Language learning is hard. Or, that’s what they say, anyway.
In monolingual societies, language learning is treated as some herculean task. So much so that the few who take up the mantle of the language learner and stick with it are often treated as out-of-the-norm, or somehow “special”. Polyglots—learners and speakers of many languages—do not often hear talk of their linguistic accomplishments without the word “genius” said somewhere in the same breath.
Those who succeed at language learning, they say, succeed because “it just comes easy.”
If I may be so bold as to speak for the “successful learners,” let me say that this is most certainly not the case. People who have become multilingual on their own initiative are not fundamentally different from those who have tried, and struggled, and eventually given up. We’re all playing the same game here, and there are no cheat codes to change the difficulty settings.
What separates the language learners from the rest of the population, then, is not whether or not language learning is “easy” or “difficult.”
Instead, the difficulty is always there. It may not always take the same forms for everybody, but it always manifests itself, in one way or another. Effort is always required, and no one gets a free pass.
The road to language learning success, then, diverges at a different point.
Where, you ask?
In the mind.
How Perception Changes Everything
Successful language learners think different than the rest. Instead of agonizing over the difficult task at hand, these learners recognize that difficulty is an inevitability. Struggle, and even the occasional failure, are seen as stepping stones on the path, rather than impenetrable walls that need to be avoided entirely.
To explain further, let me use an example from the book “Make it Stick” by Peter C. Brown et al. This book is a phenomenal primer on the scientific realities of successful learning. It’s lessons can be applied to nearly any field, but I’ve found the following example (from an actual scientific study) to be especially potent for language learning:
“Sixth graders in France were given very difficult anagram problems that none of them could solve. After struggling unsuccessfully with the problems, half of the kids received a ten-minute lesson in which they were taught that difficulty is a crucial part of learning, errors are natural and to be expected, and practice helps, just as in learning to ride a bicycle. […] The kids who had been taught that errors are a natural part of learning showed significantly better use of working memory than did the others”. (Emphasis mine).
To put it bluntly, the study shows that students who learned to think of difficulty in a positive light performed better than those who had not received such training.
Train Your Brain
So consider this your training. Every time you stutter or stumble, every time you mix up your verb endings or confuse embarrassed with embarazada, remember that difficulty is not only natural, but “crucial”. After all, your brain is doing everything it can to sort through the heaps of new information that your language learning efforts are presenting it with, and all that work takes time. Only through consistent, deliberate practice will you be giving it a fighting chance at actually mastering the language.
It all boils down to this: what you think is what you get. So next time you struggle or are faced with some seemingly insurmountable language difficulty, smile, tell yourself, “I’m on the right track,” and keep moving.