As with anything in life, learning a new language has its ups and downs. Sometimes we feel elated - inspired and driven. Other times, we feel frustrated or ambivalent about the process.
Even though we’re all different, a lot of the difficulties language learners face are actually the same. And while some of them are unique to studying a language, a lot of them also apply to other aspects of life.
Over the years, I’ve spent a lot of time chatting with students about what they find most difficult when it comes to learning English. And, I definitely noticed a few recurring themes.
Read on to find out more about the most common obstacles language learners encounter on their journey and some practical strategies on how to overcome them.
Fear of Making Mistakes or Sounding Silly
How many times have I heard this one? Maybe you had a bad experience when you were younger - a teacher who berated you in front of your classmates and you never fully recovered from the embarrassment. Or perhaps you’re used to being in control and knowing what you’re doing and find it hard to let go. Whatever the reason, many learners struggle with this fear. Trying to express ourselves in a new language can make us feel extremely vulnerable. Before we even open our mouths, we often start to doubt our abilities. What if they don’t understand me? Or worse, what if I can’t understand them? What if I say something wrong? Will if they laugh at my accent?
As adults, these fears can be paralyzing and they inhibit our progress. So how can we overcome them?
See Mistakes as Learning Opportunities
Overcoming this obstacle may be easier said than done but there are definitely ways to work towards feeling more at ease when speaking and making errors. The first and most important step is to reframe how you think about learning a language or any other skill for that matter.
Start by accepting that making mistakes is simply a part of the process. Think about it - how many times does a toddler fall down before they finally are able to walk?
Next, try to look at your mistakes as learning opportunities. Instead of throwing that disappointing quiz in the trash, spend some time pinpointing where you went wrong and how you can improve on it.
Totally confused and disheartened by your result? Talk to your teacher about it. Good teachers want their students to succeed. Maybe you misunderstood the question or missed a class which dealt with that particular grammar point or just need a little more practice.
If you don’t feel comfortable talking with your teacher, it might be time to consider looking for a new one. While feeling uncomfortable is part of the process, you shouldn’t feel like your teacher is judging or criticizing you. Class should be a safe space where you can practice without fear of making mistakes. If that's not really an option, chat with a classmate or friend you trust or check out some online communities such as the Duolingo or Wordreference forums.
Lack of Motivation
Few students openly admit to this one (to their teachers at least!) but this is definitely one of the most challenging hurdles learners face. You may have started out feeling enthusiastic but have lost some of that original spark or your initial motivation might have been weak to begin with.
I have taught countless students who felt they “needed” to learn English to be successful at work but from an outsider’s perspective, their motivation seemed a little lacking. If you don’t have to use English at work, while you may feel it’s important (because society says so), you’re probably not truly motivated by this reason alone.
Motivation is a tricky subject. You’d think it was magical fairy dust, the way some people talk about it. All you need is a little and poof all the things you hated to do before, you suddenly feel “motivated” to do.
Personally, I don’t subscribe to this mindset. I do not for one minute believe that one day, for no reason, I will wake up feeling “motivated” to do something I otherwise don’t enjoy or actually want to do.
I do, however, believe that having an end goal to work towards can be a motivation which drives us to work harder. For example, if your new boss doesn’t speak your first language, that could be a good motivation to improve your English for better communication, job satisfaction, visibility and to improve your chances of promotion.
Even with a strong motivation or goal to work towards though, sometimes, we naturally go through phases where we lose interest or feel less than enthusiastic. So what can we do to combat our lethargy?
Set Goals, Be Disciplined & Create Routines
Well, I hate to say it, but since there is no magical motivation fairy dust, the solution is good old-fashioned discipline, dedication, and hard work.
In order to be successful at learning a language, you need to set yourself clear goals the same way you would at work or at the gym and create routines in order to achieve them. Consistency is the key.
Ideally, you should make time to practice your target language every single day. In practice, I realize this can be challenging for learners, especially at the beginning.
If you decided to start a new workout regime, would you start training hardcore every day of the week? Probably not. You’d feel exhausted, have sore muscles and likely give up before achieving your long-term goals.
Obviously, learning a language is not quite the same, but the principle is similar. Find a balance that works for you. Start out small and work your way up to incorporating study into your daily routine. Then, comes the hard part - being disciplined and not making excuses.
Need a push in the right direction? Have a listen to this NPR interview with author Charles Duhigg which talks a bit about the science behind breaking bad habits and creating new ones.
Although learning a new language can be extremely rewarding, it is also completely normal to feel frustrated at different stages of the journey. For most of us, learning a new language takes us out of our normal comfort zone. And, while it might not always seem like it, this is actually a good thing!
(Still not convinced? Read more about why good things happen when you test your limits here.)
Perhaps, you feel like you can’t express yourself the way you want or you don’t understand anything. Maybe you feel like you’re no longer making progress with your studies. In reality, there may be a number of things that are bothering you. So, overcoming this particular hurdle is actually a two-step process.
Be More Open Minded
It’s popularly accepted that people’s views towards learning can be categorized into two main groups.
- Fixed Mindset
- Growth Mindset
People with a fixed mindset believe that their character, intelligence, and creative ability are fixed traits and so they can’t change. They think that their success is determined by talent or these preexisting qualities so they don’t actively work towards improving and usually struggle with challenges. These types of language learners tend to label themselves “good” or “bad” which can be limiting.
If you already genuinely believe you are “bad” at speaking or “bad” at learning languages, you’re doing yourself a disservice… Okay, maybe you don’t have a natural talent for learning languages but that doesn’t mean you’re not capable of learning one.
People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, believe that these traits and qualities can be developed and improved with hard work, time and experience. Growth mindsets thrive when challenged and accept failure as part of the process.
This goes back to what we were talking about earlier on. So, the first step to dealing with these frustrations is to accept them as part of the process. Accepting what you’re struggling with instead of fighting against it is actually far more productive.
Identify What’s Bugging You and Make a Game Plan
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying if you blindly accept your frustrations, you’ll suddenly feel better. The trick is to identify the root of your frustrations and work towards resolving them in a tangible way.
For example, if you have a hard time expressing yourself, you could approach the problem in a few ways. First, you could dedicate more time to studying relevant vocabulary and expressions. You could also set yourself a goal to speak x amount of times voluntarily in class. Or maybe you could make a plan to attend an event or see a friend with whom you can practice speaking.
The trick is to make small manageable goals which will help you reach your big end goal. If you’re consistent and practice speaking every opportunity you get, you’re more likely to improve. Whereas if you simply complain that you are “bad” at speaking and refuse to accept you’re going to have to make a few mistakes along the way.