What I Learned From Failing To Learn Languages

The internet is full of advice for learning languages. There are numerous blogs, podcasts, discussion forums and YouTube channels where people share advice and experience. However, one thing I’ve noticed is that almost all the advice is given by people who have been extremely successful in learning languages, usually polyglots who can speak multiple languages.

But this isn’t the typical experience. For a great number of people, learning another language is something they wish they could do, but are unable to. Most attempts end in failure with people giving up with little to show for their efforts. Most students spend years studying a language in school yet are unable to speak it by the time they are finished. Failure has as much, if not more, to teach us as success. Why do so many people not succeed?

In a sense, I am the last people who should give language learning advice. Like all Irish people, I spent 14 years studying Irish every day in school (Irish is a mandatory subject along with Maths and English for all Irish students). Like all Irish students, by the end of school I could hardly speak it and have not used it since then.

I also studied French for 4 years in school and to give you some idea of my level, it was a great shock when I found out that French people spoke with a French accent, not an Irish accent like I presumed. I lived in Slovakia for a year but my attempt at learning Slovak was a total fujavica (which as any Slovak will tell you, is not a word). In fact the only language I have succeeded in learning is Esperanto, but it is literally the easiest language in the world.

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So why did I fail so many times? Why are Irish people unable to speak the Irish language (I have a full post on that topic)? What prevents so many people from learning a language?

You have to be motivated

The most important factor in learning a language is motivation. You will only learn a language if you want to. If it is just a chore or something you are only doing for the novelty factor or to show off, you will quickly lose interest and drop it. When you start a language there is a fun freshness, but after a while this fades and studying becomes difficult, while you still can’t hold a conversation. If you are motivated and really want to learn a language, then you will be able to power through, but if you aren’t that bothered, it will fall by the wayside.

This is why students frequently complain about learning a language. Most of the time they didn’t pick the language or only picked from a limited range of options and thus they don’t really care about the language. They have no motivation, to them it’s just another subject that they have to do, whether they like it or not. If you only have a half interest in the language, you won’t survive the first hurdle. I never learned the other languages because I never really wanted to.

Do I really need this?

There is one phrase that every Irish person can say, no matter how awful their Irish is. “An bhfuil cead agam dul go dtí an leithreas?” (Do I have permission to go to the toilet?). For some unknown reason it was decided that in order to leave the classroom to use the toilet in every primary school in Ireland, the pupil must ask in Irish. As a result, it is a phrase that everyone can recite perfectly, because they had to know it. This is a second important factor, you must need to use the language.

I never learned Irish because I didn’t need the language, everyone in Ireland (even those who use Irish on a daily basis) can fluently speak English. All the newspapers, television, books, music etc is in English and hardly anything is in Irish. So what did I need Irish for? What was the point in having a stuttering broken conversation in Irish, when I could have a fluent and natural conversation in English?

This was even more the case for French, which obviously is spoken even less than Irish in Ireland. There is simply no situation where a teenager in the West of Ireland must speak French, so my studies lacked a powerful drive. When I lived in Slovakia, I worked in an office where we used Esperanto as our common language and lived with Esperantists. While this certainly improved my level of Esperanto, it meant I didn’t actually need to speak Slovak. The only time I met locals was when I gave English lessons, so without any force pushing me to learn Slovak, I didn’t bother.

I feel that need and motivation are very similar and can be used interchangeably. The fact that you need to learn the language can be a strong motivator and although I didn’t need Esperanto, (well before I got a job using it) I was motivated enough to overcome this.

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Use it or lose it

This might seem an obvious point, but you won’t learn a language if you don’t use it. For many people, the language only exists in a textbook or in the classroom and they never use it anywhere else. I never used Slovak, so I never learned it. I never spoke French or Irish outside the classroom, so I never learned it. Even people who get good grades at school will eventually forget the language if they don’t use it. My level of Irish and French has rusted away to practically nothing because I’ve never used them since leaving school.

If you compare my experience with my sister’s, you can see the importance of use. My sister went to a different school than me, she went to a Gaelscoil, a school where Irish was the main language. She used Irish every day and naturally became fluent in it (linking with the previous point, she needed to understand Irish to understand the teachers). Yet she would always speak English outside school even with her school friends and hasn’t used the language since leaving school with predictable results. When she frequently used the language, she kept her skills high, but lack of use has rusted them.

The only way you will learn a language is if you use it every day. You have to constantly do it so that it feels strange not to study or even better, until it feels natural to study. If you put it off by saying I’ll do it tomorrow, then you’ll end up dropping the language, it will be even harder the next day and you’ll push it off again saying I’ll do loads on the weekend. Even 15 minutes every day is better than two hours on the weekend, the crucial point is that it must be done regularly. This is where I always went wrong, even a few days without practice breaks the habit and I was always good at making excuses as to why I couldn’t study today. Unless I force myself to a tight schedule, I’ll just procrastinate and dodge the issue.


 

I haven’t mentioned the features of the languages themselves, because they’re not as relevant as people think. The reason Irish people don’t speak Irish isn’t because the tuiseal ginideach is too hard (although it doesn’t help), it’s because they don’t use the language. I didn’t fail at Slovak because the language was too dissimilar to English or because of the grammatical cases (although they were significant barriers) it was because I didn’t need the language. French is much closer to English than the other two but I had no more success with it.

It’s certainly the case that the closer your target language is to a language you already know, the easier it will be. It will be harder for an English speaker to learn Chinese (a language with a different alphabet, different sounds and few words in common) than French. However, they will succeed so long as they are motivated, need the language and use it frequently. When deciding to learn a language, you shouldn’t ask what is the easiest language or most similar to English or that has the most speakers. That’s not how to learn a language. If you choose a language only because other people told you to, chances are, you’ll soon lose interest. Choose a language that interests you, that you are motivated to learn, that you’ll be able to use. Even if it is obscure or minor or has few resources, if you are motivated enough you’ll overcome this.

4 Comments

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4 responses to “What I Learned From Failing To Learn Languages

  1. I agree with your argument that you only really learn the language you need, but Esperanto is one of those languages one doesn’t really “need”. You use it to communicate with other Esperantists, but I think that’s basically the only thing it’s used for. At least you need some Irish to ask to go to the bathroom.🙂

  2. I speak fluent English, passable Dutch, awkward but quite serviceable Bulgarian and German, rusty Spanish and Hebrew, and rudimentary Turkish. I learned most of these languages through immersion, which works but only up to a point. Learning through immersion builds vocabulary but only study of grammar provides requisite underpinning and structure. If I had it to do again — and if I had the necessary patience and concentration! — I’d give primacy to grammar. On another note, re: the previous comment and its claim that we don’t “need” Esperanto, Zamenhof would disagree! See this wonderful recent book review from the New Yorker: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/10/31/a-language-to-unite-humankind

  3. Pingback: Best of the Language Learning Web – 17 Great Links from October 2016 | Smart Language Learner

  4. Eelann

    I agree entirely that you need to forced to use it. I tried to learn two different languages at different times during my teens/early twenties, it didn’t work, I was convinced I was just too stupid and not somehow naturally talented enough to learn another language. Then I married a Norwegian and moved to Norway. Where, after the initial burst off frenzied self-study (which taught me enough to understand simple sentences), I ended up learning Norwegian even while going through a period of petulantly refusing to do any more study (as a reaction to being constantly told, in Norwegian, how awful immigrants are and that I should “go home”)… I learnt enough to speak and read in Norwegian despite being actively hostile to the idea, because I had to, because knowing it made my life easier, and because I was surrounded by it. You need motivation, but the motivation doesn’t even need to be positive.

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