When we become aware that our attitudes, thoughts, and beliefs are inconsistent with one another, this realization brings with it an uncomfortable state of tension called, in psychology jargon, “cognitive dissonance.”
One answer to the discomfort of the situation is that our minds rationalize it by inventing a comfortable illusion. This illusion often translates itself into us making stuff up, i.e. making excuses. We all do it, since after all it’s a natural thing for the brain to do so. It’s a good thing to reflect once in a while, though, on the excuses we all make for ourselves, and to get rid of some of them by logically analyzing the foundations on which they are based (if the excuses have any foundation at all, that is). It can be liberating because it shows us that we can accomplish much more than we think. It’s amazing the kind of limitations that making excuses can bring to our lives, but the good thing is that once we realize that we can easily throw these bogus excuses out of the window, we are free to do pretty much anything we dream of (sorta).
Today, I’ll give you five of the most common excuses people make up for not learning a foreign language. Of course, these excuses are, more often than not, unsubstantiated creations of our brain, but as it happens they sound fair enough to most of us. And so the issue of whether to learn a language or not can be quickly brushed away until the next person asks the question “why aren’t you learning a foreign language?”
Excuse #1: I get by with [English] just fine
This excuse is probably the one that sounds the most reasonable, and it’s most often used by native English speakers. The question that should be asked, though, is: “How do you know you get by with English just fine if you haven’t truly tried learning and using a foreign language?” It’s kind of like asking a frog in a well to come out and enjoy the pond, and being told “I’m just fine where I am.” Fair statement indeed.
Polyglot and entrepreneur Stuart Jay Raj said the following in a recent blog post he wrote, and I think it really hits home: “So many expats that I meet in China, Indonesia, Thailand and other countries around the region tell me that they get around just fine without knowing the local language. I suppose that is a fair enough statement. It’s a bit like the movie The Matrix though. Once you’ve had a taste of being ‘out’ of the matrix, it’s hard to go back as you realise a whole new DIFFERENT world going on around you that wasn’t apparent before.”
The truth is that out of those who made the leap from unilingualism to multilingualism, arguably very few people would go back. The reason is simple: speaking a foreign language opens a universe of possibilities and truly enriches your life. The best thing of all is that unlike a consumption good, such as a car or a TV, a language stays with you for your whole life (unless you don’t use it).
Excuse # 2: I don’t have time
Jean de la Bruyère has said that those who make the worst use of their time are the first to complain of its brevity. From anecdotal evidence, this definitely seems to hold true. “Don’t say you don’t have enough time,” H. Jackson Brown Jr. once said, “you have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”
If you honestly think you don’t have the time to learn a language, you might want to read my recent post on the subject and rethink your position. Or you might want to read a very good book written by David Allen, called “Getting Things Done.” The title is self-explanatory.
The truth is that learning a language is not very time consuming (you choose how much time you wish to allocate to its study every day, and it can be very little), and best of all it can be done from practically anywhere and at any time of the day. The second truth is that if you believe you “don’t have time” it’s probably because you have some time management issues (we all do, to some extent). Learning how to use your time efficiently is well worth the effort, though, and it’ll allow you to live a richer life and do more interesting things, such as, who would’ve thought, learn a language!
Lastly, remember that consistency is crucial. Putting as little as 15 or 20mn a day learning a language will be enough to get you quite far at the end of the year. But be consistent, and do it every day.
Excuse #3: I’m too old to learn a language
I think I’ve heard this excuse one too many times. Whoever came up with the idea that you had to somehow be under a certain age to learn a language should be fined.
First of all, this excuse presupposes that you either become too dumb to learn any kind of skill as you grow older, or that learning a language is some kind of race. Both of these statements are obviously false.
The truth is that millions of people of all ages around the world learn languages. Saying “I’m too old to learn a language” is just like saying “I’m too old to eat bananas.” Totally unrelated. Yes, it might be true to a certain extent that as you grow older, learning a language might not come off as easily as to younger people. Hell, walking to the supermarket might not come off as easily as to the younger folks. Does that mean you’ll stop walking?
Language learning is no race or competition. It’s an enjoyable, life-enriching journey that’s available to anyone of any age, gender, and ethnicity.
Excuse #4: I’m not talented with languages
Many experts and scholars, such as K. Anders Ericsson, one of the world’s leading theoretical and experimental researchers on expertise, have proposed the theory that skill is mostly a matter of large amounts of deliberate practice. Books such as “The Talent Code” have helped popularize this model. While I do not personally believe that we all learn at the same pace or that we are all born the same, I certainly believe that we can all achieve amazing results beyond our imagination, simply through motivation and hard work. That is, anything can be learned, unless of course, you start with the belief that you are not talented.
The truth is that if you think you are not talented with languages, it probably has to do with your track record in language classes at school. This isn’t surprising because the curriculum of language classes is made so that it teaches languages in one way (usually through grammar, drills, manufactured conversations), whereas we all learn differently. It might be good at this point to mention that doing interesting stuff does help significantly in the acquisition of a foreign language. For most of us, this excludes to a large extent grammar and drills.
In my interview with polyglot and author Susanna Zaraysky, Susanna said that her teacher in high school told her she wasn’t talented with languages and that she should probably look for another subject to focus her efforts on. Susanna now speaks 9 languages, has written a book entitled “Language is Music,” and has traveled to exciting places all over the world. Benny Lewis, probably one of the best known language learner and blogger on the net, has a strikingly similar story, and he now speaks over 12 languages. Not “talented,” eh?
Excuse #5: It’s too much time, money and effort
Now, you might have gone through all of the excuses I’ve debunked so far, and you might still be unconvinced. “It’s too much time, money and effort,” you say.
Now, first of all no matter what you do, the time is going to pass anyway, believe me. You may be watching TV every evening for 3 hours instead of learning a skill, but that doesn’t mean the time is going to stop. If you think about it, not doing something because “it takes time” is like not eating a banana because “it’s yellow.” Bluntly put, it’s a baseless statement. And as Earl Nightingale has so aptly said, “Never give up on a dream just because of the time it will take to accomplish it. The time will pass anyway.”
Next, the money part. Yes taking language classes is expensive, and no they are not necessary. This very blog contains enough resources to guide you through the process of learning a language on your own, which can be done for very little money (or even for entirely free). Learning a language on your own is a flexible thing, it’s cheap, and it’s fun. I do it, and you can do it too. The language learning community is here to help.
Finally, learning a language WILL require some effort from your part. Living requires an effort. Eating requires an effort. Going to school/work requires an effort. Most things you will do in your life will require varying degrees of effort. Learning a language can be challenging but it’s what make the whole thing FUN. As Frank A. Clark has said, “If you can find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn’t lead anywhere.” Learning a language is a path that certainly has its share of obstacles, but it’s an awesome one well worth treading!
Any More Excuses?
Today we’ve looked at five of the most common excuses that people make up to rationalize their decision not to learn a language. But since humans are creative, we can (and do) come up with millions of excuses not to do something. What are some of the excuses you’ve made for yourself or heard from others in the past? Do you agree or disagree? Comment below!