Why can’t we learn a language?

When I help people learn a language, we do not just learn words and structures. We spend quite a while discussing how this person forms a new linguistic reality in their mind. We pay a lot of attention to this process because it is the same important as vocabulary and grammar.

People often underestimate learning skills, especially in language learning. They think we need to guarantee the input of information, and we will just start speaking one day. But it’s wrong. It’s not only about knowledge but also skills and correct mindset.

So, if your story is something like “I have been learning English for 10 years, and still no result”, I guess it is not about your laziness or lack of talent, maybe you are missing in the mindset and strategy.

This is what I want to talk to you about today. I will explore how small emotions can hurt or stop you from succeeding. I want to show that it is normal and it’s not your fault at all. You can achieve better results after correcting your way of thinking.

First, one of our worst enemies – wrong attitude.

I know a lot of people who learn languages like sciences. For them, language is just a subject no different from mathematics or history.

But most people learn languages to do something else. They need to communicate their ideas, work and socialise with other people, read books for their jobs, express emotions, you name it 🙂

They need skills, not vague knowledge.

Compare it to driving a car, gardening or cooking. They are skills too. I believe you can’t make dinner just by reading books about it, do you? You will get a cool recipe from the book, but then you will be making it yourself.

So, treat your language as a skill. Here are your steps:

  • Don’t be a passive reader or listener;
  • Don’t think of a language as a science. CHANGE YOUR ATTITUDE;
  • And don’t wait until you are ready. Speak and write now. It becomes easier every next time;
  • Use examples of other skills you already can do (like driving, cooking, drawing, dancing) to support the idea it can be done;

This attitude: ‘Well, I am not ready yet. I will start speaking to real people a bit later… just a bit later’ – is the WRONG ATTITUDE. You will never be ready. Even if you learn Cambridge Encyclopedia by heart.

Next, we develop skills in measurable practical steps.

You need goals and time frames

You shouldn’t look at it as an endless process of ’don’t-know-why’ studying. I hear it so often: ’I am learning English because it’s good to know it. I will figure out how to use it later’. It’s NOT WORKING. People give up after a couple of months because they don’t have anything to motivate them.

You need to understand what exactly you want and when you want it. If there is no real need for you in it now, create it or just don’t start.


Number three: don’t hope for a one-day ride

I have two new students this week, and they are so enthusiastic and motivated at the moment. They keep asking: What else should I do? Can you give me more homework? or something like this. They are ready to conquer the language. As soon as possible. And I hope we will make their enthusiasm stay for some time which will be enough to achieve some real and sustainable result. Because many people don’t stay that enthusiastic long enough.

It takes a while to learn a language. That’s the truth.

I once had this student: ’How long do you say the beginner course takes? 36 hours? It’s just a day and a half? No problem at all!’ Unfortunately, our memory doesn’t work like that. We need time to process the information. We need to practise again and again until it’s automatic.

If we don’t understand that, we overload ourselves in the first days and get tired too soon.

Live with it, don’t conquer it overnight. Enjoy the journey. Don’t start if you don’t plan to survive at least several months.

Create a simple daily routine of 15 minutes and stick to it for a month. Do it again and again. Then, it will become a part of you and you will increase the workload if you feel like it. Learning is a process, never forget about it.

What will keep you going? Your results. Every small step will mean something because YOU did it. Celebrate the small wins and they will motivate you for further journey.

You know what’s funny? The higher the level of a student is, the harder it is to stop them. I have several Advanced students who keep learning and learning even though they speak English well. Why? Because it’s a part of their routine, because they have a lot of positive memories, and it’s fun for them now. They want to have this fun in their life. It’s enjoyable for them.

People only give up if they haven’t felt real achievement. And usually it happens because they don’t understand how it works or want a miracle. I haven’t heard of real miracles yet.

So, here are your steps:

  • Don’t expect overnight results – save yourself some months;
  • Believe in baby steps;
  • Create a routine which is not too hard and real for your situation;
  • Celebrate your small wins;

Now, let’s talk about emotions

My best advice here: don’t be too serious with your learning. Yes, I believe in discipline, but don’t make it too hard for yourselves.

I am sure many of you believe that languages are better learnt in childhood. It’s not confirmed by cognitive sciences, to tell the truth. If we talk about ’serious’ learning through books and the classroom, children are no better, if not worse, than us, adults. They struggle with concentration and organising ideas in their heads. They are bad at grammar models. They hate discipline.

They pick up a language being put among native speakers when they hear the language all the time. Then, they are quicker to start speaking than adults. But why?

Because they are relaxed. That’s why. They enjoy the game of mimicking and repeating. They are curious. They don’t compare phrases with their native language. It’s a game for them. They just memorize them, that’s all.

Children don’t block themselves with panic and established understanding of how the world works. They don’t have it yet.

And all these things make them flexible learners. So, just try to follow their example. Forget about your adult ’seriousness’ from time to time.

  • Just relax and repeat if you are practising pronunciation;
  • Just listen and don’t block yourself with ‘I will not understand anything’ if you practise listening;
  • Don’t worry about your speaking mistakes – say what you think;
  • Don’t control 100% of your steps. Control only the strategy (goals);
  • Trust your teacher if you have one. Trust yourself if you don’t;

Have fun, be goofy and young. Enjoy the game.

To sum up, there are some emotional and mental struggles all language learners face. They happen because of the wrong attitudes we got at school or our inability to see practical nature of language learning. We are often too hard on ourselves and sabotage our own progress. And most problems appear because of the lack of clear vision of what we want to achieve.

You are not stupid or hopeless. What’s happening with you is normal, it’s just a part of the process. And what’s more: You are not alone. Please don’t give up.

Do you recognise yourself in any of the examples? What would you like to improve in your English learning? Do you have a question or anything to add? Let’s talk in the comments below!

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