Learning a Foreign Language: Dealing With Frustration

language learning can be frustratiing when you feel like you are hitting a brick wall

If you haven’t had the experience of running into a brick wall, I don’t recommend it.  Virtual brick walls are less painful but just as frustrating. Today I will share tips about what to do when you run into frustrations in your foreign language study.

First let’s talk about the language learning process.  I break up the language learning process into several stages.

The Five Stages of Foreign Language Learning

1. Enthusiastic beginner
You  have just started learning a new language!  Everything is exciting and new.  You’ve already mastered “Hi my name is…,” “How are you doing?” and “Nice weather, isn’t it?”  You’ll probably be fluent in a month, and then you can start learning Mandarin…

2. Grammar(phobe)
The honeymoon is over, and you have moved on from learning set phases to actually trying to express your own thoughts.  Every sentence is a struggle to check if you are using the correct form for direct objects, indirect objects, possessives…

3. Middle School
You are finally able to express yourself…sort of.  Okay, you are nowhere near eloquent in your target language, but you can get your point across.  Now it’s a matter of learning more vocabulary.

4. Apprentice
And you’re still learning vocabulary and more vocabulary.  You have moved on to native language materials which is great… and exhausting.  It would be so nice to stop and read a book in your native language rather than constantly struggling through source material.

5. Journeyman
You have moved on to being able to read or listen to full sentences in native language materials without looking at your dictionary for the meaning of every third word.  You can piece together paragraphs which aren’t exactly how you would express yourself in your native language but you are begin to feel like yourself again when talking and writing.

6.  Ninja
You can watch the news, popular programs, and movies in your language.  You can jot off an email to a friend in five minutes.  You fooled a native speaker.  Now it’s time to celebrate.

 Dealing with Negativity

Unfortunately, the journey to becoming fluent in a language isn’t a smooth progression.  The gaps between stages vary between stages.  In my own studies, I have found that it is very easy to get bogged down in the Grammar(phobe) stage and to have difficulty progressing on from that point.

Most of the difficulty comes from perfectionist tendencies.  Expressing yourself in your target language is embarrassing because you constantly make mistakes and you worry that the people you are speaking to think that you are stupid.

Guess what?  They know that you are a beginner, and they expect you to sound a little stupid.  They sounded stupid when they were learning your language.

Of course, you may run across the occasional jerk.

Don’t let them get you down.

Some people find enjoyment in making fun of the progress or lack of progress other people are making when they try something new.

What they don’t realize is that they are being stupid.  Why waste time belittling others when you could be doing something that actually makes a difference in your life?

Introducing Yourself to Native Texts

Another friction point is the gap between the Middle School stage and the Apprentice stage.  Most language programs spoon feed you information.  You learn new vocabulary gradually, and it is introduced in clear to understand contexts.  The process of going from language learning programs to native language materials is very difficult depending on the type of program that you have been using for your language study.

Here is an example:

A typical language lesson is the “Around Town” lesson.  In this lesson, you learn to ask “Where is the post office?” Where is the bank?” “I need to buy stamps.” “I need to exchange money.”

Now, equipped with this knowledge, you try to read a news article in your target language.   Here are a few headlines:

Post Office Employees Protest Wage Decrease

Bank Planning Intervention in Currency Market to Support Exchange Rate

Then you realize you know two or three words per sentence.

When you first switch to native language materials, it’s normal to experience vocabulary panic.  Vocabulary panic is when you look at a text in your target language, and all you can think about is the sea of unfamiliar words staring back at you.

Here are a few suggestions about how to deal with vocabulary panic:

1) Breathe.  Seriously.  Take a few breaths.  You are adding valuable oxygen to your brain as well as giving yourself a chance to cool down.

2) Scan the text.  You will realize that you do recognize a few words.

3)Now start reading the text sentence by sentence.  Read casually and try to determine the meaning of words base on the context of your sentence.  Most importantly:  make an entry in your progress notebook (or text file, etc.) where you note the words that you understood without using a dictionary. 

4) Revise.  Revisit a text a few days after you have read it. Read it more carefully now.  Break out the dictionary and look up any unfamiliar words If you find a sentence that helps you understand a grammar point, place that sentence in your SRS (spaced repetition system).  If you remember a new vocabulary word from your initial study of the text, add it to your progress notebook!

I would like to expand on the last point more.  Using a progress notebook is a technique that I picked up after reading Dr. Kato Lomb’s book Polyglot: How I Learn Languages (the book is available online for free and also through Amazon.  Dr. Kato Lomb was a Hungarian polyglot who was arguably one of the most accomplished self-directed language learners in modern history.  Dr. Lomb based her method of language learning on reading interesting texts in her target language.  I will talk more about Dr. Lomb in a future post but I do want to discuss using a progress notebook in today’s post.

Using a progress notebook is a valuable tool for tracking your improvement in your target language.  In my case, since physical writing reinforces my learning, my progress notebook is a physical notebook.  However, Evernote or even a simple text file would also work.

In my progress notebook, each day that I study a target text, I make an entry where I include the date, the name of the text and the URL of the text if it is a web entry.  I also make a brief summary of what the text was about.  This helps me when I go back to review texts or my notebook.

In the notebook, I write down the vocabulary that I remembered without having to look in a dictionary.  As Dr. Lomb wrote in her book, “Base your progress on the known, not the unknown.”

Next week, I will continue talking about what to do when you can’t seem to advance past a certain stage in your language study as well as when and how to start introducing native texts in your target language.

Where are you in your language studies?   What frustrations are you dealing with?


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