When Things Go Wrong…

As you are learning a new language, you may run into a variety of situations that leave you feeling uncomfortable, or as if you’ll not be able to succeed in your goal. You should know that everyone experiences many problems as they learn new languages; you are not alone in your struggles.

Thankfully, nearly all struggles can be overcome with a can-do attitude, some hard work, and an eye to your ultimate goal. Mistakes are a normal part of learning any language, and often indicate that you are on the right path. What follows below are some of the most common language learning problems you’re likely to face, and my advice on how to overcome them.

You are having trouble memorizing

You may feel as if your memory is uncommonly bad, or you may be confused as to why you study facts but then feel as if they have flown out of your brain by the next morning. Actually, the human brain is designed to get rid of new information quickly unless it feels the information is truly necessary.

Our brains only hold on to information that is very unusual or that we come back to repeatedly. So, you shouldn’t feel bad that you can’t remember everything you study right away. One little trick for encoding new knowledge into memory is to choose a mnemonic device that works for you.


A mnemonic device is any learning technique that helps you recall or encode information into long-term memory. Mnemonic devices are not unique to language learning, and have been used for thousands of years. One common example of a mnemonic device is counting one’s upper and lower knuckle ridges to remember which months have 30 or 31 days. This mnemonic device is somewhat visual.

Here’s another example: when I was in high school, I had to memorize the two-letter symbols for many of the periodic elements. I always had trouble remembering gold (Au) and silver (Ag). Eventually, I created my own mnemonic device: “A- U- Gimme back my gold!”

I visualized a scary gangster chasing me down, thinking I’d stolen his gold. In that same visualization, when he caught me, he realized I didn’t have his gold. I had my own silver, and he exclaimed “Awe, geez!” and let me go.

The only limit to a mnemonic device is your own imagination.

Choosing your own mnemonic device is important for two reasons. First, you can more easily remember new facts the longer you are exposed to them. Initially, you may have to remind yourself of new information frequently in order to keep it in mind. However, as time passes, you’ll be able to remind yourself less frequently and still be able to recall the information. This type of brain retention is completely normal.

Second, different types of new language usage require different types of memory. For example, your memory for speaking a language will be far different from your memory for using grammar rules properly. This type of memory is called active memory, which may take longer to build than you expect.

If you are struggling with memory, you may be tempted to use certain language learning apps to drill new points into your mind. However, many of these games and apps don’t work as they promise, simply because most people have average rather than excellent memories. Instead, come up with techniques, such as mnemonics, to learn new information.

You are undermining your efforts

You may also struggle with memorization because of mistakes you are making with your body and mind. For example, you may be studying at the wrong time of day, such as when you feel tired or run down. Try switching your study time to hours when you feel most mentally alert. You may need to try a few different times before you hit on one that works best for you.

Another problem you may have is that you are undermining your concentration. Be sure to focus on the task at hand rather than multitasking or switching over to social media or other apps that drag your focus away from your studies. Also, be sure you are treating your body well and making good lifestyle choices so your mind is in peak condition.

You lack motivation to keep learning

I mention motivation frequently because it is so crucial. Without motivation, you may be tempted to quit learning your new language, or you may frequently think about changing to different languages. While switching languages may be acceptable at some point, it can be incredibly unhelpful, depending on your goal.

Stay in touch with your motivation by creating a list of reasons why you wanted to learn the language in the first place and revisiting it regularly. You may also wish to create a list of goals so you can monitor your progress and experience the success of achieving even small steps.

If poor motivation continues to be a problem for you, you may have picked a language that is not right for you. At that point, considering a switch to a new language may be appropriate. However, if you still feel this same lack of motivation with several languages, you may be missing a deep enough sense of motivation to help you stay committed to language learning in general.

You feel you’re learning process is far too slow

Your initial experience in starting to learn a new language may be super easy, resulting in fast progress. However, once you reach the middle of the program, you may find that your momentum plateaus. While this can be disheartening, it is not necessarily due to doing anything wrong. It is typical of nearly any language learning program.

At first, you worked on learning the basics of the language, including learning hundreds of new words. However, you are now deepening your knowledge, and learning some of the more difficult rules of usage may be slowing down your progress. If you look back, you’ll see you have made headway. It’s just not as noticeable now as it was at first, because you are not learning as many new words as you were before.

It is vital to understand you are progressing correctly and that this process will work for you. As you continue working, your brain will grow and change, gradually acclimating itself more to the language, and absorbing new words and rules as you continue to practice your skills. Even if you feel as if you are going backwards, don’t let worry stop your progress. This is a normal experience as your brain reorganizes itself to create the right connections for new language development.

Diligence and perseverance with learning will help you succeed, especially if you work independently. Keep in mind that learning any new language certainly requires time, and may take much longer than you originally calculated. Once again, stay motivated by keeping track of your goals and measuring them frequently.

You are having trouble progressing

Similarly, remember that learning a new language takes more time than you may have thought. There is nothing magical about being able to progress from being an intermediate learner to an advanced speaker. Instead, you must dedicate yourself to taking the necessary time to improve your abilities.

This will include plenty of study on your own, as well as lots of practice using your newfound skills in conversation. Identify where you have the most trouble and work specifically on this area. No matter where your problem lies, the more you use a language, the more it becomes part of you.

Every language includes words and phrases that come with a variety of meanings, making it hard for non-native speakers to grasp their meanings. In English, you know there are numerous ways to state nearly anything, and this is the same in your new language as well.

The best way to overcome this dilemma (and many others) is to immerse yourself in speaking the language with others. The more you encounter new words and phrases, the more they become a part of your brain and your new speech patterns. As long as you are putting enough effort into learning, there’s no reason to feel bad about what you don’t know. You simply don’t have the advantage of years of practice, as native speakers do.

To progress in learning any language, you have to give your brain time. You’ll make mistakes as you write and speak the language. When you do, be sure to go back and learn the correct grammatical rule or the correct word. Your brain is working to learn new facets of the language. As you continue to work at improving, correct speech will become more natural. Eventually, you’ll start catching your own mistakes, and given enough time and exposure to the language, you’ll see yourself improve.

You are not putting in enough effort

As with learning anything, the amount of effort you put into learning your new language will be rewarded. If you don’t put in much effort, your results will be lackluster at best. You must work at finding and correcting errors as you speak and write with your new language, as well as when you are listening to others use it. After you notice a problem, take time to correct your errors to further develop your brain.

You are having issues with pronunciation

Any language requires good pronunciation to be easily understood. While you should put effort and time into learning correct pronunciation, you should not be overly concerned about it or feel embarrassed by your lack of proper pronunciation.

Once again, pronunciation will come naturally the more you use the language in conversation and the more you listen to others use it. Conversing with native speakers will give you a leg up in this area. No matter how hard you work at this, you’ll most likely always have a bit of an accent, but you’ll still be intelligible.

You feel uncomfortable using the language in new settings

It can be difficult to get used to conversing in your new language if you feel too nervous to use it in public. Your best bet may be to work with a language tutor who can help you improve your speech without making you feel uncomfortable. Once you build up more confidence, you simply have to take the leap into using your new language with a language partner. You may be surprised at just how kind and encouraging most people will be when you start talking to them.

You may be letting a fear of making mistakes keep you from using the language in conversation. However, oral communication is the goal of learning any new language. As you speak, you’ll notice mistakes, but look at this as an opportunity to correct them and improve your speech.

This last pitfall is far more common than you might think, which is why my next section deals more specifically with how to address it.

Take heart

Learning a new language takes time and effort; while it can be incredibly rewarding, there are many pitfalls that can frustrate you and take you off track. Each language comes with its own set of challenges, but no matter what language you’re taking on, the tips above can help. Whenever you feel like your enthusiasm is waning, or your frustration levels are rising, feel free to come back to this section to remind yourself of how to get back and regain your momentum. Sure, learning a language can sometimes require some hard work, but hard work always pays off!

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