You probably know more people who have given up learning a language than people who have reached fluency. There are a few main reasons why people don’t make it out of the “beginner” level, and if you can plan for those reasons, the chance of accomplishing your language learning goals increases significantly.
Most people begin their language learning journey with a high level of confidence and excitement — something along the lines of, “I’m going to study hard and become fluent in Mandarin.” They often make this goal without knowing the amount of work and length of time it will take to achieve. Basically, they underestimate the complexity of languages and the time required to learn a language—which eventually leads to the loss of motivation and, inevitably, quitting. If you were hired by a restaurant as a cook for five hours per week and then upon arriving to work learned that you would actually need to clean tables for 15 hours a week, for the exact same income, you probably wouldn’t stick around. So setting accurate expectations is the first way to escape the Beginner Trap.
The second thing you need to know in order to avoid this much-to-common trap is that languages are almost undeniably more fun and beneficial during the second half of the journey. Think about it, as a beginner, you are forced to study tons of vocabulary, have basic (and therefore usually boring) conversations, and are more-or-less limited to reading children’s books. Not to mention, things are simply more challenging and thus tend to be less enjoyable.
Fast-forward to when you reach the upper-intermediate level—everything becomes a bit brighter. First, the study options available are incredibly more appealing. You can have interesting conversations on a variety of topics, or basic conversations without trying. You can listen to any podcast or video you find interesting to practice comprehension, and you can easily find a novel that grabs your attention. Practice sessions can shift from mentally draining study sessions to unconscious and enjoyable content absorption.
Third, the benefits from those hundreds and hundreds of hours of hard work really become evident in the final stages of language learning. You can travel and volunteer in your new language. When someone asks you, “do you speak French?” you can finally respond “YES!” instead of quietly responding “well… kind of.” You can create content in your new language and build a network of people that speak it too. Best of all, you’ll finally have the opportunity to transition from having an outside view of the culture to experiencing it from the inside.
The problem is, most people find themselves somewhere in the middle of the beginner level and realized, “this is MORE challenging and LESS exciting than I thought it would be” and, very soon after, stop studying. So remember: IT GETS BETTER. I promise you that moment you have a casual conversation in the grocery store without stumbling on a single word, you are going to feel so much pride and accomplishment for having stuck it out and having avoided the Beginner-Trap.
The worst part of the Beginner-Trap is that people lose confidence and begin to believe they don’t have natural ability with languages. They stop learning the language, lose hundreds of hours of hard work, and are fearful of restarting. They never truly experience the benefits of a second language—the whole reason why they started the process in the first place. I’m here to tell all of you beginners out there: don’t quit, “the grass is, truly, greener on the other side” (a great expression for those studying English).
So put some pictures on your wall of Korean food or of people drinking cervezas in a Spanish square and remember why you began the journey. Maintain motivation and thus progress, at least until you’ve escaped the Beginner-Trap. One of the main benefits of having a great language coach is that they do this for you during every meeting. Finally, remember to take small maintenance steps during your journey. That way, if you do take a break from learning, you won’t lose as much time getting back to the level you invested so much time to attain.
Complexity, Time, Motivation, Benefits, Confidence, Natural Ability