The frustration of not understanding

Attitude is key in language learning. I say it accounts for 70% of a person’s success in learning a new language. I discuss the many different aspects of a successful language learner’s attitude in my book, The Linguist, available form our website

I was asked in the comments to talk a bit more about my experience as I went through the stages of language acquisition. One thing that all learners have in common is the feeling that there are always situations where they do not understand what is going on, or words they do not understand. I often hear people complain of frustration that they are not doing better.

” I have been studying English for 8 years and I use it in my work, and yet when I go out for a drink with my colleagues I cannot follow their conversation very well, or I do not feel confident enough to really jump in with my own comments.” I hear this kind of comment often.

I never felt this way. As I struggled to understand and express myself, often the language was just flying by me and I did not understand most of it. This never bothered me. There will always be situations in another language when you have trouble following the conversation. It still  happens to me, even for languages that I speak quite well. It still happens. It does not matter. I participate to the extent I can and feel happy that I am able to do so.

The more familiar you are with a certain context, the better you will be able to communicate. Maybe you can talk about your work, but you cannot talk about sports or politics. I lived in Japan for years, did all my business in Japanese, and yet for a long time could not understand television dramas.

You learn to recognize that even when you are having difficulty understanding, just hanging in there and listening is helping to train your mind to some extent. To improve in a certain context you need to expose yourself to it, and even to “overload” in this context area. Read up on politics, listen to the news more, learn the key words and phrases  and then you will be able to discuss politics. This only works if you are interested in the subject. A deliberate effort to “overload” a particular type of context will help you but in the meantime do not worry about it. Relax and give yourself credit for the success you already have achieved.

A positive and relaxed attitude will only help your learning.

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