Why am I bad at languages?

Learn languages March 6, 2014

If foreign words “go in one ear and out the other”, you have probably had a bad experience of language learning at school. This has the knock-on effect of reducing your confidence with languages throughout your adult life.

The truth is, some people can be better at learning a language than others, but everyone is capable of learning a second language. Within Europe, more than 90% of people in Luxembourg, Latvia, the Netherlands, Malta, Slovenia, Lithuania and Sweden can hold a conversation in a second language. People in these countries are not genetically superior language learners; they benefit from a combination of circumstances and motivation.

There are millions of people who are not naturally “good language learners” in these countries, but they have still achieved conversational fluency, which is the first major goal in language learning. This is good news for you, because if they can, you can too.

So, what makes a “bad” language learner and what can you do about it?

First let’s look at some typical characteristics of a good language learner:

Good memory

The single most important biological factor in learning a language as an adult is your memory. The ability to recall words or chunks of language that you have learned is essential, and is easier for some people than others. But while a good memory is a great help, there are methods available for those of us who have not been blessed with more mental terabytes than Google. This comes down to…

Good technique

If you struggle to remember words or grammatical structures immediately, you are not alone. In fact, you are part of the vast majority of language learners who need repetition in order to remember. Different learners use different techniques, but some things are usually consistent (more about that later).

Listening ability

girls hugging

There are important differences between the way a language is spoken and how it is written. Even where spelling follows pronunciation, people do not speak as they write. For example, you will almost never see interjections – umm, err, like – written down but they are a significant part of speech. To “get” the rhythms and feel of a language, you need to be exposed to the language and really listen.


All of the above are useless without motivation. Why are people in Sweden and the Netherlands so good at languages… and in particular English?

Swedish and Dutch are spoken little outside of Scandinavia and the Low Countries. To communicate with people around the world, a second language is needed, and that language is usually English. They are helped greatly by local factors, including good language education from an early age and national preferences for subtitles over dubbing, all of which add to the motivation.

But even without external factors, there is no shortage of motivations for learning a second language. These can range from the personal achievement of being able to understand a foreign film to the Darwinian appeal of being able to speak Spanish or Portuguese at your local salsa club. With motivation comes the ability to focus on what you are learning.

Learning a language in a country where it is spoken is one way to ensure that your motivation levels stay high.

Is starting later a disadvantage?

There is a controversial theory in linguistics known as Critical Period Hypothesis, which suggests that your ability to learn languages decreases after childhood. It is controversial because there is limited evidence behind it, and there are plenty of adults who have learned languages to near-native fluency.

What research has shown fairly conclusively is that these adult learners can’t lose their “foreign” accents in the way that young learners can. But even native speakers have local accents and there is no such thing as unaccented speech.

Starting earlier gives you more time to practise and you rarely forget completely the things you learn as a child. For example, if you learned a language at school and then didn’t use it for ten years, you would still be at an advantage if you chose to pick the language up again.


So starting a language later in life is a disadvantage but certainly not an excuse for being “bad at foreign languages”. Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived in America at 21 years old with little English. He has a strong accent to this day, but this didn’t stop him becoming a huge Hollywood star or Governor of California.

Check out this article about how language learning changes as you get older.

Finding the right technique

Whether you are “good” at languages, “bad” at languages or somewhere in between, the most important thing you can do is find the language learning technique that works for you. This will depend on you as an individual, as well as your previous experiences of learning.

Some people, for example, swear by rote learning: memorising grammar tables and vocabulary. Education systems in certain countries encourage rote learning, and students with this background may gain from sticking with familiar techniques. For many people, however, experience of rote learning is why they believe they are bad at languages.

Well-structured classes at a good language school provide the chance to learn from an expert teacher while practising with other learners who are around your level. Classes at a language school are not like classes in high school. The group size is much smaller, the students are motivated (they have all chosen to be there) and the teaching methods are up-to-date.

Some learners swear by one-to-one lessons. The advantage is clear: you have your teacher’s undivided attention. Lessons go at your pace and the topic will not move on until you understand. Other learners may be driven by the social aspect of learning in a group.

The learning experience should be enjoyable: learning a language should be fun as well as challenging.

It is also very important that you understand the mechanics of a language, how words affect each other and meaning. In other words, grammar. A good teacher will find ways of making grammar interesting. How could grammar possibly be interesting, you ask? Well, when you consider grammar not as a goal in itself, but as an essential way to communicate your ideas, it becomes less daunting. Memorising tables can be dull, expressing yourself is not.

Key elements of language learning

Successful language learners keep on learning outside the classroom, and this is where personal learning techniques really make a difference. Study technique is a personal thing and most people benefit from varying techniques from time to time. Boredom is the enemy of good learning.

Vienna stairs full of people

Three highly important elements of language study are relevance, understanding and repetition.

If what you are learning is relevant to you, it is more likely to sink in. We are bombarded with so much useless information every day and can only remember so much of it; if you have a genuine wish or need to learn a language, the learning experience will be much easier. With our language courses, class topics are chosen carefully to ensure that they are relevant for the students. The topics you cover during lessons will be linked with local experiences outside of class-time.

Language study in immersion offers the opportunity to learn something new and interesting via the new language. This concept inspired our range of language PLUS courses, where standard classes are complemented by local activities, ranging from cooking to snowboarding.

It is important that you understand each element of the language as you learn it. This is particularly important for grammar, which is the skeleton of any language. But learning grammar does not necessarily mean learning grammar tables in one long, boring session: when you are surrounded by the language, and when you must use it to express yourself, the practical benefits of learning are unavoidable.

Whether grammar or vocabulary, spoken or written, repetition helps you remember and recall. This doesn’t mean repeating a sentence ten times and then moving on (although mnemonics can be extremely useful), but seeing the same structures or vocab reappear during your study. How you find that repetition is up to you; listening to music is one strategy. If you watch or play sports locally, you will hear the same words come up repeatedly. Everything comes back to practise.

Language immersion is the most effective way to learnstudying-abroad-group

At ESL – Language Studies Abroad, we believe that learning a language in a country where it is spoken provides the best motivation of all. You will develop understanding of the language through expert tuition. In your free time, you are surrounded by the language you are learning.

Not only is this a great experience, but you automatically achieve relevance, understanding and repetition. Your skills are tested all day long and through this challenge you will make progress.

Our courses are in some of the world’s most fascinating places too, from dreamy surf towns to megacities, so you will take much more than language skills home with you.

Contact us to find out more about any of our courses or destinations.

So, do you still think you are bad at languages? Let us know why!

Image credits: Cortto via CC, Alex Hammond



Europeans and their Languages, http://ec.europa.eu/public_opinion/archives/ebs/ebs_386_en.pdf

Johnson, Jacqueline S., and Elissa L. Newport. “Critical period effects in second language learning: The influence of maturational state on the acquisition of English as a second language.” Cognitive psychology 21.1 (1989): 60-99.

Lenneberg, E. Biological Foundations of Language. New York: Wiley, 1967.

Singleton, D. David Michael, and Zsol Lengyel, eds. The Age Factor in Second Language Acquisition: A Critical Look at the Critical Period Hypothesis 7. Multilingual Matters, 1995.

By Alex Hammond

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