Why You Fail at Language Learning

Some of you are experts at failing to learn language. Often, you make up totally stupid reasons, like “I’m bad at languages” or “I’m past my critical period.” Bullshit.

You fail because you’re doing it wrong. Here are some of the reasons why you fail. A couple of them are the teacher’s fault, but the vast majority are your own fault.

1. Your unbelief. When I tell you a feature of the language, whether it’s pronunciation, vocabulary, or grammar, you are skeptical. You find the target language illogical, inefficient, or somehow unreasonable. You believe a dictionary more than you believe me, the instructor. Example: people who think the French “R” is too unreasonable. People who don’t understand why there are so many “redundant” object pronouns in Spanish.

2. Your shyness. It’s ok to be an introvert in life. However, if you can’t talk to other people, you’re going to learn less.

3. Your fear of making mistakes. If you can’t make mistakes, you can’t learn from your mistakes. When you get called on in class, your jaw locks up, tears come to your eyes, you hesitate. You look around. Your name. I asked you to say your damn name. Are you so scared you don’t know you’re own name?

4. Your fixation on English. You ask what stuff means in English, and you only want to hear the answer in English. You blurt out English translation when you figure something out. When I ask you a question in the target language, you try to get confirmation in English before answering. STUPID. I speak English, I don’t need your translation, jackass.

5. You give up so easy. You resent the fact that I give you grammar rules, so instead of concentrating on the rules, you just try to do what you think sounds right, i.e., total uneducated guessing. When that strategy doesn’t work, you decide it’s too damn hard and you exclaim “this is hard” and then you hate it. You will do everything except for FOLLOW THE RULES I just gave you.

6. You do your homework to finish instead of to learn. You don’t know or care about the grammar the homework is trying to get you to practice. You try to do your homework as efficiently as possible, rather than practicing the material. You bemoan the busy work. News flash: language is busy work. You want grammar to go into muscle memory, you have to do the drills, kid.

7. You don’t use target language enough. You learn to ride a bike by getting on a bike. You learn to drive a car by getting behind the wheel. You learn to play a song on the piano by playing it on the piano. You learn to use chopsticks by using chopsticks. If you don’t use the target language, you won’t learn the target language. It’s not something you can get good at by reading about it.

8. Your teacher doesn’t use target language enough. Perhaps your teacher is more interested in communicating with you than forcing you to learn. Sucks for you. You should complain. This is why I didn’t learn Filipino: my teachers only spoke it 30% of the time, they didn’t actually us it to communicate with us. You’d think that all the Filipinos I know would be sympathetic, but Filipinos are so bilingual that they will look at you straight in the eye and say “Ok, now I am speaking to you in Tagalog,” IN ENGLISH. It’s maddening. And when they finally do manage to speak to you in Filipino, they rarely do it in a way that is helpful to 2nd language learners; i.e., they don’t offer options, they don’t help you negotiate for meaning, they don’t rephrase or repeat… they just give up and tell you in English. If you want to learn, both you and the person speaking to you must tolerate the temporary and minor discomfort of the vocabulary gap. If either of you just go around it by speaking English, you will never learn. NEVER.

9. Your teacher is too error oriented. Your teacher loves to catch you on the exceptions, the irregulars. You never get to see the big picture. Newsflash, teacher: error correction is ineffective. The learner only learns from mistakes with internal motivation.

10. Your curriculum is based on theoretical completeness, rather than communicative proficiency. This is a big one, especially when it comes to French. Your French book wants to teach you the subjunctive, first by teaching you the regulars, then by teaching you the non regulars, then by drilling you to death on all the exceptions. There are plenty of Americans who NEVER LEARN the French subjunctive, they get along in their lives just fine. Is it worth learning? Absolutely yes; French people are much more impressed when they don’t hear awkward grammar mistakes. However, they are much LESS impressed by people who know the grammar rules but can’t talk. If your instructor is teaching you grammar rather than how to talk, you should a) learn as much as you can from that teacher, and then b) make sure your next teacher emphasizes communicative proficiency.

10. You’ve “moved on” from the basics. Language learning is cumulative. Period.

11. You don’t have enough strategies. Do you circumlocute? Do you negotiate for meaning? Do you use new items in generative contexts? Do you look for patterns and opposites?

12. You’re not being intuitive. Sometimes, you have to put two and two together by yourself. Seriously, use your head.

13. You ask the wrong questions. Instead of asking for the one word in the sentence you didn’t understand, you say “What?” When I ask you what it was you didn’t understand, you say “the whole thing.” Bullshit. Usually, it’s just a one word vocabulary gap.

My French host brother once asked me “Tu veux encore du pain?” Because of his regional accent, I didn’t understand the last word. “Do you want more bread?” It was the word “bread” that I didn’t understand.

But instead of saying “Sorry, do I want more what?” I said, “uh, what? I don’t understand.”

He said, in French “Doooooooooooooooo youuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu……”

“waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaannnnnnnnnnnnt mooooooooooooooooore………”

Dammit! I undersand all of that! All I want to know was what the last word was!

“BREAD” he said quickly, and by this time he was laughing, so of course I didn’t understand it.

So in this case, “uh what? I don’t understand” was a FREAKING STUPID question on my part.

Italians are different. If you say “uh, what? I don’t understand” to an Italian, he will immediately rephrase the question and restate it slowly in a way that is totally baffling. You have to ask Italians specifically, “please repeat?” if you want another chance at that word.

14. You make stuff up. I thought you couldn’t have two verbs in the same sentence! I thought it’s subjunctive whenever you have “que”! I thought all adverbs end in “-ly!” No, children. Only memorize the grammatical rules I tell you. Don’t memorize the ones you invent while you are drunk.

15. You don’t take notes or pay attention. Children, if after a year of high school Spanish you still think “ustedes” means “they,” you need to slap yourself on the face with a shoe. If you don’t write down new words that you learn on the fly, you deserve it when I ridicule you for not knowing it only 10 seconds later. If you just asked the same question that two other people just asked, you are not taking your education seriously enough.

5 thoughts on “Why You Fail at Language Learning

  1. good rant. I see alot of my mistakes in college spanish in that list. I have been trying to improve my spanish which is mostly nonexistent and I rented the Pimsleur CD’s which have helped. As a professional language learner and teacher, is there a commercial language learning system you prefer (hopefully one I can rent online :)?

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  2. Yikes, that was a rant, wasn’t it.

    As a human, we have instincts to learn language, which explains how as children we assimilated our native languages as five year olds. The instinct is so strong that if a generation of children is raised by pidgin-speaking parents spontaneously generate languages with full-blown verbal systems.

    I like the Pimsleur program as a supplement. But for goodness sakes, check it out from the public library. I like the 10 Minutes a Day books from Bilingual Books, which are not so much a program as a language learning support kit.

    However, these programs are only supplements. Most of them are totally glorified flash card memory systems.

    It’s way easier to learn vocabulary in the wild than from glorified flash cards. I’ve found that people who drill themselves with flash cards might remember something for a test; at best they get really good at flash cards. But no, it doesn’t help them learn language.

    So Rosetta Stone? I can’t endorse it. It looks too much like Operant Conditioning. Language is not learned through operant conditioning.

    If you really want to jumpstart your language learning, take a class. Go on a language immersion program. Make friends with native speakers.

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