Realistic Expectations for Language Learning

Realistic Expectations for Language Learning

When it comes to second language learning, everyone has a different opinion on what it takes to learn a language. Some people believe that learning a language is next to impossible, while others believe they can be fluent in a few short weeks. In reality, language learning is very different for every learner and there are many factors that affect the learning process.

Linguistic Similarities

One factor to consider when learning a language is the differences and similarities between the new language and the native language. All languages are different in sounds, vocabulary, and grammar. If the new and native languages have many similarities, the new language should be easier to learn than if the two languages have many differences. For example, languages like Spanish and French are easier for English speakers to learn because they have overlapping sounds and vocabulary as well as similar base grammar structures. However, if an English speaker chooses to learn a very different language such as Mandarin or Arabic, the process will take much longer since there are fewer overlaps and many of the base grammar structures are different.

Authentic Practice

Another equally important factor is the learner’s available time and willingness to practice. While many people set out to learn a language, they are not motivated to practice what they are learning. To be successful in acquiring a language, the learner must spend time actually using the language in all modes: speaking, listening, reading and writing. Taking the material learned in class and applying it in authentic situations is the best way to acquire and retain language.

While it may seem obvious that practicing leads to improvement, affective inhibitions coupled with the ease of relying on the native language whenever possible often result in the learner getting insufficient practice. For example, if two people in the same home are learning a new language, they could plan to speak in the new language together for an hour every day. However, many people don’t make this effort because they are tired after a long day of work or one person is less confident and becomes dependent on the other speaker. If there is minimal practice between lessons, the language learning process is very long and difficult.

Defining Measurable Learning Goals

A third factor that greatly influences the language learning process is the learner’s ambiguous understanding of what it means to acquire a language. Many learners begin the learning process with goals such as “I want to be able to speak the language” or “I want to be able to understand.” The problem with goals like these is that they are not definable or measurable. Accomplishing a goal or meeting a learning expectation is difficult if there are no steps in place to actually measure growth. Instead of making one’s goal to “speak” a new language, learners should define specific situations they want to be able to speak in. For example, greeting the neighbors, ordering food, giving directions to a taxi driver or making a presentation at work.

In place of a goal to “understand” a new language, the learner could define situations such as understanding announcements on the bus, understanding a podcast on a familiar topic, answering questions about family or reading advertisements and labels. By setting language learning goals that are measurable, the learner can easily evaluate their learning process and will have a sense of accomplishment when they see what they can actually do. Moreover, when learners break language into smaller pieces, learning a new language no longer seems next to be impossible.

There are many more factors that affect everyone’s individual language learning process. However, if the learner understands that all languages are different, stays engaged in the process by taking the initiative and time to practice using the language, and if the learner defines and meets measurable language learning goals, their efforts will result in successful acquisition in the end.

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