Field Report: Three Strategies You'll Wish You Knew When You Hit a Wall Learning a Foreign Language

Boy, have I got a useful guest post for you today! Cher Hale's language of choice is Italian - she's best described as a relationship counsellor between humans and the Italian language. Once they’ve fallen in love and the honeymoon period ends, she helps them stay committed until they’re conversational. You can read her vocabulary speed-dates, grammatical musings, and cultural cocktail party facts at The Iceberg Project or on Twitter @cherhale.

In today's post, Cher is lending us a hand to help with the inevitable frustration that comes with the language learning journey.

I sat at my desk and stared at the screen.

The Chinese characters seemed to taunt me as I wrote their literal meaning in English to grasp why one character went after the verb here and after the subject in so many other cases. 

After five minutes, I sighed, rolled my eyes at the Mandarin language, and moved on. 

Four months prior I would’ve let frustration take over.

In fact, when I was learning Italian, frustration was the reason why I stopped lessons, and if it weren’t for my commitment to The Iceberg Project, I would not have reached the level where I’m at now.

With Mandarin I find myself running into the same frustration, but instead of wanting to quit, I feel more at ease and motivated to tackle the language again.

What inspired that difference?

What did I learn in six months that changed my view of frustration?

 When I’m not learning Mandarin or writing for the Italian site, I’m usually reading an academic paper (or watching Doctor Who) – most notably from the Modern Language Journal. On one of my most recent linguistic explorations, I stumbled across a linguist named Stephen Krashen from the University of Southern California.

He talks about the Comprehension Hypothesis, which suggests “we acquire language and develop literacy when we understand what we hear and what we read” (Krashen, 2014).

This means that what comes in – books, audio, and lessons – are more important than what goes out – speaking and writing. 

There is more to this theory, so if you’re interested, read this interview from Language Mastery.

3 Ways to Reduce Frustration

According to Krashen, other polyglots and my experience, there a few key ways to reduce frustration.

1)  Understand that you don’t learn grammar concepts, phrases, or vocabulary until you’re ready to learn them.

This point comes from Krashen, and it’s interesting to note how representative this point is of life.

How many times have you gone through difficult situations and only learned the lesson after the third time?

The lesson was there and had been waiting for you all along. You only needed to develop to a certain level to absorb it.

So when it comes to grammar, know that you won’t learn certain concepts until you’re ready.

You can try hard to memorize usages and nitpicky rules, but studies suggest you need to be at a certain level first.

Like the famous polyglot, Kató Lomb, paraphrased from the original German:

One learns grammar from language, not language from grammar.

 (Original German: “Man lernt Grammatik aus der Sprache, nicht Sprache aus der Grammatik.” – Toussaint and Langenscheidt)

 While this might sound depressing (because you can’t game the system and memorize everything), it’s actually liberating.

What this means for you: When you encounter a difficult concept or don’t understand something, seek an answer. If it’s still not connecting, LET IT GO.

You might not understand it today, but I guarantee that as you continue learning, it and one hundred other invisible things, will become visible. It will be frustrating, but you’ll be more at ease when you let yourself off the hook after honouring that this is how our minds work.

2)  Drop boring textbooks, and pick up content that interests you. 

Some might argue with me, but I think you can use interesting, relevant content in your target language no matter what level you’re at.

For example, Lomb, the polyglot mentioned earlier, used a Russian novel to learn Russian. She never went to a class and learned rules. She used what she had – a compelling novel – and worked through it. 

What this means for you: Find a book, a television show, a magazine, or even memes online that you’re interested in to integrate into your learning schedule.

 Don’t have a schedule or know what to do each day? Read this: Four Easy Techniques for Using Foreign Language Every Day

You can also learn techniques for how to read books here : How to Read in a Foreign Language

For tips on how to watch movies and shows effectively, go here : Are You Wasting Your Time Watching Foreign Language Movies?

My final point is that the more background knowledge you have on a topic, the easier the content will be to acquire, so use content you’re familiar with AND enjoy.

3)  Stop EVERYTHING, and be honest with what is and what is not working.

Humans are creatures of habit – both good and bad.

Out of routine, we use a technique to learn and keep doing it even though we recognize we’re not learning from it anymore.

 Then we get confused because we know we’re supposed to be learning everyday, but we’re not sure what we should be doing that actually works.

 At this point, many of us fall off the wagon…but that doesn’t have to be you.

 What this means for you: Look candidly at the techniques you’re using.

 Questions to ask are:

  • Am I using a material that I hate or find boring?
  • Am I studying at a time when I’m unfocused or tired?
  • Am I still using a technique from when I was a beginner that is no longer serving me as an intermediate learner?

Then, take out a sheet of paper and make three columns.

My worksheet for what works and what doesn't!

My worksheet for what works and what doesn't!

Column I: What I l love doing to learn in (target language)

Colum II: What I dread doing

Column III: What I want to try doing

  • Write 4-5 items per column.
  • Look at column II and either find creative ways to make them fun or let them go.
  • Make plans for trying the activities listed in column III.

This can be tough if we think that memorizing 10 words a day is “supposed” to help, but give it a try. Letting go of things you hate or find boring will reduce frustration and invite more joy into the process.

 The strategies people claim have been effective for them may not be effective for you. Try them out, and if they haven’t proved themselves within a month, wave goodbye.

 Remember, in this process you are the most important person, so make the best decisions for you.

Now, I want to hear from you.

Are you struggling with frustrations that these suggestions didn’t cover?

Have you found other strategies that helped?

Let me know in the comments below!

Thanks for reading this article on Fluent, the Language Learning Blog. If you are feeling stuck right now, why not subscribe to Fluent and check out our language book shop.