The Challenges Of Learning A Second Language

Learning a language as an adult can be an arduous and frustrating process. A blog to share some of the common challenges.

“Everything is hard before it is easy.”


Having grown up in New Zealand, I am fluent in “Kiwi”. This means I speak English but with a way cooler accent (fish = “fush”, chips = “chups”, eggs = “iggs”, seven = “siven” etc).

In case you missed it, our accent was recently voted the sexiest in the world. And yes, I am now available for voice actor auditions.

Sadly our accent is often confused with an Australian (or South African or British) accent. Please be advised that the best way to get off on the wrong foot with a Kiwi is to mistake them for an Australian.

If in doubt, keep your guesses to yourself, or at the very least ask “So what do you think of Hugh Jackman – just averagely sexy or like… incredibly sexy?” and listen carefully to the response – a “sixy” or “suxy” guides you towards a Kiwi accent.

The sexy kiwi accent:*

* In case it’s not apparent – with the sexy kiwi accent you say “suxy thung”. It would be “sexy thing” in the not so sexy normal accent.

Speaking “Kiwi” meant I had no problems traveling and being understood, but I always envied Europeans who effortlessly spoke multiple languages. How I would have loved to speak another language!

But finally there came a time in my life when I was able to take the leap and try the “immersion” approach, by moving to Madrid to study Spanish.

“Immersion” is the language equivalent of being thrown in the deep end of a swimming pool, which results in one either learning to swim very quickly.. or drowning.

My major preconception (or learning illusion) with the “immersion” approach, was that my only task would be to present myself in Spain. I’d enjoy the food and wine, and while chatting with the locals and attending my Spanish school, magically, the language and culture would be assimilated into my brain until I reached fluency.

However, as anyone who has mastered another language as an adult will agree, it is an arduous, frustrating and let’s face it, at times, humiliating process. I have lost count of the times I have felt like an idiot (but if I had a dollar for every time, it would have been a very profitable year!!).

The Challenges In Learning A Language

Here are 3 key challenges in learning a language:

1) Embarassing mistakes and being misunderstood

Using the wrong word at the wrong time can be very embarrassing

Yes, I did ask for soup of “polla” (the private part of a male’s anatomy) instead of “pollo” (chicken).

It’s now a word that makes me nervous in restaurants. I’ve decided it’s less risky to be a vegetarian.

And please, do not ask if a food item contains “preservatives” by asking about “preservativos“. You’ve just asked introduced the subject of condoms to the dinner table. Maybe it’s time to start eating more at home.

Pronunciation is important

Small mistakes with pronunciation can make a big difference to meaning.

I was enjoying a conversation in English with a Spanish guy from Bilbao, but was confused about why he suffered from so many medical problems. Finally I realized he was telling me about his “daughter” not his “doctor“. Prononciation matters.

Foreign students learning English also have a delightful time confusing words such as “beach” and “b*tch“, “sheet” and “sh*t“, “can’t” and “c*nt“. And may also be overheard calling their English “teacher” a “t-shirt“.

Being misunderstood is painful

When learning to speak a language, you start to become painfully sensitive to the expressions that arise on a native speaker’s face when they struggle to understand you. Things like a furrowing of the eyebrows, squinting of the eyes or shaking of the head.

That’s when you really feel the pressure of trying to explain yourself better, just as your mind goes conveniently blank.

2) Listening is hard work

Understanding a native speaker is hard. In Spanish, natives speak really fast, don’t pronounce all the syllables and have a variety of regional accents & vocabulary.

Just when you think, “Finally, I’m getting the hang of this!”, you go out to tapas only to be totally confounded because the waiter says something in rapid and incomprehensible Spanish, of which you understood exactly… zero.

What was the point of all the study when I can’t even order a #&^@. paella?

Furthermore, learning Spanish in Spain leaves you struggling to understand many of the words and accents once you hop on the plane to South America.

For example, in Spain it’s common to say you wish to “coger” or “catch / take” a bus / train / etc. However in South America this basically means you wish to have sexual relations with said mode of transportation. Thanks, but I’ll just walk!

Admitting your incomprehension can feel difficult and embarrassing

In the waiter scenario above, where after confidently asking for a table in Spanish you then lose the thread of what the waiter is saying, your two options are:

  • (1) Admit defeat and switch to English
  • (2) Smile and confidently pronounce “!’ (i.e. “yes!”). This is the universal response anytime you’re not sure you’ve understood something but are too embarrassed to admit it

So what if he just informed you that the kitchen closed 5 mins ago – “¡Sí.. y 2 paellas por favor!”

Whether you ask for clarification or just try to wing it becomes a balancing act. At times you are happily following a conversation but then you suddenly realize that you’re not actually sure you understood what the other person said. And you’re not sure you can ask.

For example, did my date really just tell me that after his aunt’s death, he witnessed her spirit leave her body? It seemed insensitive to ask him to repeat or clarify this when he was now paused in a moment of profound reflection with tears in his eyes. So I just took a leap of faith and continued with that theme.

Or when in a group situation and you don’t understand why everyone is laughing. Sometimes you just have to go with the flow. Think of something funny your friend back home did and start to chuckle along. And hope that no-one new joins the group and asks you to explain what the joke is.

3) Speaking takes a TON of effort

Even when you’re at the point where you can understand most of your favorite Netflix series without subtitles (Money Heist 😍), speaking is another kettle of fish altogether. I now understand why some people live for years in a foreign country but never learn to comfortably speak the language.

With speaking, not only are you thinking up interesting things to say, a normal challenge in any conversation, you also have to remember vocabulary, tenses, grammar, verb conjugations etc.

It’s the equivalent of performing complex math equations in your head, while juggling, smiling and maintaining a fabulously interesting conversation.

What this means is that your mind is literally working 190%. As a result it is possible (indeed quite likely) that at times you have frozen mid-sentence and are staring fixedly ahead, mouth open, eyes glazed over while having an inner dialogue something along the lines of:

Ohhh $&#, should that have been a perfect or imperfect use of the past tense?? And what is the goddamn word for waterfall in Spanish?!”

Talking can be really tiring. Sometimes all you want to do is put an abrupt end to the conversation, run home, put on your PJs and submerge yourself back into English with your favourite American TV series on Netflix. There’s nothing like some laughs with Joey, Ross and Rachel at Central Perk to make you feel better about yourself.

Learning A Language Is Challenging

So yeah, learning a language is not that bad, if you take out the part about speaking and listening. But I hear reading children’s books in Spanish is definitely fun and possible, especially if they have pictures!

Just kidding! Don’t throw out your Spanish textbook and rush out to buy the Spanish version of The Cat in the Hat!

The point of this blog is not to discourage learning, but to share some of the challenges – you are not alone.

Yes, learning a language is hard work, and will put you front and centre with some uncomfortable sensations, including frustration and embarrassment.

My first year in Madrid was full of highs and lows. I would reach a high of achieving a profound conversation in Spanish (discussing politics, feelings, the ending of a relationship). Then I would be confounded by meeting someone new and having to ask them to repeat themselves 3 times, before realizing all they had asked me was what I’d done that day.

Often the only thing that kept me going was my stubbornness – I will not return home without being able to speak this #*&% language!

Despite my struggles, learning a language was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The benefits far outweighed the challenges (see my blog of “Why You Should Learn Another Language” for more).

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