Why learning a language is hard & how to make it easier
If you’re struggling to learn a new language, breathe, you’re not alone. Adults famously find language learning more difficult than children, whose super-flexible brains actually grow the connections necessary to learn an additional language.
But, why is it so hard to learn a foreign language, anyway? Put simply, it’s hard because it challenges both your mind (your brain has to construct new cognitive frameworks) and time (it requires sustained, consistent practice). But there’s more to it than that.
In this article we’ll explore three major factors that make language learning difficult – and give you six tips to make it that much easier; to put a little spring in your language learning step!
The brain itself
Have you ever wondered why some people sail through Spanish and others can barely mutter “hola”? Well, there is research which suggests that our own brain’s unique wiring can pre-determine language success. In a study conducted at McGill University, participants’ brains were scanned before and after undergoing an intensive 12-week French course. Researchers found that stronger connections between brain centers involved in speaking and reading were seen in the better-performing participants.
While this could mean that some people are simply cognitively better equipped for language learning, it doesn’t mean that everyone shouldn’t try (and yes, it really is that good for you)!
How we learn
After-work classes, studying abroad, apps, talking with your foreign partner, working overseas, taking an intensive language course – there are so many ways to learn a language. However, it’s clear that because adults have to, you know, be adults, we simply can’t learn “implicitly” as young children do, by following around a nurturing native speaker all day. Unfortunately, our more sophisticated grown-up brains get in the way of learning.
As adults, we tend to learn by accumulating vocabulary, but often don’t know how each piece interacts to form grammatically correct language. Research from MIT even suggests that adults’ tendency to over-analyze hinders their ability to pick up a foreign language’s subtle nuances, and that straining harder and harder will not result in better outcomes.
Voxy’s Katie Nielson blames this on the idea of ‘language as object’. ”In history class, you start chronologically and you use dates in order of how things happened. That’s just not how language-learning works,” she says. “You can’t memorize a bunch of words and rules and expect to speak the language. Then what you have is knowledge of ‘language as object’. You can describe the language, but you can’t use it.”
It’s better, she says, to consider the process “skill learning” (something you do), rather than “object learning” (something you know). The remedy? Lose the perfection. Get messy in your learning – whether via app, class or travel – be happy to make mistakes and realize that you will feel silly at times.
Similarities between languages
We empathize! It’s not easy to learn a language vastly different than your own (think English speakers struggling with Korean, or a Thai native wrestling with Arabic). Interestingly, studies show that these difficulties are not due to personal aversions to challenge, but rather, to neurological preferences.
Research at Donders Institute and Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics indicates that our brains are not indifferent to the similarities between languages, and will reuse our native tongue’s grammar and characteristics to make sense of a similarly-structured foreign language.
Professor of psycholinguistics Nuria Sagarra agrees that learners of vastly differing languages have a greater challenge ahead: “If your native language is more similar to the foreign language (e.g. your native language has rich morphology and you are learning a different rich morphology, such as a Russian learning Spanish), things will be easier.”
Tips to make your journey easier
While learning a language will never be 100 percent easy – nothing truly worthwhile is – it can definitely be enjoyable and successful. So what can you do? Luckily, a lot!
Know yourself and your goals
Why are you learning this language? For professional reasons? Pleasure? To communicate with family? With your goal in mind, actively search for opportunities to learn what you need and filter out what you don’t (for example, vocabulary for talking about your work is very different to that necessary to navigate North America on a road trip). Focusing on your overall learning goal will help you combat burnout when it comes.
Find child-like joy
While our brains are no longer as flexible as kids’ are, we can be as curious as them! Immersion and play are key, and for adults excellent approaches are taking a class in your language (French cooking in French or salsa in Spanish) or going on a study abroad program that combines language learning with travel and cultural immersion.
Two for one
Already know one foreign language? Give yourself a head start by diving into a relatively (or very!) similar one (e.g., Portuguese/Spanish or Dutch/German or Norwegian/Swedish/Danish). Your previous learning experience will help you filter this new language more effectively.
“You need motivation to repeatedly seek out new language learning experiences, and motivation has been consistently tied to language learning success,” says Angela Grant, from Pennsylvania State University. Find yours by buying your plane tickets right away, having lovely notebook for class, exploring your city with a language exchange partner or making a ritual of doing your homework in a favorite coffee shop.
Come face to face with new input as much as possible! Change the language on your social media accounts, computer and phone. Download movies, listen to music and podcasts; read novels, non-fiction and magazines; watch documentaries and cook from foreign recipes.
Realize that it’s messy
Remember, you’re learning a skill, not an object. Relish the ridiculous moments, especially during the first months, and do not fear failure or embarrassment. Make peace with the fact that your accent isn’t perfect and you don’t understand everything. None of this matters in the long run. What matters is commitment!