Your foray into Spanish or French is going pretty well. You’ve finally cracked the subjunctive. You’re starting to understand Facebook posts and get the gist of news reports. Duolingo feels like child’s play and you can probably have a bit of banter with your teacher.
But then reality strikes. You put on a movie or try to chat with a native speaker, and you suddenly feel like an empty, deluded mess. You’re embarrassed by yourself. Really, can I not follow this at all? After all the time I’ve put in? Why am I finding it so hard?
If you’ve come this far, then congratulations. Learning a language is tough, particularly for English speakers who never needed to do it growing up and don’t really need to do it now. And if it’s the first time you’ve tried to do it, you might be starting to think you’re just not cut out for languages.
These feelings are completely normal and you shouldn’t let them lay to waste all of the good work you’ve put in to get this far. Learning a language is a rollercoaster ride. You think you’re amazing some days and terrible others. And it’s probably fair to say that the more you learn, the more you realise you don’t know. This can be a harrowing realisation. It’s like trying to climb a mountain that just keeps revealing new peaks.
You’re better than you think.
Honestly, you are. You probably grasp some of the concepts really well or you have a strong vocabulary. You’re probably better when there’s less pressure. You’re almost certainly better when you’ve had a glass of wine. These are all blossoming flowers of hope if you’re starting to think you’re just bad at languages.
Researchers believe language anxiety affects around a third of learners, so you’re not alone. It’s similar to the stage fright you’d feel having to perform or simply expose a weakness in front of others – and that’s just with speaking.
The issue most language learners struggle with is comprehension. When you’re expressing yourself in speech, you can usually find a way to say what you need to say, even if at a beginner level. But the relentless babble that seems to spew from the mouths of native speakers can be soul-crushingly deceptive and make you wonder how long this fluency thing is going to take.
If this is your problem, then see it as that – it’s one problem. It can and will be overcome. Even slowing down the speed of what you’re watching by 25% will start to help. You’ll then realise if maybe you’re just going in too hard and expecting too much of yourself.
You’ll improve exponentially.
Even if nothing seems to be sticking right now, if you keep going then it will. You’ll start to reach a level where you’re somewhat confident speaking to others. Once you reach that stage the rest will begin to fall into place. You’ll learn vocabulary faster because you won’t have to worry about understanding the content anymore. You’ll start to notice common expressions and situations where native speakers tend to link words. You’ll start to listen differently, more naturally, with less stress. You’ll start thinking and dreaming in the target language. And that’s when you’ll be able to start adding words to your roster by the boat-load.
It’s worth it.
This is the bottom line. Because if you’re travelling somewhere and you’re looking to spend a significant amount of time in that place, speaking the local language will transform your trip into a life-changing experience. You’ll get deep into the culture. You’ll make close connections with people and you’ll experience the euphoria that goes along with that. If you’re reading this and embarking on this journey then interpersonal relationships are probably already important to you. And if you’ve learnt one foreign language already, then I don’t even need to tell you how thankful you’ll be that you saw this through.
It won’t happen overnight.
I left this for last because it’s easier to stomach when you’re galvanised. What you’re trying to do is hard. I know you want it to happen faster, and if you put in more work then it will. But you still have to be realistic. Languages are best learned when naturally absorbed, or ‘picked up’, which is why children are so good at learning them. That means you can’t just plough your brain with information and expect it all to stick.
But it helps to be obsessed, both with the language and the culture of where you’re aiming to go. if you really want this, you’ll start thinking and talking to yourself in the language. You’ll be seeking people to connect with, even if you know you might embarrass yourself a little, because you just want to be a part of their culture. That’s when things will start to come together for you. And you’ll realise that this dream is very much alive.