Most people find learning languages very difficult. Yet, some people learn languages one after the other and make it look really easy. Do they have some kind of gift for languages? The truth is that in most cases, it all comes down to the way they look at the process of learning a language. In this post, we’ll take a look at how the difficulty of learning a language is partly an illusion.
When learning almost any other skill in the world, most people are totally okay with being terrible in the beginning. They accept that everything has a learning curve. If you’re learning how to play the guitar, you don’t expect to be able to play like Jimi Hendrix anytime soon. When it comes to language learning though, most people have high expectations and put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect from the get go. They set impossible goals. Language learning has a way of turning people into perfectionists. This is pretty unique to the skill of speaking a new language. This desire to be perfect creates an illusion of being incredibly difficult, and it distorts the way people look at languages.
If you go to a ski resort, you’ll see skiers and snowboarders of all levels enjoying the mountain. The experts and olympic-level skiers will be quite rare. If you take up acting classes, you will rarely find yourself in the presence of actors worthy of winning an Oscar. Beginners and intermediates make up the majority of people when you look at almost any skill in the world. It feels totally natural to be a beginner.
But when you start learning a new language, the vast majority of people who practice this skill are experts. You are surrounded by literally millions of people who have been practicing this skill for multiple hours, every day, for their entire lives. A language is the only skill where most practitioners are highly advanced. Learning a language is not harder than learning other things. It is simply that the level required to be an average speaker is much higher than being an average skier or average anything else. Being surrounded by masters can make us feel inferior. In reality, we should be proud for stepping out of our comfort zone and expanding our knowledge.
Instead of feeling inferior with your beginner skills, try to get the most from the expertise surrounding you. It’s certainly not easy to do, but it’s important to find a way to feel okay with not being perfect. I’ve seen fluent people who are still insecure about having a slight accent. This can happen when your skill level has improved, but your confidence hasn’t. Once you find a way to get over this feeling, you’ll realize that being surrounded by experts is actually a great thing. Millions of people are qualified to help you. If you’re learning German, every person in Germany has the potential to help you improve and correct your mistakes. This is a luxury that you can’t find with many other skills.
Speaking to someone in a language that you are not totally comfortable with has an interesting effect on the person you’re talking to. You may be feeling a bit uncomfortable, but you are actually elevating the other person. You’ll find that most people will listen more attentively, give you words of encouragement and help you in any way they can. It can be an amazing experience when you don’t feel too self-conscious. When you start to see this behavior in other people, you’ll start to see that perfection is not required to have really enjoyable conversations and to connect with people.
It’s easier said than done, but try to stop putting this pressure of perfection on yourself. Instead, try to enjoy the learning process and be proud of yourself. Learning a language to near-native levels will take a really long time. But if you redefine what it means to speak a language in your mind, it can be enjoyable right from the very first words you learn and you can truly enjoy the ride. Once you realize that you don’t need to ever be perfect in the language, it changes everything. This mindset of enjoying the process is what makes polyglots so successful. Someone who speaks 10 languages does not speak all of them at the exact same level. But they do enjoy speaking all of them equally.
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