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Musings on whether language learning is hard.

Hardness is an elusive concept.

I saw a video of someone who "learned" to play a musical instrument in under 20 hrs. 300 hours into French and am still horrible. I have heard people who have learned both musical instruments and a foreign language say that music is far harder.

I have heard the comment that language learning is not hard it just takes a long time - but isn't that a good definition of hard.

You can learn chess in under 20 minutes; does that make it trivially easy. But Gary Kasparov spent 20 years or more studying chess and was still learning new things.

One thing is for sure, there are a lot of things where you will feel like you are pretty good at it in a far shorter time than learning a foreign language.

October 27, 2017



When people say "learn a language" and "learn an instrument" I wonder what they mean by "learn".

Personally, I find learning a language difficult. It comes brings emotions that I don't appreciate having like frustration, self-doubt, impatience, boredom, and so on. It is also rewarding so, I continue through those feelings. And, as you say it takes time, immense time for what many people's goals want to achieve. Less time for other people's goals. And, different people retain language at different speeds.

You raise a good topic for investigation. :)


I think that it depends on the person and what they're inclined to. Some people are musically inclined and pick up on it quickly, although they still put time and effort into it and must spend years and never finish learning, etc. For some people, that's math or art. And for some people that's language. Someone who isn't "inclined" in that area can still learn it, but it typically takes more time to get a good grasp on it, which isn't a problem.

I think that for most people and most languages, it takes a relatively short time to get okay/passable understanding, and a very long time to have a complex, fluent skill.


I think language learning is "harder" to learn in certain formats. Because language is essentially something used to communicate, it seems reasonable that learning it practically in a place where the language is spoken would make it "easier". Think of how you learned your native language. You probably spent the first three or more years of your life listening to people speak the language and practicing sounding out the words and learning how to communicate. Throughout young childhood, older speakers correct young children on their grammar and pronunciation sometimes multiple times until they remember it. Only after all of this do teachers introduce letters and reading and complex grammar. Not to say that this is how adults should learn a second language, but I believe a learning plan that goes back to the heart of language would be most effective. So to tie this back into the original discussion point, I think that the "hardness" of language learning can depend on multiple things, from personal tendency to the format of the course.


I saw a video of someone who "learned" to play a musical instrument in under 20 hrs.

Would you care to share it? I can't imagine anyone would play anything very well after that time (unless it's something like the Jew's harp or the spoons...)

You can learn chess in under 20 minutes; does that make it trivially easy.

Here, you are merely learning the rules. You can also learn how to stock market works in 20 minutes but it won't make you into a Warren Buffet. Language also has rules to be learnt, but it isn't a game in the same way—the goal is comprehension and communication, not so much strategy and innovative thinking; it is largely a combination of a great deal of rote learning with (perhaps, depending on the language) a great deal of rule-assimilation. The reason why languages cannot be learnt in very short periods is simply that the brain requires time and sleep to transfer information into the long-term memory.


I learned uke in about that time. I know all the basic chords and can jam on some songs and play with others. It’s not hard to pick up. But...like the chess analogy, it’s hard to get good at!


Sure, I can learn to play chess in under 20 minutes, and I will be butchered in less than 20 moves by someone who knows what castling or en passant means.


I will be butchered in less than 20 moves by someone who knows what castling or en passant means

These are part of rules, which you would have learnt; if not, then you didn't learn how to play chess. You'd only be butchered by someone who has a better grasp of strategy; you cannot blame your opponents for knowing the rules...


I can learn to play legal chess without knowing all the rules. There is even a famous story about GM Viktor Korchnoi asking an arbitor if it is legal to castle a rook through check in one of his Candidates matches. I think becoming a grandmaster would pass most people's "learn to play chess" test even with an incident like that.


Well, knowing how to learn is a skill, and learning a language is the same. Give me a month with some languages and I bet I can use it pretty functionally. Sorry to here you are struggling with French.


Sorry, I didn't mean to imply struggling. I am seeing steady progress and enjoying it.


Give me a month with some languages and I bet I can use it pretty functionally.

Enzo what are you doing with a language in one month that enables you to use it functionally?


I know how to learn stuff pretty fast. The thing is though, it wouldn't be fun. It would basically just be comitting to doing that. I know amounts of basically 4 languages, including arabic which has a really complicated structure, and I essentially got to the third year college course in 1 year. Keep in mind, some of the students had a little wider vocabulary than me and understood better, but I can speak pretty well. I would just combine the learning strategies I have utilized to learn the other languages I know, though it wouldn't be fun and I don't have the motivation.


Understood. Although speed is not my priority, I am curious about learning methods that work knowledge into usable skills. Listening deeply and using whatever I know to attempt to communicate with native speakers has worked well for me; though proficiency takes considerable time.

Maybe this is for a different thread, but if you have any suggestions for developing learning skills, please share.


No its fine here. And I want to give you a heads up, this is not like a guaranteed way for everyone to learn a language in record time; a lot of those claims are ❤❤❤❤❤❤❤❤.

Well, I used sentence based flashcards when learning arabic, usually focusing on things I wanted to say AND including the complicated grammar features. A simple grammar feature is that non-human plural nouns take a singular feminine adjective, so I had cards with things like that. There are irregular verbs that have different conjugation patterns, and I did some of those in the 3rd person when they were irregular. And I did the flashcards from Spanish, trying to take the shortcut of the using the grammar I know to help me understand how to speak in Arabic. The theme of this: Learn how to UTILIZE grammar rules, and assimilate particular parts of the language.

For example, with frensh, I know the passe Compose involves a Prounoune, the verb to have, then a verb that lasts letter is changed based on what verb type it is. Can I tell you all that stuff. Not right now, but I know the structure for talking about the past. I identify structures and then plug in the data. So if I know the conjugations for to have, and the ending of whatever french verb, I know how to use it in the past. (Another example is arabic numbers. Someone who knows 1-10, can do 1-99 just cause of the structure, which I am not going to go into)

I would expose myself to some of the audio with probably movies because that works for me.

I would try to find a resource to assimilate vocab and grammar. Duolingo is decent for that.

I would find a native speaker to practice what I know or ask them for help. There are a lot of language exchange websites, and that is straightforward. I think spending a week in Cuba with 1 year of college spanish knowledge was like a semester of college for me with how much I was able to develope tangibly.

And that is another thing. Knowing how to use ones language very effectively to communicate meaning. I had a really limited vocab, but I got pretty good (and this has consistently developed when I have gone to other places) at finding synonyms to communicate meaning. I find using verbs like quiero (querer) and voy (ir) and necesito (necesitar) and infinatives following helped me communicate better because I didn't have to learn the infinitive conjugation, especially if it was irregular, and I could say more.

Like a super basic perspective for communicative spanish, if someone says 'tú tener (o tienes) en el pasado XXXXX' a spanish speaking will probably understand that without it being correct, the speaker would be corrected, and have a higher probability of retaining that.

I read outloud in languages to make connections between the texts and the sound, learning about the phonology and making connections.

For someone like you, I might do the reverse courses on Duolingo, or do laddering, because it looks at languages from another perspective, more vocab can be assimilated in, and the translation ratio changes, which can be good. I tried the Portuguese from French course on here (I learned portuguese from Spanish on duolingo on other resources) and I think I picked up some new things from French. Also doing the French course for portuguese is helping me out with some of my gaps and getting more exposure to different portuguese verbs that aren't in the Spanish-Portuguese courses.

I am a fan of the reading out lound, and talking with people and connecting the emotional weight from words to ideas I think is fun. I think reading before sleeping can be helpful, because I can dream in other languages, and I think practicing languages while l exercising may help vocab assimilation and be connected to some of the neurotransmiitters being realeased.

You say profficiency takes time. Sure, a lot of the time. I mean went to Cuba for a week with like basic frases and a couple of verbs (like I didn't know how the verb decir, and I don't think I knew hacer—which are ❤❤❤❤❤❤❤ important), but after the week there I was able to be in the spanish end of program discussion group and I talked about the salary levels of different proffessions in Cuba in Spanish. And keep in mind, I was not speaking Spanish all the time, but I think I exposed myself to more than probably most of the group.

Oh, and sometimes I used to write in the language. Especially in Cuba. I wrote down spanish words when writing in English in my sentences. Some people feel like they need to write words down to retain them. I don't for a lot of language that have romance influences, but for arabic I felt like this. But I really felt like I needed more exposure, and I got a lot of that from kids programs in the language (This is how I got to year 3 in the language in 1—I knew how to learn fast. For my final exam in the class, I listened to the student who went before me trying to say a few words that weren't very connected. When I sat down, I just started chatting with my proffesor in arabic. When I didn't understand something, I just said that in arabic and asked what the part I didn't understand in arabic meant.

That is another thing, Knowing how to ask for clarification in the language is smart and learning how to explain different concepts in the language is smart. Its like I said about synonymninal phrases... In arabic when I was starting out. I could ask what this word means. which is a basic strategy, and then moving forward new stuff can be learned.

I don't like flash cards with just words or grammar concepts, but these things assimilated into regular Speech.

For me, what is fun is talking with people. And is it possible to do massive groundwork to facilitate that? Sure. I have. But for me now, I think just talking and communicating meaning is where the fun in languages comes from. Y es lo que hago. Ojalá que esta infromación te ayude, porque estas cosas son mucho de lo que he aprendido sobre el proceso de aprender otras idiomas. Dime lo que piensas.


My former partner was a hyper polyglot. They would hang out with people who spoke a different language and within 2 or so hours be conversing with them. That was not a matter of hard work and study. My partner didn't even considering it "learning" a language because it was more like absorbing. I don't know if savant has a negative connotation, it is the only word that comes to my mind to describe their situation.


That sounds interesting. It sounds like their base knowledge inform that kind of ability. I got a little of that capacity


That's awesome. (movie spoiler alert) I watched a movie called 13 Warriors and someone has a similar ability, but, doesn't happen within hours. Honestly though, sign me up! haha


It is a complex and time-consuming process which never really ends. First you learn the basic rules, then you spend time memorizing words and applying them (the most tedious stage, in my opinion). Then, if you are lucky, you will have the opportunity to immerse yourself for a significant amount of time in an environment where the language is spoken and where you will discover that some of what you have learned might be out of date or there are alternative ways of saying it. Plus there is the issue of pronunciation. Some of us have problems with that after years of being in a country speaking the language every day. Some inclination towards language learning is definitely welcomed, but nothing beats working on it every day for years, which is hard for many of us.


What do you mean by "learning" and instrument? If you mean the basic fingering, sure, you can learn that in a few minutes, but being able to actually play the instrument takes time. I play the saxophone and the piano. Saxophone took maybe an hour to get the basics down and to remember them all. It took two years to be able to play a long jazz piece. Learning the basics of a language (like some easy nouns, colors, and adjectives) doesn't take that long, but being able to speak fluently, and use the right tones and accents in sentences could take years. (I know a family that are all pretty much language scholars. Each of them knows at least two languages. That's talent for ya'!) SPQR and Ciao!


Learning the way that best suits your own abilities can make a huge difference, but unfortunately we often don't have that opportunity. I am useless at learning language in a classroom setting. I did a year of intensive Spanish and all I really managed was to lay a mediocre foundation. A month of living in Spanish did far more - but would not have worked without the foundation. Somehow my ability to memorize the grammar rules soared when I was doing it in parallel with using the language. Six months had me thinking in Spanish. In hindsight, I would have shortened the period of time spent working on grammar etc. if possible.

Conversely, I have years of classes, decades of French exposure, my vocabulary is probably at least 5x the size of my Spanish vocabulary, yet I find myself thinking in Spanish when I speak French. I simply have not had the same immersion, something I am trying to address now.

Having figured out how I learn languages with the effective Spanish and ineffective French experience, I use Duolingo for two quite different things. For French, I am using it daily to build up proficiency and recognition - developing speed rather than anything new. In parallel, I am reading French, watching French TV, listening to French radio podcasts when I drive, and so forth.

At the same time, I would like to learn Italian someday. It isn't a focus, but 20 minutes or so at the end of the day most days is laying the foundation. I don't have a timeline in mind, it is really just a fun thing to slowly build up. At some point, I will start to focus on it, but that won't be until after I feel my French has become reasonably solid. Once I hit level 25 on the English->French course, I will drop it - seems to be at diminishing returns now - and might start French->Italian. Until then, it is strictly for enjoyment, no goals, no frustration.

Out of curiosity, I am thinking about seeing how much German I can learn in 2018, so maybe Italian will wait a little. But I intend to follow the same pathway, lay a foundation with Duolingo, then start into a more targeted study, followed by an immersion phase.


I have the same question as many others on this thread: What exactly is meant by having "learned" a language or having "learned" a musical instrument?

In my personal experience, language learning is by far harder than learning music. They're not even near comparable. I started teaching myself to play piano when I was 6 years old using a hand-me-down set of song and theory books that my sister left behind. After 2 years and the first 3 levels of the set mastered, my parents signed me up for piano lessons which I continued for 10 years. What do I have to show for 12 years of learning piano? I have a cabinet of piano festival trophies and certificates, and I can play well enough that it's barely harder than typing. Of course there's always room for improvement, but I probably fulfill most people's definition of what it means to have "learned" piano, yet you can't exactly pinpoint when I achieved that.

Picking up saxophone for band class in middle school wasn't difficult either, though my 6 years of learning piano by that point made it a lot easier for me. I made all district and all county on the alto sax, and given a little bit of time I could master any piece I was likely to encounter. That fulfills many people's definition of having "learned" an instrument. Our saxophone section (made up of 2 tenors and 4 altos) had to be flexible because the band teacher would routinely select one of us to play the baritone or soprano sax, the bass or contrabass clarinet, or the oboe whenever a song called for one. We learned those instruments well enough to play the assigned songs. Some consider that "learning" the instrument, some don't.

I don't consider myself to have mastered any language other than my native, which is English. This is despite hearing Tagalog on a daily basis my entire life, having a decent amount of exposure to Bisayan/Cebuano, and spending almost as much of my life on Spanish as I spent on piano. I learned the basics of piano on my own when I was 6. I'm not especially musically inclined, I was just good enough at reading and counting to follow the written instruction in the books. Could I have taught myself the basics of a second language when I was that age? Probably not.


I was given a teach-yourself-French kit complete with tapes when I was 9 or 10. I tried learning from it but didn't get far. When I went back to it whilst learning French fromm 11, I still couldn't get to grips with it - the course rather than the language; in one year I caught up with my contemporaries who had been learning for 3 years.

Since then, I've learnt several things about my learning style:
1. I get bored easily
2. I need to work at whatever I'm learning in order to learn. If it's easy it doesn't stick.
3. Physically writing makes it stick (my French teacher was so right in making us right out the questions and to answer in full sentences!)
4. I hate, loathe and detest language tapes/CDs!!

I now use these in my learning: 1. I always skip ahead or do something else in parallel

  1. When I started learning Welsh a couple of years ago, I listened to Welsh language radio from almost day 1 even though we were only learning the alphabet (spent 3 x 2hr lessons on this so I was ready to quit!). When we learnt numbers, I learnt the telephone number of the radio station...that gave me a sense of achievement. I picked up on the use of "wedi" to indicate past but litening to the news. I only listened to the radio on my 10-15 min journey to and from work and not every day. Going to weekend classes was a godsend in keeping my enthusiasm up when my weekly classes were less than inspiring. Second and now third year was/is much more inspiring! In addition, I learnt from my A-Level Italian classes that reading is a brilliant way to improve your language, so I started reading in term 2 of the first year. I have been reading above my "reading age" throughout. I'm now reading my first "normal" book - the others were designed for adult learners - and it's slowed me up: there is so much grammar I haven't yet covered, but I'm loving the challenge. So it takes me 15 minutes to read a couple of sentences to half a paragraph? So what, I've read it and seen a new construction, even if I don't fully understand it.

  2. Whatever the homework format, I always copy it out in full. For gap filling exercises, I write the sentence out in black ink and fill the gap in blue ink. This has helped with my speling and with creating muscle memory to write in a diferent language which has different letter combinations. DL is doing the same thing with my typing muscles. As a native English speaker, I am conditioned to type "ea" whereas Welsh generally uses "ae", for example.

  3. I didn't bother buying the CDs that go with my evening classes. I know I wouldn't use them. A friend has them and uses them in the car - she did while I was travelling with her, and after 10 minutes I was ready to throw the thing out the window! Irrational? Probably. Real? Definitely!!

I have also discovered that immersion works well. After a week in Spain whilst Interrailling, I could understand simple statements and queried our hotel bill in Spanish (with phrasebook help!). In Germany for 6 six working, I tuned the car radio to a German station and didn't really listen to it, I thought...until one morning I found myself thinking " Darn, I'm late! I'm usually at the next roundabout by the time the traffic and weather come on." How did I know that's what it was? No idea. But traffic and weather were the second items I identified on Radio Cymru, after the news.

Didn't expect to write this much, but maybe people will find something in there that might help them with their learning journey - whether that's following my lead or doing the complete opposite!! :oD

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