Why Disliking Learning Languages Is Not A Good Thing
- Written byDonovan Nagel
- Read time8 mins
NOTE: I’m not suggesting here that everyone should have the same level of enthusiasm that I do for language learning.
The point I’m trying to drive home here is that in order to succeed at anything (especially languages), you’re going to have a much harder time if you hate the process.
If you don’t like language learning but you still need to do it, then my advice is to do everything you can to make it enjoyable (see below). You’ve got a far better chance of success if you do this believe me!
I don’t want to spend much time talking about this or fueling any further controversy but I thought it was definitely worthy of a few points.
I’d like to hear what you think about this in the comments section below as well.
This was said recently on a popular language learning website:
“I see languages as a means to an end – nothing more.”
For this bloke, and I suspect a lot of other people, the language learning process is seen as an obstacle in the path of being able to achieve an end goal.
As long as the chick at the counter knows that I don’t want pickles on my McHanbaobao or that I want hot’n’spicy Kentucky Fried Dajaja (wings please) then who cares about the language itself, right?
I love learning languages.
The end product is great sure – being able to actually use it and learn about people on such a deep and personal level, but I also enjoy every step and discovery along the way.
Even the frustrating and seemingly ‘useless’ ones.
Language learning – my fishing analogy
I was sitting on the beach yesterday doing a bit of fishing and thinking about this whole ‘I hate language learning but love using them’ thing, and this analogy came to mind:
Imagine walking into a fishing tackle shop to buy bait and to get some tips from the guy at the counter who claims to be an expert, and he says to you, “Look, I love eating the fish, but I don’t like fishing.
I don’t like rigging up my gear, putting the bait on or the long wait for the fish to bite.
It’s all just a means to an end.
Oh by the way, I’ve just published this excellent book on the best fishing spots and advice that I’m sure will help you…“
In the words of my girlfriend, I’d be telling this guy, “a-seeeee-yaaaa.”
I think I’ll go find a fishing shop where the guy behind the counter almost pees his pants with excitement over every aspect of fishing. And as for your book, I’d rather buy a book from the excited pants-wetter than you, mate.
Irish Gaeilge – A no-end-goal mission
As you probably know by now, I started teaching myself Irish Gaeilge recently (UPDATE: I did), using online resources and now, finally, with a paid private teacher (italki) via Skype.
Irish is a language that I will most definitely never need, and probably never get to naturally use (unless I spend some short holiday time on the west coast of Ireland).
Apart from some personal reasons for wanting to learn it, I’m studying it because I love the process of learning.
Every new bit of vocab and every new thing I can understand on TG4 (Irish television) interests me.
And you know what, I’m paying about $40 USD per week for lessons – for a language with absolutely no usability to me! The I don’t like learning languages crowd would think I’m a bloody idiot for doing it.
I’ve also been spending some time reactivating my French lately (I haven’t really spoken much French for many years but it’s still there on a dusty shelf in my brain), and as someone who loves every step of the learning process I delved into Gaulish recently (a dead, “useless” Celtic language) just to see how it’s related to Modern French and Irish.
All because I love the process of learning languages.
The best students are the ones who love the process of learning
I’m I was an ESL teacher (at home on a long ‘sabbatical’ at the moment but probably heading to Asia in a few months to teach again (UPDATE: I did)).
I can tell you that the best students I’ve had have been the ones who can’t get enough of learning English.
These students are at class early, they study passionately, and even on days where I give absolutely terrible lessons with no preparation these people still try their absolute hardest to get something out of it.
They constantly ask questions to satisfy their hunger for more learning and it’s these students who end up speaking English brilliantly compared to their peers who only care about end goals.
Without boring you with all the academic stuff, one of the primary factors that causes people to reach a mediocre level of ultimate attainment (the point where they’ve learned as much as they can and don’t go any further) is this attitude of “the language is a means to an end”.
As long as they can achieve what they need to achieve then that’s all that matters.
This by the way is why a lot of migrants after spending decades in a foreign country have peaked at an intermediate or even lower level.
But you’re a linguist, Donovan. That’s why you love the process of learning languages.
I’m a linguist which means I’m interested in the academic side of language learning and reading papers by boring professors but when I learn languages I’m not doing it for those reasons (with the exception of Koine Greek, Ancient Hebrew and Classical Arabic which were for academic reasons).
Maybe it explains why I would bother reading up on a dead language like Gaulish out of pure interest, but it doesn’t mean that my love of the learning process is a result of academia.
Learning the language of a foreign culture is like taking on a new personality and seeing the world differently.
Did you know that the word for “crazy/insane” in Arabic is “majnoon (مجنون)”, from the root “jinn” (جن) where we get the word “genie” (a spirit like the genie in Aladdin)? In other words, the idea of insanity in the Middle East has, and still does in many parts, held the idea that the person is possessed by evil spirits.
How can a discovery like that not be interesting?
That’s a-whole-nother worldview right there – it’s mind-blowing when you learn things like this and it makes the language learning process so much more wonderful and exciting.
Anyway, I believe the actual process of language learning is something that should be loved and enjoyed, and not seen as an obstacle on the path to an end goal.
Stay passionate about learning languages, keep your motivation high, and you’ll have better results in the end and enjoy the journey.
What do you think about all this?
You will learn better and faster if you enjoy the process of learning
One last note.
For those who aren’t familiar with Steve Kaufmann, he’s the owner and founder of LingQ.
His impressive foreign language repertoire makes him a credible authority on language learning.
I personally don’t use LingQ because of its price (would rather use LWT) but it’s still a very useful tool – especially for translators.
Here’s a great video he made a while back on enjoyment:
Steve makes a very simple yet profound point in this video.
Here it is in his own words:
Why are you frustrated?
Don’t worry about how fast you’re progressing. Be confident that if you do things that you enjoy doing in a language, and if you stay with it, you will progress.
You will progress faster if you do things that you enjoy doing than if you try to force yourself to do things that you don’t enjoy doing.
For those who are stuck in the boring, seemingly never-ending lower stages of learning this bit of advice is worth heeding.
By taking whatever you’re interested in or passionate about and basing your learning around that thing, your language learning ceases to be a chore and you’ll find that you improve a lot faster.
- Are you into sports? Watch sports commentaries on foreign language channels or read sports sections in foreign newspapers.
- Like reading fiction? Buy a translated copy of a popular novel and read it.
- Master chef? Learn recipes in foreign languages and watch foreign language channel cooking shows.
- Is music your thing? Do I have to state the obvious? Listen to foreign language music! If you play instruments, learn some target language songs and play them.
- Into politics, religion or technology? There are plenty of foreign language websites dealing with news, reviews and opinions in those areas.
On that point I’m actually teaching myself to play and sing this song by The Coronas to help with my Irish:
If you’re doing something you love and enjoy you’ll learn a lot just by being exposed to the input and you’ll incidentally learn a lot of other expressions and vocabulary as well.
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I learnt French at school but I hated the subject so much that I vowed when I left school I’d never speak it or any other language (other than English) again. I’m 58 and to this day I’ve kept m vow. I did care out a time/benefit analysis on learning another language recently and it just proved that the benefits of learning another was not worth the required to do so.
I din not enjoy in any aspect learning my native language. I am in the process of squirting (Mexican) spanish. We retired and live in Mexico. Any honest person, will readily and respectfully agree, that spanish is the most disgusting, slimy, slack jaw, ugly sounding, offensive rapid fire in your face, offensive sounding language. But, I am consistently day by day aquiring this toung to assimilate into the culture. I discuss myself when I speak it. No matter how slow I speak it. My pronunciation is beautiful, so all the locals tell me. They say I have no american accent at all. I totally dislike the process, and the language, but I will become fluent as I did my native tounge. Like Japanese, it is a pure, in every sense of the word, horrible sound. So, it is possible to learn a language that is ugly, and also disliking the process just as promptly as a person that likes it, and enjoys learning. Necessity is the key, not liking it. Thanks
Hi, I find your post very interesting. I agree with all your points but think it’s really hard for some people.
Personally, I love the concept of language learning, I love learning interesting things like the Arabic word for crazy, above. But honestly, I do hate the process of learning. Why? Not because I only see it as a means to an end because I don’t. I’m learning Russian right now because I want to, not because I have to and I love the language but every moment I’m learning I feel constantly frustrated. I’ve never felt so useless, upset or down on myself as I do in language lessons. My heart rate accelerates, my face flushes red. I feel insecure around other students and an uncontrollable anger overcomes me. I don’t know why I have such a visceral reaction, it’s unlike anything else. But because of this I truly do despise the learning process.
Sometimes I’ll surprise myself and say or understand something I didn’t know I could and that feels great, but these are very rare moments.
I agree with you, do what you like, but when even looking at a page of text is daunting, or the audio track on a tv show is meaningless to you, it’s really hard to be motivated.
I really wish I did love it, but as much as I try, I hate hate hate it.
Does anyone else feel like this? How can a person who has motivation but hates the process come to terms with that?
I am late with this but I’ll leave it for posterity.
Language IS only a means to an end.
Society has progressed because of what we have built not because of what we have written. Imagine this... would society be better off if someone writes about a cure for cancer, or if somebody puts it into actual practice.
The written word may help convey ideas, but until they exist in the physical world it is mere words. People aren’t nomads just searching for conversations with others, people are action.
If I am in a foreign country and need to use a bathroom, I don’t care about the culture, pronunciation, nor being fluent... I merely want an answer in the most expeditious manner.
I partly agree with you.
But I also stand by the indisputable fact that the best language learners are the ones who love the process of learning languages.
For you, getting your point across that you need a toilet is all that matters - for people like myself, we aren’t satisfied with just getting our point across. We want to know how native speakers ask where the toilet is and imitate it as much as possible.
I’m interested in your article on the concept of learning.
It’s really inspired me this learning method.
Only learning for learning.......(Thanks.)
Far from being in the illustrious crowd of multiple language learners, I’m just doin’ my best to learn Thai.
Now if I’d put some forethought into acquiring a second language (after my mother tongue; American English), perhaps I’da picked one written in something resembling engrish, like Spanish. I probably wouldn’t have picked one which has 44 consonants, 32 vowels, 4 tone marks or one which contains 6-“T’s”, 5 “K’s” and 4-“S’s”.
Be that as it may, it’s been an interesting experience, and certainly made me appreciate being a native English speaker. Thai is far less difficult that English. Learning Thai has shown me just how hard English can be for non-native speakers to become proficient in, as it seems English has more exceptions to the rules than things which follow them.
To some degree, my learning Thai has been a means to an end for me. I live in Thailand, surrounded by the ever smiling, yet diminutive Thais day in - day out. It was less than fruitful trying to compel them to speak English, and even converting a Thai at a time to English, I had a long road ahead with 63+ million of ‘em here.
I learned Thai so I could accomplish things I wanted to do with the least possible use of charades, mime or stick figure drawings. It wasn’t all that fun early on, however when my language learning hit a “critical mass” or “tipping point”, suddenly my knowledge increased exponentially in relation to the time I was investing.. Honestly don’t know how useful a language Thai is on the world stage, in fact I’d say it’s a pretty darned low on the list if you ain’t here, where it seems most of the Thais congregate (this being Thai-Land and all).
At least now the “noise” which before sounded like a swarm of angry bees buzzing around me filters into my head as actual conversations, and I can interact with these people. It has turned a fairly isolated existence here into a real enjoyable experience, as well as given me a new “hobby”; the Thai language.
I enjoy reading this blog, as it always has useful tid-bits of stuff I can apply to Thai.
I think we can all have our own goals and reasons for learning languages. Really it is up to each individual.
I have no doubt that for many and perhaps most people, the study of a language is just a means to and end. Immigrants need the language. Company employees, who can get a bonus or a better assignment if they know a language, especially English, are probably not in love with the process. I have no trouble with that.
Some people study languages just in order to have a basic level of communication with the locals on their next vacation, at least to be able to say “please” and “thank you.”
I enjoy language learning, but I may be, along with Donovan here, and exception. I have been learning Russian these last few years, and recently started on Czech. I have no need for these languages. I derive immense enjoyment from reading books, following radio, watching movies etc. in these languages. When I was in Russia I was in seventh heaven, using the language as much as possible. I plan to do the same in Prague in October. That will be my reward, but in the meantime, like you Donovan, I enjoy the process.
I think that those who enjoy the process are prepared to put in more time, and for that reason and a few other reasons, they usually learn better.
I personally love learning languages. I can’t get enough of the process. Even so, I fail to see why it is a bad thing to hate the process but love the end result. We all do this at various times in our lives. Some of us hate our jobs, but we enjoy the money and security obtained from them. Some of us hate cooking food every night but we love the taste of a nice home-cooked meal when we sit down to eat. Some of us hate long airplane or car rides, but once we hit our destination, we’re in heaven. Not everyone is going to enjoy the things we like; not everyone is going to have a passion for every subject. That doesn’t mean they are less knowledgeable, less sincere, or a less trustworthy teacher. This whole post seems to be an ad hominem attack, and I don’t agree with it. He ought to be judged on the basis of what he brings to the table, not whether or not he has passion for the subject. His passion is irrelevant.
I think that it is probably more noble to do what the guy you’re talking about is doing, anyway. He dislikes learning languages but does it anyway just to communicate with people in their native tongues. I think that’s cool and that is something to be praised in itself. I don’t think anyone really has any grounds to call him out on it. He could just as easily be like my brother, who hates language learning and expects foreign people to speak English to him when he travels. Tell me again why making the effort is a bad thing, just because one lacks the passion for the technical aspects of language learning? It seems like a terribly pointless criticism to me. And it just seems so... juvenile... so snobby. I can’t endorse that.
Alt maith. Though just to let you know that there are tens of thousands of Irish speakers on the east coast of Ireland too and Gaeilge is a community language for many people in the big cities like Baile Átha Cliath and Béal Feirste. Seans go bhfaighfidh tú amach lá éigin... Ádh mór ort!
Agreed - Irish is a real language - I met someone (a Russian!!) who speaks it here in Taipei!!! Suggesting that it’s useful only for those with linguistic curiosity is a very sad thing indeed - it’s a means to make some wonderful friends in many places outside the Gaeltacht if you know how to find them.
One quick solution I’ll tell people is to search meetup.com for Irish since a small handful of cities in America have Irish language meetups. Also, Couchsurfing lets you search per language to invite an open minded person in the same city out for coffee, and I have been able to meet up and chat as Gaeilge thanks to this feature!
I also see Irish as “just a means to an end”, but that end is a wonderful exchange with another human being ;) This is precisely how Irish should be viewed if it’s to continue to grow. If only linguists were interested in it then it would die out. Instead people like me have used it to “chat up girls” and other such natural things that a language truly exists for.
Go raibh maith agat :)
I know that there are Irish speakers in other parts of Ireland too. I say west coast because in all probability I’ll end up heading back to Kerry soon. Thanks for commenting :)
At first I was like, I didnt hear about this. Who said that “it is only a means to an end”. I seriously thought it was someone of a serious nature. I foundly found the link to the page you were talking about and of course who else is but the Benny The Polyglot.
This is probrably why I didnt hear of it, I view his stuff in low quantities, after I established the fact that he is spammy and a bit attention-seeking. Personally, I feel what he says offers nothing to me as a serious language learner. He is not someone I’d want to emulate when it comes to language acquisition beyond basic speech. In fact, I imagine he walks around like many of these migrants that come to this country and have errors upon errors in communication and are rather dull to converse with past a certain point.
Still there in reality I find no issues with his weak goals in language acquisition. The only issue I have is his usage of the loose term fluency to other learners, especially as he’s been espousing more and more that he disregards so much of a language that in noway can he be fluent (as he is fluent in English).
Anyway besides that I found this post great and reinforcing for those true language lovers out there who actually strive for a deeper level of communication. I especially love that ‘jinn” example. You should do a post about idioms that give a glimpse into cultures. That’d be interesting.
Thanks! Will do.
I think in Benny’s context, I can understand why he’d say it. He has a limited amount of time in each place he chooses to be (three months at most - has he spent longer that that anywhere?) And he tends to go to places where the languages have no similarities to any language he speaks. With no linguistic frame of reference and the time constraint, I’d probably hate the learning process too if I had those limits place on me.
It must be frustrating to spend the first 2 1/2 months stammering along, finally get a few “A-ha!” moments in the last two weeks, only to have to move on.
But I’ve never been a fan of placing time constraints on learning a language. Certainly, goals are one thing and they’re helpful to have, but the whole “I’m going to be fluent in X amount of time” is just too nebulous and prone to failure.
Benny’s made a point of repeatedly mentioning that Mandarin is going to be a language that he will speak “for life”, which is something he’s not said about any other language in his recent language-learning history (except maybe ASL?)
It’ll be more interesting to see how he handles his continued learning of the language once he leaves Taiwan. He may learn to like the process then. Then again, he may just leave it altogether. Who knows.
I think in Benny’s context, I can understand why he’d say it. He has a limited a
mount of time in each place he chooses to be (three months at most - has he spen
t longer that that anywhere?) And he tends to go to places where the languages h
ave no similarities to any language he speaks. With no linguistic frame of refer
ence and the time constraint, I’d probably hate the learning process too if I ha
d those limits place on me.
It must be frustrating to spend the first 2 1/2 months stammering along, finally
get a few “A-ha!” moments in the last two weeks, only to have to move on.
But I’ve never been a fan of placing time constraints on learning a language. Ce
rtainly, goals are one thing and they’re helpful to have, but the whole “I’m goi
ng to be fluent in X amount of time” is just too nebulous and prone to failure.
Benny’s made a point of repeatedly mentioning that Mandarin is going to be a lan
guage that he will speak “for life”, which is something he’s not said about any
other language in his recent language-learning history (except maybe ASL?)
It’ll be more interesting to see how he handles his continued learning of the la
nguage once he leaves Taiwan. He may learn to like the process then. Then again,
he may just leave it altogether. Who knows.
Eh, I don’t really believe Benny “dislikes” learning languages or he wouldn’t spend so much time on it; I do believe he’s not interested in the nuts-and-bolts stuff that you and some of the others are into. I like knowing quirky stuff, like what you mention about etymology, but I’m not at all interested in fundamentals of grammar or diphthongs or gutturals. I also don’t care TOO much about speaking super-correctly, as long as people can understand me without it being too annoying to bother. There are times when I enjoy the language-learning activities I do and times when it seems really dull. It’s nothing I would do if I didn’t actually want to speak whatever language I’m learning, but it can be entertaining, and most of all, very satisfying. Benny’s posted often enough about various aspects of language-learning he’s enjoyed. Like many bloggers, I think he tends to choose catchy post-titles that sound like they mean one thing but actually, when you read the post, mean something else (that isn’t nearly as controversial).
I get what you’re saying about Benny using a post title that sounds controversial but really isn’t, and you’re right that lots of bloggers do that, but I think in this instance he means what he says about not liking the learning process.
Frankly, it doesn’t bother me that a person feels that way and all I’m doing is sharing my opinion and saying that I think it’s really important for people to enjoy every step, rather than think of it as some annoying obstacle.
I’m really not a perfectionist and I never talk about boring ‘nuts and bolts’ stuff on here. If I come across that way and bore people then I hope they tell me because I want others to enjoy what I write.