“I can’t learn that language. It’s too hard for me”
Have you ever had that thought?
Have you ever believed a language to be out of your reach, simply because it looked too difficult, or others told you that it was so?
I’ve felt that way many times. And unfortunately it was that very thought that kept me from learning some languages for decades.
I remember the first time it happened, when I was 15 years old.
Even at that young age, I had a burning desire to learn as many languages as I could. One of those languages was Mandarin Chinese, a language that I knew was “exotic,” but was otherwise a mystery to me. In an effort to learn more about it, I asked my aunt—another language enthusiast—to tell me all she knew.
What she told me was not very comforting. Mandarin Chinese, she said, was an “extremely difficult” language. Though she had never studied it herself, she knew that Mandarin had several features that were quite different from our native Italian. In particular, she discussed the thousands of complex characters that comprise the Chinese writing system, as well as the language’s “tones”—a series of intonation patterns that can give any one syllable several meanings, depending only on how it is pronounced.
Upon hearing my aunt’s description of the language, my enthusiasm plummeted. Mandarin sounded like an absolute nightmare.
“Wow”, I thought, “That sounds impossible. I don’t think I’ll ever try to learn Chinese!”
That one thought kept me from learning Mandarin Chinese for years, until I finally faced my doubts in 2008 and took the “very difficult” language head-on.
But is Chinese really so difficult?
Before we answer this question, we must break it down into several smaller pieces, to ensure that we’re not jumping to any improper conclusions.
My aunt told me that Mandarin was a “difficult language”. You’ve likely heard the same.
But what really is a difficult language, anyway? What is it that makes one language easier or more difficult than another?
And better yet, when we say that a language is hard, or difficult, who, exactly, is it difficult for?
I want to show you that:
- Difficulty is a relative term.
- Languages can be similar or different in countless ways. How challenging you find a given language is directly tied to the distance between that language and your native one.
- Even if your first language is extremely distant from your target language, it does not preclude you from learning that new language to a near-native level.
Difficulty and complexity
I mentioned above that difficulty is a relative term. This means that a concept (e.g. a language) can not be difficult on its own. It can only be more difficult or less difficult than something else that it is being compared to.
In the case of language difficulty, the points of comparison are your native language and your target language.
Difficulty in language learning can be described as the sum of challenges that a learner faces as he tries to bridge the gap between his native and target languages. It is an entirely subjective metric, as what is difficult for one learner may not be difficult for another, even when both learners are “comparing” the same languages.
Since difficulty is subjective, it is practically useless for describing languages in absolute terms. Depending on who you talk to, every language can be described as both easy, difficult, and everything in between. On top of that, perceptions of difficulty will even change as you learn a language.
So, judging languages by their difficulty doesn’t help us much.
What if we were to use different metric instead?
Let’s talk about complexity.
Unlike difficulty, complexity is objective. Complexity emerges when we layer concepts on top of each other.
Languages are perfect examples. They are their own entities—Italian is a separate entity from Mandarin Chinese, for example—but they are actually comprised of smaller entities (syntax, grammar, morphology, lexicon, etc.).
These smaller concepts work together to give form to the whole. They are essential features of a language, and no human language would be complete without them.
Though as a learner you might fear the term “difficult” or “hard”, as I once did, you have no need to fear complexity.
Why? Because you operate complex systems every day.
When you use your computer to access the internet, you’re using a complex system.
When you drive your car to work, you’re using a complex system.
When you use your brain to read this very text, you’re using a complex system.
Complexity is everywhere. Even just the three above examples should be enough to convince you that you, my friend, are quite well-equipped to manage complexity—if you put your mind to it.
Even if you initially struggled to master complex systems like computers, cars, or even the several cognitive systems you need to read, you eventually made it happen.
You took what once was difficult, and made it easy. Natural, even.
And you can do it again.
No matter the language.
Okay, so by now we’ve determined three things:
- All languages can be difficult.
- All languages can be easy.
- All languages are complex.
Even if you accept these statements as true, you’re probably wondering why, exactly, you find language learning challenging.
Or even why you might have more trouble learning Mandarin Chinese than you would have learning, say, Spanish?
It’s not about difficulty.
It’s not about complexity.
It’s about distance.
All languages—including your native language and target languages—are related. They are all built of the same basic types of subsystems (lexicon, phonetics, syntax, orthography, etc.). The strength of the relationship between two languages is based upon how much—or how little—the content of these subsystems overlap.
I like to describe this overlap in terms of linguistic distance.
If two languages have a lot of similar structures and systems, we’ll call them close languages.
For example, if your native language is Italian, you can consider Spanish a close language because Italian and Spanish share elements of grammar, pronunciation and culture between them.
If two languages have very few structures and systems in common, we’ll call them distant languages.
A native speaker of Japanese, for example, will find Italian extremely challenging to learn. This is simply because the two languages are quite distant from one another in terms of both grammar, syntax and culture.
When you’re learning a language, I can guarantee that the most challenging languages for you to learn will be the languages that are most distant from your native language, or from languages that you have learned previously.
Think of it this way:
Learning a language is like traveling the world.
To get from point A to point B, you need to cover a distance.
To cover that distance, you must spend time traveling.
Traveling from Rome to Madrid, for example, requires time.
Traveling from Rome to Tokyo, by contrast, will always require more time.
This is because Tokyo is physically farther from Rome than is Madrid. If you use the same means of transportation from Rome and travel at the same speed, you will always arrive in Madrid before you will arrive in Tokyo.
That’s another thing. The speed it takes us to travel from one place to another isn’t just dependent on distance—it’s also dependent on the means of travel!
No matter which of our above trips you’re taking, I don’t recommend that you attempt them on foot. No matter the distance, it will simply take too long to complete the journey.
Instead, I recommend that you take the fastest means of transportation possible; take an airplane!
Suddenly, an endless trip becomes much more manageable, regardless of whether you’re Madrid- or Tokyo-bound.
In terms of languages, this means that even though some languages can be very distant from others, the time it takes to bridge the gap can be shorter or longer, depending on how you choose to learn.
If you’re anything like me, you’d prefer to travel longer distances in shorter timeframes, so allow me to share my four simple tips for covering more linguistic distance in less time:
1) Know Where You’re Going
You can have the best method in the world, but without the right mindset, you won’t get anywhere at all.
First, check your assumptions.
There’s a lot of talk out there about languages. Some is true. Some is false. Some has been proven by experience, while some is just propaganda.
Take some time to think about what other people have told you about your target language, and about language learning in general. Think about the things you’ve always assumed about language learning, but never actually tested for yourself.
Take particular note of negative, absolutist terminology like “never”, “can’t,” or “impossible”.
If someone tells you that you’ll “never learn a language,” that learning a particular language is “impossible”, or that it will take “forever”, realise that that is just that person’s perception of the problem, and likely in no way represents the reality of learning that language.
People who make absolute, negative statements like the above were likely just unwilling to cover the distance, or didn’t know why they should even try.
Which brings me to my second point:
2) Know Why You’re Making the Trip
It’s rare that we ever embark on a journey “just because we can”.
Normally, before we set off for a destination, we have specific goals in mind. We want to certain people, see certain sights, or live a certain experience.
Essentially, we know why we’re traveling in the first place, especially if we’re traveling somewhere distant.
If you’re aiming to learn a language that is distant from your own, it is of the utmost importance that you do so because you want to. You have to have clear, compelling reasons why you’re going to put in the effort to close such a big gap.
For example, you could choose to learn a distant language because you’ve visited the country (or want to) , fell in love with a native speaker of the language, or fallen for the culture underneath it all. These are all solid reasons, and they will act as powerful intrinsic motivators throughout your journey. Building these motivators is the key for learning any language, but when the distance between languages is great, it becomes absolutely crucial.
Without such motivation, even linguistically close languages will prove challenging for learners. Since all languages are complex systems, they all require a certain amount of time and energy to master. If you don’t know why you’re spending that time or that effort, you will give up. Once that happens, mastery will not come, no matter how close the language is to your own.
Remember: What counts in language learning is not the amount of distance you need to cover, but the reasons you have for undertaking the journey and your will to reach your destination.
Don’t listen to those who tell you that the journey is impossible.
What counts is what you want.
Listen to your inner voice.
Don’t learn a language because you’ve been told that it’s easier, or more useful. Choose it because you want to learn it, and because you have truly compelling reasons to do so.
If you can couple those compelling reasons with our next tip—the plan—then distance is irrelevant, because you’ll arrive at your destination, no matter what.
3) Plan Your Trip
Are we there yet?
You’ve likely heard it before, on many a journey. Perhaps you’ve asked it yourself.
When we take a trip, we often grow impatient with the fact that travel requires a certain sacrifice of time.
We want instant gratification—teleportation from point A to point B—but it never comes.
Unfortunately, that kind of instant gratification won’t happen in language learning either.
Time is a necessary ingredient in travel and language learning, so it’s in our best interests to ensure that we’re spending it as wisely as possible—so that we don’t waste our energy and spend more time than we need to.
So, in order to make the best use of your time, plan your trip according to the following three, key steps:
To plan a trip, you must:
- Establish clear short term goals.
- Establish long term goals.
- Schedule discrete blocks of time for language learning.
Establishing goals and set blocks of learning time give you the power to make a long (distant) trip more manageable. Instead of becoming intimidated by the vast distance between your and your target language, you need only focus on the distance between yourself and the next goal—your next guidepost along the path.
Let me give you an example.
Let’s suppose that you want to reach advanced fluency in a language in 2 years. This is your long term goal. In order to do it, you first have to reach what I call basic fluency, and then (simply) fluency.
(Note: If you need more clarification on the different types of fluency, click here)
Let’s suppose that you want to achieve basic fluency in a distant language in six months. We’ll assume that to do so requires approximately 200 hours.
If you commit to learning every day, you can plan your language progress in an extremely precise manner.
Let’s do the math.
You have 6 months ahead of you and you need to spend 200 hours to reach your chosen level of proficiency.
If you crunch the numbers, you’ll find need a bit more than an hour a day to reach your goal and destination.
Seem too simple? You’re right.
Here is the catch:
It is important that you allocate time to your schedule beforehand. Every Sunday, get a calendar and allocate your time for the week. This is essential. If you want to learn a language, you must make it a priority, and if you want to guarantee that your priorities get done, you must schedule them.
So, how do we plan?
When you choose your daily study times, make sure that you choose time slots in which you normally have lots of energy. If you attempt to study when you’re exhausted, your learning will likely be extremely ineffective, and not much better than if you hadn’t studied at all.
In addition, you need to make sure that you follow a set learning routine. Plan to learn on the same days every week, at the same time. This will allow you to build a consistent, regular study habit, and streamline your learning in the long term. If you don’t schedule your learning in this way, you may try to fit it your learning only when you “have the time”, which will inevitably cause you to stop learning when other obligations get in the way.
Remember: A long journey is made of shorter journeys. Make sure you go step by step, and you’ll be guaranteed to arrive at your destination.
4) Know How to Get There
Ok, now we’ve established where you’re going, why you’re going, and the plan you’re going to follow to get there.
The next step is to learn how to transport yourself from your starting point to your destination.
When you travel long distances, you need a faster mode of transport to get there in any reasonable amount of time. If you just walk, you’ll spend a lot of time and energy, and may not even get there at all.
When learning a language, your means of transport is your method—your personal learning strategy.
You need to figure out how you’re going to do what you want to do.
Unfortunately, this is not something that you can learn by being told. Instead, you must engage in a trial-and-error process that, over time, will reveal to you a unique language learning method that is directly tailored to your needs.
I believe that every good learning method has three key features:
- It works for you
- It is enjoyable
- It is flexible
It is important that you understand that there is no one best method, but only a method that works for you. Everyone has one, but you’ll only find yours so long as you keep looking for it, and don’t give up along the way.
The best method for you will always be a method that you find enjoyable. Never force yourself to learn by doing something you don’t want to. If for example, someone suggests that writing or speaking is the best way to learn fast, give it a try. If you don’t like it, find a different way, and keep learning.
Once you find a method that works, you can apply to any language. Of course, every language is different, so having this flexibility will require you to boil your best learning methods down to their core, and see what you can consistently apply across languages.
In distant languages, you are probably going to encounter some aspects or features of the target language which vary greatly from the language or languages you already know.
Make sure that you pay particular attention to these features at the very beginning. Invest time and energy to figuring out the most challenging aspects of the language. Understand them and adapt to them as necessary. Doing this early on will allow you to go much faster later.
To give you an example, when I learned Chinese, the most distant aspect in terms of the spoken language was the fact that Mandarin Chinese has tones (if you want to know what tones are, check my article on how to learn them more efficiently) while Italian is a non tonal language. This is a headache for the majority of foreigners.
I made sure that could eventually become as good as possible in Mandarin, I focused on the tones for months and months. It was hard work, but I succeeded in learning them well. Once I mastered the tones, I could navigate the language more easily, and move on to features of Mandarin that were more similar to my native Italian.
Finding a good method makes you go faster, struggle less and gives you more confidence.
One more thing:
The speed at which you cover linguistic distance is not only dependent on the method you use, but also the cumulative previous experience you have as a language learner.
Put simply, this means that the more languages you have learned, the easier it will be to learn new languages—even very distant ones!
This, coupled with a good, personal language learning method, can help you go even faster.
For example, it took me a year to become relatively fluent in Polish. After that year, I was conversing with my friend Michal in Poland, gave an interview entirely in Polish for an online newspaper and two years later I went live on Polish TV. All this without spending no more than 30-45 minutes a day learning and practicing the language.
For an Italian with no previous language learning experience, accomplishing such a level in such a distant language as Polish would have been incredibly difficult.
Perhaps some would have called it impossible.
I, however, was able to accomplish all that because I followed the steps that I’ve described to you above, and I already had a fluent grasp of Russian, a language that is linguistically very close to Polish.
Any apparently distant language can become much closer if you know a similar language, And if you know where to go, plan your trip, and go there with a fast means of transport, things get even better.
So, there you have it.
No matter how far your native language is from your target language, you now know what you’ll have to do to prepare for the trip and ensure that you will inevitably arrive at your destination.
You’ll no longer fall victim to false assumptions of language difficulty, and absolute terms like “impossible” and “never”.
Instead, no matter which language you choose to take on, you’ll be prepared to use your time and effort judiciously, in order to go as far as you need to.
My final question to you is this:
Now that you know how to cross any distance, how far will you go