Survey results: inside the mind of 167 language learners

June 8, 2020

In January of this year, 167 adult language learning enthusiasts completed a survey I published online.

My goal was to compare and contrast their motivations behind learning languages with their fears, as well as their vulnerable moments. I wanted to know what unites language learners in how they perceive themselves, especially in comparison to others. What does self-esteem look like when language learners put it into words? Of course, I’m no psychologist. It was a casual, fun experiment to satisfy my curiosity!

These are the results.

If you’d like to read more about my thoughts on the results and how I’ve connected some of these images with my own experience as a language teacher, please click here.

If you’ve been struggling with lack of motivation to learn your language or have been feeling particularly insecure about your skills, I sincerely believe these results will be eye-opening to you.

1. Complete the sentence with whatever comes to mind. “As a language learner, I am…”

2. Complete the sentence with whatever comes to mind. “As a language learner, I want to be more…”

3. Complete the sentence with whatever comes to mind. “I associate language learning with…”

4. What adjectives come to mind when you think of the polyglot and language learning community?

5. What is your best memory related to learning a new language? (You can mention more than one)

Without a doubt, the most common answers to this question were “Being able to have a conversation with a native speaker”, “Having my first conversation in my target language” and “being told I speak well”. They kept coming up again and again, even if worded differently:

  • The first conversation I ever had in my second language. I couldn’t believe they actually understood me!
  • Being told I speak almost like a native.
  • Being able to communicate with someone in their language.
  • My friend’s face when we have a good conversation.
  • The first time I had a flowing conversation without having to translate in my head.
  • Speaking with a native speaker.
  • Meeting native speakers in unexpected situations and being able to have a conversation with them, especially when these are minority or rare languages.
  • Handle a conversation during my trips.
  • First conversation.
  • When I was learning English at age 7/8 and I attempted to talk with my English uncle and he did get what I was saying. I felt really accomplished with myself.
  • The first time I was actually able to tell someone about myself in German. So fulfilling.
  • Just having conversations in places I never thought I’d have them.

Here are 13 other answers I’ve received that I believe complete the picture of what makes language learners happy. I couldn’t help but smile when reading these!

  • Proposing to my Russian girlfriend in her native language 🙂
  • Learning to love reading in my second language.
  • Realizing I didn’t need subtitles anymore to watch a show in Spanish.
  • Being told in Spanish by a resort employee “Wow, it’s true that you speak Spanish”.
  • Small victories like using the correct tense.
  • Making my Italian girlfriend’s mother laugh through a language-based joke.
  • Finally rolling an «r»!
  • Once I helped a student that was a Brazilian immigrant because I knew some Portuguese. He became more confident and eager to go to school after that.
  • Asking someone for a pencil in Japanese.
  • When after a year learning Korean by my own I started going to an academy and the teacher greeted us in Korean. I thought “Wow, this is real.”
  • Mixing the Italian words for ‘lungs’ and ‘octopus’.
  • The first time I read in public and people actually understood me…not what I was expecting ( I was so afraid!).
  • On a family holiday a few years ago, I was so happy when I made a joke in my mother tongue – and my aunts and uncles actually laughed! I did not grow up in my parents’ country so I had tried hard for a few years previously to improve in the language. I obviously still made mistakes and had an accent but it was really heartwarming to have this connection with family I had never met before this holiday, through our shared language.

6. What is your worst memory related to learning a new language? (You can mention more than one)

If good experiences with language seem to come from connecting with native speakers, overcoming obstacles and finally getting that “click” with the target language, bad experiences often relate to bad teaching, a sense of having failed (at anything), a lack of connection with native speakers and being laughed at. Here are some examples:

  • A bad teacher threatening to throw a brick at my head for conjugating a verb incorrectly.
  • Trying to learn Kabuverdianu (Cape Verdean) and failing miserably because there’s no material online.
  • Failing the first exams.
  • When I was learning English, I wrote a story and posted it on a site. I was super nervous about it. Someone wrote a comment calling me out on a grammar mistake and saying something like “it’s lose not loose you stupid ape” and I was so sad and demotivated to write anything for a while.
  • Having native speakers consistently respond in English when you’re trying to practice.
  • Slamming my head against the wall that is French negation.
  • Trying and failing to connect with native speakers in Norwegian.
  • Being an outsider for not knowing the language of my forefathers.
  • Bring skipped by the teacher when I didn’t answer fast enough.
  • Doing my GCSE French oral exam in which the examiner shook his head throughout the exam.
  • Going to a Japanese class and the teacher went at the speed of the fastest, loudest-speaking student to the detriment of the rest of the class.
  • Trying to speak Portuguese in Brazil and my friend making fun of my accent.
  • Feeling that I’m not really improving after years of learning.
  • Any time I feel confident and then I read/watch/listen to something (normally above my level) utterly destroying any confidence I had in that language.
  • People assuming I can’t because I’m a native English speaker and not letting me try.
  • A stressed out barman in Barcelona not understanding my Spanish and putting me down in front of a big group of friends!
  • My Japanese superior telling me my Japanese was not good enough in front of other staff/customers.
  • Twitter. A native speaker pretended to be a language learner and asked me to give an example of a word that’s never actually used in conversation (only used in one story), then made fun of my horribly construed example.
  • Not being able to use my GCSE French to order a McDonald’s in France. They couldn’t understand me.
  • In a hospital in my parent’s home country, a nurse was really condescending to me, pretending to struggle to understand me to my accent and periodically made comments like “You really struggle with this language don’t you?”. I knew I was near fluent by this point but it still affected my confidence and I found it hard to defend myself on the spot.
  • Being laughed at by others who were worse at my language than I was at theirs.

7. Have you ever felt inadequate when learning a language? What made/makes you feel that way?

The answers to this question truly broke my heart. Only 14% language learners claimed they had never felt inadequate or rarely did. The remaining 86% claimed they have felt inadequate, with enthusiastic “Yes!”, “Absolutely!”, “Definitely”, “OMG, a lot!” and “All the time!” appearing 25 times. Some examples:

  • Definitely. When I haven’t understood a grammar aspect quickly enough or translated something very badly.
  • Quite often, when it seems that I learn many words passively and I don’t use them in my convos.
  • When someone has a better level than I do.
  • I feel that when I hear someone say “learning a language is a social activity, you can’t learn it isolated in your room” because then I feel that I’m weird for being shy and anxious to talk to people.
  • Yes. My overall lack of motivation for almost everything, even if it truly interests me.
  • Yes, because I see how much other learners pour into their study routines and how much they study per day and I feel so unproductive compared to them.
  • OMG, a lot! I think it’s just the daunting size of the task!
  • All the time. Mostly being upset at myself for making simple mistakes or not being able to understand a question that someone has asked me.
  • I am shy and have trouble making conversation in my native language, so I often get flustered and make simple mistakes or don’t speak at all. I feel like this makes me seem like my level is much lower than it really is.
  • When my teachers correct me every two words, not being able to make mistakes.
  • OF COURSE! Not having enough knowledge to speak but having so much to say.
  • When I get reminded that I’ve been learning this for years but I still know so little.
  • The language I learn is from a racially homogeneous country. I am not the same race as them. No matter how good I am, people will always look at me and assume I don’t speak their language.
  • Yes – other language learners correcting my mistakes without me asking, and classes going so quickly I couldn’t keep up.
  • All the time honestly. I really try learning everyday and I understand the materials I use, but as soon as I talk to a native, I don’t understand a thing and that discourages big time.
  • Every time, all the time, everything.
  • Yes! At university: half the class was bilingual so they were extremely good and confident at speaking while I wasn’t.
  • I have a hard time practicing every day because of my depression.
  • Yes, when I can’t understand some grammar rules.
  • Yes!! Definitely comparison to other learners who are further than me.

8. What language learning skill is more difficult for you to apply, if any?

9. “I am still scared of making mistakes when I learn a language.”

10. “I often compare myself to other language learners and feel like my achievements don’t really matter.”

11. “I know for a fact that my fear of making mistakes has stopped me from interacting more, attending events or meeting new people in the language learning.”

12. “If my language exchange partner unexpectedly invited me for coffee in 3 hours, I would probably cancel or postpone because I didn’t have time to prepare.”

13. “I often avoid some language learning games, challenges, meet-ups or activities because I know I’ll be really uncomfortable and nervous.”

14. “I often rely on certificates, evaluations, points or grades to tell me how good I am at language learning. When I get a bad score or perform badly in these exams, I feel like a piece of crap.”

15. “I postpone Skype lessons, iTalki lessons, language exchanges or any other type of in-person interaction in a foreign language because I know I’ll go blank.”

16. “I often take it personally when I get corrected in a foreign language if I didn’t ask for feedback explicitly, even if the person is polite and I know they didn’t mean to hurt me.”

17. “I can’t help but feel a little hurt and discouraged when I get corrected in a foreign language, even if I explicitly asked for corrections.”

18. “Sometimes I feel something is wrong with me as a language learner, because I see others achieve so much in such little time. Why can’t I do the same?”

19. “Sometimes I achieve incredible learning feats when I’m by myself, but look like an idiot in front of others when I try to showcase my language skills. For that reason, I just avoid it.”

20. “I often feel like I need immediate results when it comes to learning a new language, otherwise I’ll feel demotivated (even though I know this is silly).”

21. “I suffer with performance anxiety when it comes to language learning.”

22. “My experience in school negatively impacted the way I feel about learning today (eg: bad teacher)”.

23. What do you feel are some obstacles stopping you from being a better language learner (if any)?

It seems our most precious currency is strongly lacking: time. Most language learners feel they don’t have enough time to dedicate to their favorite languages due to work, family, studies or other issues. Another common reply was, of course, money to afford courses and speaking lessons. Language learners also struggle to find opportunities to practice their speaking skills with natives:

  • Time!
  • More time and money would help.
  • Time and opportunity!
  • Time to practice, large number of languages I want to learn, and speaking opportunities.
  • Not having the opportunity to talk to native speakers.
  • Having more time to practice face to face.
  • I think getting time for more lessons!
  • Time constraints.
  • Not enough time and money.
  • Too many languages, too little time.
  • Time. I work full time and don’t have enough spare time to devote to improving the languages I know nor learn new ones.
  • For me, it’s just down to logistics; I have very little time and no one to practice with in person.

Here are other reasons why language learners struggle:

  • Probably just a lack of organization and discipline.
  • My lack of confidence to talk to natives and my lack of motivation because often I really don’t feel like learning and I procrastinate.
  • Lack of native speakers in my area.
  • Teachers, fluent speakers and learning-related recordings that are way way too fast to fast to understand and learn from.
  • I have depression which often causes a lack of motivation, so sometimes I have study breaks that are multiple months long and really do set me back a lot.
  • A tendency to procrastinate.
  • Lack of opportunity for immersion, some cultural barriers with common native speakers.
  • Difficulties in finding materials that work for me.
  • Comparison and insecurities. Essentially myself and my mind.
  • English is a crutch, but my legs aren’t broken – I shouldn’t need this crutch to walk.
  • Myself. I need to dedicate more time to learning language if I ever am going to become fluent. I just need the self-discipline to make it happen.
  • Definitely the fear of making mistakes when speaking!
  • Anxiety, fear of judgement.
  • Lack of discipline and depression are the biggest factors.
  • Personality. I’m a shy person.
  • Not having enough energy; it’s not that I don’t have time, because you can always make time, but I don’t always have enough energy to dedicate to it alongside my job, degree, personal and familial relationships, living a healthy and active life, aggressive budgeting, creative hobbies etc. Sometimes the last thing I want to do is do a lesson.
  • My need to be in control of everything.
  • Confidence! I avoid opportunities to use the languages I study out of fear of looking silly.

What does all of this mean?

If you’d like to read a lengthier analysis of these results connecting them with my own experiences, feel free to check out my Medium article: “The Importance of Vulnerability in Adult Language Learning“. It sums up the main ideas I collected from the results and introduces my own ideas on the topic of language learning and adulthood.

What are your perspectives on this topic? What results shocked you and which ones were more predictable? Is your experience as a language learner similar to the ones represented here?

I look forward to hearing about it in the comment section below!

  • Reply
    Matthew Boyle
    June 20, 2020 at 2:57 am

    MIND BLOWN. What an incredible write-up! What a wealth of information packed in here! I definitely plan to share this around. I love that you presented everything in such a strongly visual way. And I think you asked a lot of fresh questions, which are quite different from traditional surveys, and which people will froth at the mouth to know the answers to. Since I make language learning games, I tuned into #13. I was pleased by how many people said “no,” and I was greatly intrigued by how many people said “yes” or were “neutral.” It teaches me that games and activities can still be intimidating for some and also that there’s a good chunk of people who just aren’t very interested in that approach.

    • Reply
      Maria Inês
      June 20, 2020 at 6:14 am

      Wow Matthew, thank you so much for your kind, thoughtful comment! I think there might have been one or two things about the survey that I could have done better, but since it was a “curiosity project”, I decided to publish it anyway and I agree that the answers are quite intriguing in some cases! Glad you enjoyed it! 🙂

  • Reply
    Lucas Chaves
    June 20, 2020 at 10:04 pm

    As always Maria, great content! I think I remember this survey, might’ve seen your post something related. This really gives an insight of how people like to learn languages, what they expect, what are their goals in learning a language. The language learning community can take a lot from this, not only for the social media interactions, but for themselves haha

    If I were to reply to the questions you proposed for the comments, I’d write a book😂

    I always had this thing about confidence. Sometimes I avoid using the language I was supposed to use because of the fear of getting something wrong, and I see a lot of people also do. I think it’s silly now, but very understandable. Also, the certificate thing. Would that be a societal thing? “If I’m not certified, I don’t really speak?” Or maybe it’s because, in fact in some instances you truly need the certificate to prove you speak the language? Hahahaha I could go on and analyse and ask all day.

    • Reply
      Maria Inês
      June 28, 2020 at 12:47 pm

      Lucas, thank you so much for your lovely comment and for taking the time to visit my blog! I’d love to hear your opinions! Hehehe. When can I expect your book then? 😛 Yes, I believe confidence is fragile in language learning. Many of us feel like the kings and queens of the world one day, and then like a failure the next. Of course, we’re being too hard on ourselves when we do this. I have quite the strong opinions in terms of certificates…in fact, I think it might have been my most controversial opinion to date: saying that I don’t believe certificates necessarily reflect someone’s true language skills and that society takes them too seriously (also, they’re expensive). I think it’s still worth taking them for a very specific goal (like going to college abroad or applying for a job that requires a particular language) or if you love testing your own skills (aka, feel motivated by a challenge and love working with points, grades, etc). Feel free to stop by again, I always love listening to people’s opinions!

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