The Real Reason Most People Fail At Language Learning

avatarMille Larsen
5 mins read

It is my firm belief that one of the main reasons why so many people do not learn foreign languages, or why so many people fail at learning foreign languages, is that they simply do not know how to do it. This is the worst kind of problem, because it is a problem whose existence is invisible.

It's easy to find solutions to problems when you know they exist, but when you don't know you have a problem your chance of finding an answer is very small. Not knowing how to learn foreign languages, people turn to classrooms, tutors, software, books, or other products which are really only designed to teach the workings of a language, but not to teach how to learn it, or to use it.

So how do you learn a foreign language? That's the real question then, isn't it? If most people don't know how to learn a foreign language, what is it that they don't know? If you happen to be one of those people, what can I tell you that will help to change that? The answer is a lot of the same things I've been saying all along.

Create urgency

The first thing that you have to do is create urgency. Take away the path of least resistance. If you spend all of your time happily functioning in your native language it will take you forever to learn anything in a new one.

As a programmer, when I want to learn a new programming language, I could spend weeks studying it but very little would make sense and I would just get bored. Instead, if I want to learn a new language, I start a brand new project and use that language. Sure, it's difficult... and slow... but with a real, tangible set of needs in front of me, I learn a lot quickly! The same applies for learning a spoken language.

If you're anything like me, you probably use Facebook regularly. You might also use Twitter. Maybe you're the type of person who likes to watch YouTube videos or look for look at funny pictures. Doing those things in a new language doesn't require much effort on your part, because you already know how to do them. You don't need instructions or translations.

I am learning more Greek from following Greek people on Twitter than anything I am learning from any book. Sure, I still have to go to Google Translate and look up a lot of words I don't know, but I'm seeing these words in real-life usage rather than in the sterile, constructed sentences of a lesson book.

Use the language

We're not all travel bloggers, permanently moving to a new country where we can then learn our new language through immersion, and it's not often that a change of residence can coincide with our language learning plans, but there are still plenty of things we can do to force ourselves to use a new language while we learn.

Two years ago, while I was learning Italian, I wrote about subscribing to blogs in foreign languages about things that interest you. I'm no longer focused on learning Italian, but I still read the Italian travel blogs I mentioned every day. I can't say the same about any lesson book I've ever read! I enjoy reading about travel, so doing it in another language is easy... and fun! In fact, I just recently found some Greek blogs to start reading.

You probably have a smartphone — maybe an iPhone or an Android. You use it every day, and you know where your apps are and what the icons look like. You don't really need that to be in your native language, do you? Switch it! Sure, there will be some things that confuse you from time to time, but you'll also learn a lot of new vocabulary out of necessity, just from using the language. And you can do the same with Google, Facebook, even your whole computer. Why not?

If you've spent any time in the language learning community online, you've heard about this phrase "comprehensible input" — target-language input which can be understood. What better way to get comprehensible input than to steal it away from your native language!

I'm fond of saying it: You are what you do. The way to learn a new language is clear: use it.