the happy linguist

The frustration of learning a language

Learning a language can be a very frustrating journey. However, if you ever find yourself frustrated during a language lesson, fear not; frustration is a good thing!

When you learn a language, there will be many, many times where you will get annoyed with yourself, annoyed with the language or annoyed because you’ve forgotten something. Don’t think that this is a bad thing, though. It isn’t.

There is a huge difference between forgetting something and not understanding something. If you’re in a language lesson, or you’re listening to a 3 Minute Languages lesson, and you get something wrong, or you forget a word, you might feel frustrated. If you feel frustrated because you think you should have known it, or you are annoyed because you forgot a word and then remembered it as soon as you heard the answer, then that just means you’re learning.

A lot of people give up learning a language because they think they’re making too many mistakes and aren’t getting anywhere. However, making mistakes is necessary for effective learning. Whenever you forget a word, or whenever you make a mistake with a concept, and you feel frustrated because you knew it as soon as you were given the correct answer, the frustration is good for your brain because it turns it into a memory.

If you get something wrong, and realise why you got it wrong, and kick yourself because you think you shouldn’t have got it wrong, then your brain will make that mistake into a memory. This might be a subconscious memory, but it means you’re less likely to make the mistake again.

The frustration happens because you think you’ve learnt something, and when you make a mistake, you see it as a sign that you haven’t learnt something properly, but this isn’t true. There are two types of mistake.

The clueless mistake

If you forget a word in a foreign language, or you get something wrong, and you’re just as clueless when you get the answer as you were before, then this is because you haven’t learnt it yet. You might have seen the word before, but if you have no recollection of seeing it, you simply haven’t learnt it.

There are many reasons why this might happen. Perhaps you were distracted slightly when this word was introduced in a lesson. Perhaps the teacher didn’t explain or reinforce this word enough when you first saw it. I know I’ve seen words before that I was sure were completely new to me. I was adamant I’d never seen them before, but then when I looked back through my notes, there was the word, written in my handwriting! Sometimes, even if we write things down, if our mind is thinking about something else, it can be as if we never saw the word at all.

Unfortunately, this sort of mistake is just a sign that we have to learn the word, even if we have seen it before. However, there is a second sort of mistake…

The frustrating mistake

The first type of mistake was where you don’t know what a word means, and then when somebody tells you, or you look it up, it’s completely new information to you, and you have no memory of the word whatsoever. However, this second type of mistake is the time where you forget a word, and then when you look it up, you think, “Oh yeah! I should have remembered that.” Well, that’s a good sign. You recognise the word and sometimes it’s on the tip of your tongue, but it just hasn’t quite embedded itself permanently in your brain yet.

You can’t be expected to learn a word or a new concept the first time you see it. You can’t even be expected to learn it off by heart the second or third time you see it. To really learn something, you need to see or use it a good seven or eight times. Each time you see it or use it, your memory of that word will get a little bit stronger. Usually, you’ll only forget a word a couple of times, but there may be times where you forget it more often. This is all normal.

There are different types of words and concepts. For example, in Spanish, there are lots of words that look extremely similar to English. Words like “delicioso”, “fantástico” and “perfecto” will be much easier to remember than words like “hacer” or “alquilar”, simply because they look more like English. In the 3 Minute Spanish courses, you learn lots of words that look like English at the beginning. You will find it quite easy to learn these words. However, as you go on, you’ll start to find words that look nothing like English, and these words will be harder to remember, because you can’t associate them with anything. Don’t let this make you feel like you’re not learning as well as you were before.

Similarly, there are certain concepts in Spanish that are harder to learn than others. In the 3 Minute Spanish courses, you start by discovering the word order in Spanish is more or less the same as the word order in English. This means that you can usually translate things word for word, without any trouble. Because you don’t have to learn any differences in word order, it allows you to just focus on the words, and so your whole brain is focused on one thing. On the other hand, as you progress through the courses, you’ll find certain areas where you can’t just translate word for word. One example of this is the “apostrophe S”. The apostrophe S (‘s) doesn’t exist in Spanish, so you have to change the word order around.

If you want to say “Pablo’s cake is delicious”, in Spanish you have to say, “the cake of Pablo is delicious”. You not only have to think about the words, you also have to rearrange the sentence in your head before you translate it into Spanish. This is hard. Don’t think that what you’re doing is simple. When you get this sort of a sentence, your brain is doing lots of things at once with a language you don’t speak naturally. So, if you don’t get it the first time you try, that’s OK. The more you practise, however, the easier it will get.

This is why languages are tricky and frustrating things to learn. You’re learning a whole new way to communicate, and you’re learning to use parts of your brain that might not have been used before. It will take a bit of time, and you shouldn’t feel bad about that. You’re doing well if you realise you have made a mistake when you say something wrong but you immediately understand why it is a mistake.

When you get to the point where you’re translating trickier sentences, no matter how long it takes you, you’re tackling really complicated stuff – you should be proud of yourself. Don’t forget that you have already learnt a huge amount when you get to the tricky concepts and less recognisable words. If you’re frustrated because you’re getting new things wrong more often than you get things you learnt a long time ago wrong, then you should really pat yourself on the back that you’re getting the older things right. Never belittle your progress.

When you started learning a language with 3 Minute Languages, you learnt things like “it is good” and “I think it’s delicious”, and you can probably say these things with relative ease now. Don’t think that just because they’re easy for you now that they’re any less important. The good thing with languages is that the basic words and concepts are just as useful as the more complex ones. Everything you learn is an incredible achievement and it shouldn’t be seen as anything less. Sometimes, because the excitement of learning something new and being able to say a new sentence wears off once you can do it perfectly and without difficulty, we forget how impressive it is that we learnt it in the first place at all! Never put yourself down, you’re doing well and you’re learning a whole new way to communicate.

I often get feedback saying that some things are repeated too often in my courses – well, I’m not changing it. The reason is because I like you to see how well you know something. If you think you know something so well that it shouldn’t be repeated anymore, well, that’s an incredible accomplishment! You’ve become a master at it. And you should remember that when you come across something that you’re not quite a master at yet.

The first type of mistake was where you don’t know what a word means, and then when somebody tells you, or you look it up, it’s completely new information to you, and you have no memory of the word whatsoever. However, this second type of mistake is the time where you forget a word, and then when you look it up, you think, “Oh yeah! I should have remembered that.” Well, that’s a good sign. You recognise the word and sometimes it’s on the tip of your tongue, but it just hasn’t quite embedded itself permanently in your brain yet.

So, next time you make a mistake and you feel frustrated with yourself, well done – you’re on the right road to learning a language and it just means you’ve learnt an enormous amount already!