The Ultimate Barrier to Language Learning That No One Talks About


It always intrigues me to find out the reason why some people are just better at language learning and some aren’t.

We’ve all met those people before, those who seem to be able to get it (almost instantaneously and annoyingly at times), while others plod along, even though they spend hours and hours studying, memorising vocabulary words, learning the grammar rules and seemingly doing everything by the book.


My Rigorously Unscientific Study

So in order to examine this in further detail, I took out a clean sheet of paper and drew a line down the middle. On a second separate piece of paper, I made a list of all the people whom I had known during my time at the language institute I was studying at in Jordan.

Then I got to work categorizing the long list into two groups – those who got it, and those who had struggled with Arabic more than average. Now clearly this wasn’t the most scientific and meticulously researched of studies (I have the hugest aversion to anything math and science related, in fact I break out in hives the second I see a chemistry problem) but I just wanted to get a quick-and-dirty idea of why was it that some of my peers were able to make leaps and bounds in progress from class to class while others just barely scraped by from level to level.

This is what I’ve found.


It’s Got Nothing to Do With Intelligence

When I looked at the Struggle list, it was pretty clear that there was clearly nothing wrong with them academically or intellectually. Quite the opposite in fact.Some of them had graduated from Ivy League undegraduate programmes in the US and the UK, some were studying Arabic on full scholarships and still others were pursuing masters programmes in top universities.

Similarly, there were shining stars in the Got It list as well, some that had graduated from top universities in the UK and the US.

There were also a sprinkling of students who had gone to lesser known, smaller schools in both columns, but lest you think they’re not as smart, let me assure you that from my conversations with them, none of them were intellectually challenged – in fact they could probably kick my ass anytime in a discussion on the Middle East.

So clearly, academic and intellectual ability had nothing to do with it.


It’s Got Nothing To Do With Time

A quick mathematical calculation turned up that the average amount of time that each group had spent learning Arabic was around 3.4-4.5 years, which made sense since most of them had gone through academic instruction in Arabic during their college, which averaged out to be around 4 years long.
It’s Got Nothing to Do With Age

Most of the students averaged between 23 and 27 years in both groups. It wasn’t as if the Got It group happened to have incredibly young students and it wasn’t that the Struggle group had geriatrics in there.

Nope, barring for some outliers of people who were a little older (in their 30s) and those a little younger (younger than 20), on average the spread of ages in the two groups were more or less equal.


It’s Got Nothing to Do With Being Muslim

I’ve heard this argument before, that people who are Muslim tend to do better in Arabic because they’ve had increased exposure to the language since childhood.

To an extent, I can see how this would be true. I would be the first to admit that being Muslim myself, I certainly started out a step ahead of the others in the beginning because I was already familiar with the alphabet and the pronunciation of the letters.

But only in the beginning. That advantage is quickly levelled out when you realise that Classical Quranic texts are vastly different from Fus-ha, which is in turn vastly different from Levantine dialect. And to be honest, a vast majority of Muslims read the Qur’an without any sort of understanding as to what it means.

So sure, there is an edge but only marginally so.

Over and above that, there were Muslims in the Struggle group and non-Muslims in the Got It group. Like I said before, this is purely anecdotal evidence, but it proves that if it can be done, then it’s definitely possible.


What has it got to do with then?

If you were to ask my humble two cents worth, the one differentiating factor that set the Got It column from the Struggle column was one thing – fear.

More specifically, the lack of fear.

See in my opinion, the Got It group were willing to go outside of their comfort zone. They were willing to get their hands dirty in language learning. They were willing to succeed at all costs and put themselves out there.

Let me give you some examples.

One of them joined went for religious sessions every week to discuss deeply the teachings of the Qur’an. Another joined a rock climbing group to get the opportunity to meet and make friends with local Jordanians. Another volunteered every weekend at a centre that dealt with orphaned children, helping to create programs to entertain them and help them socialise. Another worked in an NGO that dealt with Syrian refugees and spent large amounts of time with his best friends who were mostly Arab.

The Struggle group, however was a little more content to stick around with people from the same countries they were from, people who spoke the same native language they did, not as eager to expand their circle of friends or zone of comfort and ultimately, ended up learning less about the culture, people and language than the Got Its.

Now you could sensibly argue that it was increased practice and exposure that allowed them to achieve kick-ass levels of fluency more than anything else, and that answer would be true.

Well, partly true.


My next question would then be – why?

Why was it that these people were more motivated than the others to achieve more practice and exposure? After all, the same resources and opportunities were available to everyone. Plenty of organisations were in dire need of more volunteers, plenty of conversation partners were available and seeking English speakers, churches and mosques abound with Arab families who would have been thrilled to have a native speaker teach their children English in exchange for Arabic.

I think the reason is much more deeply-rooted than that.

It goes back to this fearlessness that separated the Got Its from the Struggles.

If we were to drill down further, it’s that they were fearless in making mistakes. Unlike so many others, fear was not a barrier for them.

If you were to ask someone who Gets It in any language, Arabic or otherwise, if they felt self-conscious and afraid of failure at any point, chances are they’re going to say yes. Probably most times!

Is it scary to come up to a stranger and introduce yourself in a foreign language? Of course. Does it make your stomach flip to give a presentation in Arabic? Definitely! Does it make your hair stand to hold interviews with people who can’t speak a work of English! Hell yes!

But they’ll also tell you ‘if I never made a mistake, I’d never learn.’


It’s About Reframing Failure

See it all depends on how you view failure. If you (like many people) view making a mistake, and therefore failure as some sort of fundamental flaw of you as a person, then you’ll probably want to avoid putting yourself in that position and feeling that way at all costs.

What happens next? You’re likely to not try as often because:

Not trying = not failing = you’re not a failure = life is good. 

And as we can all agree, not trying in something as practice- oriented in language learning puts you squarely nowhere.

But what if you were to reframe failure as a stepping stone to where you want to be?

What if failure were merely an experiment, merely a means to find out whether Method A leads to Results B? Take scientists for example – if they took every single scientific failure they did as a personal flaw, we’d never have the light bulb today. Or the ability to travel by air. Or the cure for cancer.

We need to look at language learning and speaking in the same paradigm. The Got Its did, which is probably why they were crushing it better, faster and harder than those who were content to sail through within their comfort zones, sipping coffee at Starbucks, eating at Macdonalds, and watching Breaking Bad with their English-speaking friends.


Why Am I Telling You All This?

Now I’m not saying all this to scare those of you are reading into thinking that you’re never going to get to where you want to go Arabic-wise, but to inspire you to be more aware that your psychology plays a bigger role in this than you think.

Once you’re more aware of it, chances are you’re more likely to change it.

Once you’re more aware of it, you’re more likely to spend more time identifying and facing this fear head on and getting out there speaking to people, rather than throwing more vocabulary lists, verb conjugations and listening exercises at it. Of course, the latter is much easier to do than the former, which is why so much time is spent talking about strategies and techniques and not enough time on what the underlying limitation is.

I have seen too many times students who are perfectly capable, second guess themselves in their ability and end up not trying as hard as they should. I’d like for you not to experience the same.

And before you think that I have no fear altogether, I’m writing this for you as much as I am for myself, for even after years and years of studying Arabic, I still have a twinge of self-doubt when I start a conversation with a native Arabic speaker, thinking that I won’t be able to express my ideas and will end up making a complete fool of myself.

The great thing is that it’s possible to overcome this. All it takes is a little tweaking in your belief system.


So how do you Slay the Self-Consciousness Dragon? Look out for it in our next post, when we talk about The Top Limiting Beliefs About Language Learning – Busted. In the meantime, do you agree that getting over your self-consciousness will help you to accelerate progress in language learning? Or do you think it’s a crock of s***? Let us know or if you prefer, rip us a new a**hole in the comments!


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