10 valuable realizations for language learners (that I had to learn the hard way)

November 20, 2019

Overwhelm. Overspending. Lack of time, motivation and progress.

Language learners commonly face these problems, which often come from years and years of weak guidance, outside pressure, a crazy-busy schedule or low self-esteem.

Find yourself struggling? Take some time, stay around and collect these 10 tips that I used to give myself a kick in the pants! Hopefully, they’ll help your language learning shine even brighter.

1. Being ridiculous is a huge part of the process.

The fear of feeling like idiots and exposing ourselves is terrifying. We are so used to controlling every aspect of our image and beautifying ourselves online and offline, that we struggle to accept we might have to look like clowns once in a while.

However, a crucial part of learning comes from being ridiculous more often. Learning to speak a new language necessarily means you’ll be dealing with people, and people are awkward sometimes. It’s all part of the journey!

The first habit I’d like to challenge you to develop is to get yourself out of your comfort zone more often, fully aware that you might have one or two moments in which you’ll feel ridiculous. This could be attending an in-person workshop, delivering a presentation in another language, posting a practice video online without obsessing over being perfect, or sharing an essay online for others to correct.

2. Most things should be personal.

How many times have you studied a language and wondered: “Why am I learning these words?”. Certain clothing items, industry terms, food ingredients or furniture words are just not worth memorizing in a foreign language if you’re unlikely to use them. It’s tiring and you’re better off channeling that energy towards something better at the beginning.

My advice? Save that brain space for topics and vocabulary that are highly personal and meaningful to you! Sometimes that distinction will not be clear, and that’s okay. Much of this awareness will come with you exposing yourself and speaking regularly to see what kind of words you usually reach for.

One last thing: it’s still important to learn a variety of vocabulary because other people might use it in your interactions. When they do, you should be able to understand them. For instance, I don’t like swearing when I speak a new language, but I like learning swear words to be able to understand them in movies, music or group interactions.

It’s up to you to determine how likely you are to encounter this word, considering your personal circle.

3. We can let go of the obsession that everything has to be useful.

I know many language lovers are motivated by levels, self-evaluation scales, defining very specific goals, planning for the number of hours they’ll study, language certificate grades, and so on. That’s okay! Some personality types are motivated and inspired by this type of tool. But what I’m here to say is that you don’t have to be. You shouldn’t have to prove anything to others.

You can just learn a language for pleasure. Yes, even that one everybody criticizes you for learning because it’s dead, spoken by a small community, or deemed “useless” for a job. The idea that we have to do everything with the goal of including it in our resumes, mentioning it in our job applications, showing we can succeed…is tiring. It’s unfair. It denies us pleasure, play, creativity and passion. It denies a very natural, very beautiful side of being human – the one of curiosity and doing something because we just feel like it.

4. Languages are imperfect and not everything must be justified.

If you’ve ever taught languages, you know the type of student who is always asking “But why is it the way it is?”. That particular type of learner also gets annoyed when the answer to their question is: “It just is”. However, many aspects of language just are. We need to learn them as we go. Languages have developed through centuries to include several exceptions, irregularities, quirks and irrationalities. Not everything has to make sense. Don’t make languages feel bad about it, it’s not their fault!

It’s absolutely natural to complain about grammar and want to pull your hair out (hopefully not someone else’s) when confronted with difficult subjects. But I felt quite a relief when I stopped trying to find the rationality behind every single thing.

5. You will not always be present.

Life happens. The loss of a job, the death of a loved one, changing homes, going through a breakup, struggling with depression, or just feeling physically tired because you’ve had a crappy day; your mind does not always have to be ready, excited and willing to take on more learning.

Let me tell you a secret: there were times in which I forced myself to learn a language not because I was enjoying it, but because I saw it as a tool to compete with others – even if I wasn’t aware of it. I thought to myself “If I reach fluency in this language next month, I’ll have another advantage in my job application”. “If I can reach fluency in this language next week, I’ll be able to identify as a true polyglot” (whatever that means).

Your brain is a powerful machine, but not a flawless one. It needs energy, recovery and compassion. Knowing when to take breaks is just as important as knowing how to be productive!

6. Meeting people is more important than it might seem.

To many of us, language exchanges, meetups, online lessons or in-person courses can seem a little tiring, intimidating or awkward. That’s why I recommend you do them more often. Please, hear me out!

I recommend you see people and practice languages with them. It doesn’t have to be a gigantic event or a group class. It just needs to involve another person, preferably in person. Why? Because there is value in letting another person share your struggles, insecurities and concerns. And while you’re at it, your successes, too!

I’m a firm believer that meeting someone personally (or at least on video) brings another type of energy and commitment to the table. The way body language gets involved, the tones you use, the way the other person’s eyes might get shiny or watery as they change topics, and the very warmth of spending a couple of hours with a person with stories to tell…all of these are language.

7. Not everything has to be taken seriously.

Language learning is not a mistake-free, joke-free, fun-free activity. Quite the opposite! It’s a place to play, have fun, try new games and sometimes be a child again, however awkward that might be.

I also invite you to rejoice in one or two moments of trolling. For instance, I have recently complained that some Germans (thankfully, not all) automatically switch to English when they realize I’m not a native speaker. Before, I used to just give in and switch to English, frustrated that I had lost my chance. I took it seriously.

Now? I just troll everyone and continue replying in German. And they continue in English. And I continue in German. It’s so much fun. It goes on for an average of 10-15 minutes until one of us gives up.

8. Setbacks are real.

One of my most recent adventures with the German language was eye-opening and very uncomfortable. Since I was taking a B2-level German course, I thought I was ready to go into the real world. I was so wrong.

Going out to dinner, I asked all native German speakers at the table to talk to each other the way they normally would. Slang, speed, everything. My confidence was high at first. Believe me, that changed pretty quickly. In about one hour of conversation at that table, I could understand about 10% of what was going on. I could not even connect the dots. I never understood what happened to whom, when or where. Sometimes, everyone would burst into laughter and I had no idea why.

I felt boring and childish. I was sitting there quietly, unable to participate, make jokes or interact. But I wanted to feel uncomfortable. I wanted to show myself how much I didn’t know and that it wasn’t that serious. Some days after that, however, I attended a conference in which I understood everything the German speaker said. You see, our confidence levels will not be constant. Sometimes there will be setbacks that make you realize you aren’t where you wish you’d be…yet.

9. People will always have something stupid to say.

“You’re learning what? When are you ever going to use that language anyway? You should just be learning (insert language here). It’s the language of the future.” “Why would you learn a dead language? Nobody cares anymore.” “Why do you even want to learn that language? It’s so ugly”. People will always have something to say, won’t they?

Please, don’t let others convince you that your learning efforts are useless. Don’t let them steal the beauty away from your target language. It’s not fair to the gigantic history behind your language’s culture(s) and it’s not fair to your own story. Only by speaking your favorite languages, you’re representing years and years of living heritage. The way you experience your target language, its vocabulary, its grammar and its expression is your own. I ask you to honor that, even when others don’t.

Because let’s face it: we have some learning to do and we ain’t got time for this. Why are we still trying to justify our choices?

10. There’s nothing wrong with being proud of your accomplishments.

If you grew up in a culture that is slightly similar to the one of Portugal, my home country, you’ve learned that it’s rude to be cocky. Whenever somebody gives you a compliment, you’re likely to deny it or say self-deprecating things to save your butt. “What? You think this dress looks great on me? Oh, it only cost 5€ at the local store, nothing special, blablabla…”.

This culture has followed me up to this day. It was hard for me to learn to smile and say a genuine “thank you” (and nothing else) whenever somebody gave me a compliment. I know for a fact many other language learners feel the same way. So now I ask you: at some point in time, it became commonplace to be proud of your hard work, the amount of time you’ve dedicated to something, and the number of hours you’ve studied. How come you’re not equally proud of our results?

You know in your gut that being sincere about your skills is not the same as being cocky. There’s a difference and we all know it. It’s the tone, it’s the choice of words, it’s the way you treat others. Being transparent about your skills and what you can do is not bragging.

You’ll always know your skills better than anyone else in the room.

  • Reply
    Ian Cumberland
    November 25, 2019 at 12:23 pm

    Incredibly accurate insights. I get a lot of these too.

    • Reply
      Maria Inês
      November 26, 2019 at 7:35 am

      Thank you, Ian! I’m happy you found the article useful! And congratulations on being the first to comment on this blog! Feel free to share some of your own realizations that can be useful to other language learners.

  • Reply
    David Guy
    November 25, 2019 at 6:06 pm

    Hi Maria,

    I agree with everything in this post but I think that your example of the German conversation is not really a setback. It’s an example of how language is different in different contexts. It’s the same reason I understand 90% of a documentary on French television but only 40% of a movie. The environment was more difficult and the type of language was different than you’ve practiced. That said setbacks are definitely real, and I’ve been humbled by them.

    • Reply
      Maria Inês
      November 26, 2019 at 7:38 am

      Hi, David! Thank you for leaving a comment! I guess you’re right. So much depends on context, especially language. I’ve become so used to clear, relatively slow German that when I found myself in a group of people who were speaking really fast and with lots of slang, I felt lost!

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