“I don’t have a talent for languages.”
“I didn’t learn a foreign language as a child, so I’ll never be able to do it now.”
“I’ve been learning Spanish for ages and I still can’t speak it…”
Sounds familiar? I meet lots of people who have been studying Spanish, French, and other languages for years, but as soon as they’re supposed to say something in them, cold sweat starts pouring down their neck. Many of them have given up, believing that foreign languages are simply not for them.
But is that really true? What if they’ve simply been doing something wrong and if they changed it, they’d find out they can learn a language after all? In this article, we’re going to talk about the most common mistakes made by people who can’t learn a language. If you also struggle with your foreign language, I bet you’ll find at least one that you make as well! And once you’ve discovered it, all you need to do is fix it and enjoy your progress. 🙂
People who haven’t had success in learning languages usually belong to one of the following two groups:
In this article, we’ll have a look at the first group, i.e. the people who tell everyone about their learning plans, but it’s all talk and no action.
Excuse generators would like to learn a foreign language, but they never have time. They are busy right now, have a lot of work, are preoccupied with business trips, have small children… Now is simply not the right time for learning a language and there’s always another excuse at hand.
If this sounds like you, don’t worry – I used to be the same. For two years, I kept telling myself I’d finally start with cold exposure training, so as not constantly be the shivery one in my group of friends (with freezing hands and feet!). I wanted to sign up for a 10-week cold exposure Wim Hof course, conveniently led by my friend.
I always used to make excuses, saying I was busy, had a lot of trips abroad planned, this, that and the other. Only a chronic cough I couldn’t get rid of for a year made me stop being an excuse generator. I finally realized I would never have 10 weeks in a row during which I could devote all of my time to the cold exposure course. There would never be a truly convenient time. So, in 2019, I signed up for the course anyway, even though I had many other things, including a journey abroad, planned.
And I’m incredibly happy I took the course. I feel much healthier, I got rid of my cough for good. And I can now wear T-shirts or only a thin cardigan while everybody else is walking around in hoodies and still shivering! If I had waited for the perfect time for this course, I’d still be coughing now.
I think that everyone is an excuse generator in something, right? We should do more exercise, spend more time with our parents/children, read more books, spend more time outside, eat more healthy food… Well, what can we do?
We’re all busy, we all have a lot of things going on. We simply have to include learning in our lives, otherwise we’ll never find time for it. Even 20 minutes a day can do wonders. That’s why you should make learning a priority on your daily agenda and spend time with it no matter what, even if it’s not as much time as you’d like.
Doubters like to say things such as:
“I don’t have a talent for languages.”
“I’ll never be able to learn Spanish.”
“I just can’t remember the vocabulary.”
“I’m not destined to speak French.”
To put it simply, doubters don’t believe it’s possible at all. Unfortunately, I can’t help them, because while they’re convinced they can’t do it, they won’t even look for ways to learn a language.
In 2019, my team and I had our own stand at the LingvaFest language festival in Slovakia and we talked to the participants about efficient ways to learn languages. It was great fun! One lady curiously approached our stand to talk to us, but when we told her about our mission – teaching people how to learn languages – she just sighed and said: “Oh, I’ll never be able to do that.”
And she said it with such certainty in her voice that I could see there was nothing I could do to help her learn a language.
This quote has proven to be right in absolutely everything, not only when it comes to languages. If we tell ourselves that we can’t do something, it really becomes impossible. The change has to come from within us, we have to start believing in ourselves.
Let’s take Lucas, a well-known Brazilian polyglot, as an example. When he graduated from high school, he was the worst in his class at English. His classmates used to laugh at him and he couldn’t speak it at all, no matter how hard he tried.
Today, Lucas is fluent in 16 languages. How did he do it? After finishing school, he convinced himself that he could do it and that was it. He started looking for ways of learning that suited him. And once he found them, he stuck with them. Years later, I met him in a language café in Thailand, where I saw him speaking with Estonian, Ukrainian, French and German visitors with no issues whatsoever. I mentioned Lucas in my TED talk in New York, which you can watch here.
So, whether you believe it or not, even a Doubter can become a polyglot. 🙂 They just need to start believing it’s possible and find a way to do it. If they tell themselves they’re only destined to speak their mother tongue, they’ll really never go any further than that.
No, I don’t mean waitstaff. 🙂 I mean people who wait for the problem to solve itself and hope something will change. They don’t feel like lifting a finger, so they just sit around.
Imagine yourself in a year’s time, up in arms about not having made any progress whatsoever with your foreign language. Isn’t that a pity? And when the same situation happens year by year, your confidence gradually fades away as well. You start thinking you’re a good-for-nothing and you don’t even want to see Spanish or French anymore.
How to get out of that situation? Well, first of all, you need to realize nothing is going to change if you don’t change it. Nobody’s ever achieved anything by waiting for the problem to solve itself. Forgetting all about studying a foreign language might be comfortable, but if we need to know the language, it will haunt us forever. And then we’ll feel like we’ve been “studying Spanish for 20 years”, but it’s actually just been silently staring at us from the darkness.
They know that their foreign language skills are far from good and they’re constantly upset by it. Still, they don’t even think about what they could do to make it better. They’re ashamed and they don’t want to hear, let’s say, German or talk to their German-speaking colleagues because it always reminds them that they can’t have a conversation in this language.
Katka also used to be an Avoider. She told me that if she wanted to watch a series, she’d spend hours on the internet looking for the episodes with dubbing in her native Slovak, so as to avoid being reminded she didn’t understand English properly. She was really upset by this and avoided English at all cost, trying to push it away like a huge boulder.
Thankfully, Katka eventually decided she couldn’t hide from English all her life and she finally started studying. Her “before and after” story really is incredible and today, she’s fluent in English and TV series no longer haunt her at all.
Deferrers don’t feel an urgent need to speak a foreign language, although they know it might come in handy in the future. A typical example of them are mothers on maternity leave. They know they still have a year or two to spend at home so the need to speak a foreign language seems distant enough for them to happily put studying off to later. However, they know very well that a foreign language would look very good on their CV once they get back on the labor market.
Many of us defer language learning like this. I quite often get emails from people who have a job interview in a week and suddenly need intensive consultations with me to learn English by next Monday. Unfortunately, I’m not a magician and nobody can learn a foreign language in a week, even if they apply the most efficient methods in the world. So, if we keep putting it off until later, we might discover one day that it’s simply too late.
I myself am guilty of being a Deferrer which took its toll on my dental hygiene. I go for regular check-ups once a year and visit a dental hygienist as well. And I have to admit that I always start flossing very laboriously about two weeks before my appointment. Of course, this does not fool my hygienist! Every time, she asks me whether I “occasionally forget” to floss, a question most of us have likely heard at some point in our lives.
After the appointment, I floss every night for about two more weeks. Then it slowly becomes less and less frequent until I stop altogether because I haven’t turned it into a habit. This means that I spend another year only brushing my teeth, until two weeks before my next appointment with the dental hygienist. I know it’s terrible, which is why, after one such visit, I promised myself I’d change it. I’ve finally made flossing an integral part of my oral hygiene routine. I actually wrap dental floss around my toothbrush before brushing, so as not to forget. And this is how I’ve managed to gradually become used to flossing every night. Nowadays, I don’t even allow myself to go to bed unless I’ve done it.
Does this sound familiar to you? Do you also keep telling yourself it would be great if you improved your Spanish or French because you might, for example, be looking for another job this time next year? Does it seem too distant a future and you just don’t feel the pressure necessary to get you going? If you’ve answered yes, I can recommend looking at things from a wider perspective. Where do you want to be in a year, two or three? I ask myself the same question every six months. And I also think about whether I’ve managed to move in the direction I set out in. I’m not always successful, but at least I always remind myself where I want to go.
So, there you have it. These are the five types of people who would like to learn a foreign language, but will never be able to do so unless they stop just talking about it and start actually doing it. Nobody’s going to get a six pack by talking about getting a gym membership tomorrow. So, whether you’re an Excuse Generator, Doubter, Waiter, Avoider or Deferrer, don’t be sad. Now that you know why you haven’t been successful on your language journey. And you can finally do something to change it!
Stop talking about learning and start actually learning! Even 20 minutes a day is better than nothing. I know now is not the right time and you don’t need to know the language for another year or so. Plus you’ve been telling yourself you just don’t have it in you and have been masterfully avoiding the language…
You need to change this mindset. Because if you change nothing, nothing will change. And, in a year’s time, you’ll be exactly where you are now.
And if you’re one of those people who keep learning a language but with no result, stay tuned for Part II of this article. Maybe you’ll find out, what you’ve been doing wrong!
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