stuck learning languages Fair Languages

Why do we get stuck learning languages?

Many language learners do put enough effort in the initial stages to get to a certain level of proficiency but can’t seem to get above that level, try as they might. There can be any number of reasons for this. I will go through a number of them here. Have a read through them and see which may apply to you. Maybe, more than one. The important thing to realise is that two of the key reasons that stop people moving forwards is that they do not know what is holding them back and they do not know which way to move forward. Once you know, you can take steps to remedy the situation.

No pressing need

We have so many factors calling for our attention in our busy lives – family, job, hobbies, friends, etc so to make time to work at improving your language requires that you place it into a higher priority than where it is now. This is because the lower priority activities only get attended to when the higher ones have been dealt with. Without improving the lower priority that language learning might have in your life, you won’t be able to make the time it needs. It’s not enough to think “it is important”, you actually need to recalibrate what you “really believe” unconsciously or at the very first time you are “invited out for lunch with your friends” for e.g., you will defer your language learning time.

Haven’t worked out strategies to integrate language use into your life

This is related to the time issue we just talked about. Some people believe there is lack of time to do the “practice”, whereas the real problem may be that they have not integrated their language use into their life as well as they could. I will pose some questions below (for all kinds of settings) so you can be prompted to do some reflecting on what it is that you could better in this region:

  • Do you go into shops where the language you are learning is spoken?
  • Do you use the language you are learning whilst you are driving ( listening to it – talks, music, books; speaking it to yourself…a running commentary on what you are doing…what you are seeing etc )?
  • Do you watch TV (without subtitles – for listening; with subtitles – for reading)?
  • Do you have the radio on ( with internet radio on, it’s so easy) whilst you are cooking, walking, cleaning, washing?
  • Whilst you are watching a DVD, have you tried listening for the language structure – not the content.  So for e.g., have you focussed on a grammar problem, pronunciation difficulty, etc  and listened to a part of it ( maybe all of it) just for that problem.
  • Ditto for reading.

Consider looking for new ways of learning

One of the typical ways that language learners add to their vocabulary is through translated word lists. This method can work for the few but for most people it is most ineffective as it is not strengthening the language they are learning, instead it is working on translating skills. We do not translate when we speak or listen, so to access words learned in that way is difficult. And then of course how to put that new word to use is another issue! That is why so many people say, “My memory is so poor”. The odds are that there is nothing wrong with their memory. The problem is how they are going about trying to remember new vocabulary.

Instead, have a go at putting a new word in a sentence in the target language. A sentence that is personal AND meaning packed about that word. For example. My sister gave me that beautiful blue fountain pen  as a birthday present. One sentence may not be enough, but by the time you worked out the second, I can all but guarantee you that you will never forget that word or how to use it. Sometimes it might take you a little time to work out a sentence but all that time is useful as you are working on thinking and working on the structures in the target language. So you are getting triple benefit. Each one supporting the other!

Growing cycles of power or diminishing cycles of energy

Many language learners believe that they have little language ability. Why? Because that was their experience in learning languages at school. Never mind that the methods used were so boring or ineffective for the most part. So we start with such a belief, then go to a language school where not much has changed. All that does is confirm that first belief. The homework is boring, the classes difficult and the results meagre. There is no impetus to work, because underneath we believe that we never really will learn. Guess what the result is….we don’t want to go on with it, just too disheartening an experience.

Consider an alternative, even if we start from the same premise, a depressing experience at school. Find a way of learning that you enjoy AND you get results in. Then all of a sudden there is a change and you see hope.  The trick here is to be very clear that you will not put up with ways of learning that are boring, repetitive (boring) and that do not produce tangible results. You keep looking until you find ways that are interesting, challenge you at the level you are at, provide results and you walk away form thinking, “How good was that!”  And that way you will want to do more of it!

So do an inventory of the practices you employ now. How do they measure up? If they don’t, start looking around. I can assure you that there are practices and classes out there that measure up in terms of the criteria mentioned. That is why so many people say, find a girlfriend/boyfriend in the language you are learning. You can’t get enough of the experience 🙂 ….a key to learning anything! Of course that will not work for all of us. What I am suggesting will.

Language learners who are stuck may have other reasons for their predicament, such as a reluctance to talk to people maybe brought on by shyness or an attitude that does not embrace a willingness to make mistakes ( an inevitable result in the process of learning anything). So there can be many reasons why language learners can experience feeling stuck in their learning. Whatever the case, it is just a feeling that one can pass through once one understands the reasons that gave that experience. If one is willing to take some steps, that feeling can be replaced once again by seeing improvements happening every day.


Picture by NeilsPhotography via Flickr

  • hjhrgd

    Not everyone is equally talented. Talent is that condition where practice makes perfect..for others it just makes practice. Some people are super good at math, or sports, or music or drawing for others.I know someone who as a very young child was tested by a psychologist who remarked that she would be very good at learning foreign languages! There are factors that a teacher can’t control and as much as teachers want to believe otherwise, the classroom is not the best place for language learning though it works for the super talented( who probably can teach themselves, given the right materials.

    • The interesting thing is that we were all equally talented as it were to learn our first language. Of course there are factors that impact us later, but the reality is that anyone as long as they use the right tools, get enough real use and don’t sabotage themselves with disempowering beliefs.
      Most language classes are, as you say, not the best place to learn languages. However there are language classes where in fact you can learn faster than you could ever learn by yourself. You just need to find them. But without using the language in real life for extended periods progress is inevitably slow and limited, talented or not. Anyone can increase their talent, if they are willing to do what it takes. In language learning I have seen people become more talented and some very talented by learning what it takes to become that.

      • “Most language classes are, as you say, not the best place to learn languages.”
        What evidence do you have to back this up..?

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  • Yasmine Can

    Great post, very useful!

  • Nicely put together. Talent might play some role in learning languages as well. However, I also think that if a person can speak one language, he/she is already talented to learn the second.