Language Learning Is Easy But Persistence Isn't

Yesterday morning, I woke to an email from David Mansaray, asking me "Is learning a language difficult?" Part of my response was quoted in his latest blog post, but I found the topic very interesting, and it inspired me to give a lot of thought to how we use the word "difficult" in relation to language learning, and other things.

It's not learning a language that's hard. Actually, taken at face value, "learning" is easy, and "language" is easy. Then again, exercising is easy too. So is saving money and paying bills. But in a world full of diet pills, spray-on tans, cosmetic surgeries, lottery tickets, and game shows, it's hard to deny that the hard part of any big task is having the consistency, the perseverance, the patience to see it through. Learning the language is the easy part; the hard part is doing all the work, day after day. This is why foreign language skill remains such an effective signal about people — there's no shortcut for doing the work.

Once we accept that learning is the easy part, it becomes obvious that difficulty isn't the issue. The actual challenge is intent, which is at the core of persistence. If you pay attention each year on January 1, you see endless examples of easy tasks people want to accomplish: lose weight, quit smoking, start exercising, and often, learn a foreign language, etc.

Is quitting smoking difficult? No! Your default state is not smoking! What could involve less effort than staying in your default state? It requires more effort to acquire cigarettes, light them, smoke them, etc.

Is exercising difficult? No. Just stand up and start doing it. Certain exercises may, in fact, be difficult, but the act of exercising is as simple as anything else.

Is losing excess weight difficult? No. Just stop eating so much of the things that fatten. Once again, your default state wins here. We are all, by default, not eating. It requires more work to gain weight than it does to lose it!

And, as we already discussed above, learning a language isn't difficult either. If you're reading this, you've already learned at least one language successfully!

None of these things is difficult, and calling them difficult doesn't affect your confidence, or trick yourself into thinking it can't be done. The truth is, calling things difficult is an excuse. It's a fore-drawn conclusion. It's a way to justify to all your peers when you fail to do the simple task you claimed you wanted to accomplish.

But your peers know this game already. They play it too. When someone tells us something is difficult, we already understand that they're really telling us they lack the persistence to do it. So lets not fool ourselves into thinking that it's different when we say it... "Others are making excuses, but I really mean it." No. You don't.

When your desire to eat jelly donuts is stronger than your desire to lose weight... when your desire to have than next cigarette is stronger than your desire to quit... when your desire to have a bigger television is stronger than your desire to grow your savings... and when your desire to watch tv, go to the bar with friends, play video games, etc. is stronger than your desire to learn a foreign language... then the intent is clear: you will not do it. And then you'll justify that poor self-control and lack of persistence by proclaiming "it's too hard." But make no mistake: it's not hard. It's an excuse.

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Author: Yearlyglot
I'll lead you through a 12 month journey from knowing absolutely nothing about a language to having professional fluency.

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  • Anything worth doing is worth putting in the effort for.

  • I have somewhat of a different point of view: "This is difficult, but I can certainly do it..."

  • "and when your desire to watch tv, go to the bar with friends, play video games, etc. is stronger than your desire to learn a foreign language…"I solved this by simply doing those things in the target language, even if it meant subtitles.  Not all the time, but enough.This wasn't hard, though, since those things are the reason I'm learning the language in the first place.  :)I study very, very little, and that means my progress has been slow.  But I've found that just reading and watching and listening regularly is enough to keep the knowledge from dying while I do my slow studies.If you want to learn a language, there's really very little excuse for not doing so.  It's not difficult, so long as you just spend some time with the language.  If you try to learn it college-style, then it's a lot harder.  So it's a good thing that isn't necessary, huh?

  • Exactly!One piece of advice I give people quite often goes along that same line...You're going to surf the web. You're going to get distracted. You're going to end up watching cat videos and browsing porn. Of course you are. So just figure out how to do that in your target language! Problem solved.

  • If feeding your ego is what motivates you, then do it.

  • I think Doug's attitude is way more helpful and realistic. Your weight-loss analogy is ridiculous. Losing weight is very, very hard, and telling overweight people that it's easy doesn't do any good. Telling them "it's simple' is more accurate, because what you have to do is, yes, "eat less than you burn", and many people think it's more complicated than that. But overcoming urges and directives that are both learned and biological is very difficult, day after day. Thin people do not have more willpower than overweight people. But people who are losing weight, and then keeping it off, HAVE to have a lot more of it.Likewise, quitting smoking requires more than just deciding not to smoke anymore. It may take more physical energy to light up than not light up, but it takes intense emotional energy to overcome the biological messages the body is sending you that say "smoke!".How does this tie into language learning? Luckily, language learning is much, much simpler. We do not have biological impulses telling us to watch TV instead of reading a foreign language newspaper. You just have to spend the time, and make sure it's quality time. As with weight loss, as with smoking, you can't let one mistake, like letting a couple of days go by without doing any language-learning work, derail all your progress.

  • Why is that ego? Why isn't that self-confidence? (Edit: that was meant to be in reply to Randy's reply to Doug. It didn't toggle properly.)

  • Excellent points! That's why we, at, believe that games and short practices can get you into a learning "habit". As you point out the practices and execises are the easy part, it's getting into a learning "habit", what prevents many to learn a language. We now know that our games and story will get people back to learn!

  • You're absolutely right that there is often intense emotional energy involved in the urges that propel us to make poor choices. And perhaps fighting those urges *is* difficult.  But losing weight, quitting smoking, and learning a language... these things are *NOT* inherently difficult. These are all things that are quite easy in and of themselves.That's kind of the point of this whole post. Controlling urges is where the real focus should be. With the urges under control, none of these things are difficult.

  • Quite true. Setting good habits is a major key to success.

  • I prefer to think that a task is difficult, just because it makes me feel better when I complete it. That comes from my eternal need to challenge myself and see how far I can go. I know, I've got quite an ego :)

  • This is perfect, one of the best explanations I've yet read about the difficulty of language learning. Great post Aaron!

  • Um...  Who's Aaron?

  • I have to agree with Randy here.  Losing weight is a very simple equation:  eat less calories than you burn.  It's also simple to do if you track what you eat.  The problem is that people have a stronger desire not to do some math than they have to lose weight.

  • Haha, sorry Randy, I don't know what came over me. Please forgive the mental lapse.

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