Why Does Learning a New Language Feel Soooooo Bad?

Expat Corner: Why Does Learning a New Language Feel Soooooo Bad?

Start a conversation with any expat in this adopted land of ours, roll past the pleasantries of “How long have you been here?” and “Which school does your child go to?” and inevitably you will come to the thorny topic of language. Depending on the context and the amount of wine consumed, the answer will begin with some sort of groan. The rate at which the conversation then proceeds to go downhill into a depressive pit of black despair varies, but the answer is rarely a positive one. Never has a topic had such power to allow us to feel so utterly defeated and rubbish about ourselves!

Gosh, we make life feel hard, don’t we? We have made a genuine mistake: we have muddled up learning a new language with our ideas about our self-worth, intelligence, general likeability and respectability. Doing well at your chosen language? You are on top of the world! Yeah, baby! Bring it on! Alternatively, if you have spent six months dodging class and the multiple language apps on your phone, you are likely to be feeling pretty bad about yourself. Why would that be?

We are getting our thinking muddled up with learning. This creates static in the system, which means we are even less likely to be able to learn and retain the data we need. Let me explain.

We are blessed with a gooey organic computer that sits behind our eyeballs. This thing is seriously cool. It stores all kinds of data whilst at the same time moving our hand to scratch our head when we don’t understand something. Learning something new is about spending time filling our brain’s filing cabinets with fresh, shiny data (and occasionally taking peeks at it so that it stays there).

You know this, right? The language data is either in your computer brain, or it isn’t. It is that simple. So why is it that we start to beat ourselves up if we don’t know a word? Why does this reflect on who we think we are as a human being? I was in language class, and the lovely (hum!) teacher gave us a pop quiz. Many students either became angry or depressed. I wasn’t bothered. Why? Did I score perfectly? Hell, no! I simply knew how much time I had spent learning and whether or not that data was stored in my computer brain. If it wasn’t there, it wasn’t there: that simple. Any other thinking about it wasn’t going to change that and was irrelevant. If I have time, I will put language data into my computer-brain; however, if I have to pick up my daughter and cook her lunch, I will do that. I can’t do two things at once, so I am either learning or I am not. Thinking otherwise is a strange form of self-torture that I am not interested in (been there, done that…ouch!).

This is how we create static in the system and make learning languages hard: by thinking about learning languages. How many weird and wonderful beliefs have you picked up over time that colour your experience of living with and learning another language? My favourite was: “I’m British! Everyone knows we are terrible at languages!” I had tried learning French, stumbled my way through a little Nepalese, conjugated verbs in Spanish and now this – German! – which sounded like a form of “Star Trek”’s Klingon! How was I going to do this? Everyone knows I am terrible at languages and what is this Swiss German thing? And how can I find childcare? Where are all the decent teachers? How much money is that class? How can I stay awake at night to do it? And on and on and on. Many, many, good reasons appeared to emerge for not learning German, yet I felt terrible about myself.

‘I wish life was not so short,’ he thought. ‘Languages take such a time, and so do all the things one wants to know about.’ – J. R. R. Tolkien

So be nice to yourself! If you dwell in the thinking about learning rather than doing the actual learning, you are going to feel terrible! Be real about the amount of time that you have to learn. If you have young children, you may simply have limited time and energy. Don’t be defensive about it, as there is no need; it is simply the truth. On the other hand, if you have loads of time but are still not learning, then you are not learning. It’s clear that your motivation and passion aren’t there right now: learning doesn’t make sense to you on some level. And then it will. The truth is, you are or you are not learning: there is no in-between and no judgement.

“Do or do not. There is no try.” – Yoda

Be clear about your style of learning as well. I find I need to back myself into a corner and bombard my brain with German! Other people learn wonderfully through conversation (my idea of hell) or watching television (lucky souls!) or using smartphone apps (hello, Duolingo!) or reading bilingual books (an e-reader is a blessing). Work out what floats your boat and follow that. And please: stop beating yourself about language, OK?

By Tammy Furey

Tammy is a coach, educator, writer and blogger who lives in St. Gallen, Switzerland with her husband and daughter whilst attempting (badly) to speak German and fold her paper recycling in the correct manner. Visit her at www.fureycoaching.com and www.happyparentshappychildren.com (with videos and audio for you to enjoy).

Illustration by Albina Nogueira

Albina Nogueira has been a primary school teacher since 1992, and a writer and illustrator since 2006. She currently lives in Switzerland, but her homeland is Portugal. She is also the author of Letters to Grandparents  and Hairdresser. To find out more, like her on Facebook or see her books in Amazon.

3 thoughts on “Why Does Learning a New Language Feel Soooooo Bad?

  • August 28, 2015 at 6:00 pm

    Thanks for this article Tammy – very sensible advice. I’ve had so many people asking about my language learning this past week – what with the return to school – and I think the 5th person to ask nearly got my entire wrath over the situation. After barely surviving the school holidays with three highly energetic children squabbling at home (and zero free time for language learning) – I was just so relieved to get them back into school. I really didn’t need them asking about my langauge learning (or lack thereof). Of course they were just being enquiring.

    Thanks for reminding us not to take other people’s opinions so personally.

    Today at the doctor’s office, I made an appointment for a check-up entirely in German. It was just basic stuff – but I got the job done. I may not be able to tell you what I had for lunch and how my grandmother is doing – but I can book an appointment. Thanks for reminding me that that is indeed a WIN 🙂

    • September 1, 2015 at 8:02 am

      Rachael, that is a total WIN!!!!! (and we all know how difficult it is to communicate with receptionists to book an appointment, as most don’t speak English – and nor should they!). Those are the highlights, those moments are the ones to remember when you are tired and your thinking spirals downwards into “I suck at German and will NEVER get this!” type of inner burble. All that is happening in that moment is that we are tired…..nothing else…..and language is one of the first things to go when we are tired. No biggie. Tomorrow, most likely, it will be better. Another year and you may be speaking about what an amazing woman your Grandmother is in German!!!

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