There won’t be any excuses or explanations. No resolutions to make things better – no multi-step projects to improve. Here are eight things I suck at. If this helps you, great – if you can help me fix those, amazing (get in touch). Otherwise, you know what they say: the first step to solving a problem is admitting there is a problem. Here they come: eight first steps.
1. I do not speak.
The biggest one, let’s deal with this first: I’m in love with listening, reading, writing and exploring the languages. But I don’t speak them as much as I could. And I don’t enjoy speaking a foreign language as much as doing other things.
This is OK for me and the Polish-English language duo: my work and life is split almost evenly between the two, making sure I use plenty of both in speaking. But for other languages, the balance is not there.
2. Grammar is my speed bump.
In the quest for accuracy, the first casualty is fluent language use. And if I know there’s a bit of sketchy grammar coming in what I’m about to say, I’ll slow down and worry about whether it’s going to come out right. The same goes for receptive skills: my reading slows down (and my listening collapses in a panic loop) whenever I encounter a new bit of grammar on my way.
3. I go for the “pretty” over the “useful.”
The most memorable words and phrases in Portuguese are the ones from songs and poems. The most vocabulary in German comes, in my case, from Kafka and Goethe. These are things I enjoy reading and hearing – but they don’t always feed into conversation or everyday use. Can you imagine speaking English to someone whose only source of linguistic support consists of lyrics by The Doors?
4. In conversation, boring people trump exciting languages.
I should grin and bear. You may be the only German native speaker I’m on friendly terms with – and the fact that you agreed to have these chats should be enough to persevere, ask another question, connect with another thing you just said.
It’s not. You can only speak about your work, and you’re not interested in anything I’m trying to say. I’ve heard it all before, so I switch off. There.
5. I missed my chance with several fantastic languages.
French in primary school and high school – seven solid years of exposure. Chinese and Arabic at uni – and every other language, for that matter, the linguistics department was full of native speakers!
Welsh – thirteen months of constant immersion.
I did nothing and I let those languages happen around me, with very little interest.
6. A new foreign language to learn? This had better be worth it.
My time becomes more and more precious now: I’m juggling work and family joys and duties, and engaging more with several other projects as well. This means that my interest in language learning changed a bit. I’m still keen to learn new things and to explore – but now, I realize there’s a calculating part of me going: “ooh, a new language right? What’s it going to get me – more kudos, better CV prospects, pizzazz at work?”
I used to just throw myself at any new language challenge. Now I know my time, and value it more. It just feels less energetic.
7. Stops + starts = memory drain
I can go through periods of intense study – tenses, podcasts, vocab flashcards, the lot. And then two frantic weeks at work turn into a worn-out month. 30 days later, I come back to where I left off – and find most of it forgotten.
This is really, really pathetic. The guy who literally wrote the book on effective language learning gets defeated by lack of consistency.
8. Putting the “flash” in “flashcards”
Gadgets, right? Who doesn’t love them?
I’ve got three language learning apps on my smartphone. And I signed onto several more, trialling them and going through what they have to offer.
This means that I can spend up to 30 minutes on any given day, going through the vocabulary lists, revising the basics, tapping away and thinking “I’m learning stuff here.”
I’m learning something – but I’m substituting brave progress and hard work (which I’m capable of by now) for keeping safe and staying within the limited, app-based comfort zone.
Not growing, not like I used to.
Language learners, beware: all of these can happen to you.
I love writing posts like these. I like reminding myself that I suck – and embracing the suckiness – because I feel there may be cathartic value in them.
If this helped you, feel free to share. Here’s to more successful days!
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