7 common language barriers when learning a new language

People often report the same obstacles when faced with total immersion in a new language. Lack of confidence to speak, identity issues (I’m just not me anymore) and finding it hard to meet people are a few common hurdles.

Communication is how we relate to each other as humans. A language barrier is any limitation that creates confusion in communication. There are many obstacles that rear their heads when you commit to learning a new language, and often they are internal obstacles that you can combat with hard work, the right frame of mind and some practical strategies.

Doubting abilities

Have you ever said, “I’m not good at learning new languages”? That’s you predicting what  your ability will be like, but have you ever learned a language?

People who think their talents can be developed tend to achieve more than people who think their talents are ‘fixed’ or something they are born with (sometime referred to as a growth mindset). People with growth mindsets tend to achieve more than their counterparts, as they put energy into growing their skillsets with hard work and input from others. People who are ‘fixed’ put energy into looking smart and less into learning as they don’t believe that they can truly improve.

You may be quick to label yourself as being ‘bad’ at something without having actually tried. Learning a language is acquiring a skill. Like all skills, it will take effort, and can be learned if you apply yourself.

Loss of motivation

Some days will be monotonous in your quest to communicate in a new language. Learning language is not really hobby material. You’ll learn faster if you are desperate to speak in the language and that will help you continue mastering new words every day. If you hit a slump, remember why you are learning the language in the first place. Going back to the reason you are doing this in the first place can give purpose to the here and now.

However, learning a new language is a big goal. You’ll need to break it down into smaller, achievable goals. One day you might learn names for farm animals for example. Make sure you reward yourself when you reach a goal, no matter how small. Keeping yourself accountable is also helpful in persevering when motivation flags. You might also have friends or a tutor tracking your progress to keep you moving forward.

Expecting it to be easy

We talked about growth and fixed mindsets before. People who have a fixed mindset, even if it is a positive one, can be hampered by it. For example, have you ever said, “I think I’ll be good at learning languages?” Language is a skill, so you will need to expend effort and practise extensively no matter what your language abilities are like. If you think of language as a talent and assume it will be easy, you may be frustrated when it doesn’t come to you effortlessly.   

Lack of confidence leads to lack of practice

When you first speak a language, your faltering words resemble a small child’s. Locals may need to guess what you are trying to say or they may misunderstand you. It can lead to you feeling embarrassed or choosing to speak only when necessary.

However, becoming fluent requires constant practise, so speak as often as possible, and pay someone to listen to you if needed! You may have heard that immersion is the best way to acquire a language. If you are overseas and surrounded by the language then you will be forced to communicate and participate in everyday activities in the language. However, if you are not learning by total immersion, then you’ll need to be more intentional about planning opportunities for practise into your day.

Identity Issues

If you have a good sense of humour, that won’t necessarily come across in a new language at first. Jokes and a play on words require a thorough understanding of language. And what may be funny in one culture doesn’t always come across quite the same somewhere else. So it’s not surprising people report that “I don’t feel like me here”. Don’t panic though; you can become a different person. This may sound terrible, but in reality you are changing all the time. New experiences help you grow and (hopefully) you’ll be a very different person in 10 years to what you are now. Your sense of humour will develop and grow and you can learn to interact in a way that suits the culture.

Fear of meeting people

Meeting people is difficult when you can’t express yourself and they can’t speak your language. A few greetings will help you be polite, but to make deep friendships you’ll need to make progress with your language learning. If you are learning by total immersion overseas, you’ll probably find yourself at first connecting with people who know at least a little of your language, but you’ll have to soon encourage them to speak to you in the new language so you get your practise in!

Overcoming obstacles

Hiring a tutor can help with a few of these obstacles. Your tutor will expect you to make mistakes and will most likely be patient with you, as they are getting paid after all. Sometimes it’s nice to make some of your mistakes on someone who knows what they have signed up for. And when you plan to attend a cultural event or accept a social invitation, you can practise some phrases together before you go.

Finally, you know why you are learning this language, remind yourself of that daily and let it spur you on to meet people and practise till you reach your goal.

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