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A philologist revealed the 4 reasons you’re struggling to learn a language, and 4 ways to overcome them

Unrealistic or high expectations can lead to a lot of frustration.

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  • There may be a reason that your foreign language course doesn’t seem to be working.
  • According to a philology professor, there are four myths that undermine language learning.
  • María Méndez Santos explained these myths to Rac1.

María Méndez Santos, professor of philosophy at the University of Alicante, published the book 101 preguntas para ser profe de ELE (101 questions when becoming a teacher of Spanish as a foreign language). Rac1 spoke to the language expert about why people find learning languages so difficult.

Méndez Santos said that mastering a language isn’t an easy or quick task that can be completed in a few weeks. There are a number of myths that significantly distort people’s expectations of what it takes to learn a new language.

Unrealistic or high expectations can lead to a lot of frustration. You sign up for a course and expect to know 100 new words in two weeks. But when that doesn’t happen, you think that the course is a scam, or that you aren’t cut out for learning other languages, and you quit.

Méndez Santos picked out four myths that are particularly important for new learners to avoid. 

1. “If I sign up for a course, I’ll learn that language in no time”

The first myth that Méndez Santos debunks is that “all I need to do is sign up for a language course to learn that language.”

The philologist explained that signing up for a course without being committed or disciplined is the same as believing in miracle diets that promise you everything in exchange for nothing.

“Being bilingual, or at least fluent, requires much more than attending a course. Students who consider it must have a broad and long-term commitment, because many people sign up for courses and become frustrated after two weeks because they thought they’d know everything by then, fooled by marketing,” she said.

2. “When I finish the course, I’ll be able to speak that language fluently”

Sticking with language classes, even if you dedicate a whole academic year to studying a language, don’t expect to be able to converse fluently in another language at the end of the year.

“If you want to know how to introduce yourself, tell the time, and know four basic phrases to survive a week-long trip, then perfect,” she said.

But if you want to master the language, you’ll need to invest far more of your time than just one course.

If, after a year of study, you’re frustrated at your lack of progress in a foreign language, Méndez Santos said you need to think about how many years it took to learn your native language. 

“It’s a very long process,” she said.

3. “If you want to learn a language, you just have to go to the country”

Méndez Santos said that the vast majority of people who go to other countries to learn another language end up spending their time around speakers of their own language.

“The good thing about an immersion experience is that it helps you develop more cultural sensitivity, you learn to adapt to different conversations, to manage your words better, to be less direct and soften the things you say. You also develop more slang, street language, from life experience. But you don’t necessarily have to go abroad to learn these things. And if you go, a 15-day trip isn’t enough time,” she continued.

Whether you just plan to live in another country temporarily or you want to study abroad, the philologist explained that you should work hard for at least a year and a half or two years to get your brain to start to reconfigure itself and become bilingual.

Méndez Santos said that in 15 days “some of the language may stick,” but don’t expect miracles. The same happens if you go on Erasmus for a few months but don’t take advantage of the time to really study the language.

4. “If you want to learn a language well, find a native teacher”

This is the ultimate myth about the world of language learning. Méndez Santos explained that taking classes from a native speaker doesn’t guarantee that you will learn the language. Perhaps you will learn some things better, like the accent or slang, but, in the end, what will matter will be the native speaker’s ability as a teacher.

“If I made you — or any other untrained person — teach Spanish, you’d teach it poorly. Your explanations wouldn’t be clear or coherent,” she said.

The expert sees no problem in finding a native teacher, but you need to make sure that they’re a qualified teacher and that they’ve already taught courses in the past.

Tips for learning a new language

It’s important to adjust expectations to reality. Be aware that learning anything takes time, dedication, and often a good deal of frustration.

Méndez Santos also provided some tips for learning a new language.

1. Consistency is key 

The goals you set need time, and you have to make that time. You’ll need to be disciplined and consistent in the language learning process.

2. Set small weekly goals 

A big mistake when you want to master something is to raise your expectations too high. It then becomes too difficult to meet your goals so you get frustrated and give up. Therefore, it’s better to start small, with simple tasks that you can complete in a week or less.

3. Turn any downtime into an opportunity to practice 

If you love playing video games, then play them in your target language. The same goes for any tv series or movies you like. You can also join language exchange sites and arrange meetups or online chats to practice. 

4. Introduce expressions into your everyday conversations

“Bilingual people don’t spend all their time speaking in one language, but rather they keep changing,” Méndez Santos explained. 

“So if, for example, you’re learning English and you want to remember the word “anyhow,” then use it whenever you can, even if you’re speaking Spanish,” she added.

Over time, with a lot of dedication and practice, you’ll start to internalize a new language without even realizing it.

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