For many people, learning a foreign language seems like an impossible task. They often see those who can speak more than one language as superheroes, with super powers or extraordinary gifts. But these “superheroes” are quick to explain that learning a new language is a lot easier and faster than it seems. So, who should you believe? Is it hard to learn a foreign language, or is language learning as quick and painless as some claim?
How Hard Is It to Learn a Second Language?
One of the reasons why so many people have difficulty learning a second language is because the method of instruction isn’t always the best or most appropriate. In school, teachers use the same methods for teaching languages as for other subjects like geography, history and literature. But learning a new language is a skill that has to be developed. Learning a new language is more similar to learning math or the sciences. In both cases, you have to translate theoretical knowledge into a practical skill.
For example, solving a math problem is comparable to finding the right combination of words to construct a sentence.
So, if we change our perspective and think of learning a new language as a question of practice, it will be a much easier process.
But let’s be honest. Although this change in perspective can be very useful, it won’t help you to speak confidently or fluently overnight. The truth is, learning a new language is hard for most of us. Here are just three reasons why.
Of course, it all depends on your goals. But let’s assume that you want to achieve an intermediate to advanced level, so you can work or study abroad. This would probably take you at least a year, if you’re starting from scratch. For more difficult languages like Chinese and Russian, it could take even longer. And staying motivated the entire time is also a real challenge.
You may be used to speaking your own native language without the slightest effort, but eventually you may find that you need to express your ideas in a new language – one that isn’t so familiar. Many people have difficulty accepting the fact that it takes a long time to master a second language.
Sooner or later, you’re going to have to speak up and speak out, and try to use your target language. At first, you’ll find that you’re missing vocabulary, that it takes you a while to get your words out, and – big surprise – that you don’t understand everything you hear. For many people, this can be a big source of anxiety. You might feel embarrassed, or maybe even dumb. Those who are new to a language need to overcome many different obstacles, like perfectionism, shyness, lack of self-confidence, or fear of judgement.
So yes: it can be difficult to learn a new language. It takes ambition and can be hard, but that doesn’t mean you won’t get there or that you need super powers or special gifts to achieve your goals. What you really need is a good amount of motivation, some organizational skills to be sure that you study regularly, a lot of patience, and the right tools and methods to make sure you get results, fast.
Having already learned several languages that are all part of the same family, I had forgotten the trials and tribulations that new learners are confronted with. Then I started to learn German. And I can tell you, for the first time in years, I remembered just how stressful it can be to not be able to understand the person across from you. I also remember feeling like there were way too many words and expressions that I didn’t know! So if you’re struggling now, I know exactly how you feel. But learning a new language has never been easier than it is today. Here are three reasons why.
First of all, we have a huge range of choices these days to help learn a new language. Podcasts, mobile apps, online courses, and tons of free material. You just need to find the resource that works best for you.
Technology has also made learning methods more efficient. Today, our smartphones and computers can help us memorize words more quickly. By using a Spaced Repetition System, for example.
When I first started learning languages, the only way for me to practice my linguistic skills was to travel or move to a new country. Skype existed, sure. But it was hard to learn a foreign language that way because it was hard to find people to chat with. Today, there are a ton of services that can put you in contact with other people who have similar objectives, so that you can practice your target language from the comfort of your own home.
Plus, it’s very easy to watch films or series in your target language, or to read newspapers or magazines from anywhere in the world. This way, you can work on all the different aspects of your new language, and without spending any money. Which leads me to my next point…
Learning a new language has never been so inexpensive. A number of free or cheap resources are available, whenever and wherever we want. No need to run to the other side of the city for a language course, or to schedule in a specific time each week to practice. Everything is right at your fingertips. And any time is a good time to practice.
In another article on the number of words needed to speak a new language, I mentioned that learning a new language depends mostly on your goals, your availability, your target language, and your level of motivation. We recommend reading that article if you want to know more about the time and effort needed to get there.
So, is it hard to learn a foreign language? Yes, it can be difficult to learn a new language. But it’s not too complicated, either! It’s somewhere in the middle. I have no doubt that today, everybody – and I really mean everybody – can learn one or more new languages.
You can find out about everything we’ve covered today in the video below or on our YouTube channel. Don’t forget that you can turn on subtitles for all of our videos in six different languages, including English. Click the gear icon to slow down or speed up the video speed. Enjoy!
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