Is Learning a Language Difficult?

by David · 23 comments

A general misconception exists that learning a language is difficult. I also held this view, but that changed when I started to learn Spanish. I now believe that learning a language is not difficult.

What Do We Mean by ‘Difficult’?

The truth is this, when most people say that something is ‘hard’ or ‘difficult’ what they really mean is that it’s going to take time, effort and it’s not going to come easy.

All of those things apply to learning a language, but I don’t believe learning a language is difficult.

You see, language is complex system made up of many parts and small details, however, all of these can be learnt easily when the necessary time is dedicated, and an effective approach is adopted.

I’ve come to realise that most of the challenges we face when learning a language don’t exist as part of the language, they exist as part of ourselves.

Developing Skill and Self-Mastery

Often what’s considered difficult when learning a language is staying consistent, maintaining focus, having the will to push forward when you want to give up, dealing with limiting beliefs like ‘I’m not smart enough’, ‘What was I thinking’, ‘I can’t do this’ ect, ect…

I asked people on Facebook what they found most challenging when learning a new skill, you can read their response here.

Learning a language – or any skill – consciously and successfully is primarily a case of self-mastery; having what it takes to push forward in the face of adversity and learning to feel at home outside of your comfort zone.

I’ll reiterate:

Most of the challenges we face when learning a language don’t exist as part of the language, they exist as part of ourselves.

As I mentioned here, deciding to learn a language was one of the best decisions I ever made. Amongst other things, I learnt how to overcome hurdles, how to shut out the voice that told me to quit, how to stay focused and how to learn. Honestly, I’m not exaggerating when I say that learning a language taught me how to grow as a person.

Of course, there will be aspects of a language we find challenging and they will take time to learn, but I still hold the strong opinion that learning a language is not difficult.

Any Other Opinions?

I decided to ask the question ‘is learning a language difficult?’ to a handful of successful language learners

Here are their responses:

Randy Hunt speaks 3 languages fluently and a few others with varying degrees of fluency; he says:

It’s not learning a language that’s hard. Actually, taken at face value, “learning” is easy, and “language” is easy. Then again, exercising is easy too. So is saving money and paying bills. But in a world full of diet pills, spray-on tans, cosmetic surgeries, lottery tickets, and game shows, it’s hard to deny that the hard part of any big task is having the consistency, the perseverance, the patience to see it through. This is why foreign language skill remains such an effective signal about people. Learning the language is the easy part; the hard part is dong all the work, day after day.

Steve Kaufmann speaks 10 languages fluently; he says:

I think language learning is difficult for many people,  if they have never achieved fluency in another language before. They have no sense of what it is like and no confidence they can do it. They need to trust that their brain will learn. They should avoid the frustrating task of trying to master grammar in a language for which they have insufficient experience or exposure. They also should not put pressure on themselves to produce the language too early. This is stressful and unnecessary.

If they focus on getting the language in them through lots of interesting input. If they accept patiently that they will forget much of what they learn, and that the language will remain fuzzy for quite a while, then it they will learn, but it takes time. Many people are simply too impatient. Language learning takes time.It is not the learning itself that is difficult, it is staying the course.

Robert Bigler is a simultaneous interpreter who speaks 5 languages fluently and a few others with varying degrees of fluency; he says:

Learning a language requires dedication more than anything else. It is not a difficult but certainly a time-consuming task. There is no quick one-size-fits-all solution. Learning a language is like getting to know a person. You have to invest a lot of time to produce lasting results.

I’m convinced we all can learn any language to a degree that allows us to communicate in that language if we are serious about it. As long as you are motivated enough and enjoy what you are doing, you will succeed. Just don’t expect to be fluent in any language over night. It takes time, but it is all worth it.

Jana Fadness speaks 2 languages fluently and a handful of others with varying degrees of fluency; she says:

When I first got into learning languages, there was no one around me to tell me it was difficult, and so I never thought about it. I just started learning Japanese because it seemed interesting, and I kept learning it because it was fun. None of my family or friends knew anything about learning languages, so I guess none of them felt qualified to say, “You’ll never learn Japanese unless you do X, Y and Z.” I mean, they thought I was weird, but I didn’t care about that.

It was only later on that I met people who said “Japanese is really freaking difficult”, but by that time I had fallen so in love with the language that I didn’t care. I was determined to learn the language, and it didn’t matter how difficult it was or how long it would take.

Now I have learned Japanese, and I’m telling you it was totally worth it. I’m not going to tell you how long it took or how hard it was, because it doesn’t matter and it never did. None of that time or effort was wasted.

Rather than asking ourselves “Is this difficult?”, I think we should be asking “Is this really worth doing?” If the answer is yes, we should just do it. Difficulty is irrelevant.

Susanna Zaraysky speaks 7 languages fluently; she says:

Language learning in general is not difficult because it can be made into a fun game using music and the media. There are difficult aspects of memorizing and internalizing grammar rules so that they stick and make sense. Pronunciation can also be difficult if one is not used to new sounds and listening carefully but once the language learner gets used to learning how to listen, this barrier melts away. It’s all about one’s mindset. You can make grammar fun by listening to a song and paying attention to how many times a certain grammatical structure is used. It’s about your attitude. Look for ways to make languages enjoyable and they won’t be difficult.

Benny Lewis speaks 8 languages fluently and a few others with varying degrees of fluency; he says:

It’s quite a subjective question because it depends on a million things like your circumstances, goals, and willingness to be flexible. I think that it can indeed be difficult at times, but in a way your mentality can cancel this out. I’m reminded of the first language challenge I took on (apart from lazy exam-only language learning in school) of trying to learn Spanish at age 21. For six months it definitely was difficult – but not because of irregular conjugations, rolled rs and new vocabulary – because I was constantly reminding myself of how difficult the task was.

Since I was “too old” to be learning a language, and didn’t have the “language gene”, and tried a traditional classroom environment again and was the worst student, I was definitely sure of Spanish’s difficulty. However, one day I put all of this negative reinforcement aside and just got into the language; using it for real, and ignoring the difficulties as simply part of the process rather than brick walls preventing me from continuing. I would take the “glass is half full” approach of reminding myself how far I had come and how logical the language really was and soon progress started to flow much more.

Luca Lampariello speaks more than 8 languages fluently; he says:

I totally agree with you on the fact that calling something difficult makes it ..difficult. Learning a language is not difficult, but there is a general and pernicious tendency (school, some teachers; learners themselves) make it much, much more difficult than it really is. Learning how to speak a language is like building a castle. If we want to build it in a few days, and we don’t know how to build it, we’ll find the task VERY difficult. If we instead consider our task as something “sophisticated, complex” that we can only build over time, “brick by brick” then we’ll find the experience engaging and fascinating. Interest and attitude are driving forces in language learning, and in life in general.

Also,  you can watch a video Luca made speaking about the topic by clicking here

 

As you can see, I’m not the only one that holds this view.

Learning a language is not difficult.

What do you think?

Photo credit

 

  • This is all semantics,

     everyone above holds my view too. It’s a simple logic problem:

    Learning a language takes time and effort.   Spending time and effort is difficult.  Therefore learning a language is difficult even though it is completely worth the effort.

    I agree with both Randy and Steve the most, but Randy says it correctly when he says exercising is easy too. But staying fit? What does staying fit involve… effort and time?

    It’s still just semantics. If learning a language weren’t difficult and the rewards for my efforts weren’t worth the time, I wouldn’t bother.

    You know what calculus, physics, building bridges, raising children none of it is difficult. Maybe that’s what people need though to be told that things are easy. I’ve always operated better under the truth and not word play like:

    “Often what’s considered difficult when learning a language is staying
    consistent, maintaining focus, having the will to push forward when you
    want to give up”

    Yes that is difficult and learning a language involves all of that.

    • I understand where you’re coming from Chris although I don’t agree that it’s a matter of semantics. 

      The point here is that language learning itself is not difficult. What people often find difficult is doing the simple things consistently.

      This is true for many areas of life.

      Most of the difficulty doesn’t come from language, it comes from mastering yourself, making yourself do what you need to do –  consistently. 

      Once you’re able to make yourself do the things you need to do, language doesn’t become ‘easy’  but it certainly becomes easier and at it’s certainly not hard. 

      •  So then, what is difficult if we break it down in the way you break things down? Mountain climbing? nope Child rearing? nope Martial arts? nope

        In fact the word difficult shouldn’t exist then.

        Okay if you take out all the time involved, the effort, the focus then it is easy, you’ll eventually understand those tones or that noun declination…

        But then what’s the point of calling it easy when all that other stuff that goes into learning languages, that’s necessary for learning languages is difficult.

        It’s all part of the same package. I may write a post about how easy lunar travel is after this (you know after I admit the physics, the math, the engineering, the time, the money the effort are difficult but don’t count towards what I really mean)

  • Jww1066

    Uh, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/difficult says “not easily or readily done; requiring much labor, skill, or planning to be performed successfully”. So it’s kind of silly to claim that “difficult” doesn’t include things “requiring much labor”. 

    • We could be pedantic about the whole situation, or we could pay attention to what’s being explained. Language is about communicating ideas, and that’s what I’ve done here. I’ve communicated an Idea and I’ve provided my justification.  

      The dictionary doesn’t help us here. 

      Do you understand the idea that me and all the people above are trying to get across? 
      That’s what matters. You’re free to reject the ideas presented here. 

      ‘Meaning’ is deeper than a dictionary definition. Everyone internalises words differently. 

      I won’t go into this, but if you’re interested in the topic, look into philosophy of language and psycholinguistics, entire books have been written on the subject, and people have spent their entire lives studying ‘meaning’

  • I am tempted to jump into the semantics debate here, but I think we are loosing site of the fact that, aside from us language bloggers (and seasoned language learners), most people consider language learning “difficult” because they falsely believe it requires:
    1) A gift for language (which they feel they don’t have)
    2) A great memory (which they think they lack)
    3) Hours spent doing boring, repetitive drills (which they can’t stand)

  • For a new, inexperienced language learner the difficulty is in knowing where to start, which resources to use, etc.
    I would say that if you approach language learning as a ‘problem solving’ activity like mathematics (e.g. saying this plus this will achieve result X), then it does make it a lot more difficult than it has to be. My experience with Arabic was similar to Jana’s in that I never stopped to think about Arabic being difficult, but just enjoyed it from the start. It was fun and exciting from the beginning but now I hear people all the time say, “Wow. Arabic is frikkin hard man!” I just never thought of it that way.

    Good post, David 🙂

  • Excellent article. It inspired me to write a blog post with my two cents: 
    http://streetsmartbrazil.com/blog/20120225/tips-overcome-language-learning-frustration

    • I’m glad you liked the article. I’ll be sure to share your article with my Facebook and Twitter friends 🙂

  • Helen

    Hello, 

    I’m currently learning arabic and I must say that I am EXHAUSTED. I want to achieve this successfully but this process has been so strenuous mentally and physically. Every Tuesday and Thursday I dread going to my 2 hour class because within 30 minutes I’m confused. It’s so discouraging when I look around the class and students have the same perplexed face as I do. Next thing you know it, I’m at home trying to teach myself, watching youtube instructional videos. I don’t know what to do.

    • Helen,

      I am sorry to hear you are having such a frustrating experience. I think the classes themselves are a big part of the problem. While formal classes do work for some, I find that they do more harm than good for many language learners. While foreign language learning certainly does take effort and discipline, enjoyment is a crucial element of success (the more you like the process, the more likely you are to spend the requisite time with the language). I suggest finding enjoyable materials, activities, social groups, etc. that bring in contact with the Arabic language (and more importantly, native Arabic speakers).

      • Helen

        I’ll keep this into consideration. Thanks John!!

    • Hi Helen, thanks for stopping by with your question. I understand your frustration and I suspect you’re feeling this way because of the way you’re being taught in the classroom.  Like @d01125544c6ea175b0e7b6112d197f99:disqus said, some people are suited to learning a language in a classroom, but the vast majority of us seem to not like the approach. I’m willing to be that your classes are filled with lots of grammar explanations? 

      The most important aspect when learning is motivation, and if you aren’t enjoying yourself motivation won’t last too long.  

      My approach is to make my learning as fun as possible. When I start a language I learn through short stories and music. I use a phrase book to learn how to say simple sentences and I don’t worry about grammar. I just repeat sentences in full and over time grammar starts to make more sense. 

      Talking with a native is also extremely helpful. It brings the language alive and creates a buzz that makes me want to learn more. Also, make sure that you use whatever you learn as soon as possible so it’s brought alive, you’ll also learn a lot faster, too. 

      I’m always here to help, if you have any more questions don’t hesitate to shoot me a message. Learning a language is a long road and we all need a little support 😉 

  • David Cano

    Hi there.
    I would make it simpler. Naming the process of learning “difficult” will only make it difficult, although it is indeed difficult. It is just a matter of psychological barrier when you have to deal with something. Naming it “easy” is better for you because it will make it easier this way, it will make things flow. The problem is that we sometimes use the word “difficult” to kind of a personal barrier in order to away our fears. As far as the term “difficult” means, yes, it is difficult….but the reality could be completely different, depends on you and your vision or willingness. In summary, we all want to learn a language, so why don´t call this task as “EASY”?, it then will be easier for all of us.

  • InativeSpeaker

    It certainly is difficult if you feel so 🙂

  • From my experience the most difficult isn’t the language itself, it’s to master our will. Anything becomes easy for a highly motivated individual. For example I learned Korean much faster than German. Yet Korean is supposed to be much more difficult for a French speaker than German.

    The real question isnt “is this language difficult?”. It’s “why do I want to learn this language? Do I really have the motivation to do so?”.

    • Ignacio

      i dont know why

      you want to delete the word difficult as if this word it wasnt good

      you requires thousands and thousands of hours to speak as a native language

      is not a piece of cake

      i am learning english since a lot of years

      and i have only a decent level

      and i challenge those people who say that speak a lot of languages fluently (when i hear 10 or 20 i laugh)

      i never knew an english speaker who speak spanish excelent in all my life (even i know an english native speakers who lives in Argentina since almost 20 years)

      language requires pronuntiation /grammar/declination/conditional/slang

      etc,etc

      • I truly believe the word “difficult” isn’t good. Because it has a bad impact on people’s mind. When you think difficult, you often think impossible. In other words, you give yourself an excuse not to do something, which is otherwise perfectly possible.

        I know a few people who speak French as good if not better than native speakers. And it didn’t take them 20 years.

        Many foreigners barely speak the language after 20 years living in the country because they simply don’t do their best. Taking a two hours class every two days is not enough. You need to be willing to speak the language and make mistakes too.

        • Ignacio

          the world difficult means difficult
          and the word impossible means impossible
          no one can say that its an easy thing to do
          even if u say that its easy because u think that your attitude change
          thinking like that
          its not truth
          look at my english
          if u want to see an example
          learn a language its not a piece of cake

  • Peter

    “A general misconception exists that learning a language is difficult. I also held this view, but that changed when I started to learn Spanish. I now believe that learning a language is not difficult.”

    …so you used to believe, it was difficult. Now you believe, it is not difficult. You just believe in something again. What do you actually know about that? Is learning a language easy or difficult? I am not asking what you believe. I am asking what you know.

  • cindy

    I’ve been learning English for almost two years and sometimes is really complicated because I can’t pronouns some words or in the moment when I’m speaking I totally forget the words and I think in Spanish instead of English, so in other words is hard and trying to expand my vocabulary is more but I think that is the price of learning a new language and it is more if I want to study in another country. ( sorry for my grammar mistakes)

    • cindy

      *pronounce

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