5 Poor Excuses For Not Learning a Foreign Language

We all have the ability to learn to speak more than one language. Throughout history, whenever languages co-existed in close proximity, people managed to naturally communicate across the language divide. They had to. That is still true today. Where different languages brush up against each other, people have no trouble learning another language and using it, whether it be children selling souvenirs in the market, or business people in international meetings. This is true in Asia, Africa, America and Europe.

We don’t need a special gift for language learning. Doing so is natural to us all. Today, in the Internet and information age, we no longer live in isolation, linguistically or culturally. The opportunity to engage with other languages is greater than ever.

So why don’t more people learn other languages, especially in North America? In part it is because of the seven common misconceptions about language learning, which confuse people. There are also five common excuses for not learning a language. But are they valid?

1. I am not interested in languages, I don’t need them

Is this really true? What if you could do it for free, free of cost and free of effort?

I sold encyclopedias door to door, almost 50 years ago. My door-opener was, “if you could get a complete set of Encyclopedia Britannica, free of charge, would you be interested?”. That often got me in the door. Parents could visualize an encyclopedia to share with their children. Once I explained that it was not free, “but for less than you spend on coffee or cigarettes…,” I was usually shown the door.
I use the same question with reluctant language learners. “If you were guaranteed to learn to speak another language, without a lot of hard work, would you be interested?” The answer is usually “yes”.

Many people who say they are not interested, would really like to speak another language. Some may even have heard that language learning is excellent stimulus for the brain. But too often the image they see is one of tedious study. They do not have the experience of speaking another language. They cannot visualize the feeling of satisfaction that this brings. So in many cases the interest is there, it is just a matter of getting started.

2. I would like to learn but I cannot seem to get started

Sometimes the goal of fluency in a language seems too far off, and difficult to envision if you have never done it. It may be better to set a short term goal to kick-start your studies, to “get your feet wet” and overcome this inertia. “L’appetit vient en mangeant” say the French, “appetite comes with eating”. You just need to create the incentive to take that first bite.

Why not plan a trip to another country, and make it your goal to learn enough of the language before going, so that you can communicate and really enjoy your stay? Or, if you cannot do that, you could promise yourself that you are going to read a book, or watch a movie, in the original version. Maybe you have a friend or relative whom you want to surprise by speaking in their language. If you can make that first step, inspired by a short term goal, and if you study in an enjoyable way, you will be surprised how addictive and satisfying language learning can be.

3. I have tried before but gave up

You are more likely to continue if your language study is meaningful and enjoyable. For most people, languages classes at school were a chore, and few students graduated speaking the language they were learning. Nowadays you have more options.

Go to google and check out the many podcasts and online courses available for learning languages. You can also find blogs and forums and social networking sites, all dedicated to language. Once you get good enough in the language, you can search your iTunes directory for leading podcasts and blogs in different languages, on travel, technology, modern culture, or whatever you are interested in. You can also buy audio books in various languages via the Web, and in many cases the texts are also available for download at sites like Gutenberg.

With your MP3 player, you can listen over and over to things you find interesting, while absorbing the language. I recommend you to use those sources that have both audio and transcripts. That way you can read and use online dictionaries in order to understand what you are listening to. You need not get bogged down in grammar and drills. You will be surprised how fast you learn when you are enjoying yourself.

4. I am just not disciplined enough to study on my own

Then by all means get a tutor to help you with your learning activities. You can find tutors for most major languages on the Internet. A good personal tutor can be one of the best investments you make, providing you with feedback and encouragement.

You do not need to spend hours a day with your tutor. A few hours a week, or even one hour a week, can be enough to keep you on track. You can arrange times that are convenient, and talk to your tutor via voice over Internet, from wherever is most convenient. You avoid the travel to and from class, and on the Internet it is easy to cancel or change your tutor whenever you want.

5. I can’t afford the cost.

It need not cost that much. Here are some suggestions on the kinds of investments you can make to increase the effectiveness of your studies, based on my own personal experience.

Purchases Cost
MP3 players
(I have both an iPod shuffle and a regular iPod, but you may not even need to buy one)
Ear phones
(I have regular earphones for driving, sport earphones for exercizing, and sound suppression earphones for airplanes and when my wife plays the piano)
Small reference grammar and dictionary
(I usually buy both, but this is optional)
Audio books
(I love audio books and usually buy them, but you can find many good audio books at your library)
(I like buying books, usually the texts of the audio books I am listening to, but you can use the Internet (Gutenberg.org) as well as your local library)
(You may have to pay for DVDs in the language you are studying if not available at libraries. These are not necessary but I find them stimulating.)
Internet access per year
(You may be paying for it anyway)
Tutoring costs per year
($50 per month is a good average)
Total $1540

If you follow my model, your total cost for a year of study could amount to as much as $1,540. In all likelihood, however, it will be much less, if you already own an MP3 player, have Internet access, and do not go for the many earphones, audio books, DVDs etc. that I use. You can find audio books and other material at libraries and there is a lot of language help available on the Internet, free of charge.

Even if you did spend $1,540 for the whole year, that is what thousands of foreign language learners spend every month at intensive language courses. You can do just as well on your own. And if you manage your finances well, you might just have enough money left over for that trip you promised yourself to start it all.


This is the second in a series of three articles on language learning by Steve Kaufmann. Steve is a former Canadian diplomat and has had his own company in the international trade of forest products for over 20 years. Steve founded The Linguist Institute Ltd. in 2002 to develop a new approach to language learning using the web. The new LingQ system for learning multiple languages is now available. Steve also maintains a blog on language learning.

Image by Zoom Zoom.