Once upon a time, the Foreign Service Institute (FSI) created a ranking of languages based on how difficult it was for a native English speaker to learn them well enough to reach “Professional Working Proficiency”. Some languages, like Spanish, were listed as Category I, meaning it took roughly 24-30 weeks or 600-750 classroom hours to learn. On the other end of the list, Category IV languages, like Japanese, took about 88 weeks or 2200 classroom hours to learn.
When you break it down like that, it doesn’t seem very long at all. In fact, learning a language seems completely achievable.
So, why do I feel like I’ve spent a lot more time than that and made minimal progress?
The FSI states pretty clearly that this list is based on an average length of time and can change due to factors such as natural ability and prior experience. Sure, some people seem to be better at learning languages than others. But what do you do when it’s week 50 and your Spanish skills are still pretty terrible?
Does it mean you’re worse than the average language learner?
Is There an “Average” Language Learner?
Some days, you might feel pretty good about your progress. Others, not so much. It’s a common experience. It’s average.
So, if you have more bad days than good ones, are you below average?
That seems a little harsh, doesn’t it? We might be pretty quick to point out when someone is talented, but we’re often less wiling to write someone off as below average or incapable of succeeding, especially when it comes to knowledge. After all, it’s hard to predict what a person might be capable of.
For example, did you get good grades in school or did you struggle to do well?
Chances are you felt average in at least one or two subjects. Maybe you had to work harder at math or study more for history, but you always assumed you could do better (or your parents might have told you to do better). Either way, your teachers had to determine whether you fit those “below average”, “average”, or “‘above average” categories and give you a grade. It didn’t matter whether you thought you could improve.
For some reason, we still have a tendency to put ourselves in those categories, even if it’s clear that they aren’t helping. We look to “above average” language learners to help us succeed and measure our progress against average timelines. Then, we feel bad about ourselves if we fail to meet those expectations.
Am I Bad at Learning a Language?
I took 4 years of French in high school. Then, I started studying on my own again last year and I’ve been working (a little inconsistently) towards C1 level fluency. I only feel like I’m bad at it when I compare my progress to someone else’s standards.
Anyone whose ever taken a foreign language class in school might be familiar with the ability to pass a test, but not get through a conversation. You might assume there’s a correct structure or curriculum for learning a language. If you can’t succeed within that idea, you’re probably just not good at learning languages.
Except, that’s not really true.
I met a guy who learned English mostly by listening to music. I know someone whose Spanish has improved solely through conversation.
So, if you’ve been trying to learn Spanish or another “easy” language for a long time, but you haven’t made much progress, are you really bad at learning languages? Or are you just someone who might benefit from a different approach?
It’s time to discard everything you assumed you needed to learn a language, including “talent”. Those things might just be holding you back. Instead:
Switch up your study materials.
If you’ve been using the same resources for a while, but you aren’t seeing any progress, it might be time to switch it up. Duolingo might be great for some people while others swear by Memrise or a customized Anki deck.
Don’t be afraid to do a little research and try something completely different. You might find another resource that fits your needs perfectly.
Try another method.
A new approach is more than just switching out your textbook or other materials. If you don’t enjoy your current strategy or you don’t think it’s working for you, try to find a new method by focusing on your goals.
For example, if you’re trying to improve your Spanish conversation, focus on improving your pronunciation and speaking skills. This might mean finding a teacher or at least someone to practice speaking with. If your goal is to travel to a Spanish speaking country, start off by learning phrases and vocabulary you might need while traveling.
Ignore negative thoughts.
Don’t tell yourself that you won’t be able to learn a language because you haven’t been doing well or that you’re just not talented enough. Instead, remind yourself that learning an entirely new language takes time. It’s okay if your progress is slow.
Switch out your negative thinking patterns by challenging your assumptions instead of just repeating positive phrases. Do you know for a fact that you can’t learn something new or are you just feeling defeated?
Find a tutor or study buddy.
You might need a personal tutor or teacher to help you make a plan for your goals. Maybe you aren’t super organized or you’re not sure what steps to take next. Don’t be afraid to turn to someone who can help you out.
Alternatively, you might just need someone to keep you accountable and motivated. Ask a friend or make a new one. Social connections can be valuable tools in your language learning journey.
Don’t brush off your language learning time as that thing you’ll get to later in the day. Make a time slot for it and stick to it.
I’ve been there before and I’ll admit it’s hard. You might benefit from writing things down in a calendar or agenda book, using time-blocking tools, or keeping track of your time with the Pomodoro technique.
Make time for reflection.
If you still think you’re not making real progress, take a look at your current goals and make sure they’re realistic. Do you just want to be able to order in Spanish at a restaurant or are you trying to converse fluently in another country after a month of studying?
After a few weeks, set aside some time to assess your goals and actually look back at your progress. You might discover that you’re expecting too much from yourself or that your ideas about the language have changed. You might also realize that you’ve come a lot farther than you first thought.
Above all, remember the reason you wanted to learn a language in the first place. There will always be another challenge or hurdle as you continue learning, so remember to find joy in your current motivation and experiences. Otherwise, you’ll just be focusing on the negative stuff, which won’t help at all.
Besides, I honestly don’t think you can be bad at learning a language if you’re having fun.
What do you think?