Think You’re Bad At Learning Languages?
Like me, you may have had a bad experience with learning languages in school. This may have affected your self-confidence, and perhaps as an adult you’ve given up on language learning and believe it’s just not for you.
The truth is that some people are probably better at learning languages than others, but everyone’s capable of learning a second language.
In many European countries, such as the Scandinavian countries, over 90% of the population are able to speak a second language. It’s not that they are somehow genetically superior language learning geniuses, what they do have, however, is the right combination of circumstances and motivation to learn.
There are lots of people in Scandinavia that don’t believe they have a flair for learning languages, yet they manage to learn anyway, and that’s the first step to learning a second language.
There are certain things you can develop and do that will make learning a language easier.
How’s Your Memory?
It helps to have a good memory, especially when you are trying to learn a language later in life. The ability to remember words in your target language is easier for some people than it is for others. I personally have a terrible short-term memory, and Steve Kaufmann has a great one, which is probably why he’s a polyglot and I am more of a polynot (that’s not a thing). But I’m not too worried as there are many helpful tools available to those of us with lousy memories.
Shhh… And Listen
At LingQ we’re all about input. The idea is to attain a big vocabulary and surround yourself with your target language. Once you start writing, you’ll probably discover that there’s a big difference between the way a language is spoken and the way it’s written. Even when your target language is written as it is pronounced, like Spanish, native speakers will say things that you don’t write.
To give you an example, I sometimes write the transcripts for Steve’s YouTube videos. He says ‘eeerm’, ‘uuhhm’ when he thinks about what to say next, and things like ‘I’m gonna’ or ‘I wanna’. When writing this down, I leave out the ‘eeerm’ and ‘uuhhm’ and ‘I’m gonna’ becomes ‘I’m going to’ and ‘I wanna’ becomes ‘I want to’.
The things Steve says are a natural part of a native English speaker’s language, but they don’t make much sense when written, especially to those reading the transcript to learn English. So to get into the actual rhythm and feel of the language, you have to really listen to it.
Motivation, Motivation, Motivation
Another LingQ favourite is motivation – if you are not motivated, everything else doesn’t matter. Whatever it is that motivates you to learn a second language is what will help you reach your goals.
Maybe you are crazy about Korean movies and want to watch them without English subtitles to get the full Korean cinema experience. Maybe you’ve met a hot Russian lady and want to charm her socks off with your Russian language skills. Maybe you just love languages and can’t get enough of learning them.
The point is that with motivation you have the ability to focus on your target language.
Are You A Late Bloomer?
It is a common misconception that you are unable to learn languages after childhood. Things change for sure, but it isn’t impossible. Children absorb things easily, but adults have other advantages, like a bigger vocabulary that they can apply to their target language.
When you learn later in life, it is harder to get rid of your accent. Trust me on this, I have a harsh Danish one, but that doesn’t mean I am not fluent in English.
If you start earlier, you get more time to practice and you won’t entirely forget what you learned as a child. For example I learned German in school and I am picking it up again, just for fun. I am doing better at that than Spanish because I have the advantage of some words at the back of my mind.
Do What Works For You
Whether you think you are good or bad at languages, it’s important that you find a learning technique that suits you. This depends on you as an individual, of course, as well as on your previous experiences in learning.
Some people prefer to learn everything by heart i.e. remembering grammatical points and vocabulary. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not my cup of tea. I’d rather learn by reading, listening to music and watching movies. Those are things that work well for me. I also enjoy learning independently at my own pace (which is slow at the moment).
Others may need a teacher and a classroom setting to get motivated. Maybe because they have a great teacher who inspires and stimulates them and makes them feel good about language learning. It really all depends on the individual.
What Else Makes A Good Language Learner?
Some of the most important ingredients of language learning are relevancy, repetition and taking notice.
If what you learn is relevant to you, it is more likely to stick. Every day our heads are filled with a bunch of useless and distracting nonsense, and even the brainiest of us can only contain so much information. But if you have a genuine desire and interest in learning languages, it becomes much easier.
That’s why the topics and material you learn from must be relevant to you. If you are learning Russian, for instance, you are not going to be able to read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina from day one, but it can be a long-term goal.
I still don’t know enough Spanish to read a Spanish novel, but I like music and so that’s a place to start to familiarize myself with the language in an authentic way.
Language success also depends on the amount of time you chose to spend with your target language: listening to it, reading it, speaking it and writing it. If you spend lots time listening to a native speaker, whether it be through music, a movie, an audiobook or in person you are interacting intensely with the language.
This repetitive exposure to the language is a really effective way of transforming you into a great language learner without too much effort. It certainly feels more natural than reading a bunch of boring grammar books.
The need for repetitive and constant exposure, and investing lots of time alone with the language, listening and reading, is sometimes downplayed, but it is one of the most important things you can do for yourself as a language learner.
If you want to become a good and efficient language learner, you need to concentrate and really take notice of the language. Notice words, structures and the sounds of your target language. That way you become alert and attentive.
You can start taking better notice of the language by doing all those pleasurable things I mentioned earlier, as well as using online dictionaries for unknown words, keeping lists of those unknown words for review, and Googling for grammar information when you need to. Immerse yourself into the language because you want to.
You’re Not Really Bad At Learning Languages
Maybe you are not as fast as some people, but who cares? It isn’t a race. If you have the motivation and follow the above advice, then you will no longer suck at learning languages.