Learning A Foreign Language – Piece Of Cake Or A Real Pain?

In a world where technology spreads like a spider web on top of everything, the language still has its very special place. We learn our mother tongue from the first years of life and, a bit later, we learn that it’s not enough. As it turns out, grasping a foreign language is also important. We might like it or not, we might be good at it or not, but we definitely barely realize the mechanisms behind learning a second language. As we shall discover, there is more to it than meets the eye…

Do you really need to learn a foreign language?

Sometimes we end up studying a new language forced by circumstances. Other times, we do it because we want to perform better at work or because we want to travel to foreign places and be capable of talking with the locals in their native language. And there are also times when we do it simply out of the passion for a country or a culture. For everyone reading this and thinking it is a stupid thing, I will say it upfront: focusing on a foreign language brings tremendous benefits. Some of them are easy to imagine, others are just being discovered by scientists and researchers:

  • It helps you improve your mother tongue knowledge

You obviously can’t learn a foreign language without having a reference system. Grammar or vocabulary, sentence construction, idioms or conjugation, nothing has sense unless you compare it to what you already know and make a parallel to the new system. As you discover a new world, you become more aware of the one you already live in.

  • It gives you leverage with expanding your career potential

Unemployment rates skyrocket all around the world. People tend to work remotely, accept relocation or explore areas that are more competitive, just to make a decent living. Multilingual abilities make a major asset since you could find yourself promoted or taken into account for a new position simply because you know a different language. Wouldn’t you like that?

  • It helps you get a keener, sharper mind with little effort

You’ve heard it a thousand times: if you don’t use it, you lose it. Your brain is like a muscle that needs to be worked out in order to stay in good shape. The more you use it, the better it will work. You learn new words, new rules, new connections and you strengthen your memory. You retain information better and your mind is more alert. You gotta love that, right?

  • It improves your ability to make decisions at fast pace

When you work your brain to master a new language, you gradually become more conscious about the nuances of some words or the significations of some expressions that you hear. You can notice hidden meanings and make judgments that are more appropriate. When you notice more than the people around you, you can take better decisions, faster. How cool is that?

  • It helps you build or increase your self-esteem

Close your eyes and imagine you could introduce yourself to someone: I’m Travis and I speak Japanese. Or German. Or French. Or anything else you would secretly fancy about. All of a sudden, you are different. You have a leverage. You are good with words – which not many can brag about. If you also count everything from above, you have all the reasons to think good about yourself.

Then why does it have to be so hard? 

It takes a whole life to master our mother tongue – we always have the chance to learn new things and words, correct our mistakes, and improve our speech. With a foreign language, things are even harder and it’s all right. However, there are other factors involved as well:

It could be something you are doing: you lack motivation or time, you fail in making it a priority, you can’t make enough time or you don’t try hard enough to find the right materials.

Your timing might not be the best: the older you get, the harder it is to master a foreign language. Kids have a sponge-like mind and, until puberty, their procedural memory is considerably more active – tasks related to unconscious skills, like dancing, riding a bike or understanding subtle language rules, are much easier for them. Adults, on the other hand, are less good at implicit learning, so it’s harder for them.

You haven’t set your standards right: mastering a second language is complex. What are you interested in: speaking, reading, listening or writing? It’s hard to achieve all of them at once. And how about the proficiency levels?

You might have picked the most difficult language: you might not know it yet, but different languages belong to different difficulty categories, depending on how much learning time and effort they require.

If you are a native English speaker, you would like to know that there are 5 categories:

  • Category 5 – requires about 2200 hours (or 88 study weeks): Arabic, Cantonese and Mandarin (Chinese), Japanese, Korean;
  • Category 4 – requires half time, about 1100 hours (or 44 study weeks): Albanian, Amharic, Armenian, Azerbaijani, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Burmese, Croatian, Czech, Estonian, Finnish, Georgian, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Khmer, Lao, Latvian, Lithuanian, Macedonian, Mongolian, Nepali, Pashto, Persian, Polish, Russian, Serbian, Sinhala, Slovak, Slovenian, Tagalog, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Urdu, Uzbek, Vietnamese, Xhosa, Zulu;
  • Category 3 – requires 900 hours (or 36 study weeks): Indonesian, Malaysian, Swahili;
  • Category 2 – requires 750 hours (or 30 study weeks): German;
  • Category 1 – requires between 575 and 600 hours (or 23 to 24 study weeks): Afrikaans, Danish, Dutch, French, Italian, Norwegian, Portuguese, Romanian, Spanish, Swedish.

What does your brain have to say about it? 

To most of us, learning a foreign language is all about the struggle and the pain. However, our brain undergoes significant physiological and even anatomical changes throughout this process. All you hear might be – I’ll never be able to learn this stupid language!!! – but underneath the gray matter, even the electrical activity changes.

Research indicated that people who spend time learning a new language have their brain networks stronger and better directed towards specific brain parts responsible with learning. This means that working your brain in this way will help you have a strengthened white matter tissue and, even more important, a higher density of the gray matter.

These are just a few of the anatomical and physiological changes associated, but researchers are convinced there is more to discover in this direction. Speaking of discoveries, they also tend to believe that sometimes, our brain just isn’t… equipped with what it takes to be proficient in this kind of learning.

A group of neuroscientist researchers from the Northwestern University has recently connected the ability to learn a foreign language with the brain anatomy! Their study analyzed a certain brain area called HG (or Heschl’s Gyrus), which covers both the left and the right hemisphere, in a finger-shaped formation.

They discovered that the size of the left HG part could directly point the ability of a person to master a foreign language – the bigger the area, the higher the learning capacity. Extensive research is still needed but if this is true, it means that sometimes, the problem is literally in our head and there’s little we can do about it.

A little bit of help – is it possible? 

Naturally, you cannot – or should not – just say that you weren’t born for this and give up. It could be harder for you, but not impossible. And there are definitely some things you can try to smooth your way a little bit. Here is what you need to do:

Instead of learning chaotically, come up with a strategy: you definitely don’t know all your mother tongue’s words, so you won’t have to learn all the words of the new language. You just need to identify the most common ones and focus on them. For instance, the English language has about 300 words that we use in about 65% of everything we write. Learning them will take you far.

Once you know the most important words, you can practice them with the flashcard method, which takes you through a spaced repetition system. Anki is an interesting app that you can use on either your Smartphone or your desktop computer. Surf the web for it and give it a go.

Try to put your practice in writing on a daily basis: there is no secret that handwriting is one of the most effective ways to memorize. You can try using it to memorize the verbs’ conjugation or, even more effectively, to copy text pieces in that foreign language. You just write and certain words, expressions, and the right topic would insinuate into your memory.

Soon enough, you might find yourself “feeling” that a certain expression can be translated in a particular way – you’ve read it and wrote it before; even though you are not sure, your brain is telling you how to use it.

Don’t take the fun out of your learning process: if you just read grammar all day long and listen to plain, school-like conversations, there’s no wonder you are getting bored. Have you thought about watching a movie in that language, without the subtitle?

Or listening to music in that foreign language? How about finding a TV channel and listening to their news? Are you too shy to contact a native speaker, on a social network, and try to make a connection? The more natural activities that integrate that language you can find, the less stressful you will find the whole process.

Practice in your head, whenever you have the chance: you don’t need to sit on a desk to learn something new. With a pocket dictionary and your determination to think, plan or imagine conversations in that particular foreign language, you could achieve small but significant signs of progress every day.

Consider throwing yourself into the cold water: if you have the time and the money, plan a trip to that country. There is no better and more natural way to master that language other than living among the natives. You’ll see it written, you’ll hear it spoken, you’ll have to use it to get what you need.

You don’t have to make efforts for that trip – whenever you plan a getaway, consider this type of destination. This is another way of combining the useful with the pleasant, only that sometimes, it will leave you out of options. When you are there, you have nothing else to do than to practice it.

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