What actually makes it difficult to learn a new language?

Most of us like to insist that learning languages is a complex business and that basically, some people are better at it than others. Unfortunately, the science shows us that this attitude is very much mistaken.

A quick look at the statistics though, gives us a good idea why so many people believe that learning languages is hard and only for the gifted. Studies show that only 4% of people who start a language course through a school reach basic fluency after 3 years. This means that 96% either drop out or fail to get to even basic fluency.

The thing is that learning a language is not hard, it just takes a very long time. And everyone can do it. You have already successfully learned your mother tongue haven’t you? Therefore you know you can do it. You are probably just being impatient and not giving it enough time.


As adults we make two major mistakes which contribute to this lack of time commitment:
We try and treat language like an ordinary academic subject, with lots of facts and systems to learn.
We try and learn like kids do.

Languages are not like science or history. You can’t start at ‘the beginning’ and work your way to ‘the end.’ These are foreign concepts to a language. And as adults, we tend to focus our thinking on problem solving. With language this often leads to frustration and impatience because languages evolve under social, not logical pressure and problem solving skills can solve off many language problems.

The next big mistake is that, as adults, we literally try too hard. Amy Finn, a postdoctoral researcher at MIT’s McGovern Institute for Brain Research found that, “The most surprising thing about the study is that trying can actually harm learning outcome. Superior cognitive function (literally: thinking better) is better for almost everything else other than language learning.”

Basically, studies have proved that learning a language is good for the brain. But adults do find it harder to learn a language later in life than kids do. This is because they learn in a different way. Kids tend to learn with what is known as procedural memory: which is how people learn habits and skills like skateboarding. Adults however tend to focus on Declarative memory which is all about facts and vocabulary.

Also, kids have better learning conditions than adults: They get to spend their first two years of life following around a person who explains everything to them all the time. That just doesn’t happen to adults trying to learn a second language!

TalenInstituut Language Learning Tip:
So, give yourself time and stop trying so hard. You need to relax into your learning process and have fun. Try and approach it more like learning to ride a bike than memorising fact for a history exam. It will go much better for you that way.

Here at TalenInstituut Nederland (The Dutch Language Institute) we understand the needs that companies face as well as the fears individual learners feel. This is why we offer flexible, fully customised Business language courses to businesses and individuals. Through a process of interviews and meetings we establish the unique needs and competence of our clients and design each and every course around those. To find out more about our Business Language courses, visit our website and ask us for a quote:

© Taleninstituut Nederland

By: David Chislett
Trainer Business English