The Real Reason Most People Fail At Language Learning

It is my firm belief that one of the main reasons why so many people do not learn foreign languages, or why so many people fail at learning foreign languages, is that they simply do not know how to do it. This is the worst kind of problem, because it is a problem whose existence is invisible.

It's easy to find solutions to problems when you know they exist, but when you don't know you have a problem your chance of finding an answer is very small. Not knowing how to learn foreign languages, people turn to classrooms, tutors, software, books, or other products which are really only designed to teach the workings of a language, but not to teach how to learn it, or to use it.

So how do you learn a foreign language? That's the real question then, isn't it? If most people don't know how to learn a foreign language, what is it that they don't know? If you happen to be one of those people, what can I tell you that will help to change that? The answer is a lot of the same things I've been saying all along.

Create urgency

The first thing that you have to do is create urgency. Take away the path of least resistance. If you spend all of your time happily functioning in your native language it will take you forever to learn anything in a new one.

As a programmer, when I want to learn a new programming language, I could spend weeks studying it but very little would make sense and I would just get bored. Instead, if I want to learn a new language, I start a brand new project and use that language. Sure, it's difficult... and slow... but with a real, tangible set of needs in front of me, I learn a lot quickly! The same applies for learning a spoken language.

If you're anything like me, you probably use Facebook regularly. You might also use Twitter. Maybe you're the type of person who likes to watch YouTube videos or look for look at funny pictures. Doing those things in a new language doesn't require much effort on your part, because you already know how to do them. You don't need instructions or translations.

I am learning more Greek from following Greek people on Twitter than anything I am learning from any book. Sure, I still have to go to Google Translate and look up a lot of words I don't know, but I'm seeing these words in real-life usage rather than in the sterile, constructed sentences of a lesson book.

Use the language

We're not all travel bloggers, permanently moving to a new country where we can then learn our new language through immersion, and it's not often that a change of residence can coincide with our language learning plans, but there are still plenty of things we can do to force ourselves to use a new language while we learn.

Two years ago, while I was learning Italian, I wrote about subscribing to blogs in foreign languages about things that interest you. I'm no longer focused on learning Italian, but I still read the Italian travel blogs I mentioned every day. I can't say the same about any lesson book I've ever read! I enjoy reading about travel, so doing it in another language is easy... and fun! In fact, I just recently found some Greek blogs to start reading.

You probably have a smartphone — maybe an iPhone or an Android. You use it every day, and you know where your apps are and what the icons look like. You don't really need that to be in your native language, do you? Switch it! Sure, there will be some things that confuse you from time to time, but you'll also learn a lot of new vocabulary out of necessity, just from using the language. And you can do the same with Google, Facebook, even your whole computer. Why not?

If you've spent any time in the language learning community online, you've heard about this phrase "comprehensible input" — target-language input which can be understood. What better way to get comprehensible input than to steal it away from your native language!

I'm fond of saying it: You are what you do. The way to learn a new language is clear: use it.

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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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  • I think the 'use it' advance is great for learning languages, but *not* for people who are just starting.  Learning a new programming language is easy because you've already learned one once.  Someone showed you how to learn a language.Learning a second language isn't as easy.  Your first language came 'free'.  Nobody stopped and taught you how to learn it, you just puzzled it out over years of confusion.I think the best thing people can do is to start learning vocabulary by any simple means they have.  Whether it's an anki deck or a website dedicated to it or a traveler's phrasebook, just start learning.  Once that ball is rolling, then attempting to use the language is a great move.From there, I think things get easier, since you already have some momentum, and the worst case scenario is that you just keep doing that.  But opportunities to expand always come along eventually, and you'll automatically branch out into learning grammar, accent, and all the other pieces of a language.The most important step is to just take the first step.  It doesn't matter what it is.  But if you really need direction still, start learning vocab.

  • Gracias, good tips! You've inspired me to find Spanish Twitterers(?) and blogs!

  • "The most important step is to just take the first step."I completely agree with you. Sometimes we make the first step a huge hurdle and end up never taking it. It's important to make our first steps small and reachable, to build that momentum for larger steps down the road. Something that really helped me before I arrived in Guatemala was learning the 100 most frequently used words in Spanish. On the plane flight to Guatemala, I was seated next to two Guatemalan farmers and because I took that small first step of learning a little vocab, I was able to have a nice little chat with them. Your comment has given me a lot to think about, thanks :)

  •  If I may Michael, take a look at my blog where I discuss Spanish learning and slang.  Also, I'm active on Twitter at @jaredromey:twitter

  • I just started Italian so your link to the previous post on Italian blogs you follow is great timing!! I've found which I'm enjoying.  At this point my Italian is in its first few weeks, but because of other languages, I can still follow a bit of the blogs.  Thanks for the suggestions!!  Also, just as you mention, I have added several Portuguese blogs to my reader, just to brush up on that too.About learning languages, I think most people that claim that others have a special "ability" to learn languages, are the people who have never spent the time efficiently to learn one.  Most are probably monolingual.  I hear people all the time talking about me having an ability for languages because of my level in Spanish.  What most of them don't realize is that I've spent literally thousands of hours learning it, with several years of my life where I spoke almost nothing but Spanish.  I wouldn't call that anything other than persistence.Jared

  • I've started learning Japanese a couple of times now.  Other things are pressing, including moving to another city, so it's again on hold.  This post gave me a few new ideas about how to start again, which will hopefully lead to better success than before.  Thanks!

  • I'm glad you found some of my suggestions helpful. I'm working on a whole lot more behind the scenes which can also, hopefully, be helpful to you when it's ready!

  • Great comments! Yeah, I always take exception to that "you have a gift for languages" excuse.

  • On the contrary, learning a new programming language is no more or less easy for having done it before. And besides, by your logic, learning another language should be easy because you've already learned one! (You're using it right now...)The whole point of my advice to "use it", is especially important for beginners -- maybe even moreso than for more advanced learners -- because trying to learn a language without any real direction is a recipe for frustration and failure. If instead, you start by creating a task, it then becomes perfectly clear to you what you will need in order to achieve that task.For example, if I say "I'm going to learn Chinese", I can run in circles learning words or grammar or symbols and never really be much use. But if I say today, "I'm going to make my shopping list in Chinese", I start immediately with the advantage of knowing what words I need to learn, as well as the immediate need to remember those words when I'm at the store looking at the list. This is precisely why "use it" is so important for the beginner.

  • You learned your first human language before your memories start.  You have no recollection of that process.You learned your first computer language after your memories start.  You remember the teacher, and how they instructed you.  You remember the other students.  You remember practicing.They are completely different for your second of each of them.   You might argue that your third human language is comparable to your second computer language, but no the second human language.

  • Actually that's precisely the fundamental basis of my site: I'm not teaching you Spanish (though I occasionally do a little bit of that), I'm teaching you how to learn Spanish (hence the title of the site) by teaching you all my various techniques and tricks and all the best resources I've discovered and how to use them. When I began thinking about starting a Spanish-learning-type of site I quickly determined that turning it into an online Spanish learning course, like an online version of Pimsleur or Assimil or Rosetta Stone, would not only be very difficult and complicated (probably would require some custom design and programming I'd have to pay for, doubt Wordpress would cut it) but it would also be extremely time-consuming and, frankly, at the time I didn't even have the expertise to teach Spanish to other people, but I could teach you how I had been teaching myself Spanish which I knew would be useful and valuable.  It didn't matter that I didn't have the best command of the language at the time (I'd say I was a low-intermediate then), all that mattered was that I'd been dicking around with it for about two years or so and had learned a bunch about how to learn languages in general and Spanish in particular that I could share with other people.Sorry, that was two paragraphs of self-promotion, or very close to it, but it was relevant and I just wanted to agree and point out that the real dilemma seems to be not that people can't find the necessary resources to learn a language now with the internet and everything, but that they don't know how to learn a language in general and they don't know how to use those specific resources in particular.Cheers,

  • Agreed, most people want to learn a new language but they don't know how. Online resources are awesome and very helpful to any beginner.

  • You should use language in practice to learn it faster. Offcourse not everyone has this opportunity so they need to find some online native speakers and just talk with them.

  • Thanks I married a Greek and I have been living here in Greece
    for 2 years I have gone to school for 6 months I read at home I speak as much
    as I can I’m going crazy about this language I feel like I’m so far away from
    every being fluent, I like the idea of changing my computer to Greek “although
    that scares me” and I think I will change my phone also. Thanks so much for the
    great advice.From a desperately seeking language house wife.

  • I find your idea of following people that speak the language you are learning on Twitter amazing. In that way you really get to know how the language is being used on a day to day basis. Using music is another great way to boost your language skills to the next level. Although this method is commonly known to language learners, its full potential is hardly ever being noticed. It helped me so much while learning Chinese and I still find it one of the quickest ways to learn a foreign language. Why? -Memorizing vocabulary is much easier
    because of the melody that accompanies the words.-Specific parts of the song
    are repeated, making it even easier to memorize new vocabulary.-It is scientifically proven
    that the brain is able to absorb information at a much faster rate when
    involved in an activity that you enjoy.-You will not only learn new
    words but also how these words are used in sentences at the same time.For more information see:

  • Some great tips. Anything that gets you involved and engaged is going to help. Using "it" is a fundamental requirement, of that there is NO doubt. However practice/use is not sufficient. There are many people who cook for a lifetime and always are lousy cooks! Just the same with language learners...look at the ones who emigrate and learn to speak in a fashion but never really that well. They get can get stuck at any level! So you also need to find strategies that you can use to keep learning. And as you get better, your strategies need to change.There are many things one could say here, but one thing that is critically important is to have a clearly articulated goal. As Confucius or some wise sage once said. "He who has no target hits nothing"

  • I pity (and admire) the poor folks who had to learn a language from-a-book. The resources available for free to anyone with internet access is staggering and cuts off at the knees any excuses about it being too hard. You can read, hear, see, correspond with natives or just about anything in hundreds of languages and now the challenge has become choosing what to FOCUS on. Quality listening,reading,talking and writing is worth a thousand times more than stuffing around with a belligerent flashcard app or grinding through a language course stuck in the last century.

  • I think you are partly right about the reason people not studying it is that they do not know what to do. Most people who learn languagees ikn school shave a dismal experience. Most people end up believeing that they are poor at learning languages because the way they were taught was guaranteed to have limited success.
    What we need to realise that ALL of us were great language learners and that we have all that we need to learn other languages. So what we need to realise that the problem is not us but the the methods we use ( using as you say is one key) and our beliefs! Change the beliefs and our methods and we will be surprised at the results we get.So looking for better ways of learning is a key.....start here... https://www.strategiesinlang....

  • Hello, what is your website please?

  • Hi Scarlett, it's at - please let me know what you think!Cheers,

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