10 reasons you will fail to learn a language

There’s no doubt about it – learning a language is no easy task. One of the key elements in mastering any skill is knowing how to identify, and then avoid, those things that will sabotage your progress and stop you following through on your plans.

This post will give you 10 of the most common reasons for failure in language learning. Deal with these and you’re much more likely to succeed!

Tokyo Metro - easy to fail!

Tokyo Metro – easy to fail!

1) Not speaking as soon as possible.
Diagnosis: fear/lack of confidence, lack of motivation, not preparing for real speaking situations

Many writers on language learning put this top of their list. As Alex Rawlings mentioned in a recent post, it’s important to measure your progress by actually speaking with people and seeing how far you’ve come. Speaking with people is also the quickest way to build confidence in a language, which in turn leads to more progress.

There is a school of thought in language education which says: Don’t speak until you’re ready. Debates rage about this. My view is that it depends largely on your personality. Check out my article, or this video, which covers this in more detail.

2) Not finding a sympathetic listener
Diagnosis: lack of action, missing 80/20 analysis

A sympathetic listener is someone who will listen patiently to you taking your first baby steps in a language without walking away! They can help to hold the conversation, correct your mistakes if necessary, and generally give you time and space to experiment. In other words: this is not most native speakers. Relying on your average native speaker for practicing in the early stages sets the bar very high for you – there’s just too much you need to get right. Finding a sympathetic listener is just like fixing stabilisers on your bike.

3) Forgetting why you are learning
Diagnosis: loss of motivation/direction
When you’re just starting out it’s difficult to imagine forgetting why you’re learning! But our motivations and attitudes do change with time, and when you start to get bogged down in the day-to-day learning it can be easy to lose your way and begin to perceive the language learning journey in a different light. Do what it takes to remind yourself clearly of your motivations for learning. How about a vision board, or a written statement that you can pin on the wall about how your life will be different when you can speak the language? To try another tack, trying articulating what will happen if you don’t do it. What’s the cost of failure? (I’ve found that failure can often be a stronger motivator!)

4) The never-ending search for the perfect method/book/resource/app. Diagnosis: procrastination

It’s tempting to think that someone else has already found the solution to all your language learning problems. There are indeed some great resources out there, but after you’ve looked at a few different books or podcasts it’s time to stop the search and get started. Don’t be that person who amasses dozens of books but never gets beyond the first page of any!

Know where you're headed

Know where you’re headed

5) Not defining your goals
Diagnosis: speed, not haste

If you don’t know where you’re going, how will you ever get there? There is a lot to learn in a language, and you don’t need it all. Use SMART goal-setting to determine the quickest path to success – whatever that means to you. Read my article here to find out how to do it.

6) Relying on other people’s resources
Diagnosis: abdicating responsibility, decontextualised/existential learning

Recently, I got really excited about a series of online Cantonese flashcards for the programme Quizlet that someone else had taken the time to make. “Great,” I thought. “No need to make my own!” So I set about learning them. But when I came to try using them in conversation I realised that this vocab had no meaning for me – I’d never heard the words in context and had no particular emotional attachment to them. I realised I was wasting my valuable time – gave myself a slap on the wrist and went back to learning some of my own vocabulary that I’d been putting off for ages.

Don’t let your learning be dictated by what other people have made or published. It’s the lazy option. By all means exploit something if you think it’s valuable and takes you closer to your goals, but use your own metacognitive powers to determine what you need to learn, how and when you need to learn it.

7) Not creating momentum by studying every day or setting a schedule
Diagnosis: lack of willpower or drive, unrealistic expectations

With so much to learn, you need to find ways both to commit language to memory and to keep making progress. The reality for most of us is that we’re busy people with a variety of needs and responsibilities, so it can seem hard to find time. I say seem because it’s also true that there’s always time to be found for study if you know where to look and how to manage yourself.

What I’m going to say next is probably the single biggest factor in my own success in language learning. You need to build momentum in your learning, and the best way to do this is to devote time to it every single day. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but consistency is the name of the game. Repetition is the mother of skill.

8) Not leaving enough time for the language to develop inside you
Diagnosis: impatience

However hard you study, language, as with any other skill, takes time to develop inside your brain. There are most likely neuroplasticity reasons why this is the case; any experienced language learner will report unexpected leaps ahead in progress at unpredictable times. Indeed, I’ve often found that a language improves dramatically after taking an extended break!

You can’t always control your progress as closely as you’d like. Work hard, yes, but give it time and don’t forget to enjoy the process!

Insert “planting a seed” metaphor here…!

Don't neglect the script

Don’t neglect the script

9) Not learning the script
Diagnosis: running before you can walk

This is a slight misnomer, because it certainly is possible to develop some level of ability in a language without learning how to read and write it (Chinese, Japanese are particularly challenging), providing you can interact with native speakers at an early stage.

However, if you have plans to ever reach a good level (eg. B2+), not learning the script will be a huge obstacle. The reason? In the case of Chinese-derived languages, a huge amount of meaning exists in combinations of written characters. Not being able to read deprives you of the huge amount of quality input you need to progress to higher levels.

If, on the other hand, you learn to read from the start, your progress will be faster as you learn to construct meaning in the language, and this base will compound your gains later on.

10) Neglecting pronunciation at the beginning
Diagnosis: impatience

Many languages have sounds that don’t exist in other languages. Some of these sounds (in Arabic, for example) can cause real trouble for native English speakers, who have no good equivalent to refer to.

The time to learn these sounds is right at the start – it will be many times harder to unlearn and relearn them later.

Talking to someone with good pronunciation is much more comfortable for native speakers, who will be much happier to interact with you when you come to use the language for real. I always think of a Spanish friend of mine who, despite speaking fairly good English, had such a grating, monotone accent that it was actually physically painful to speak with him in English. Lovely guy, though… 🙂

Ignore the basics at your peril!

What problems are you currently having? Leave a comment below! Please share this post using the buttons below if you enjoyed it!

The Getting Started series:

  1. SMART goal setting. This is where it all begins. Read more here.
  2. Creating the Right Conditions – Know Yourself! However you learn best, without the right conditions you’re in trouble. Read more here.
  3. 10 Principles for Language Learning. 10 things to never forget as you set about your journey! Read more here.
  4. Interacting with native speakers. The holy grail of language learning! Read more here.
  5. How to deal with grammar. Grammar has a bad name. But there’s some good news! Read more here. 
  6. How to learn vocabulary. Words, words, words. Read more here.
  7. 10 reasons you will fail to learn a language. Forewarned is forearmed! Read more here.

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  • Richard

    I think for me, it’s the uncertainty of my pronunciation. Am I pronouncing this word correctly, am I pronouncing that word correctly? Am I producing this sound in a way that’s understood. For some reason I get really conscious of this from the start.

    I’m also guilty of 4, 6, and 7…admittedly.

    • Thanks for the comment Richard! I know exactly what you mean – so many things end up coming back to the psychological factors. I guess language learning is such a personal thing, that it’s easy for us to feel self-conscious. This could be especially true for pronunciation because it’s easy to feel silly, trying to force out an unfamiliar accent. In this post I talk about getting help from a native speaker right at the start – not for speaking practice though, but to focus on pronunciation and getting it right from the start. Perhaps tackling it head on, confronting the fear, as it were, would be something to try? Best of luck.