“This is impossible for me…maybe I’ll just give up.”
A short, impactful statement that’s a hallmark symptom of the nasty bug known as self-doubt.
And if you catch it while you’re trying to learn a new language, it can keep you from enjoying the fun and benefits of language study.
The good news is: anyone can learn a language, and the very fact that you’re trying is already a good sign. Your self-doubt is misguided.
There’s a strong chance that you’re simply facing an obstacle rather than an insurmountable block. And with the right techniques, you can overcome any number of obstacles.
Below are nine of the most common problems language learners face and solutions to help you overcome them.
In a few months, you might start asking yourself, “Why am I so good at learning languages?”
- Why Is It Important to Identify Why You Feel Like You Can’t Learn Languages?
- Why Can’t I Learn Languages? 9 Possible Obstacles to Fluency
- You’re not making learning fun.
- You’re not using the right approach for you.
- You’re plateauing at one level.
- The language you’re learning is exceptionally hard.
- You have fewer advantages when it comes to language learning.
- You don’t have the motivation.
- You lack clear goals.
- You’re scared.
- You’re just not using it enough.
Why Is It Important to Identify Why You Feel Like You Can’t Learn Languages?
What’s with all of this self-awareness, though? Why can’t we just skip the thought assessment and tell you what you need to do so you can move on with your life?
First of all, identifying your obstacles can take the stigma out of your perceived failures. Failure can sting and make you feel like you’re simply incapable. That’s not very motivating. However, if you identify the obstacle you’re facing, you won’t have to feel bad anymore. Instead, you can recognize that there’s no problem with you, there’s simply a problem with your learning process. That doesn’t seem so bad, right?
Additionally, if you can identify why you’re struggling to learn languages, you can work to correct your problems. Whether you’re stuck on a language plateau or are simply using the wrong language learning style for you, knowing why you’re struggling gives you a clearer idea of how to correct your problems. After all, if you can’t identify the problem, it’s nearly impossible to identify a solution.
Finally, identifying your challenges can give you the motivation and direction to try again. There’s a reason why the scariest horror movie villains are the ones you don’t get a clear look at. When you’re uncertain of your foe, they’re scary. The same is true of language learning. Once you can look what’s vexing you dead in the face, you can get the extra motivation and direction you need to give it another go. No need to let scary problems hold you back! With the right motivation and direction, even the hardest languages can seem like easy languages.
Why Can’t I Learn Languages? 9 Possible Obstacles to Fluency
You’re not making learning fun.
When learning feels like a chore, you’re likely to put it off, disengage or just stop altogether. No one wants to be bored! But there’s a problem: Some language learning tasks are not as inherently exciting as others. Language learning isn’t all glamorous trips abroad. Sometimes, you’ll need to study vocabulary, even if you don’t feel like it. Sometimes, you’ll need to read up on a tricky grammar rule. Sometimes, language learning can seem like a real drag, and that can hold you back from improving your skills like you want to.
Solution: Make learning into a game.
Luckily, no learning task ever needs to be boring. If you choose to make learning fun, you’ll be much more driven to continue.
One way to make learning more fun is to make it into a game, which will be even more fun with language learning friends.
If you don’t know anyone else who’s studying your target language, find language learning friends online! You can find like-minded friends on the Language Learning subreddit or a language learning Facebook group, like “Language Learners.”
To make learning a game, challenge your friends. Set a goal, and see who can meet it the fastest. For instance, compile a list of vocabulary words that you each want to memorize. Whoever has them down pat first wins.
If you don’t have a friend studying your target language, though, you can still complete the same challenges alone and gain a self-competitive streak. Ultimately, this can increase your own motivation and help you grow your skills quickly.
You’re not using the right approach for you.
Does learning style really matter? Absolutely! One study suggests that considering key factors, such as preferred learning style, learning needs, objectives and beliefs is important for learners trying to learn a language independently. So if you’ve just jumped into learning without careful consideration, it could very well be that you’re not using the right approach for you, and that’s holding you back.
Solution: Try multiple approaches at once.
To get an idea of which approach you like best, let them compete among themselves. Try multiple methods at the same time. Now, we don’t mean literally. You don’t need to have 10 laptops set up to compare and contrast simultaneously. But set aside a few hours to test out various approaches and programs that interest you. Jot down notes on what you like about each program, what you don’t like about the program and in what ways it might help you meet your goals.
Once you have a firm idea about what each approach has to offer, you’ll have a clearer idea about what might work for you. At the end, hand your favorite a rose (or subscription, as the case may be). Consider it like “The Bachelor: Language Learning Edition.”
You’re plateauing at one level.
Language plateaus are a real thing, and they can be daunting. Early on in language learning, students tend to learn more quickly. It’s new, it’s exciting and there’s so much valuable information out there. But after you’ve been studying for a while (usually around the intermediate level), learning tends to plateau. You already know all the essential terms and grammar rules, so moving forward can seem tricky. You might feel like you used to be good at learning languages but are suddenly failing.
However, students who have plateaued tend to face similar lingering language problems, including limited vocabulary, speaking difficulties, fossilized errors (persistent errors), overly simplistic wording and sounding unnatural.
Solution: Interact with native speakers.
Interacting with native speakers is one of the few solutions that can address all the major issues that students who have plateaued usually face. For instance, your vocabulary will naturally expand based on what you want to talk about. Similarly, the more often you talk, the more you might start to mirror your conversation partner’s style, correcting your overly simplistic wording. Talking to a native speaker can also improve your speaking skills and make you sound more natural. If you find a friend who’s comfortable pointing out your faults, they can even help identify fossilized errors that you can work to correct.
So while you may have plateaued and it may seem like you can’t move forward, there’s still plenty to work on, and interacting with native speakers can help.
Ready to get chatting? Download a language exchange app, like italki. To break free from your plateau, you’ll want more than just a short-term or one-time conversation exchange. Instead, try to find someone you can develop a long-term friendship with. To do this, pay careful attention to user profiles. What are they looking for? What are their interests? Selecting a partner who’s also seeking a long-term friendship and has shared interests will ensure that you have the motivation necessary to continue your language exchange and therefore continue improving your skills.
To get the most out of your language exchange, select key topics ahead of time. Not only can this help prevent awkward silences, it can also help you practice specific grammar and vocabulary.
The language you’re learning is exceptionally hard.
Some languages are definitely harder to learn than others. If you’re learning a language with a significantly different structure than your native language, it might be exceptionally hard. For instance, for an English speaker, learning Chinese is likely to be harder than learning Spanish for the simple reason that the structure is so different.
Solution: Consider studying an easier language first.
It can be tempting to dive in full force with a particularly challenging language, but instead, you might consider studying an easier language first. This can help you build up the skills you need as a language learner. You’ll learn what methods work for you, what you need to do to accomplish your goals and how you stay motivated. Once you’ve learned an easier language, you can revisit the more complicated language. With your new learning skills, you might find that it seems a lot easier than it did when you first tried to learn it!
You have fewer advantages when it comes to language learning.
There are a lot of factors that can put you at a bit of a disadvantage.
For instance, one study suggests a correlation between a strong phonological memory and language learning; however, it’s unclear whether a strong phonological memory makes it easier to learn languages or if people who speak multiple languages strengthen their phonological memory during the learning process.
Another study suggests that “intrinsic functional connectivity within the language network” of the brain can be a significant contributing factor in adult language acquisition, which basically means that some brains are better wired for language learning than others.
Another scholar goes so far as to suggest that hyperpolyglots (people who speak more than 11 languages) are members of a “neural tribe,” which is a group bound by a particular undertaking, a base of identity related to that undertaking and different “neural hardwiring” that helps them succeed in that undertaking. In other words, people who are exceptional at learning languages may have exceptional differences in their brains.
In spite of all the research, however, it remains unclear what exactly causes these differences since causation is challenging to pinpoint. It could be life experience, genetics or a huge array of other factors. In other words, there’s no telling whether people who have these advantages were born with them or got them.
So while the science behind why some people are better at learning languages than others isn’t entirely clear, there’s no doubt that some people have an easier time than others.
Solution: Learn to enjoy challenges and consider solutions to improve retention.
Learning a language may be a challenge, but that doesn’t mean you need to let yourself be held back by the fact that you don’t have as many learning advantages as some other people.
Recognizing that learning might not come as easily for you as some of your friends can be beneficial if it helps you take some pressure off yourself, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop. Put in the work and you’ll reap the rewards, even if it takes a little extra time. No one runs a marathon because it’s easy… sometimes you need a challenge to drive you forward. And there’s no reason to feel bad if it takes a little while to succeed.
If you need an extra leg up, though, you might try strengthening your short-term memory to prepare it for language learning, and there are plenty of simple ways to do so. Inc. suggests some unique ideas. For instance, have you tried chewing gum as you study? What about using a better posture? While these tricks may seem a little offbeat, they might actually help you retain information better, thereby making learning a little easier.
You don’t have the motivation.
Motivation is important in all areas of life, but when it comes to learning a language, motivation can be the big difference that separates people who become fluent from people who only learn a couple of words.
Motivation can impact a huge array of traits that aid in language learning. For instance, motivation can lead students to interact more with native speakers and use learning strategies. Motivation can also correlate with how well students perform on achievement and proficiency tests.
So if you’re struggling to figure out how to learn a language, you might want to take another look at why you’re doing it.
Solution: Keep your motivation right in front of you.
Once you’re deep into grammar rules and vocabulary lists, it can be easy to forget the real reason you’re learning a language, so keep your motivation right in front of you!
One way to do this is keeping a motivation journal. Set aside a couple minutes each day to write about why you’re learning your target language and what this new skill means to you. Once your language skills improve, you might even write about your motivation in your target language for a little extra practice. Keep your journal handy. The next time you feel demotivated, just read through what you wrote to give yourself the drive you need to press forward.
Another way to motivate yourself is to put a poster in your study area. Maybe it will show a travel destination you hope to visit. Maybe it will show something related to your intended career field that you want to use your target language in. Either way, a quick visual reminder of what’s motivating you can be helpful.
You lack clear goals.
If you don’t have goals, you don’t have direction. If you don’t have direction, it’s really hard to make progress. Without goals, a casual language learner might pick up a few words here and there but is unlikely to make any real, noticeable strides forward, which can create the illusion that they can’t learn languages.
Solution: Set long- and short-term goals with predetermined rewards.
Setting goals for yourself and giving yourself rewards is an easy way to ensure your learning keeps moving forward.
To do this, consider both your long- and short-term goals. For instance, if your long-term goal is to be able to interact with native speakers in your target language comfortably in six months, you’ll need to figure out short-term goals to reach this. You might decide to study and practice 10 vocabulary words per day or use your favorite learning resource for 20 minutes per day. Whatever your goal, be as specific as possible so that you can actually assess whether you’ve met your goal.
Then, keep track of your goals somewhere you’ll see often so that you remember exactly what they are. You might even add them to your phone’s calendar and set reminders to ensure you meet all your goals.
The final step is the fun part: Reward yourself for meeting your goals. For your daily goals, consider something relatively small. For instance, a spoonful of Nutella can be a tremendous motivator. For long-term goals, you might set increasingly large rewards, such as a trip abroad once you’re able to watch your favorite Netflix show in your target language without subtitles.
Foreign language anxiety is real, and it can jeopardize your ability to learn a language. If you’re afraid to use your language skills, you miss valuable practice. If you miss valuable practice, you don’t progress as quickly. It’s a vicious cycle. One study suggests that anxiety can lead to anger and frustration, which are hardly beneficial to the learning process.
Solution: Be aware of your own feelings and work to build up your confidence.
It’s okay to be anxious, but try to be mindful of your own feelings and why you feel this way. Not only could this self-awareness reduce your overall stress, it could also help you find ways to work around your anxiety.
For instance, to move past your anxiety, you might try building up your confidence in your target language. To do this, consider using an interactive resource that gives you speaking practice, too. Some programs that incorporate speaking practice include Mondly and Mango Languages. By using them, you can get the practice you need to build up your skills and confidence before you speak with real people.
It’s also advised that you find resources that show you how a language is used in different contexts. An example of such a resource is FluentU.
Offering education in 10 languages, FluentU uses authentic videos featuring native speakers from around the web. The collection is expansive and diverse, ranging in format, genre and difficulty. Each video has special captions that give you access to any word’s definition, example sentences and an associated image.
Through FluentU, you can learn vocabulary as it’s utilized in different scenarios. This can boost your comfort level in your target language so that speaking it in real-life won’t be so intimidating.
You could also increase you confidence by practicing affirmations to remind yourself of how capable you are. Repeat after me: “I am a capable and skilled language learner.”
You’re just not using it enough.
Languages are meant to be used. If you’ve studied a language extensively but haven’t used it much, when you finally try, you might feel like all your studies have failed you. Well, that’s probably not true… you likely just don’t have enough practice actually using your skills.
Solution: Immerse yourself!
Do whatever it takes to get more experience using your target language.
If there are native speakers in your community, one great way to overcome this learning obstacle is to frequent the same places as native speakers. Better still, try to get a part-time job at a business where native speakers congregate. This can give you the speaking and listening practice you need to learn the language more fully.
Even if there aren’t native speakers near you, though, there are still plenty of ways you can overcome the obstacle of not having used the language. For instance, think in your language. When your mind drifts at work or school, only allow it to do so if you’re thinking exclusively in your target language. You could also enjoy authentic media, like the awesome movie and TV options on Netflix.
Regardless of what you choose, using your target language more often will help you prove to yourself that you’re capable of learning a language. In fact, it’s possible that you may already have done so, or at least built up a lot of skills that just need to be warmed up a bit.
So if you think you can’t learn a language, think again.
Once you identify what obstacles you’re facing, you can get back on the road to fluency!