Frustration and Language Learning

I bet it comes as no surprise that there is a certain amount of frustration that goes hand in hand with foreign language learning.  The sweet spot is when it’s just enough that you feel challenged, and you feel the pleasure of success when you accomplish a difficult task, or get a message figured out, or learn something new.

Too much though and it can be overwhelming – and it’s easy for a conversation to feel like too much, like a waterfall of words.  At that point you might feel like you want to shut down or give up.

This may be a hard thing to wrap around your head if you are a perfectionist like me, but, I find that it can be helpful to remember this one fact, which can help you have realistic expectations:  you won’t understand everything that you hear, and that’s okay, even if it’s in a classroom environment.  It’s good, even, if that happens in the classroom, because it prepares you for real life conversations!

I find my own confidence in language skills is something like a pendulum.  I’ll have some really good experiences, and then one tricky conversation that I didn’t quite understand as well as I thought I should have, and it can lead me to feel guilty or disappointed.  So to encourage you that if you feel this way too, it is normal, and it will probably happen to you, too.  Different speakers have different accents, mannerisms and ways of speaking that may make some situations trickier to navigate than others.

When you are not understanding someone’s words, you may have to rely on some other things:

  • context clues (what other words is the speaker saying that you understand?)
  • environmental clues (where are you, and what is the speaker pointing to or referencing?)
  • body language and tone of voice (what nonverbal information are you being given?)

Also to encourage you in those moments when you aren’t understanding the conversation:  Relationships can form even in the absence of understanding each other’s words.  This is actually how my interest in Spanish began.  I spent my recesses during 8th grade in front of the electronic picture encyclopedia with a girl in my school that did not speak any English.  We would point out the pictures and I would help her with her English.  To this day, I don’t know very much about her, but I hope that I helped her to feel welcomed and loved.  That said, how much more would I have been able to encourage her if I had spoken some Spanish!  It’s because of knowing her, and wishing that I was able to communicate better with her, that I decided to study Spanish in high school as opposed to one of the other languages my school offered.

Questions for you:

Just some things to reflect on – if you felt like sharing I’d love to hear your perspective in a comment or an email!

  • What is your motivation for keeping at learning a foreign language?
  • What helps you navigate moments of confusion in conversation?

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