whom you can talk to, and what’s the difference between a conversation via video call with them and a in-the-flesh conversation with someone on the streets of France?

You don’t know which language to pick

This is a problem a lot of people seem to have. When it really comes down to it you need to choose the language that is right for you, not for someone else. That means picking the language that is going to keep you motivated enough to keep learning it until you reach your goal. For instance, people often ask me why I don’t learn Hindi or Mandarin Chinese when those two languages are spoken by about 1 billion people each. The reason is that neither of them interest me, at least not right now. So if I were to force myself to learn say Hindi, because someone else decided for me that it was more useful than French, I would undoubtedly lament the time I spent learning it compared with if I spent the same time learning French.

So this is totally up to you. One of the beauties of teaching yourself and literally learning from your own bedroom is that you can dip into languages and get a feel for them without having to commit. Do you like the sound of a certain language? Maybe you’re interested in a certain culture, its history and people, etc. What are you current interests or hobbies? Are they also popular in another language/culture? As I’ve said before, pretty much any male I know that is learning Japanese is obsessed with Anime. For me and Portuguese I love Brazilian jiu-jitsu, so I’m constantly surrounded by Portuguese speakers and the Brazilian culture, and I want to dive into it more.

The main take away point is to pick something that you’re happy with, for which you can maintain motivation. If you can do that then the language learning process becomes a hell of a lot more easy, more fun and more like a hobby. It can get addictive and you’ll be dying to find time to do it!

You don’t know where to start

Once you’ve decided which language it is that you want to learn it can seem pretty intimidating when working out where to start. What method will you employ to tackle the beast?? There’s no one definite answer. Although there are many well trod paths, the path you ultimately have to get yourself on is whatever one will get you to where you want to go. As with a climber hoping to conquer Mt. Everest for the first time you won’t really know how you’ll go until you throw yourself at it. Unlike the climber though your life isn’t on the line, and you can afford to fluff about until you find your preferred path.

As a personal preference I really like to use Duolingo to start out a language, assuming they offer it. I used it to refresh my high school French, and again to learn Portuguese from scratch. Memrise is another app/website that is highly rated, although I haven’t as much experience with this. You may prefer sentence based learning methods like Glossika (which I’m using for Portuguese as well) or Assimil, or even hard copy language learning books like the Colloquial language series. There are also a lot of free online website based courses such as Babbel.

The most important thing is working out how you like to learn. You may not know at first, in which case you just have to try different things until you realise which ones you prefer and are more affective for YOU. As with which language you should learn, no one else can tell you which is the best method to use. The right method is the one that works for you.

You don’t have time

This is one of the excuses that irks me the most. It’s not about having enough time, it’s about how you use it. I can’t remember where I read this quote, though I’m sure I’ve paraphrased it, but it is certainly true. We all have time, it’s just whether or not we make the time for things that are important to us. If language learning is important enough to you then you will find the time to do it. If it isn’t, then you shouldn’t (and probably won’t) waste your time on it!

I think most people say this not because they literally don’t have enough time, but more because they THINK they won’t be able to commit enough time to it. What’s important here is to stop comparing yourself to others, what they do, or expect you do, etc. and do what YOU want to do. If that’s a mere 10 minutes a day of language learning, that’s more than 0 minutes a day. That’s more than an hour a week.

Again a beautiful thing about learning of your own accord is that you have total control. You can do as little or as much as you like, and you can change the amount that you do at any point. So make time today, do it again tomorrow to make it a routine, and then make an effort to not stop the routine.

I hope this helps give a little direction and kill some of those niggling excuses if you are currently thinking about learning a language. The hardest part is starting and then you just have to remember to be positive, look at how much you have done, and not how much you haven’t done.

Good luck!

Pete

TL;DR:

You don’t think you’re smart enough : language learning isn’t about smarts, it’s about persistence. You already speak your native language, and you learned that as a kid… You can learn a new language today, it takes persistence and time.

You think your memory sucks : you speak your native language, so you already know 1000s of words. We only remember what we are repeatedly exposed to, remembering vocab is the same. Just keep exposing yourself to the words and you’ll learn them soon enough.

You don’t plan to go to a country where it’s spoken : You don’t need to go to a specific country, nor know any personally to get access to native speakers. You can easily find people online wanting to learn English, or whatever other language(s) you may speak, and trade time learning each other’s languages together.

You don’t have time : everyone has time for doing what they like. Make time, even if it’s only a little each day and do it EVERY DAY.

You don’t know which one : don’t listen to what others tell you is a good choice, you have to choose for you. Pick poorly and you’ll lose motivation fast and give up. Pick well and it won’t seem like work and you’ll excel in no time!

You don’t know where to start : there are numerous resources out there, apps, books, online courses, try as many as it takes until you find what works best for you, and then just keep doing it.

…you keep coming up with excuses!! : No one succeeded at anything by making excuses. If you want it, go for it.

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Author: Pete Smissen

I'm a PhD student with an ever developing passion for learning foreign languages. I started this blog to flesh out and share my thoughts and ideas on how to go about learning foreign languages to fluency. I am more interested in concept based approaches that each individual can tailor to their own personal living situation, interests, attention span, etc.

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