Language Learning is Hard?
Willy A Renandya, 17 May 2022
The belief that language learning is hard is quite widespread among language educators. Language learning, it is believed, is a long, drawn-out process that requires a lot of hard work. Only the most hard-working students who are willing to endure hardship over a long period of time will achieve success in mastering the language.
Very often, language learning is equated with the learning of other subject areas in school such as mathematics and physics where students need to learn and remember a lot of rules and formulas.
That language learning takes quite a bit of time is true. While there is no hard empirical evidence in terms of how much time it takes to acquire a language, our collective experiences and wisdom tell us that we need about 12 months to develop a working level of proficiency (roughly in the A2-B1 range).
To develop a higher level of proficiency so that we can use the language more fluently and accurately for wider communicative purposes (roughly in the B2 range), we will probably need to spend another year or two.
So all in all, one would need about three years or so to achieve a good command of English.
However, does it mean that we have to be a painful and laborious process?
I don’t think so.
I have met and interviewed numerous successful learners of English (those reach a B2 level and above) who recounted their pleasant and enjoyable language learning experiences.
Interestingly, most if not all of them say that they don’t enjoy listening to long and tedious explanations about grammar and discourse rules in the classroom, nor do they find completing language practice exercises engaging. And yet, they seem to have no difficulty comprehending and producing the language.
Do these successful learners of English have a special talent for learning a new language? Were they born with the ability to acquire any language? There are people out there who believe that talent plays a key role in language learning. Without this in-born ability, language learning becomes unbearably difficulty.
The belief that talent plays an important role however is not supported by research. A more plausible explanation why successful learners are successful is that they are learning (not studying) the language in ways that are consistent with what ELT experts (e.g., Krashen, Lee & Lao, 2017) believe to be key ingredients for successful language acquisition.
These students immerse themselves in the language by reading, listening and viewing highly engaging and comprehensible materials. While having an enjoyable time doing this, they subconsciously pick up a lot of useful and meaningful language (e.g., formulaic expressions or lexical bundles, pragmatically rich language structures and discourse rules).
When the opportunities arise, they will use the language structures that they have incidentally acquired through reading, listening and viewing for real life communication. They may struggle a bit when trying to produce the language, but this process is far from being laboriously painful.
Park (2020) for example recounted the pleasurable experience of a famous musical band leader from Korea (Kim Nam-joon) who became a fluent user of English as a result of watching ‘Friends’ (an American sitcom) during his teenage years.
He would first watch the series by turning on the Korean subtitle. He would then watch the same title using the English subtitle. He would watch it again without any subtitle. This went on for a couple of years by the end of which time he must had watched the whole 10 seasons comprising more than 236 engaging and comprehensible TV drama.
His success in learning English could be explained using the comprehensible input theory and skill learning theory.
The input theory, as mentioned earlier, states that language learning happens optimally when students are immersed in meaningful and comprehensible language.
The skill learning theory states that the acquisition of a skill requires repeated practice in order to help learners develop a high degree of fluency, automaticity and greater control in performing a skill.
So, is language learning hard? Not really. Yes it takes time, but it is far from being difficult. The saying ‘no pain, no gain’ does not apply to language learning. We should instead say ‘no fun, no gain’.