10 Polyglots Reveal Their Biggest Weaknesses

I recently met 216 language lovers from around the world at the Polyglot Gathering in Berlin.

It was a such a privilege to meet so many amazing people, and pick their brains about all kinds of things – languages, travel, and the best local weissbier 🙂

But then that got me thinking.

I've already heard lots of great advice from these guys online… but what about their struggles?

I struggle with all kinds of things in my own language learning. Do the other polyglots I met in Berlin have weaknesses too?

I asked them…


1. “Time”

richard simcott

Richard Simcott – Speaking Fluently

My greatest struggle with language learning is time.

Time is definitely my enemy because I am a full-time dad, working a full-time job and studying at university (again) too. I find the courses I take at university help me to manage my studies and drive me forward because I have deadlines and online meetings for them. And then there are the exams too of course…

When I learn languages I take a pretty practical approach. I need to see a use for them, especially if I am to take them to a high level of proficiency. Usually those needs are for my day-to-day life, interacting with my environment or for work or my studies. I tend to set a lower level of competence as a goal for languages I only need for holidays/trips and I keep it light and fun.

Like many people out there, sometimes the list languages I want to learn can grow out of control. It's like a magpie spotting shiny objects! Then I give myself a reality check. I have to be honest with myself about what is possible with the time I have available.

After all, all those languages, no matter what the level, take time to keep up too…

ellen jovin2. “Constant forgetting”

Ellen Jovin – ellenjovin.com

I find the constant forgetting mildly distressing at times. I study something, I don't use it, I forget it.

I am interested in studying many languages, simply because I find it fun and I like to learn about a variety of them and their features. But when I move on to a new one, things about the old one fall out the back of my head. I have to kind of coach myself out of being too annoyed with that reality and continue to do what gives me pleasure and interests me.

As a life value, I believe in following both my brain and my heart in my intellectual pursuits. Practical goals matter much less to me than simple intellectual joy—and yet, how lovely it would be if there were just a better hard drive up there!

alberto italiano automatico3. “The beginning part of the learning process”

Alberto Arrighini – Italiano Automatico

The most important struggle I have right now is the beginning part of the learning process!

This is always the hardest one because you start excited to learn a new language, but after a while you start to get bored with the resources for beginners. I'm passing through that phase right now for Russian.

I have to stick to Assimil and other basic texts that are not that interesting to me. The way I get through this part is to remember that I'll soon be able to tackle new and more interesting resources like youtube videos and book about topics I like.

It's rare to find someone that loves every single part of the language learning progress. Many polyglots have the same struggles as other people who are learning just one foreign language.

4. “Understanding the spoken form of a language”

Andrew Cookson – thoughtsatintervals.com.

Understanding the spoken form of a language – more than memorising vocab or grammar – has always been the most difficult aspect for me, ever since I first studied French at high school.

This difficulty, coupled with a fear of appearing stupid, meant I was initially reluctant to find conversation partners to help with my Brazilian Portuguese. I couldn’t dispel the mental video of me asking them over and over to please speak more slowly, until finally both of us would give up in frustration.

However, I persisted and have had many enjoyable conversations with Brazilians over the past couple of years, leading me to think that I had overcome this fear once and for all!

Then I met some Portuguese people and it felt like I was back to square one. I struggled to understand even the simplest question.

All those fears of not being able to understand,  and of looking stupid, came rushing back. Even now it takes a conscious effort and discipline to persist with a tricky conversation. Crucially though, I think it’s just a little easier than it used to be.

benny book tour5. “Finding the right conversation partner”

Benny Lewis – fluentin3months.com. Benny's international book tour is in full swing right now! Click here to find out where you can drop by and meet him in person. 

Finding the right conversation partner.

The world is our oyster, and you can find teachers on Skype, in person, through sites like italki and the like.

Despite this, with some languages (like Mandarin), the overwhelming amount of teachers/conversation partners means there are almost too many people to chat to, and I have to test a lot out to find someone whose teaching style I like, and this testing out is time taken away from simply using the language.

In other cases, like Irish, I have found very limited people to practise with online, but sometimes I'm particular about who I learn from in the long term, and haven't found the right person yet! This has been holding me back in languages I know I need to practise, and I hope I solve it soon!

Luckily I have some amazing conversation partners in Italian, French etc. already, so I'm hopeful!

luca lampariello6. “Remembering words”

Luca Lampariello – The Polyglot Dream

One big problem I used to have was remembering words. I think a lot of people struggle with this too.

Have you ever felt frustrated when, after seeing a word in a foreign language one day, and looking at it again a couple of days later, you don’t remember its meaning?

Let me tell you this: it is very normal. I had this problem as well.

And that’s the problem: That. Is. Only. 1. Word. But one day, everything became clear.

I suddenly figured out that nothing was wrong with me. It was my approach that was wrong.

When you speak your own native tongue, you might want to ask yourself: why do I speak my native language so smoothly without thinking about it? The reason is that as native speakers, we have learned our language by hearing chunks of words, and entire sentences, not just single words in isolation.

As kids, we never thought even for a second in terms of words, we thought in terms of messages that we wanted to get across, and how to convey them.

When I became aware of this as an adult learner, and focused on expressing ideas, that’s what made the difference for me. The learning process took on a completely new form and direction.

dani maizner7.  “My perfectionism”

Dani Maizner – isimplylovelanguages.com

The thing I struggle most with when learning languages is my perfectionism.

I always want to say or write sentences that are 100% correct – never mind in which language, even if I’ve just started to learn it. Even though I know perfectly that this is unrealistic and impossible, my perfectionism often prevents me from expressing everything I want.

For example, in a conversation in a foreign language, I sometimes keep the things I want to say to myself because I’m not sure if I can formulate a proper sentence. I might worry for hours about a mistake I made and, of course, this only adds to my unease in active language usage.

I try to get rid of this negative approach by rewarding myself for intentionally putting myself into situations where I make mistakes. Also, I try really hard to focus on the things I did well.

But that’s, unfortunately, way easier said than done!

8. “Getting the motivation to get moving again with a rusty language”

Chuck Smith – Transparent Language Esperanto Blog

I think for me the hardest part is getting the motivation to get moving again with a rusty language.

I know I used to speak better, so it's frustrating to come in with all these gaps in my knowledge. At my peak in French I used to be able to have an hour-long conversation with a fellow airplane passenger and in Polish a 5-minute conversation with a taxi driver.

Fast forward to today and I can hardly remember the simple greetings in Polish and my French makes me ashamed when I have trouble following a conversation.

However, I need to just suck it up and find time to get going again.

Now the biggest struggle will be to make it a routine. The best way forward is to start my day by listening to Michel Thomas instead of my usual morning email/Facebook routine.

Also, participating in the 6 Week Challenge and a visit to Geneva soon are huge motivators to keep me going!

anthony metivier9. “Maintaining the proper space” 

Anthony Metivier – magneticmemorymethod.com

I have a hard time maintaining the proper space for language learning. I find that just as it's important to work every day, it's important to work everyday in the same space and that this space is “anchored” with positive feelings about learning and positivity about sticking to routines.

I don't have the best solution right now because I'm always switching places and waking at different times.

I've found that having my smart phone within reach of where I'm sleeping is great because I can spend 30-45 minutes studying while still relaxed in a place after I wake up.

The only caveat here is that I can't have wi-fi switched on or I'll wind up checking email first and it's easy to get lost in that.

conor clyne10. “Pronunciation”

Conor Clyne – languagetsar.com

I find that I sometimes struggle with pronunciation in a new language where there are new sounds that I have not encountered before.

This is because it is not easy to identity the exact differences and replicate them. Recording a dictation on my smartphone and then playing it back has helped immensely with improving pronunciation.

Even better is to ask a native speaker of the new language to review the recording and point out the differences between what I am saying and native pronunciation.


So there you have it!

When I asked this question, I wasn't sure what answers to expect.

I thought I might get something along the lines of “advanced grammar patterns” or “remembering my 5,000th kanji”. These guys and girls are all seasoned language learners, after all.

But it's quite different.

They're struggling with the very same things that make language learning a challenge for everyone:

So take heart, and remember that whatever you're struggling with right now, you're in good company!

We've looked at the problems. But what about the solutions?

My buddy Brian asked this question recently, and for some inspiring answers I highly recommend you check out his article: The 9 Habits of Highly Effective Polyglots.

If you enjoyed this post please share it on Facebook, or click here to send a tweet, then leave me a comment with your reaction to these struggles!

Image: Pirolla

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