Stumbling Blocks to learning another language

Many people lament the fact that they never learnt a second or third language when they were younger. The benefits of being able to speak isiZulu, French or Chinese are often apparent only once we are older and wiser. However, learning another language, particularly as an adult, is no easy task.

I am one of those people… Although I now run the first trilingual preschool in South Africa, the truth is I grew up monolingual. I felt like I never had a ‘knack’ for languages at school. That seemed like a good excuse not to pursue learning another language. Even through my travel abroad, I felt that language learning was not all that necessary… Most people spoke English, and pointing or mime got the job done to some extent.

It wasn’t until I went travelling with my husband; who doesn’t enter a country without buying a phrasebook first; when my linguistic limitations began to bother me. I realised how much I was missing out. I remember one particular trip to Thailand, when Kyle had bought a Thai phrasebook at the airport. Armed with only a few practiced phrases for the taxi driver, he was able to change our whole trip. I marvelled at how he won people over with just a greeting or a thanks. And how he forged friendships so quickly, as people applauded his efforts, even amidst bad pronunciation.

Learning another language foreigner

There is something truly special that happens when you cross the language divide. It goes beyond stringing words together to convey a message. It’s acknowledgement of difference. It is truly making an effort. It’s the epitome of saying – I see you – which is the validation every human on the planet needs.

Many have tried, unsuccessfully, to climb the mountain of learning a new language. While in theory, we can all agree on the value and have great intentions, there seem to be major stumbling blocks working against us. Perhaps understanding what some of those stumbling blocks might be, and realising that you are not alone in these challenges, is the push you need to tackle that mountain again.


I mentioned before that one of the pillars for language learning is necessity. It’s one of the essential elements in all our language programmes. The truth is that it’s the ‘lack of necessity’ that has hindered the development of a truly multi-lingual society. Because if your very survival in this country hinged on you speaking another language, you would in fact speak one. It’s just that you don’t have to, you can get away without it, which is often our ‘good excuses’.

This is when the speakers of other languages need to step up and start enforcing their language. It might be easier to avoid these awkward and forced conversations, but by coupling it with a person, a time of day or an activity you can artificially create the necessity and environment you need to learn a language. Have a buddy at work who speaks another language? Ask him to only speak to you in his/her language around the coffee bar, or while out for a run.


Another of our stumbling blocks is our own inhibitions and the fear of looking (and feeling) stupid. We’re not exactly sure when this ‘cool factor’ kicks in, but in our own research we’ve seen it show its ugly head around age 8 years old. No-one likes to feel stupid. And when you are learning a language, you feel stupid for a really, really long time – and that can be discouraging. Don’t be discouraged!

It took me two years of looking, feeling and acting like an idiot in Beijing before my new Chinese world began to make sense around me. It’s a long term goal. As adults, we have the advantage because we can keep the big picture in mind, even when the days are long. Remember, as a child you took between 2 and 4 years to begin mastering your first language. You’re not going to become proficient in any language overnight.

Learning another language chinese1
Lower your expectations

Lowering your expectations is essential to setting yourself up for success. And to help with that, we need to debunk the myth that your second language ability needs to be as good as your first. Did you know that more educated people find it harder to learn additional languages? They are so focused on being as grammatically correct as they are in their first language, they never get around to saying anything in their second!

Language is not a linear exercise where you are able to say exactly the same thing across various languages. Language is a tool… How you get the message across is less important than the fact that you do. Don’t judge your proficiency to converse in a second/third language based on your first language. Because then you will always be falling short, which is never a nice feeling, and you are less likely to persevere!

Be aware of the social and political factors

One of the major stumbling blocks in our country and one often overlooked when dealing with how to teach additional languages in SA, is the political and social factors associated with a language. Language is steeped in culture and history. It cannot be separated from it. To learn a language, even smatterings of one, is to embrace a culture… A people group different from your own.

African languages are so steeped in the dark history of Bantu education and oppression that when you take on the challenge to learn isiZulu or any others, you are not just learning vocabulary – you are wrestling with decades of racism, intolerance and arrogance.

This is a tall order, and possibly a minefield you are happy to avoid altogether, but I want to encourage you not to. If you are aware that political and social factors are at play here, and you are ready for the challenge of breaking down barriers and social dividesm then please do! The world, our world, is in need of people like that in this day and age.

Cultural Identity

It’s also difficult to tackle a language when there is no cultural ‘hook’ or ‘in’. As I mentioned, language and culture are intricately linked and we often don’t make the effort with a language because we do not fully understand the culture behind it. This is not the case with a bilingual family, where each parent speaks their one language to a child, informed by their own culture. In this case, a child feels included in the identity/culture of each language, because their parents are the doorways to that identity. Grandparents, cousins, stories from when their parents were younger, all reinforce this cultural identity in a language.

However, when you are picking up a phrasebook for the first time, you lack the identity as driving force behind your language learning. Unless your motivation was because you found a girlfriend/boyfriend who spoke that language… Then your motivation would be off the charts! This is not an easy fix like some of our other stumbling blocks are. You have to be externally motivated to persist in your language learning efforts, and as much as possible, embrace the culture of the language you are learning. Whether that means trying new foods, music styles, places to hang out, finding a way to use and interact with this new language will be important.


And finally, the one thing that children have on their side when it comes to language learning is not (as many believe) a smarter brain, or greater capacity for language learning, but in fact time. If you have any time off in your not too distant future, then take the opportunity to learn a new language. These opportunities of unhurried time are gold when it comes to language learning and there is no short cut around putting in the time. You can’t learn a language in a once a week language class, according to us, 2 to 3 hours per week is the minimum if you’re going to see any progress at all, but that grows exponentially with any additional time thereafter.

Learning another language

I agree that looking at this list, there are many reasons why language learning is too hard. What’s the point? 10 years ago I would have agreed with you. But I witnessed the power of language back in Thailand when I watched my husband break down barriers in a matter of minutes, and it was then that I knew I wanted to raise children who were more like him and less like me. The world needs more people who are willing to cross the divide that separates us. Who can do hard things, persist in them and not give up. This is the example we want to set for our children, who will look to us to take the lead. Let’s all pursue the noble cause of validating another human being on a daily basis, and encouraging our little ones to do the same.

Mandela was right when he said –

“Speak to a man in a language he understands and you speak to his head, speak to a man in his own language and you speak to his heart’.

Don’t let the hard stuff stop you. Pick up that phrasebook now.

Meryl Bailey

Meryl Bailey is an educator and a thought leader on language acquisition. Together with her husband, Meryl founded LinguaMites Multilingual Pre-school in 2013 – the first preschool in South Africa to offer quality education in three languages (Chinese, English and isiZulu). She is also the very proud mom of 3 brilliant trilingual children all under the age of 6yrs.

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