4 Common Problems when Learning a Foreign Language (and how to solve them!)

People learning a language always wonder what challenges they will have to face when beginning to learn a new foreign language. Particularly when the need for learning comes from a tangible goal, like being able to communicate effectively during a trip coming up.

Everybody has heard that learning a foreign language is difficult. This can be scary when you don’t have any idea where to begin, or how to do it efficiently. Be that as it may, is it truly as hard as people state? Even though during our years teaching Spanish as a foreign language we have learned that it is perfectly achievable in the short term, there are still four issues that appear to be recurring  for most students. In this article, we’ll talk about these problems and provide some advice we have found to be effective over time.

Problem #1: Understanding Native Speakers

It is a common problem that language learners usually report understanding written language, and being able to speak at their desired level, but not being able to understand native speakers in daily conversations. That is understandable since native speakers have an -almost- perfect knowledge of their own language and they are used to quick pragmatic structures and phrases which are only fully understood when you have been exposed to them for a long period of time.

The painful fact about it is that not understanding a language leads to confusion, which leads to more confusion and understanding even less. This is, then, a vicious circle. The language turns into a painful math exercise we don’t understand. This issue must be addressed immediately, and the vicious circle must be broken right away. To do that, besides the “exposing to the language” advises we will suggest later on, it is important to approach the matter in the smartest way possible. Trying to learn new vocabulary deducing it from context, instead of by using a dictionary, always pays off, because it forces us to think about the word or structure linked to a context instead of just looking for it. That process increases the chances that a new word or structure will be permanent, and not forgotten a few hours later.

Problem #2: Being consistent and having a routine

Have you ever loved doing something only to end up hating it when it becomes a routine? I have found myself in a situation where I enjoy doing something, but the moment I realize it is a mandatory task, I just start looking for excuses to do it later.

That “will do it later” usually turns into a “will do it someday”, and eventually into “I will never do it”. And forcing ourselves to perform a task doesn’t normally fix it, but the opposite.

It is a feature deeply settled in the human mind, and we cannot provide a way to easily solve it. But we have found a hack that is useful to deal with it when learning a foreign language. What we always recommend is making the language study a pleasant activity, by relating it to the things we love to do the most. For example, if you enjoy watching movies, and you are always waiting for that evening where you will finally watch the latest film on Netflix… why not just watching in Spanish? Subtitles help a lot. You can do the same if you loved music, books, or pretty much any other pleasant activity.

Problem #3: Trying to remember the words you already learned

A common concern students have when learning a foreign language is that they forget the words they previously learned. It turns into an endless learning circle. How would you avoid forgetting all that you have learned?

Two words: Repetition and variety.

Our memory has a method for forgetting things that are not strengthened. It’s everything about exposing yourself to the language from various perspectives and using as many methods as you can. If you learn new words, but never hear or use them again, it’ll be close to impossible to permanently add them to your repertory. In any case, if you get familiar with a word, and afterward watch films, read books, tune in to music and drench yourself in the language, you’ll see that collecting new vocabulary won’t be as difficult as it seems. It’ll be a natural process.

Problem #4: Finding just the right place to begin

For the vast majority of language learners, the starting point is by far the hardest part of the journey. They simply don’t have the foggiest idea where to begin. Do they start with sentence structure rules -syntax-? Or learning lots of vocabulary? Do they learn key phrases first?

Looking for the right answer to these questions normally overwhelms people. And the learning process finishes before it even starts. It shouldn’t be like this. Remember that any progress you make in language learning is a step forward; there is no particular path you are forced to take.

There are, yet, paths that have proven effective for adult language learners. You may have probably heard that it is extremely effective to learn languages like babies do: by immersion only. That is a mistake, simply because adults are not babies. It means, why would we neglect the huge amount of previous knowledge, experience, grammar structures, and vocabulary we already have in our native language to boost the process of learning a new one?

That’s why the solutions to these problems are complex and global. But by following the following advice, you should be able to address any communication issues that may appear during your next trip, whether it is for pleasure or business.

First Advice. Hangout with native speakers online and listen to them (the smart way!)

One of the solutions is to make sure you are exposed to native speakers of the language you want to learn. And spend a lot of time listening to them.

The problem here is, as we mentioned earlier, that adults are not babies that learn by immersion alone. Or more accurately, it can be done but is highly inefficient. Try to analyze every single new structure you hear, and try to use your previous experience to boost the process of learning the foreign language.

There are wonderful online communities like forum.unilang.org and Linguaholic.com, where people gather to share and exchange their languages for free.

Second Advice. Boost the process of learning a foreign language with all the previous knowledge and tools you have at your disposal.

 If you find yourself reading a book by Garcia Marquez, but you are not interested in literature or you simply need the useful phrases that will help you communicate during your next trip: run away from that course!

Besides learning through the activities you actually enjoy, you must use your previous knowledge to boost the process. If you are a successful marketing specialist, for example, why would you read some novel you are struggling to understand instead of using the marketing knowledge you already have to make the whole process more comfortable? You might want to read all the marketing-related literature you find, listen to marketing podcasts in the language you are learning, and so on.

Third Advice. Take Online Lessons

The whole “learning a language efficiently” thing involves knowing what you are doing. And while it can be achieved on your own, you might want to look for professionals to help you find the perfect way to do it. You will save some time while reducing the chances you will make mistakes that are hard to correct in the future.

And if it is Spanish what you want to learn, Languag3Online academy could be just the place to find the right tutor for you!

By Gabriel Vasquez

Writer and Spanish professor at Languag3Online.

Curriculum developer and dog enthusiast.

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