Have you ever met that guy who seems to learn foreign languages very fast or that kid who is impressively bilingual? Well, there are actually 4 factors that influence how easily or not we can learn a new language. Let’s take a look at them and how we can make the learning process a little easier.
There are four main factors that seem to affect our ability to learn a foreign language:
- the brain
- the emotions
- the time
- the environment
Research shows that the unique wiring of our brains plays a role in our success in learning a second language. This means that cognitively there are people who have a tendency to learn a language with more success than others. However, we should go through a series of scientific tests to really understand whether or not we are these types of people with better brain circuitry for second languages. Solution: nothing, really. This is something we can’t really control. Let’s see what else we can do to make it easier.
Your emotions 😍
The second factor concerns the emotions. Observing the progress of all our students, a key factor in learning a new skill (in this case a language) is the emotion involved. Unfortunately, most of us were forced to learn a second language in school without really knowing what it was for, and without drawing any positive emotions from the experience. Personally, I always felt very anxious before my next English exam or test on Shakespearean literature, only to find out years later that my practical English level was very low.
I remember the first time I went to a fast-food restaurant in the UK and the cashier asked me if I wanted to pay with cash or card (not a difficult question). Since I didn’t understand, I simply answered “yes”. And then you can tell by the cashier’s face that the answer wasn’t supposed to be a simple yes. But I was very skilled at filling out the gaps with English words on the exercises. Why is that? No one had really taught me the language with passion or by making me laugh and enjoy the lessons. Unfortunately, that’s true for a lot of people, too.
Solution: just put yourself in a calm state of mind and have fun while learning. The tendency of adults to over-analyze or stress over their mistakes hinders their ability to learn a foreign language, leading to slower results. This is probably why we put so much emphasis on making our students feel relaxed while learning, and it just works. If you are interested you can also read The importance of emotions for effective learning.
Your time ⏳
The third factor is time or, in other words, consistency. This is when we are super enthusiastic about learning a new language and then give up all efforts after 2 months. Then we have another motivational peak, followed shortly by not practicing for another month. This roller coaster of motivation slows down the learning process because our brain is like a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly. You may say, “Yeah, but I’m always so busy that sometimes I can’t find the time”. Don’t worry, you are not alone. Here you have another person who, like you, struggles with finding the time. That’s very understandable, but I would also argue that it’s not really a matter of time, it’s a matter of enjoyment.
Even when we have some free time, we’d rather watch a movie or call a friend instead of practicing a language. And why is that? Because of the lack of pleasure in doing so. Let’s say that we are very motivated to learn a lot of vocabulary in a language app, but after the initial period of excitement, the same app becomes boring because we don’t get to speak the language with a native speaker and simply because an app can never replace a human being who is capable of conveying emotions.
Solution: consistently plan to speak the language with someone. Book it into your calendar and, most importantly, make sure your partner is a pleasant and patient person who knows the language. This will get you started on a new personal routine, and including someone else in it will give you a sense of accountability.
What if we told you that your teacher would become one of your close friends? Then, you wouldn’t mind having a language class because it would be like enjoying some time with a friend.
Your environment 🌎
The last factor is the environment and that comes quite intuitively. Let’s say you go to South America for a month with the goal of learning a language. You will probably learn more in that one month by being actively involved in the culture of your target language than you would in months of learning if you stayed at home. But who has the time to go to South America for a month? Well, you don’t have to physically go there. Children whose parents speak two languages tend to grow up bilingual because their environment puts them in a state of constant learning. And they don’t have to travel to two places at once.
Solution: for the majority of people (like me) who grew up in a family with only one language, the solution is to recreate a bit of that foreign environment in our homes by watching series, listening to music and reading some books in another language. Many students ask me if it’s bad to use subtitles. Never feel bad about adding subtitles since they can (sometimes even unconsciously) help you to understand and learn new words. There are other problems in life to worry about. Just enjoy what you are watching!
- The functional connectivity of our brain plays an important role in learning a foreign language;
- Since we can’t control that, we should control the way we approach our second language emotionally. We should feel relaxed and associate a positive emotion with the learning process;
- Take your calendar and consistently schedule some speaking sessions with a speaker of your target language. This will give you a sense of accountability and having someone else in your routine will motivate you when you are feeling low on motivation. Surround yourself with movies, music, and books in your target language;
- Don’t make things too complicated: Relax and enjoy what you are doing.
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Research and reading material (nicely summarized in this article):