Just how long does it take an average learner to learn a new language? If it is based on fluency, educator, writer, and professional speaker Sarah Elain Eaton, Ph.D., cites K.A. Ericsson’s well-known “10,000 hours rule.” In other words, it will take the average learner at least 10,000 hours of intense training to become fluent in the chosen language. This of course varies among individuals and their motivations behind learning, as well as opportunities to be fully engaged in the language across multiple subjects.
As a language learner what do you find to be the hardest thing about learning a new language? Linguists, teachers, and students alike have posed this question across numerous sites, books, and forums. As predicted, there is no one thing that proves most difficult, but rather a set of universal obstacles that most people encounter to one degree or another.
Pronunciation is one that almost always comes up first. Trying to get your mouth to produce those unfamiliar sounds, rolls, and trills while striving to sound like a native speaker is challenging for even those who have been fluent in a second tongue for years. Wiktor K. of 16Kinds.com tackles the problems of pronunciation, in mastering a language. Cadence, volume, and whether a language is monotonic or contains a variety of intonations all fall under difficulties with pronunciation.
Grammar can be difficult in one’s native language, let alone trying to understand a system for a new language, especially when two languages are grammatically diverse. Does your acquired language use verb conjugations? Are words gender sensitive? Are there inconsistencies in spelling? Omniglot.com provides a dramatic example of the grammatical difference between English, Japanese, and Welsh.
Fear in speaking, making mistakes, and uncertainty are all common sources of frustration for the language learner. No one enjoys feeling uncomfortable or appearing foolish. Overcoming these difficulties requires devotion, motivation, courage, and above all else, a thick skin. Persistence and a sense of humor often pay off, as the speaker grows more confident with fluency.
Other language learners cite challenges with vocabulary. Many struggle in making direct translations only to find that exact meanings elude them. Often you might say or hear someone say, “There’s a word for that in my language, but I don’t know how to say it in this new language.” Shades of meaning or subtleties can often be lost, sometimes with humorous or even disastrous results. Arika Okrent for MentalFloss.com writes on the incredible outcomes of nine such mistakes.
Finding time to learn and opportunities to practice are potential hardships for language learners. Busy schedules can often cut into lessons and finding others who speak your new language is not easy if you are not immersed in the culture. Some students get around this by looking for meet ups or local language clubs. MyLanguageExchange offers an online community that practices 115 languages. There, members can find others to practice speaking and/or writing with.
To round out the list, listening and comprehension are other aspects that give learners trouble. Learning to listen properly to what is being spoken and then comprehending it fully to reply takes time, training, and lots of exposure to native speakers of the target language. Donovan Nagel for the Mezzofanti Guild discusses how the lack of listening comprehension is a clear indicator that a student is not fluent yet and offers tips on how to improve.
To get an idea of the most difficult languages to learn, MyLanguages.org compiled a list in which Arabic, Cantonese, and Japanese are considered some of the hardest tongues to acquire for many of the reasons described above. Last, if you need empathy or commiseration in language learning challenges, there are multiple forums where language learners can share their experiences. Among them are Spanishdict.com, Answers.yahoo.com, and the NYTimes.com.
Have you experienced other difficulties in language learning that are not on this list?
Written by Marlene Martzke for English Classes by Skype.