Why Anyone Can Learn Another Language

anyone can learn a foreign language

There are a lot of myths out there with regards to what people can and can’t achieve. We seem to limit ourselves by building boxes around ourselves. We say things like “I’d love to play the piano, but I could never learn. I’m just not musical.”

This kind of attitude gets worse as we grow older. When we are very young we feel we can achieve anything at all, and our success is only limited by the fact that we are too busy going to school to really make a start on our dreams. But as time goes by, and we experience failures, we start to doubt our own abilities, and this in turn creates attitudes about what we can actually achieve. Before you know it, we are in a routine of self-doubt and disappointment, safely avoiding failure by not trying anything difficult. We like to justify our new lack of ambition by describing ourselves as “no good” at something.

What do you want to learn how to do?

What is it that you want to do? What unfulfilled dream do you have? The fact that you are on this page suggests that you have an interest in learning another language. But maybe you think it would be too hard?

The example I used above of learning the piano is an interesting one, as maybe there are people who genuinely can’t get to grips with music. But language? We have all learnt a language, fluently. If you are reading this and understanding it then I can safely assume that you are a highly competent English speaker who has no trouble discerning meaning from strings of English words. That’s no mean feat, after all, a large chunk of the world’s population spends hours every day trying to get to grips with this complicated language.

So what if I can speak English?

The thing is, the fact that you speak English shows that you are intelligent enough to acquire language. English is a difficult language, full of irregular verbs, exceptions, nonsense idioms, double meanings, strange pronunciations and so on. But you have managed to get to grips with it.

When I was in South Korea teaching high school kids, I spent a great deal of my time studying the Korean language. Many of the other foreigners living there dipped into learning Korean but didn’t go beyond ordering a beer or asking for a bus ticket using hand gestures. Some of them said that Korean was just too hard, and this misconception was reinforced by a number of the Koreans who said that their language was indeed too hard for foreign people to learn, as if they had some innate ability lacking in people of other races.

If I can learn a language, then YOU definitely can!

FACT: Anyone can learn any language. 

The interesting thing is, many young Korean Americans who have learnt English from birth but no Korean, travel to Korea and have a torrid time. This is because they are expected to be fluent Korean speakers due to their race. They are almost considered a little stupid by Koreans who meet them and find they are unable to hold even the simplest of Korean conversations. However, they chat away in English with their American friends, since that is the language they learnt from birth.

Language has no birth right.

If I had been born in Korea, my parents would have spoken to me in English at home and I would have learnt Korean at school. Due to the huge amount of time I had spent learning each language, I would be fluent in both. There is no reason why, as a white person, I am unable to learn a language from Asia.

MYTH: It’s easier for children to learn a language.

Many people are under the misconception that children can learn language easily whilst for adults it’s almost impossible. The reason children seem to learn language quickly is, they have to. If I hadn’t quickly forced myself to learn certain English expressions when I was a toddler, how on Earth would I have asked my parents for food, to give me a jacket because I was cold, to take me home because I was tired, and everything else we need to survive? The pressure was there to learn and to remember what I needed to say. But if I am sitting in a warm room in England and trying to learn Arabic grammar, what happens if I just stare out of the window or daydream? Well, nothing.

That’s the thing. The only pressure I have to learn is the motivation I choose to have. If I put down the book and go and do something else, I won’t go hungry, get cold or be miserable. I have no pressure to learn, so I don’t bother.

This guy may not be as good at learning as you think...

MYTH: A child’s brain is like a sponge. 

It’s not true that children are better at learning than adults. In fact, children are extremely forgetful, and have very poor concentration spans compared to adults. What’s more, they have no experience when it comes to how to learn or memorise things effectively, whereas adults can draw on decades of experience when it comes to learning things. The reason they appear to learn quickly is that they have the same things repeated to them again and again and again, at home, at school, when playing, all the time. If we immerse ourselves in a language in the way children are immersed, we can learn just as effectively, in fact usually more quickly.

MYTH: It’s impossible to learn a new language when you get older.

As we grow older, we feel that our mental capacities fade, and many of us give up actively trying to learn anything new. However, this is a crucial misconception which causes us to waste our potential. Look at the great minds of human history, the Da Vincis, the Einsteins. Did these brilliant people stop discovering because they weren’t kids anymore? Of course not. In fact they had a lifetime of experience and knowledge to draw upon, whereas children are really just stumbling in the dark when it comes to learning and discovery.

If you want to learn a new language, you already have a vocabulary and grammar bank in your brain which comprises thousands and thousands of entries. Each one of these is a potential “hook” for a foreign word or grammar rule. It is much easier to learn what a foreign word means if I tell you the English equivalent. If I try to explain to a child by demonstrating, or using what few words he or she does know, it will take me much much longer, and I will have a job just getting the child to concentrate in the first place and remember in the long term.

You're brighter than you think.

MYTH: A person can be bad at languages.

Let’s get back to this idea that a person can lack the ability to learn a foreign language. It is in fact, poppycock. Humans are born with an incredible capacity for language, one which is rarely used to anything like its full potential. The stumbling block we face is not our ability.

Why you haven’t been able to learn other languages yet:

If you have tried and failed to learn a foreign language, the reason is not that you can’t.

It is probably one or more of the following.

- You had no motivation. When I was at school, I had to learn French and German. Even though they were well taught, I had no interest in language acquisition at that time. So I didn’t bother to try hard, and in turn I only learnt a moderate amount of those languages. I am currently learning French all over again, this time off my own back, and am finding the experience a wholly positive one now I want to learn. If I had been motivated at school, I dare say I would have learnt a lot.

Now THIS is a lousy teacher!

- You had a lousy teacher. A good teacher can be a wonderful blessing. They can motivate us, encourage us, teach us clearly, maintain our interest and also make us laugh or smile whilst we learn. But a bad teacher (one who doesn’t hold our interest or present things in a way that appeals to our way of learning) can actually discourage us from wanting to learn for the rest of our lives. And in my opinion that is a tragedy.

- You didn’t work long enough. Notice what I said there. I didn’t say “You didn’t work hard enough”. This might have been the case of course. But actually I believe the biggest challenge to language learners is the time commitment required. Think how many hours you spent learning English. It was years and years of learning for hours and hours every single day of your life. When I studied Korean I put in about 3,000 hours over a three year period living in the country, plus of course the learning that happened just by living there, and even then I only reached an intermediate level (according to a proficiency exam I took). Asian languages are of course notoriously difficult for English learners, so you may not have such an arduous task if you choose a language closer to home, such as French or Spanish. But don’t underestimate the time required.

- You concentrated on the wrong things. Any language is a massive amount of information, and even native speakers will never learn all of it. English has 171,476 common words (source: OxfordDictionaries.com) or many times that, depending on where you stop counting. But we don’t need to know every word. Better to find the most common words, such as I, you, house, road, food, go, shop and so on. Likewise, it is much more useful to learn the simple present, past and future tenses than to worry about irregular conjugations of obscure verbs. Don’t start learning long vocabulary lists until you are comfortable with the most important words and phrases of a language. Otherwise you could be wasting a lot of time. This site has a number of lessons aimed at English learners of different levels. But some of them are more useful for beginners than others. For instance, I would direct an English learner towards vocabulary mind maps and how to use them before I suggested they looked at the lesson which teaches how to write in cursive. Mind maps are going to be a more helpful use of time than cursive writing, at least at first. If you are trying to run before you can walk, so to speak, you might well get frustrated and give up on something that could have been great.

Be fearless. Start learning today.

So now you know that anybody can learn a foreign language if they are willing to persevere. Not only that, but they can have an amazing time doing it. What’s stopping you from learning Italian, or Japanese, or whatever language interests you?

Related posts:

  1. Why Learn a Foreign Language? 10 Great Reasons
  2. How To Improve Spoken English, Part 2- Say What You’re Thinking

7 Responses to Why Anyone Can Learn Another Language

  1. Stuart says:

    Hi, Jon. A good post and all true. Success in learning a language depends more on the learner’s attitude than on his natural ability. It needs a direct and practical approach and, as you say, it’s important to learn the right things and not waste time on the unnecessary aspects of the language. Being able to filter the necessary from the unnecessary is a skill that some learners have and some don’t. However, for learners that don’t have it from the start, it is a skill than can be learned and developed.

  2. Errabie says:

    hi Jon,

    really i enjoyed reading this article
    all what you said is correct 100%

    a really appreciate.

    i am eating your website step by step

    regards and my best wishes for 2011. maybe you will visit us in Oman once

  3. Catalian says:

    Nice article Jon,

    When we are born we have the ability to learn (acquire) any language or any number of languages if we have sufficient exposure to them. Adults can also learn any language if they have the right attitude and have suficient daily exposure to the new language. It is extremely difficult to obtain native-speaker pronunciation as an adult though.

    • Jon says:

      Hi Ian,
      Thanks very much for your comment.

      Yes, good point that native-speaker level pronunciation is almost impossible to obtain. In fact I would struggle to even imitate other UK accents!

      Cheers,
      Jon

  4. signature103 says:

    Yes, people are not always motivated or lack self-confidence. It is about attitude. We never stop being students, though people think stopping formally means the end of their education.

    And funny illustrations.

    Thanks. I enjoyed this post.

    • Jon says:

      Hi Warren,

      Thanks for your comment! I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

      I wish more people would attempt to embrace other languages and cultures like you have done. There is so much joy to be had in learning and exploring!

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