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4 Reasons Americans Have Difficulty Learning Foreign Languages

By Edited May 18, 2016 3 3

world languages

Mustering my best Ray Liotta voice, I’ll tell you this: As far back as I can remember I’ve always wanted to be bilingual. It’s true. Ever since I was a kid I have been fascinated by those who could speak more than one language. I had visions of growing up, joining some covert military outfit, sweet talking my way past enemy lines and exacting some good old fashioned “Red Dawn” revenge (the Swayze kind, not Hemsworth.) Being bilingual would be cool, sophisticated, even sexy.

By the time I reached high school and took my first language class, there was no sexiness to be found. Instead, I was trapped I a world of endless vocabulary, conjugation, and grammar. It wasn’t until years later that I successfully learned my first language, Chinese. Not exactly what I had envisioned as a kid but I learned to love it all the same.

Since then, I have tucked a few more languages under my belt. While learning these, I watched my peers and classmates in their studies and discovered some interesting patterns in our successes and failures. I’ve also been fortunate enough to travel to some other countries and see how they tackle teaching foreign languages. Currently, my eldest daughter is experiencing the “un-sexiness” of high school Spanish. As a result of all of this, I have noticed some key phenomena unique to Americans that offer the biggest challenges to our hopes of becoming bilingual.

unrealistic expectations

1. Unrealistic Expectations: Many of us go into language study thinking that with enough time and study materials, we’ll soon be able to wow our friends with long, grammatically perfect stories. Perhaps after three intense months with a Mandarin phrase book, we’ll be able to go to Beijing, order the Peking Duck, and compliment the waiter in flawless Chinese.

Unfortunately, this is not realistic. Many times when we see people do this in movies and on TV, the actor only has a handful of lines that he has to remember in the foreign language, and he has probably practiced saying them hundreds of times. Real interaction, especially when you’re starting out, is similar to having sex for the first time. It’s awkward, clumsy, and you’re just hoping the other person doesn’t suddenly get up and leave. But that’s OK, because those are the scenarios that build fluency faster than anything else.

memorizing words

2. Death by Left Brain: Regardless of whether or not you subscribe to the whole left brain/right brain theory (logic-minded vs. creative-minded), the fact is that language is an art, not a science. Although it does have individual components that can be identified, studied, and memorized, this will only get you so far. This is a concept that many other American struggle with, mostly because of the way foreign language is introduced to us in school. Rote memorization and repetition of phrases do help initially, but at some point we have to start to internalize what we are learning.

My Chinese instructor used to refer to this resistance as “keeping the language at arm’s length.” He suggested that instead of trying to create the perfect sentence, I should learn to mimic the key patterns of sounds that frequently appeared. He emphasized speaking first and thinking second (my mother would not approve) and this would lead to internalization and thinking in the language. Once I began dreaming in the language months later, it was a wrap. When you hold a conversation with another bilingual person and can’t remember which language you spoke in, you’re on the right track.

It's Good to Be the King

3. It’s Good to Be the King .. Sometimes: As native English speakers, sometimes we don’t realize how good we have it. Not only is it the most widely spoken language in the world, but it’s also the standard business language. Additionally, it happens to be one of the more difficult languages to learn due to its irregularities and constant rule-breaking.

Don’t believe me? Imagine learning English as your second language and trying to figure out how to pronounce the letter combination “ough.”  As your teacher I might tell you as a rule to pronounce it like the word “owe”, except of course for words like “cough.” And “through.” Oh, and “rough.” Oops, did I mention it’s different in “bough” too?

My point is that being in an advantageous position can sometimes undermine our motivation. As a young Japanese student learning English, I’m probably more likely to take my studies seriously if I plan on entering international business later. In other places, I might not stand a chance of doing anything significant without at least a working knowledge of English.

Because we are predominately a nation of English speakers, we don’t share this sense of urgency. Therefore, only the self-motivated are likely to have long term success. Depending on which statistics you read, only an estimated 20 to 25% of Americans speak a second language conversationally. This number is much lower than in many other countries.

Get em started young.

4. Get ‘Em While Their Young: As I mentioned earlier, my first encounter with learning a foreign language didn’t happen until high school. However, studies have shown that the earlier you introduce children to more than one language, the better they retain it. Kids are best able to hear and mimic phonetic sounds between birth and age three. Many Asian cultures begin teaching foreign language in grade school. In essence, they are learning the “how” long before they learn the “why.” In America, we tend to study the “how” and “why” at the same time (pronunciation and grammar respectively) which is a much more daunting task. This can lead to frustration and eventually lack of interest.

Having said all of this, all is not lost. Although most of us are already past our phonetic zenith (if there are any three year olds reading this, of course I'm not talking to you) there are many resources available that effectively teach foreign language. Of the several programs I’ve encountered, the two best hands down in my opinion are the Pimsleur and Rosetta Stone courses. Although they tend to be a bit on the pricy side, if you really want to learn how to communicate and set a good foundation for future study, you can’t go wrong with either of these.

Whatever you chose, find a native speaker to practice with when possible and make a bunch of mistakes. Remember, communication is nothing more than taking an idea in your head and putting it in someone else’s. Any way you can accomplish this is a step in the right direction.



Jun 5, 2014 8:42am
I agree that starting out young is an important measure. I began learning French at the age of 11, and even there I got a late start. I did well in school, but really didn't feel properly bilingual until years later, when I had to work in French.
Jun 5, 2014 8:42am
I agree that starting out young is an important measure. I began learning French at the age of 11, and even there I got a late start. I did well in school, but really didn't feel properly bilingual until years later, when I had to work in French.
Jun 30, 2014 11:20pm
My problem is I've moved around a lot and have never got to proper grips with a language other than English. I speak a bit of Korean and am now trying Tagalog, but being in my late 50s I don't learn anything quickly anymore.
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