The difficulty of learning a foreign language

I have noticed that my posts on language are generally ones people enjoy reading, so I’ve decided to try and do more of them. The thing is, I know a ton about language, but because of that I always run the risk of making things too complicated. I have had so many ideas for language related posts in the past, but they always ended up being super long or complicated. However, as of today I will try to pick topics that I think I can explain in 500 – 1000 words without too much difficulty. Of course, if you have any questions or particular language related subjects you are interested in, please feel free to ask in a comment below and I can see what I can do with it. Okay, so now on to the actual post.


Learning a foreign language is no easy picknick. It by no means compares to the ease you have learning your first language, or mother tongue, when you are a child. A foreign language is acquired later in life, after mother tongue acquisition has been finalized, and that causes problems. For one, you are afraid to make mistakes and have a harder time storing all of the language items in your memory. You have to make a conscious effort to try to make the language stick so you’ll be able to use it. You usually feel restricted in what you can do or say in the foreign language depending on the stage you are at, which can lead to frustration and lack of motivation. So why is it that learning a foreign language is so difficult?

Your mother tongue is acquired with ease. You learn the language from your parents and the other people around you simply by doing it. You repeat, imitate and observe other human beings with the same language and from their continuous feedback you learn your first language. The fact that you are a small child when you do so (your first language major acquisition takes place between 1 and 5 -7 years old and continues until your early teens) also helps. Children have less inhibitions as they are less aware of social rules and they don’t have the same concept of right and wrong as grown ups do. That is why they don’t care when they have the notorious t/ k problem, only use singulars, use bad grammar etc. They simply don’t know it’s wrong yet!

Thus, learning a foreign language suffers from your preconceptions of right or wrong. You usually learn a foreign language in school or after being at school for a period of time. This means you are very much aware of right and wrong and the consequences of language mistakes. Even worse, when you learn a language in school your level of school success will even depend on the grades you get for said foreign language. This puts tremendous pressure on anyone learning a language later in life. Many of my students say: when I go to England I can speak just find, but when I have to do an English presentation for a grade I completely black out. It’s the fear of failure, rather than inability or incompetence, that is causing the problem.

The reason why learning a first language is so easy is because all human beings are born with the innate ability of learning a language. According to research, human beings are different from animals because they have language. Noam Chomsky dubbed this innate ability Universal Grammar. Each human being is born with a system in their brains that allows them to learn language simply by being exposed to it. However, after a while the system shuts down (starting as early as 7 years old) and the language because fixed in people’s mind. The brain is now hard-wired for understanding this one language and no other. That is why you can only become truly bilingual if you grow up speaking two languages. If you learn a language later in life all you can try to do is fake it.

Because that is actually what you are doing when you are using a foreign language. There is a theory, called the Sound House Theory as coined by Lippi-Green, that states that learning a language is like building a house. Your first language (i.e. house) is a breeze: you have all the tools you need, you have a blue print, the right materials etc. When the system shuts down you lose some tools, your concrete dries up and the blue print fades. So by the time you are trying to learn a foreign language you cannot build an entirely new house: you don’t have the right tools anymore. All you are left with is the house you built in the first place, which you are going to have to use as a basis. You can redecorate a room here and there, maybe build a small extension, but you can never make it as solid as your first house.

It is why a foreign language learner can never be dubbed a native speaker. The highest attainable level is near-native and it takes a long time and hard work to get there. And the worst part is: you can never get it the way you want. As soon as you get tired, or old, or you are simply having an off day, it will be very noticeable that you are not a native speaker. Keep me up for 36 hours and I will start mixing things up. When I hear too much Dutch, my English suffers and in Australia there are special Dutch communities for elderly people with dementia because they have forgotten how to speak English. It’s the battle you’ll never win, the class you won’t excel at, or the life you could have had if you had made other choices. Learning a foreign language is difficult, but if you can accept the fact that you will always make mistakes and it can never be perfect, i.e. that there is no right or wrong, it will become easier.

What type of language related posts would you like to see? More on language learning? More on Dutch? More on English? More on Dutch vs English or the other way round? Language as communication? Why we have language? Why languages are so different? Loan words? History of the English language? How accent can give a clue as to who you are and where you come from? The link between language and identity? The options are endless! Just let me know in a comment below what you’d find interesting and I’ll see what I can do for you.

23 responses to “The difficulty of learning a foreign language”

  1. I really enjoy these posts because I can relate on a certain level. I have dealt with different languages all my life, being bilingual it has been to my advantage but believe me when I say it has also gotten me in awkward situations.

    It’s interesting to read that one can never be a native when you learn a language later on. I think I will have to adjust my hopes because of that. I am fluent in German but I can absolutely tell that when I am tired, I just refuse to speak German (me and my boyfriend have started speaking German to each other more). During the day when I am around German all the time, it goes perfectly, I can speak it with no big problems, but as soon as I get home and I feel exhausted, it no longer comes out right. I think that is something I will have to accept and deal with for the rest of my life.

    I find accents really interesting. I am crazy about Southern accents, and I sometimes pick up words and certain accents being around a certain group of people. When I worked in Chicago, I picked up the accent real fast, but it definitely didn’t stick. As soon as I got back home, the accent completely faded within a week. I would love to read more posts about language and identity and accents 🙂

    • Yup the one thing to accept is that it will never be perfect. Language never is (I could write a post on that too lolz) but we as people want it to be. Which is where things go awkward. I will see what I can do for you with regards to accents and language and identity. And I hear you on picking up accents. When I go to England I always have the accent stuck in my head and find it harder to be consistent in my American accent once I get home.

  2. I know that wasn’t your intent, but what a depressing post in some ways. I suppose on some levels, I already knew that no matter how hard I try, I’ll never be a native speaker of Dutch. Somehow, I need to find a way to find pleasure from the process, and that is not how I was (as a child) conditioned to approach life. And yet, I find myself now, at my age, taking-on things for which there is no hope of ever achieving perfection—not that it exists for anyone. Dutch is merely one of them.

    Would you permit me a small correction? You said, “Children have less inhibitions as they are less aware of social rules.” It’s actually fewer inhibitions. This is interesting to me on a few levels, one being that native English speakers in America get it wrong probably about a third of time (or more), and I’ve struggled with it a bit in Dutch (veel vs. vele, which strikes me as the same issue—although when I blogged about it, one Dutch speaker told me he doesn’t really see the difference!).

    In any case, countable nouns always get “fewer” and mass nouns always get “less.” For example, less fat, fewer calories, less sugar, fewer cups of coffee, less coffee (e.g., don’t fill the cup so full), less aware, less awareness, fewer rules, etc.

    Feel free to return the favor anytime you see me speak Dutch. I have Dutch friends who provide feedback, but few of them are able to explain the “why” about much of it. 😉

    (Oh, and sometime I’d like to get your e-mail address to stay in-touch about your visit to the US and the possibility of having a coffee while you’re here. Best for me is wabk at moonworks dot com.)

    Keep those posts coming. And here’s to adopting a bit of childlike curiosity and boldness (and lack of fear of mistakes) to everything we do.

    • Might sound depressing, but language in general is quite depressing then. There is no such thing as perfect language or a perfect speaker of a language. Language was simply not made for it, but us humans want it to be. I am not gonna elaborate on that too much as that would make up a completely new post.

      Oh yeah and the less vs fewer distinction always confuses me. Much and many are okay for me, but less vs fewer is a problem since in Dutch they translate to only one option: minder. So that’s why. Thanks for pointing that out!

      Where do you write Dutch? Also on a blog? Or just in your journal? Just give me the link and I’ll check it out for you. I will send you an e-mail with my e-mail.

      Loved the last sentence: it shouldn’t just apply to language learning but to life in general.

  3. My favorite things to read are the grammar rules of Dutch language. Boring, I know ;). You could also look at what online options are out there for Dutch language learners (for example, I like to watch Het Klokhuis on Uitzending Gemist’s website, with the Dutch subtitles on.

    When I (a librarian) was searching for writing/grammar articles for an English class last week I came across a handful of articles about Dutch. The one that stuck in my mind the most was cognates between languages (ship, schip) and how cognates help foreign language learners read faster. It was an interesting read.

    • I agree; I’m endlessly fascinated by Dutch/English cognates. Of course, they are also full of landmines where seeming cognates are not cognates at all, but it seems there are far more successes than failures.

      I don’t think there’s a name for it, but I also am really fascinated by what I’d call “splits,” where a word in one language splits into two or more in the other. The two that come to mind are know –> weten/kennen and remember –> herinner/onthouden.

      Now that I got myself started, I guess I’d also say I’m endlessly fascinated by separable verbs (well, even inseparable ones that are concatenations). I suppose we do it in English, sort of, (uptake, take-out, hold-on, etc., etc.), but at least to me, the Dutch seem to be remarkably adept at mashing words and word parts together, and the richness of verbs are among the more elegant and beautiful (to my eyes) examples. There are exceptions, and many of them, but by and large, they make learning verbs easier in some ways. If you can start to grok the components, then the mash-ups make a lot of logical sense.

      • Ah those verbs are indeed fascinating. There is also mean -> betekenen/ bedoelen. They are hard to explain, but a post on some of this would definitely be manageable. Dutch (and German) are quite infamous for the way in which we merge morphemes and sometimes entire words together to create new words (compounds). Will have to figure out how to go about that as you have verbs + preposition combinations, as well as noun+noun, noun+verb etc. I would have to probably devote a post to each category individually.

    • Thank you for your input. I am no expert in Dutch, other than being a native speaker, but I know the basics. So I could probably work in some Dutch grammar posts. Cognates are a different story. I honestly don’t know any of those consciously so I would have to look into that. I do know that the Dutch course I used to teach was heavily based on cognates and the similarities between English and Dutch so I can see what I still remember from that and see how far I get.

      • I don’t know that the “splits” are too hard to explain, but maybe it’s the way my brain works, or the way I approach this entire thing.

        For me, it requires little more than actually thinking about the meaning of what I wish to express before just spewing words out of my mouth (something that’s useful even if I’m speaking English, honestly). 😉

        But beyond that, I find that thinking of my English in a more antiquated, more formal, more “posh” way—I mean, every day, all the time—makes Dutch is a lot easier. I just channel a bit of Queen Elizabeth, and when I do, I would not say, “Yes, I know John,” but rather, “Yes, indeed I am acquainted with Jonathan.” Hence, kennen. Maybe it seems ridiculous, but it works for me, and I rarely get weten vs. kennen wrong.

        Another example: So (here’s another “split”). In older, more formal English, we’d use “thus” quite a bit, not “so.” So (or thus!) if I just think “thus” when I mean “thus,” and use “so” solely as an amplifier (so much, so many, etc.), then I stay out of zo vs. dus trouble completely.

        It works similarly with herinner and onthouden, somewhat with betekenen and bedoelen. Verstaan vs. begrijpen was another story—yet another split—because I can’t really put that difference in a similar older English context.

        In any case, truly, I believe that direct word translations of an awful lot of Dutch go to English in a very stiff, formalized way, so doing the reverse makes it easier.

        Of course, using “thus” and “acquainted with” in everyday English gets me some weird looks, but I don’t much care. 😉

        I need to shut-up now. I could go on about this stuff all day apparently…

      • That makes sense actually. I had never thought of it that way. As explaining it as ‘old fashioned’ English. It actually makes much more sense then trying to explain the different meaning consistently.

  4. I knew a lot of this already and this is why English people fail to learn a second language well. We don’t start learning one until age 11/12 (unless your in wales and in a welsh school, some speak welsh and english).

    For me, I remember single words ok and then a specific sentence “Hi, My name is…”. This is mostly due to the repetition of these words or sentences – we were always writing letters, and introducing ourselves. It’s largely a memory thing for me.
    Making it into translation is a different matter with me, but perhaps that’s the way I was taught.

    • Yup you guys start too late and since there is no real need to learn a foreign language, because hey, everyone else is learning English anyway, most native speakers of English fail at learning different languages, except for a few motivated individuals or unless they absolutely have to.

      • A few motivated, or in my case, simply crazy individuals. 😉

        That being said, given how much research has positively confirmed that what I guess I’d call “true” bilingualism literally makes people smarter (by “true” I mean learned very early on), I’d consider it a failing of the educational system that we don’t start teaching a second language in kindergarten as a mandatory component of the curriculum. English-centricity strikes me as a bit arrogant, but it also seems to me that the subject of language and language education starts to seep into things like the official language debate, the immigration debate, and other political hot-button types of issues (at least where I live, and at least with regard to Spanish, and then by extension, Mexican immigrants, legal and otherwise).

      • Language has been part of politics in plenty of places. It’s the last barrier on which people can still legally discriminate against others.

      • I think perhaps we are taught differently too because our late start, we have to concentrate a lot on sentence structure and grammar (spoke grammar too) so although we are to say, read and write things such as name, age, occupation – to write letters, to ask/give directions, to talk about your day in detail. I seems to me (and my brain anyway) that we spend a lot more time learning rules and using the logical part of out brain, rather than the language part. If that makes sense.

        It’s more of a puzzle or code, than speaking a language.

      • Learning how to speak English was like that for me too. It’s the way most second/ foreign language learning has been approached for years. There are many ways for learning languages and though rules are part of it, it’s not all of it. I used to teach Dutch where I simply spoke Dutch to people the entire time. In the end, people would pick things up naturally. It’s what you also do when you are learning your first language and exposure to the language you are learning is still the best way to get beyond the basics of any language you’re learning. It’s just that when people learn foreign languages, they tend to want to hold on to something. And since school also teach math and physics which is nothing but rules and laws language teaching has been taught like that for a long time.

      • Wesley – Honestly, language doesn’t come up in politics a lot here at all. If you can’t speak English, for official things (like benefits, doctors, hospital, etc) – there are translators available.
        And we do have classes to teach people.

        Do people complain that the immigrants can’t speak English well or at all – sure! But I in my opinion, this is REALLY two faced, if we visit another country – we rarely know more than a few words of the language, even then we speak it badly.

        I think here in terms of English speakers learning to speak X language because the immigrants do, is a little more complicated – we have so many, Polish, Czechs, Nigerians, Chinese. Which one would we choose?

        However, we are usually taught either French or German, and some schools offer Spanish.

        I believe you can do a GCSE in Urdu, but ONLY if you can already speak it.

      • Hun, language must have come up in politics at some point or it will again soon. I know there are entire part so London that have street signs in post English and Arabic. Now that is politics if you ask me. The fact that it is not discussed explicitly, doesn’t mean it’s not there at all.

      • Yeah, in the United States, it’s complicated, and it’s also regional. I live in the state of Colorado, Denver specifically, and if memory serves me correctly, as of the most recent national census persons of Mexican descent now outnumber Caucasians in the state (or at least are expected to soon).

        Without digressing into a political discussion here, my view of the USA is there is either a majority, or a very (very) vocal minority here who view language accommodation and language diversity with disdain—the same attitudes that are responsible for the “English as the official language” campaigns that pop-up from time-to-time. But I personally feel it’s really a ruse—a guise for disdain for immigrants. But that entire subject, including all the various arguments around it, is hardly unique to the United States—it’s popping-up in all sorts of places.

        In any event, it is my perception (right or wrong) that Americans are often perceived as arrogant in general, and arrogant with the speaking of English as well, and my point is that I find that to be extremely short-sighted in general, but particularly with regard to education.

      • I know there are certain schools in the US (Arizona I believe) where they teach classes in both English and Spanish right from the start to both Caucasian and Hispanic children. So it’s certainly there, but it’s rare. I heard of this law that was going to be passed in Texas I believe that stated English only education or something along those lines. I don’t remember the specifics but that was 1 or 2 years ago.

  5. Perhaps it is, but it’s honestly really not discussed that much. Language is pretty far down the list of priorities here. There are services available for non-english and they don’t usually come under any debate – so whilst seen as political, it’s rarely an “issue”.

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