What Makes It Difficult to Learn a Second Language?

While some individuals find language acquisition relatively easy, the majority of adults that attempt to learn a foreign language cite it as being incredibly difficult. If you’ve taken any kind of secondary language class in school (French, Spanish, German), you probably distinctly remember struggling with the phrasing, vocabulary, and general recall. The reason for this is that adult brains, unlike those of children, are not nearly as flexible as they need to be in order to grow the connections necessary to learn the language. This causes us to struggle on a cognitive level, and is the reason why it takes so much persistence and time to become fluent. Let’s dive into this a little more.

Our Brains Make It a Challenge

Yes, we all remember that kid in high school that simply sailed through the language tests, while the rest of us could barely string together the words needed to ask to use the washroom. This is because some individuals have unique wiring [1] in their brains that make it easier for them to find success in learning a foreign language. Put simply, those who have stronger connections between speaking and reading are far more likely to better perform during language learning. While this does make it easier for them, this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try, as reading and speaking are skills that can be improved on over time.

Our Preferred Learning Style Impacts Us

When we think about little children, they learn in an implicit way, by following around their parents and learning as they hear, see, and do. Unfortunately, as adults, our more sophisticated brains tend to get in the way and have the tendency to over-analyze phrases, words, and grammar. While we may be able to accumulate a large vocabulary, that doesn’t mean we are able to form grammatically correct sentences with them, as our over-analyzing makes us slower at picking up a language’s subtle nuances. This is why language learning educators tell us to review and repeat until we begin noticing the small details.

To give an example, let’s take a look at history class. Your history professor places a ton of chronological dates on the blackboard, and you learn about which event happened in what order. While this is great for describing the chronological history of that specific time period, it doesn’t actually tell you anything about what happened and why.

The same goes for language. You cannot memorize a bunch of rules and words, and then expect to speak the language fluently. Instead, you’ll just be able to explain the language as an object. You know that rouge means red in French, but you can’t string it together into a cohesive sentence.

The trick here is to find out the learning style that least hinders you. The best way to do this is to try a ton of different methods, but get messy with it. Don’t worry about making mistakes, and try to make it fun, silly, and exciting. You can do this with an app, during travel, or even in a language learning class. By getting messy with it, you break down the need to get it right, which allows you to sit with the language for longer. No more walking away because you got that sentence wrong for the fortieth time.

Our Native Language Is Our Neurological Preference

As humans, we love to see patterns and actually gravitate towards them. This is why learning a second language that is vastly different from our native one is much, much more difficult than that of a language that is similar to your native tongue. Why? Our brains are going to want to use our native language’s grammar, characteristics, and sentence structure when learning, which for a similar language makes it easier for us to understand. But for languages that have completely different rule sets, we cannot just adapt our current language’s morphology, and instead must use a completely different cognitive model.

Wrapping It Up

Despite the fact that learning a second language is difficult, it doesn’t mean it is impossible. As long as you come into it with persistence, commitment, motivation, and a positive attitude, you’re going to eventually become proficient enough to speak, read, listen, and write it.

[1] https://www.jneurosci.org/content/36/3/755