What to do when you feel you are not making progress with language learning

Everyone has those moments. You feel it’s all too difficult. You can’t understand a text or do your homework or a conversation in your chosen language went really badly and you feel like giving up. Or maybe you don’t want to give up, but you feel as though your language skills aren’t improving as quickly as you want them to.

What can you do?

First, it’s important to step back from the emotions. Are you just really frustrated about a certain task? Do you need to put your books away, go for a walk, and do something completely different for a while so that you can come back later with a clear head? Unless you are up against a deadline for a course, it’s sometimes better to just walk away if you’ve become really frustrated and come back to the task with a more positive attitude later on or the following day.

Maybe it has nothing to do with the task. Maybe you’re feeling tired, unwell or you are preoccupied with something else. In that case, see the advice above and don’t give yourself such a hard time.

If this isn’t the case, maybe you just need some help. If you don’t understand the task, it will feel more overwhelming and impossible. Could you ask your tutor/a friend/someone else on your course for some help? Do you belong to any language groups on social media where people ask language questions? Maybe you could post a question there.

While we’re on the subject of language groups – as well as being a good source of information, they can also help you because you will feel part of a larger language learning community. Native speakers can pass on their knowledge and learners can help each other.

However, you may feel that you’re up against a more general problem that isn’t related to a specific task. Then you could try asking yourself the following questions:

1. Are you using the language learning methods that are right for you? Some people like textbooks, some work well with a tutor, others want to be part of a group etc.

2. Is the mix of activities right for you? Think about how much reading, grammar work, vocabulary, speaking etc you do and whether you think that this is the right balance.

3. Have you made language learning goals? Are they achievable goals? It’s easier to measure whether you’re meeting your goals if you know exactly what you’re trying to achieve.

4. Are you studying at the best time of day for you? Sometimes our circumstances determine our free time but are you an owl or a lark? If you have the choice, don’t get up really early to do language study if you know that you work better late at night.

5. Are you working in a place that is conducive to learning? If there are too many distractions, it will be hard for you to focus.

6. Are you using materials that are appropriate for your language level? I remember getting really upset about a Turkish text because I was struggling to translate it into English. Then I saw the English version and I understood why. It was full of technical language and way above my level. Struggling on in that situation did not do anything for my morale or my Turkish.

7. Would you benefit from help from others? This could be a language teacher, if you don’t have one already, or it could be a tandem partner or other learners. Whatever it is, often other people can help us on the days when we feel it’s not going well. They can encourage us, remind us how far we’ve come and help motivate us to start moving forward again.

8. Are you using the knowledge that you have gained? One of the best ways for vocabulary to stay in your memory is for it to become relevant to you. Try to find ways to practise the new words that you’ve learned, whether in conversation or in writing. Memorising vocabulary is useful but it’s more useful if you can use these new words to construct your own sentences.

Learning a language takes time but it is possible if you are committed to a marathon and not just a quick sprint. We are often our own harshest critics, particularly if we have perfectionist tendencies. Try to enjoy the language learning process. By all means look to see if there is anything you can do to make it easier or more effective, but try to enjoy the journey as well!

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Kirsty working with students


3 Comments on “What to do when you feel you are not making progress with language learning”

  1. HI Kirsty; in the past I have struggled with trying to learn spanish. when i still traveled with the family carnival it was more important than it is now. I found that the best way for me was to have the one person I knew teach me certain words or phrases I could use and then expand from them. you gave lots of good advice here not only about learning a language but about learning in general. I once had someone tell me that since i am a big sports fan that i might pick up more of the spanish language by listening to basketball or other sports in spanish. I was told the same about movies and tv. wondering what you think. thanks for sharing your knowledge and experience, max

  2. Hi Max,

    Yes, it’s definitely a good idea to find people whom you trust and who you know speak their native language well. Such people can definitely help you because the last thing you want is for someone to teach you something that isn’t right!

    The other tip is a good one too. When I was getting back into German, I joined a forum all about dogs (one of my interests). When I read the posts on the forum, I didn’t see it as a language exercise. I genuinely wanted to know what was happening to the dogs, what adventures they’d had, how that visit to the vet went. I learned some specific vocabulary that I wouldn’t have learned otherwise and I also got into conversations with real people and this helped me to practise my language skills.

    The basketball idea would definitely work if you like sports – you could listen to a few commentators and find out which ones you like.

    Movies in another language are a bit harder if you can’t see what’s going on because you’re usually relying on the dialogue to work out the storyline. If you’re having to work out what’s being said as well, it can make the whole experience a bit of a chore unless there is someone else to help. A documentary might work better. Also, there is plenty of audio material available as well as podcasts on any subject about which you could want to learn.

    Take care and have a good week,
    Kirsty


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