You’re probably familiar with these situations: You’ve spent hours studying new vocabulary, but at the crucial moment, you just can’t remember the right word. Or when you’re listening to native speakers, you suddenly don’t understand anything. What gives?
Don’t worry, both of these scenarios are normal! At Babbel, we know that language learning is fun, but it can also be hard work. So how hard is it to learn a new language? And why is picking up a new language so challenging at times? The answer to both questions is simple: Each language is unique and has characteristics that distinguish it from other languages. With every new language, mastering these characteristics poses a challenge for our brain. Of course, there are easier languages and harder languages, but here are generally the biggest obstacles for learners:
Different Writing Systems
Arabic, Mandarin, Hindi — some of the most spoken languages in the world use a different writing system than the Latin alphabet. This can be daunting at first glance, because if you want to learn one of these languages, you’ll also have to deal with the unfamiliar characters. For example, it’s best to familiarize yourself with the Cyrillic alphabet before you learn your first words in Russian. This endeavor is especially worthwhile because it opens the door to so much of the world: Numerous other Eastern European and Central Asian languages such as Serbian, Belarusian or Mongolian also use the Cyrillic alphabet.
You probably know people who speak English fluently and without any mistakes, but whose accent reveals that English isn’t their native language. Why is it so hard to fully master the pronunciation of another language?
The answer comes from biology: Babies are theoretically capable of forming all kinds of sounds. When we’re children, we’re surrounded by the sounds of our native language, and we learn to practice them and distinguish them from similar sounds. But then our brains lose the ability to make and differentiate sounds that it doesn’t hear regularly.
When you learn a language as an adult, you often have trouble with pronunciation because your speech organs have to learn to make brand new sounds.
For Polish native speakers, pronouncing words like cześć (hello) and pięćdziesiąt (fifty) is easy, but for anyone learning Polish as a second language, it’s a major challenge. For people learning English, the difference between a short i (as in “bit”) and a long ee (as in “beet”) is difficult to hear, while it’s easy for native speakers to distinguish. (If you don’t believe me, just think back to a time where a non-native speaking colleague said “beach” and it came out sounding a lot more like an insult…)
There’s only one thing that can help: Practice, practice, practice! And the best practice includes exercises to better train your pronunciation. But in the end, having an accent isn’t a bad thing. On the contrary, native speakers often find them charming!
Watch Out For False Friends
In many languages you’ll come across so-called false friends — words that look or sound similar to English, but mean something completely different. Naturally, these can quickly lead to misunderstandings.
The silver lining for false friends? After you’ve made the mistake once, you’ll probably remember the difference in the future!
For example, you might be tempted to use the Spanish word embarazada to say “embarrassed,” because it looks uncannily like the English word. Unfortunately, embarazada isn’t a cognate, but a very false friend: It actually means “to be pregnant.” If you want to express your embarrassment (perhaps after using this false friend incorrectly), you’ll want to say “Tengo vergüenza” instead.
Even more confounding is the German word Gift. You might want to be very careful if someone offers it to you, because they’re not giving you a present, but poison! Confusing, right?
Don’t Forget About Grammar
Something that many language learners dread is grammar. And who could blame them? It’s often difficult enough in our mother tongues. These issues often compound when learning another language. For example, in French there’s the subjonctif — a verb form that doesn’t have a direct equivalent in English. Just look at these two sentences in English:
- I think he’s coming.
- I don’t think he’s coming.
What do you notice? Nothing, probably. That’s the point! The second verb is always the same, regardless of whether or not the first verb is negated. In French, however, this makes a big difference:
- Je crois qu’il vient.
- Je ne crois pas qu’il vienne.
If you want to negate your first verb, you’ll have to use a different form for your following verb. This is just one example, but almost all languages contain grammatical aspects that aren’t present in our native languages.
Even if you don’t find grammar rules exciting to learn, just remember: If you want to speak fluently and correctly, you can’t skip the grammar! And contrary to what you may have experienced in school, this doesn’t have to be boring. You might find it especially rewarding when you notice your improvements from week to week.
Idioms in a new language are often confusing at first because you can understand the individual words, but still miss the overall meaning. Just imagine what a non-native speaker would think if you said not to “beat around the bush.” You’re not talking at all about beating, nor does it have anything to do with a bush — what you’re really saying is to not talk around a subject. But how would that be intuitive to a learner?
Struggling to remember idiomatic expressions? Our tip is to picture them literally!
It probably goes without saying that you can’t just translate English idioms directly: Even if there’s an equivalent expression, it probably uses different words to paint a similar picture. Instead of “killing two birds with one stone,” a German would “hit two flies with one fly-swatter” (zwei Fliegen mit einer Klappe schlagen).
Dialects And Other Variants
Another challenge is that many languages have many dialects and different words for the same thing — this is the case with German and even English to some extent. Spanish, with more than 400 million native speakers worldwide, is especially known for its variety of vocabulary.
For example, “ballpoint pen” in European Spanish is el bolígrafo, in Mexico it is more commonly la pluma, in Colombia el esfero and in Peru, Bolivia and Costa Rica el lapicero. And that’s just one of hundreds of words that differ between Spanish-speaking countries. This may be confusing in the beginning, but native speakers will usually still understand you, even if you don’t use the local word.
How Do You Start Learning A New Language?
So it’s obvious that there are many obstacles that can make learning languages difficult. At the same time, we know it’s really exciting! Here are our tips for avoiding frustration while learning:
- Remember your motivation for learning the language. Think about your reasons and adapt your learning methods to your interests. If you want to brush up on your French for a trip to Paris, you don’t have to study Molière — but watching a few movies along with your studies will cement vocabulary and help you learn more.
- Keep your expectations realistic. Speaking a new language fluently, or even just speaking it well, requires time, energy and motivation. To start with, it helps to set small, realistic goals (for example, learning how to order a drink on vacation). When you have a quick sense of achievement, you’ll be more motivated to continue learning.
- Take it easy and practice bit by bit, but on a regular basis. Just 20 minutes a day is better than two hours once per week. And that can fit into even the busiest schedules, right?