16 language learning problems I struggle with every day

what i struggle withAs a language blogger and podcaster, people often assume I have all the answers.

But nothing could be further from the truth!

I struggle with a whole host of language learning problems on a daily basis that I wish I could get better at.

Here are some of them.

1. Preparing for my Skype conversations in advance

I learn boat-loads from regular Skype chats with my tutors, and if I could take one language learning tool to a desert island, it would be Skype (plus a reliable internet connection, of course).

So why don’t I make the conversations even more effective by preparing some topics, words and phrases in advance?

The times I’ve done this, it’s been really effective. But for some reason I never manage to get myself into gear and prepare on a regular basis.

2. Having the courage to speak to strangers

This is fear, pure and simple.

Fear of forgetting words, fear of awkward silences, fear of looking stupid.

I’ve been trying to coach myself through this for years. “Just do it, Olly, what’s the worst that can happen?”

But still, when I’m on the street and the opportunity presents itself, I often just can’t bring myself to start a conversation.

Finally accepting that this isn’t natural for me has made things easier, for sure. It’s also forced me to prioritise regular sessions with a tutor, meaning that I can get my “air time” in a comfortable environment.

Still, I sometimes wish I had more raw confidence to just start speaking!

3. Studying every day

Without a doubt, this is the single most powerful language learning habit there is, and yet I still have to work so hard to make it happen.

10 minutes, 15 minutes, 30 minutes… it doesn’t really matter. It’s the consistency that’s important. And I know this. But I still struggle with it.

This is not a language problem. This is a self-discipline problem, and I’m just not a particularly disciplined person.

Being aware of this flaw (and I do consider it a flaw – but am I being too hard on myself?), and coming to understand the importance of regular daily study has been a big eye-opener.

These days I make the “do something in my target language” mantra my single goal for the day, and it helps.

4. Learning two languages at the same time

Right now, I’m dividing my language learning time between Cantonese and Arabic, and to be honest, it just doesn’t work.

I don’t know why I still do it.

I think it’s because my Cantonese studies were interrupted last year when I moved to Egypt, pretty much forcing me to either choose between the two, or try to do both a the same time.

Not wanting to leave Cantonese behind, and not being prepared to live in Cairo without learning Arabic, I tried to keep both up… and ended up not getting very far in either.

I don’t think you can effectively learn two languages at the same time. So why can’t I just abandon one of them?

Pride, I suppose.

5. Remembering to review my flashcards as often as I should

Love ’em or hate ’em, flashcards that use a spaced repetition system are a big deal in the language learning world (this video explains why).

I use them extensively, not just as a way to memorise new words, but to actually store my vocabulary in one place, because I find vocabulary notebooks to be a bit like black holes – swallowing everything you put into them, never to be seen again.

During those times that I study my flashcard decks regularly throughout the day, my vocabulary goes through the roof.

Often, though, I just forget to do it.

And I’ve yet to figure out an effective way to remind myself to do it… and that really frustrates me!

6. Taking the time to regularly practise and maintain my old languages

I’ve put so much work into learning new languages in the past, it makes sense that I put just as much work into maintaining them, right?

Hmm. Yes, it does.

And yet, I don’t.

I often say that I don’t care so much, because whenever I need a language again in the future I’ll be able to “reactivate” it after a few days in an immersion environment.

And this is true, but it also means that I can’t easily switch into some of my weaker languages (especially French or Italian) on demand, which I’d love to be able to do.

7. Writing a new script from the beginning

I really enjoy learning new scripts, however challenging they are.

I also know that the quickest way to get used to a new script is to start writing it right from the beginning, and not stop!

But I’m also an impatient person, and want I results as quickly as possible. Since I tend to start speaking a new language right from the beginning, having to make notes in the new script would just slow me down too much.

As a result, I tend to use transliteration (writing down what I hear using the Roman alphabet) so that I can keep speaking at the same time.

However, this really slows down the process of learning to write the script, and I’m usually too lazy to spend dedicated time practising the script on it’s own.

Inevitably, I end up being able to speak quite well, but having the writing skills of a 4-year-old!

8. Going back over written corrections from my teacher

Writing is a tough, but incredibly useful thing to do at all stages of learning a language. I tend to do quite a bit of writing, and I love sitting with my tutor as they dissect what I’ve written and give me feedback.

So why don’t I look at that feedback again later, and maybe use it as further study material?

Failing to do this is a real waste of a learning opportunity, but I think I’m just too enticed by the “next thing” to go back and spend time on something I’ve already done.

9. Speaking another language in front of lots of people

Whether in a group, on stage, or at a press conference (and I’ve done all three), I get really self-conscious when everyone’s listening to me speaking another language, and I know I’m not being as articulate as I could be in English.

I suppose this is as much social anxiety as a language problem, but that certainly doesn’t make it any easier!

10. Spending enough time on listening as a beginner

Have you ever met someone who’s pretty good at speaking in another language, but can’t understand very much?

That’s often me, at the beginning. I’m so keen to start speaking that I neglect the hard work that needs to be done on listening.

I usually catch up eventually, as my strong speaking leads me to situations where I get to spend lots of time with people, and so get lots of real-life listening practice.

But it’s a very inefficient way of doing things, and I should spend much more time on concentrated listening when I first start learning a new language.

11. Staying motivated to study when I don’t have friends around me

I’m by no means the only person who struggles with this, but it’s something that I’m very aware of.

I cut my teeth in language learning by being surround by friends who spoke the language I was learning. And as far as I’m concerned, there’s no better motivator!

Since then, I’ve had the experience of learning languages in lots of different situations, but usually without lots of friends around.

And what a huge different it makes!

I’ve thought long and hard about this, and developed some pretty good strategies to stay motivated when you’re learning in isolation (many of which I teach in my Language Leaning Foundations video course).

It’s definitely one of the things I have to work hardest at, and may well be the most important thing of all… without motivation you won’t last long! (There’s more at stake too…motivation can also have an effect on your memory!) 

12. Reading anything longer than 3-4 pages

It’s often surprisingly hard to find reading material that’s not only at the right level for you, but also interesting to read.

And I really struggle to read anything that I’m not very interested in.

Sometimes I wish I was more studious. I think it would have some real knock-on benefits for my language learning.

But for now, give me something to read that doesn’t interest me… and I won’t last more than a few pages!

13. Going back to review things I’ve written in my notebook

Why do I bother writing so much down in my notebook if I know for a fact that I won’t bother looking at it again?

I’m stumped by this, and yet I continue to do it. (The definition of madness?) 🙂

I suppose the act of writing things down does help it all sink in, but how much more would I learn if I just went back and reviewed it thoroughly?

In fact, I’ve had to develop my own special strategy for dealing with my vocabulary notebooks, which are regularly out of control.

14. Doing anything at all when I’m not in the mood

I’m starting to think that solving this particular problem will be my life’s work.

The best solution for the “laziness paradox” that I’ve found so far is to have external enforcement measures that I can’t get out of, thereby forcing me to study.

But I really wish I could just be more in control and a little bit more grown-up about the whole “study” thing!

15. Finding ways to be genuinely immersed in the target language

After studying hard for a while and getting to a decent (but not quite good enough) level in your target language, often the only thing that’s missing is time spent immersed in the language. (Luca Lampariello wrote an excellent article series about this here).

I’m at that point in both my Cantonese and my Arabic right now. What I really need to do in order to take them to the next level is just spend some extended time (2-3 days) totally immersed in the language – listening and speaking around the clock.

But I don’t really ever take the time to make this happen. I haven’t really thought about why not.

I probably should.

16. Telling language partners and tutors to please stop speaking in English

Frustrating and inefficient in equal measure, when you’re in the middle of a lesson or a language exchange and the other person just keeps talking to you in English, it can be difficult.

The irony is that I know exactly how to solve this problem, and have even written extended blog posts about it (here and here)… but I often don’t do it myself!

Perhaps it’s my English sensibility (not wishing to offend), or perhaps it’s that I’m often genuinely interested in the conversation and would rather finish that in English than practise my target language.

Either way, this is something that I always seem to struggle with, and probably always will!


What do you struggle most with?

So there’s my open and honest “little black book” of language frustrations, struggles and annoyances!

But I know I’m not alone! 🙂

Firstly, I’d love it if you could share this post on Facebook to let others know about it.

And then, leave me a comment below with your #1 frustration in language learning.

Trust me, it feels good to get it off your chest!

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  • Emmanuel

    One of the things I’m struggling the most with is to maintain the discipline to study by myself every day. It’s becoming difficult because of my job, so I’d prefer to have a group that forces me to practise regularly or to keep the learning pace I used to have. Having the courage to speak to strangers has proved very difficult to me too, but If I had your charisma and were the half goodlooking you are, that wouldn’t be a problem at all!

  • Edney Raulino

    Speaking in front of lots of people is really a struggle to me. Despite I do not have problems talking in my mother tongue (portuguese) in front of lots of people and have a good level of english to speak to native speakers, when I speak in public I feel that I loose a little of my ability.
    And about learning two languages, this was the doubt that brought me to know all the blogs about languages (including your blog). I did now if I should learn spanish if my english is not good yet. My choice was not. It will be a project to next year.

    • Thanks for your comment Edney and good luck with your Spanish!

  • Noel van Vliet

    Nice post!

    I think the most important thing here is not to be a perfectionist when it comes to your language-learning plans. You make plans and you should strive to execute them well, but we’re humans, not robots.
    We should expect and accept to deviate from the plan. If we do so, it becomes easy to get back on track when we go astray. if we don’t and beat ourselves up for not living up to our plans, we won’t and possibly even quit language learning all together…

    • Hey Noel. Someone told me once: “You should be kinder to yourself!” Since I took that advice on board, things are much easier 🙂

  • Hannah ハナ

    Bleh, I’m really bad at speaking in front of a lot of other people too. My accent always gets a lot stronger, and I have a much harder time forming my words.

    But for me, the hardest thing right now is to not fall back into English. Whenever I’m speaking in my target language, and I’m not sure how to say something or if I’ve forgotten a word, more often then not I’ll just go back to English to explain it. But I know I have the ability to work around it, and I REALLY need to practice speaking and explaining things in different ways. But I feel like a burden if I stop the conversation to look through my dictionary for a word, or if I have to sit and think too long about what I want to say. I worry about trying their patience. But I need to understand that people ARE generally patient, and are willing to wait for me to explain myself.

    I don’t need to feel guilty or like a burden if I need to take a bit longer to express myself. Because it’ll be really good for me in the long run!

    • Excellent points Hannah. I have exactly the same experiences all the time!

  • Chris Broholm

    Amen Olly 🙂 I’m guilty of all of them.

  • dandiprat

    I am guilty of all of these. Thanks for admitting to them. It makes me feel a lot better and I respect people that can be open about these things much more. I can’t think of any not on this list that I suffer from at the moment except for perhaps buying new more books and apps thanI can use and then neglecting to use most of them. I will says that studying two languages at once is possible if your objectives are more limited. It also helps if there’s less pressure to improve in one particular one. Being in Egypt demands learning Arabic quickly, I’m sure. I’m in a situation where I feel a certain amount of pressure to learn three languages for various personal and professional reasons (Mandarin, Cantonese, and Vietnamese). It helps that all three are at different stages: one advanced, one intermediate, and one beginner. My progress in all three is slower as a result, but I’m still enjoying myself tremendously and can still feel some sense of accomplishment in my professional and personal lives. I guess it also helps that all three are related to each other, too.
    While I support you admitting these flaws, don’t be too hard on yourself. I suspect nobody truly walks the walk in language learning. Good luck!

  • Yes, guilty to all of the above. Regarding the switching to English thing and feeling too embarrassed to ask the person not to, I set that expectation ahead of time in writing saying “during our session I have one request: we use no English except to write a definition in Skype IM here and there.” So far it has worked, though sometimes I regret it when we hit a road block. Still always get so much more out of the sessions if I insist on that ahead of time.

    • Yep, I do that too. Doesn’t always work though…! 🙂

  • #2 and #6 are definitely things that I struggle with. I have such a hard time working up the courage to use a language I’m learning when the opportunity presents itself. I’m sure I’ve missed out on a lot of incredible experiences, but even know that I still struggle with doing it!

    • It really makes me cringe when I think about how many opportunities I must have missed out on over the years… 🙁

  • Diana Salleh

    My problem is probably that I’m just simply fascinated with almost everything!. That creates a lot of distraction for me. I’d work on one part of a language and then suddenly stumble upon another thing and check it out immediately or file it in my notebook (I have about a gazillion notebooks- I even have a section on types of windows around the world). The notebooks really help with what I want to focus on at any particular moment.
    I found the point on learning multiple languages interesting. I’ve been told over and over to focus on one language at a time and I’ve tried but I found it deathly boring. My brain is wired a bit weird I guess. My aim is to not be super fluent in a language. If I could sit down and understand most of the conversation, input the little that I know and learn more things, I’m happy. So it comes down to personal preference, I suppose?

    • Nela N

      I totally get you! I’m the same when it comes to “be fascinating with almost everything”.

      Few years ago I learned some Spanish pretty easily, and I was fascinating how easy it was. But from that time, I haven’t been able to choose what language to learn next, I switched from German, Swedish, French back to Spanish, and I have forgot all together 😀 Whatever language I choose I always think that the other one would be better and more interesting choice 😀

    • Absolutely… if you can figure out how you study best, you’ve got it cracked! 🙂

  • Darren Smith

    I had problems with the flashcards, in the end I had a set time (for me it was 8 in the morning) My phone alarm would go off and i’d complete that day. After a few weeks it becomes a habit so you do it every day. (he says typing this at 10 past 8 having not done his flash cards :-)) – You need to make it a habit so the lack of motivation disappears.

    • That’s definitely the way forward! My experience has been that because my life situation seems to change so often, no sooner have I set up a new habit/routine than something changes in my life and I have to start all over again! 🙂

  • Saylem1000

    A few of the problems on your list are either being motivated to do something, or making the time to do it. I used to have those problems but made a decision on how to handle it and stuck to it. I don’t let myself eat dinner until after I’ve done what I want done. I have yet to fail since I implemented my plan, and as an added perk I usually get so caught up in studying that I forget to eat so yay weight loss!

    As for the listening. I try to always prioritize listening before touching the languages I want to learn. I know that too many people want to learn to speak so bad they forget that they’ll also need to listen. I’ve found the greatest way to get listening practice is to find tv shows in the language that you really enjoy, it’ll make it a lot easier to convince yourself to sit down and listen and it’ll also hype you up for learning the language. For me variety shows are the way to go, you get exposed to variations in speech patterns, a good variety of topics, and plenty of practice hearing the basics. The only problems are some countries/languages have better variety shows than others (i.e. Korean vs Japanese) and you have to have enough time to sit down and watch.

    Good luck on your studies and keep up with the great work on the blog!

    • Thanks! Language learning for weight-loss… I love it!!!

  • Nina

    I think that my biggest (if not only) problem is writing. It’s not that I’m afraid of mistakes, it’s that I don’t know what to write, even in one sentence. 😐 I’ve tried it just a few times, when I got the inspiration, but for a long time now, I don’t know what to write about anymore.

    • Nina, you could start by writing a simple diary of what you do every day. After you write something each day, post it to lang-8.com and a native speaker will correct it for you!

  • haripriya

    i have undergone most of these points while learning new languages.
    to get efficient Chinese translations please do visit http://www.waterstonetranslations.com

  • Kristopher Logan

    Shyness about speaking Spanish & pushover capitulation to English. And what frustrates me about this is that my great strength when I first went to Europe – 4 years of high school German under my belt but not having spoken it virtually at all in 6 years – was that I was positively FEARLESS! Now, I can think of several sound reasons for that, not least of which is just the brashness of youth, but it kind of horrifies me how timid I seem to have become…

    • Hey… yes, I know exactly what you mean. My way around it is to try to create environments where I know I’ll be comfortable and just try to make the most of them!

  • Lisa S

    On reading – I’m finding that wikipedia articles in my target language are a good option. They’re short enough for a beginner to get to “I finished it”; if I want to read more, I can follow the links and keep reading. And it is easy to find subjects where I have an interest.

    • Hi Lisa – great tip! I’ll have to try that! Do you not find them too technical sometimes?