Think You’re Bad at Languages? 3 Reasons to Think Again!
Were you one of the kids in school who just couldn’t grasp language classes?
No matter how hard you tried, you just weren’t ever sure exactly what you were doing or why you were doing it.
Rote memorization of grammar tables was boring.
And fill-in-the-blank tests were stressful.
It’s memories like these that can keep adult learners from trying on a language on their own.
After all, we keep telling ourselves we’re bad at languages.
But we’re wrong! No one is bad at learning languages, and anyone can learn any language.
Schools traditionally have catered to one basic type of learning style, and that learning style simply doesn’t work for everyone. Classroom-style language learning can be a bit misleading when it comes to different learning methods or individual talent.
Language, in fact, is natural, and adults can (and do!) learn as easily as children do.
There are plenty of different ways to learn—again, no one is bad at learning languages.
Still don’t believe me? Here are three reasons why, along with some real, practical ways you can make language learning work for you.
Inspiring Reasons Why No One Is Actually Bad at Languages
1. Traditional classes just don’t work best for everyone
Most of us look back on our schooling with memories of strict classes, grades and stressful competition. A lot of the time, the classes were boring, too. Boredom plus pressure? That does not make for a productive learning experience for a lot of people.
Moreover, plenty of successful language learners sucked at their classes—check out Khatzumoto from All Japanese All The Time and Ramses from Spanish Only. These guys figured out that they could learn differently, and set out on an immersion-heavy endeavor that got them to fluency!
But even in the classroom, a lot of teachers and researchers are taking a second glance at how things are run these days. I’ve had language classes that put some emphasis on native media and immersive, colorful textbooks.
Some are even doing away with grammar memorization and are teaching grammar in an organic way through exciting materials—students end up picking up grammar mostly through exposure.
So if you’re looking into language classes, see if your city has Total Physical Response (TPR) method classes, which teach vocabulary through using the target language alone, along with ample context. My first Spanish classes were taught in this style, and it’s a breath of fresh air when compared with traditional classes!
And if TPR doesn’t interest you, check out the textbooks the professor is using before signing up for the class. Look for colorful, fun textbooks that have large amounts of text in the target language—lots of reading samples. You need context to learn, so the less your native language appears in your target language textbook, the better.
Just goes to show that old-fashioned, traditional classes are only one way of doing things. If classes aren’t working for you, feel free to switch to or supplement with exciting textbooks, native materials or conversation partners!
One place where you can look for textbooks that meet your needs is VitalSource. They have e-textbooks that you can rent or buy, along with a convenient reading app, and they carry books for many world languages.
Another great option is taking an online course like polyglot Olly Richards’ Grammar Hero or Conversations courses, which are designed to help you set up workable, step-by-step systems for learning your target language. Either course can act as an excellent bridge between learner-oriented and authentic material.
Which brings us to our next point…:
2. Immersion is key!
As already mentioned, a lot of learners feel like they don’t get very close to proficiency or fluency from their high school or college classes. They then take the logical leap and conclude that they’re just not good at the language.
Immersion, however, can help anyone get good at learning languages.
In other words, try using native media right from the start. Movies, music, TV, anything you can find. You can use Amazon third-party sellers or YouTube.
Native materials are fun. They give you more opportunities to come into contact with the language. Traditional classes fail students when they only provide cold, textbook dialogues and grammar tables.
With inherently entertaining content like sitcoms and hip-hop at your disposal, exposure will ensure you can’t be bad at the language. Language learning is oftentimes a function of quantity, and classes oftentimes just don’t provide enough.
If you don’t know exactly where to start, I recommend media made for kids, like cartoons and comics, if you can find them.
My standby method is to YouTube search for “[target language] cartoon” and see what I come up with. You don’t have to worry about understanding everything (or anything!) when you first start to use native media, but if this worries or frustrates you, kid media is the answer. Cartoons and comics are heavy on visual context, visual humor and simple storylines—this allows you to piece together what you’re hearing with what’s on the screen or page.
Again, don’t expect yourself to understand anything right off the bat. Native media provides exposure, which works really well when combined with other methods, like classes and textbooks. Using different tools together allows each of them to support the other.
When you first start using native media, simply try to pick out vocab words you’re learning at the moment. Really easy things, like “and,” or “the” or “because.” And then take wild guesses as to the rest of the meaning!
Don’t worry about being wrong—languages are big and require mistakes to learn: As you get more exposure and experience, you’ll figure out your incorrect guesses and adjust along the way.
Finally, native media helps you get addicted to things in your target language. When you’re having fun, you keep coming back for more. Language exposure simply takes care of itself! It helps fix the issue a lot of solo language learners struggle with—how to stay committed to a long-term project.
If you can’t stop listening to a certain band in your target language, well, your project has a lot more hope of staying afloat!
3. Self-testing for memorization = amazing linguistic talent
Finally, language learners (and students of all subjects) often have problems with memory. This is what made those darn grammar tables so difficult. And how does anyone remember new vocab words, anyways?
The answer? Test yourself.
What? That doesn’t sound like fun? Well, it’s more fun than it sounds once you start to realize that you’ll get results. By quizzing yourself over time on new information, you solidify that knowledge in your mind. Think flashcards or covering up answers in your notes. No more staring at grammar tables or word lists until your brain turns to mush!
Here are a few neat ideas you can benefit from.
Spaced Repetition Systems
To rev up your memory even more, use a spaced repetition system (SRS). You’ll no longer have the excuse that your memory just isn’t made for foreign languages. An SRS is a flashcard program that uses an algorithm based on how quickly human memory forgets information. To start using an SRS, you can download apps like Anki or Mnemosyne.
If you start using an SRS, believe me, you’ll think yourself a linguistic genius. No more forgetting! Simply plug in your target language vocab and a translation on the back, and you’re golden. Let the algorithm do the rest while you rack up a sizeable vocabulary. Learning vocab isn’t something you just need to muddle through. It can be fun, easy and painless.
If you’re considering learning a language with a new script, like Russian, Hindi, Chinese or Korean, don’t be scared! You can easily learn new scripts and even characters by using resources like “Remembering Kanji / Hanzi” by James Heisig (which uses mnemonic devices to help you out, and SRS is a great support for that). Anki has a huge library of user-made decks—you can easily download a pre-made Anki deck that teaches you Hangul or the Cyrillic alphabet.
SRS can also solve all the grammar trouble you ever had in school. How? Instead of entering solitary words into your flashcards, enter sentences in, perhaps from your textbooks so that you have a reliable translation to put on the back. By seeing and understanding the same sentences and sentence patterns over and over, you’ll absorb complicated new grammar more easily than you ever imagined. Tell me you’re bad at languages now!
Wordlists and paper quizzes
What if you’re a low-tech sort of person? Well, paper flashcards can be extremely helpful in and of themselves. It doesn’t have to be like your grade school classes, either. Context is important, so use flashcards for fun words you’re learning from your TV shows and music, and include quotes and lyrics as examples. Since you already enjoy the media you’re consuming, you’ll be more motivated to try to understand it!
The same principle applies to the vocab you can learn with wordlists. If you have an aversion to flashcards—and they don’t work best for everybody—wordlists are your friends! Check out the Iversen method—Iversen is an accomplished polyglot who is active at the How To Learn Any Language forum. And he is decidedly a paper-and-pencil language learner, so let him inspire you.
One more way to test yourself to solidify knowledge is by playing games. A quick Google search will lead you to grammar quizzes in the most popular languages. You can also Google search in your target language to find games kids play in your target language itself.
For example, when I was knee-deep into learning Japanese, I played around with kanji games aimed at Japanese first-graders. El País, the popular Spanish newspaper, recently made a Spanish accents quiz (aimed at native speakers!) that can help learners identify the differences between different accents.
Most of the time, when people think they’re just bad at something, they’re dead wrong.
Students and solo learners alike only need to find learning methods that work for them and excite them.
Thorough experimentation can even reveal learning methods that are more efficient for everyone.
Just because one method doesn’t work for you, it doesn’t mean nothing will.
Don’t write off language learning and all the wonderful fun and benefits that come with it. Just try something else!