Five Common Excuses Not To Learn a Foreign Language

A baby looking very surprised

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).

Stop sign written Stop making excusesToday, 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.

Comfort zone and where the magic happensPolyglot 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 anecdotalToo busy 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

And old man saying "Can't do this"

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

The language geneThe excuse that one is not talented to learn a certain skill is a tragedy in itself, and this pervasive excuse has likely discouraged millions of people from accomplishing great things.

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 Einstein fair selectionwith 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.”

Empty pocketsNext, 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!

By Lingholic

24 thoughts on “Five Common Excuses Not To Learn a Foreign Language”

  1. The first excuse is the one that annoys me the most. You don’t have to study a language to fluency to make the best of your time in a foreign country. But I constantly meet ESL teachers (language teachers!) who feel that they get by just fine without learning and local language. Yet when you look under the covers they don’t really ‘get by just fine.’ A lot of them intentionally avoid situations where they have to speak or understand the language. Often going to restaurants with pictures and translated menus because they can’t order food anywhere else. Or needing someone to hold their hand when they go to the bank or to see a doctor. Often the ‘I get by just fine’ crowd are completely dependent on English speaking locals and the good will of others to get anything important done.

    1. Couldn’t agree with you more, Scott. I’ve had a very similar experience with expats, and I honestly just don’t get it. Some people have been living abroad for years (sometimes over 10 years) without having made the least amount of effort to learn the basics of the language spoken where they live.

      Learning a language brings so much to your life, and when you live in a foreign country it’s also a show of respect and of understanding of the local culture to at least make an effort to learn the language up to an elementary level.

  2. I totally agree with all of the excuses you have mentioned here. I dont understand why language learners dont take language learning as their hobby. Language learning is my hobby. So, I always have time for it. It may be a strange hobby, but it works.

    1. I think a hobby is anything that you like doing. Besides, you can combine language learning with another hobby, i.e. reading o watching films.

  3. Had me laughing with all those great images! I especially like the old guy making the frowny-face. Nice write-up indeed!

    People have to get over the fear of learning a language, because it can open so many doors in regards to culture, business, etc.

    Can you write another one of these to motivate some of my lazy friends to exercise with me too?!

  4. Some time ago, when I was studying English, some people asked me why I wanted to learn English, and I answered that I liked it as many people liked going to the cinema or to discotheques o watching a match.

  5. Students should not be forced to learn a second language. Especially in America. I can understand people in Europe learning multiple languages because if they drive 500 miles in any direction, they’ll be in a different country that speaks a different language. In America, many people can’t afford to pay for these language classes, and definitely can’t afford to go to a different country. And if someone is going on vacation to a different country, they’re probably not going to be there long enough to make learning their native tongue worth it. If students want to learn a different language, good for them. I don’t believe EVERYONE should be forced to learn a different language. There’s so many different languages out there, how do you decide which one is more important than the others? If emigrants are coming into America, it’s their job to learn our native language, not have us accompany them by learning as many languages as possible. Forcing students to learn a different language is not right in America. Students don’t NEED it to survive or to make it in life. How do I know? Well I know plenty of people (both in my family and out) that are very successful in life and don’t remember a single thing from their foreign language classes in high school. If you really want to learn a different language, it’s a lifelong commitment. You can’t tell students to take a class for two years and expect them to remember it their whole life. I finished my first year of German class, and when I came back for the second year, it took me about two months to start to remember what learned the year before. It should be the student’s choice to learn a different language, not the school boards’ or the government’s.

    1. Hi fowlerd16,

      Thanks for your insightful comment. I hope I do not appear as someone promoting the idea that people should be “forced” to learn a foreign language. I absolutely agree that you cannot (and shouldn’t) force somebody to learn a foreign language.

      That being said, I believe that learning a foreign language is a very rewarding experience that can bring invaluable benefits to one’s life, one of which is that of expanding one’s horizons and gaining a better understanding and appreciation of a culture different from one’s own. These are underestimated qualities and I can personally attest to the fact that languages have made my life incredibly better.

      I also hope I didn’t come off as saying that somehow learning a language was in any way related to “making it” in life. Of course, in the increasingly globalized world that we live in, foreign languages are indeed becoming increasingly important for employment opportunities (especially in high skilled sectors), and it will certainly always open more doors. But it is in no way necessary for financial success, getting a great career, or else. The world is changing very quickly, however, and we need to take this into consideration. In the future things might be different.

      In the end, learning a foreign language should be a personal decision based on an intrinsic desire to gain a better understanding of the world, expand one’s horizons, and ultimately become a better person. I think everyone should try to learn another language at least once in their lifetime, but nobody should be forced to if they don’t want. The reason languages are taught at school though (just like math, sciences, art, and music are), is to give the students the opportunity to see if it might be a right fit to their particular interests and aspirations. Sadly, the way languages are taught usually discourage most people to continue in this direction.

      Have a good one!


    2. For “America” I think you mean “the United States”. For me (I’m Spanish) America is the land between Alaska and Argentina and Chile. You’re right that people from USA don’t need to know any foreign language (unless you get a lot of tourists that speak a specific language), for English has become the most widely spoken language, but people from almost all countries in Central America and South America should learn at least English, because information in English is more easily available.
      As for me, after studying English, I’ve begun to learn German and I’m about to study French, because in my country we have a lot of tourists from Germany and France, as well as from England, and it’s very likely that I would need these languages for a job.

    3. Howard Allan Butler

      While its certainly true that no one should be “forced” to learn a foreign language I can’t agree that foreign language skills are unnecessary. As stated earlier in the discussion string – a person can “get by” – even be “successful” without knowing a foreign language. However, a person’s potential for higher levels of success is greatly increased if the individual is multi-lingual.

      My office is in Tulsa OK – not at all what anyone would consider as “cosmopolitan”. Yet, if you close your eyes & just listen to the conversations around the office, you might think you were at the UN. You can routinely hear Russian, Spanish, French, Italian, Chinese, Portuguese & several others.

      Our most “successful” employees are the people who can communicate successfully !

  6. Well, in the wake of enthusiasm for the thesis defended, the article is a little unfair to the “excuses” it aims to dispel.

    #1 I get by with English just fine.
    “Just fine” is “just fine,” which is to say no more than fine. And it’s true: a native speaker of English would get by “just fine” in most areas of the world, which means native speakers of English do in fact need a stronger motivation than other people to learn a second language. The frog at the bottom of the well might truly be “just fine” where it is. Leave the happy frog alone, please.

    #2 I don’t have time.
    All right, this one is complete, major-league bullshit, anything you apply it to. It usually just means, “Nah, I don’t really want to.”

    #3 I’m too old to learn a language
    In fairness, this is not really “like saying ‘I’m too old to eat bananas’.” Some things are better and far more effectively done in youth. Again, everything is possible, but as in any kind of exercise, it is true that an older person needs a stronger motivation than his younger self would. Even eating bananas gets harder with age, by the way.

    #4 I’m not talented with languages
    It may very well be that one never bothered to discover the true depths of his talent. But other than that, some people are worse than others at each given activity. The average exists because many people actually are below it. Please, stop rubbing it in with this soft positive thinking! 😉

    #5 It’s too much time, money and effort
    Come on now, learning a language takes years. It is a daunting enterprise, it is hard and lengthy work. I understand the spirit of the article, and – given my comment, you probably won’t believe this, but – I share it completely. But why try and deny the obvious? It’s a worthy objective, and a tough one to reach. Join the club of those who have got the guts to do it, but know that your guts will be put to the test, and if you’re bluffing you will fail!

  7. I think they shouldnt because it is hard and people dont like it and they dont talk with people with the language

  8. Andrea Niccolò Grossi

    I think I heard all of the excuses mentioned in this article, but maybe the most ridiculous excuse I ever heard is “I don’t even try to learn english because if you learn a foreign language you completely lose your culture and your roots”; I heard this absurdity from a woman that finds any excuse possible not to do pretty much anything…

  9. Yeah but I’m sure there are people who CAN learn languages. And what about the people who are struggling with English? They can build up confidence learning another language. Just because YOU are fine with English, doesn’t mean other people are too.

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