3 Common Language Learning Obstacles

Parkour Visions Adult Obstacle Challenge by Beth Jusino

Facing obstacles can be painful, or it can be a fun challenge – it’s all a matter of attitude.

Learning a new language is a long and involved process and, while it can be a lot of fun most of the time, odds are you’re going to run into some major obstacles.

I always like to take the parkour view of things and think of roadblocks like these as challenges to overcome, but I do recognize that some of them can be extremely discouraging – especially when they slow or halt your progress.

I’ve put together a list of some of the most common obstacles language learners find themselves stuck at and frustrated with from a collection of personal experience and the experiences of all of my language coaching clients along with suggestions for ways to get around, over or through these walls between you and success.

1. I Can Read or Have Learned a Lot, But Still Fall Apart When I Speak

I put this first because it’s probably the most common obstacle I see affecting people who have followed the standard one teacher to twenty students classroom format or have tried to learn on their own through some of the popular at home language learning products.

People study and study and study some more and, after months or even years, feel pretty good about their progress in the language. Maybe they took classes all through college, or bought and completed that home study course that the commercial said NASA / the CIA / whatever-impressive-organization uses. They might not call themselves fluent necessarily, but they feel comfortable saying ‘I speak ,’ rather than just ‘I’m learning .’ Secure in their ability to speak, our intrepid language learner walks into a local market from a country that speaks their target language natively or maybe even steps off a plane in that country.

They strike up a conversation with the first native speaker they meet, eager to flex their new linguistic muscle and, to be honest, probably show off a little. When the native speaker responds something that sounds a little bit like what they studied comes out, if you blended all the sounds together and played it at triple speed.

Our poor language learner panics. They caught a few words, they think, but that was it. Was that a different dialect? What did that one word mean? Bewildered, their mind scrambles to remember the right response and freezes up from the shock of it. They stumble their way through, but in broken sentences and with a lot of ‘um’s. Nothing like the easy flow of all those practice dialogues.

All that time studying, and they feel like they can barely communicate.

If it sounds familiar, or if you haven’t gotten to the ‘I tried talking to a native speaker and wound up looking like a deer in headlights’ stage but see it coming, don’t worry – it happens all the time.

So how do you fix it or avoid it entirely.

Don’t wait to start talking with native speakers.

The biggest problem I have with the standard classroom model or most home courses is that you either get no practice with native speakers or very limited practice with only one or two. Usually the best you can hope for in a class is practice with a native speaker instructor, but their time is divided between you and 19 other people. Most of your other speaking practice will probably be with other students. In home courses you’re lucky if you get anything better than mp3 files to chat with.

You should be talking to as many native speakers as you can as soon as you can. Even if you can only say ‘Hello’ in your target language, go say hi to a native speaker.

It doesn’t have to be in person, finding native speakers to Skype with is easy with sites like iTalki and Lang-8. If you would prefer face to face conversations look on Meetup for groups related to your target language or look on Couchsurfing (you can meet for coffee and chat or if you want a lot of practice opportunities offer to host a traveler that speaks your target language).

The point is to start early and keep talking with native speakers as often as you possibly can.

2. My Vocabulary Isn’t Sufficient to Have a Conversation / I Don’t Know Enough Words

This problem is one that tends to lead directly into that most common issue above – correctly or not people feel like they just don’t have a big enough vocabulary to really talk to natives or use the language so they never try. This turns into a type of self-sabotage because they never allow themselves to get the kind of exposure and real world practice they need to reach their goal.

Fixing this problem is two-fold.

The first aspect of it is realizing that you don’t need a big vocabulary to practice with a native.

If you know a single word, that’s enough. Use it. Then ask the native speaker to tell you more words. It really doesn’t take that much. About 80% of most conversations are made up of only 20% of the lexicon. That means that you don’t need to know how to say words like circumlocution, defenestration, or empiricism in order to talk to 80% of the people you’ll meet. Probably more, honestly. Just jump in and use what you’ve got, filled in with lots of gestures and explanations using more basic words.

The second aspect of fixing it is, well, actually fixing it.

Go choose a SRS program you particularly like – I’m personally fond of Memrise – and find a collection of the 1,000 most common words in your target language. Now that you’ve got that, just practice them on your SRS until you’ve got those 1,000 down. I guarantee you that will be enough vocab for a majority of conversations, and from there you can expand out to the next 1,000 most common and then the next.

3. I Can Have Conversations, But I Want to Sound More Native

While personally I think accent reduction and working toward sounding ‘native’ in a target language is more of a frivolous or tertiary goal compared to actually being able to have fluid conversations, I recognize that it’s something a lot of people would really like to aim for. Whether it’s for business purposes, wanting to move to a different country and fit in better or just for the sheer coolness of being able to speak a second language that well – a lot of people would like to reach that level.

There are a few things to keep in mind here:

  1. 1. This is going to be pretty difficult. Compared to actually learning the language complete accent removal will take a lot more focused, intentional practice. In other words, it’s going to be a lot of work and probably take a while before you get there.

  2. 2. Contrary to what some people would have you believe it is not impossible to completely remove your accent in a language acquired as an adult. You don’t have to have grown up bilingual to speak two languages accent-free – regardless of what people might claim. It just takes a lot of effort.

Since it is something that’s going to take a considerable amount of effort, I highly suggest ensuring that you have some damn good reasons for wanting to remove your accent. Motivationally speaking, if you need to speak a second language accent free to avoid losing your job and winding up on the street you’re going to be a lot more motivated to stick it out through all the grueling work than the guy who decided it’d be kind of cool to be able to speak another language like a native and show off in bars.

If you are willing to put the work get ready to talk to yourself a lot, because your best tools are going to be mimicry and shadowing.

I won’t go in to extreme detail because accent reduction deserve an article (or, probably, a series of them) all to itself. You can get started by going through and deconstructing the phonetic makeup of the language you’re learning. Usually you can do this on Wikipedia, just type in the language you’re learning and the word ‘phonology’. For example here’s Japanese Phonology and Korean Phonology.

From there, you can identify what sounds are identical to those in your native language, what sounds are non-existent in your native language and are completely new to you and, the most difficult, what sounds are similar to ones in your native language but slightly different. I suggest learning IPA if you haven’t already.

Next find native speaker examples of these particular sounds either through music, from native speakers you know or from online via Forvo or a similar site. Once you have them you can plug them into your audio editor of choice (I personally like Audacity because it’s functional and free) and then slow the audio down enough to clearly identify the sounds but not so much that you distort them.

Then practice. Practice. Practice and…. maybe practice.

Shadowing is an easy way to get practice on your own, although I also suggest finding a native speaker who can listen and then correct the nuances. A dedicated speech coach would be ideal, but they tend to be pricey.

There are certainly more obstacles people run into, but these three seem to come up frequently. If you can think of any others you’d like to see addressed, or have more questions on how to get over these, leave a comment!

Photo Credit: Beth Jusino

Adam is a former English teacher turned personal trainer and writer. He’s addicted to learning, parkour and martial arts. In addition to being a voracious bibliophile Adam’s fascinated by anything related to health, fitness and language. When not studying or training he can usually be found curled up with a good piece of fiction. You can e-mail Adam at Adam@RoadtoEpic.com