Overcoming Self-Doubt in Language Learning

Don’t give in to the fears. The long haul of speaking a second language.

Photo by Andrea Leopardi on Unsplash

“¿Me das el número tres con 10 por favor?”

“¿El paquete tres con 12 piezas?” she clarifies.

“Sí, esa, gracias.” As the cashier rings up my to-go order of the number 3 with 12 chicken wings, I chide myself.

After three years living in México, how could I mix up twelve for ten? They don’t even sound the same.

Maybe it was just an off-day, or I wasn’t really paying close attention, or I simply got nervous.

For all second-language learners, there comes a point when we hit this wall of doubt.

After weeks or months of feeling confident in our progress, we make simple verb tense mistakes or feel lost listening to a new podcast.

“Why can’t I get any better?” “Did I really say that?” “But I know that rule!” “Am I really learning anything?” “Why couldn’t I understand them?” “Is this normal?”

When we hit these moments of seeming regression in our language learning, it’s normal to doubt our progress. It’s fine to question if what we’re doing is really working.

But during our self-evaluation, what matters most is our response to these difficulties. How do we go forward when we feel as if we’ve taken five steps back?

Above all else, remember that all worthwhile ventures come with setbacks. There is no goal that arrives without some struggle or doubt.

Let’s take a look at a different challenge for us to better understand what also happens in language acquisition:

If you were to train for a marathon, you wouldn’t expect each run up to 26 miles to feel perfect.

In fact — I can tell you from experience — you anticipate terrible days. You go into the year-long journey knowing you will encounter some injury that will demand you rest, without any seeming progress.

What may seem like an initial setback is actually a gift demanding you to rest, re-evaluate your training schedule, work on your running form, and really take time to stretch.

In order to be able to return to your training routine, you have to rehabilitate what went wrong the first time. And, when you return to the long miles on the road, you realize the simple things like stretching and form correction mattered. You feel light on your feet as if nothing could stop you. So you push yourself, and the next week you cramp up or get shin splints. Back to resting.

Long distance training is a cycle. You learn to understand your body and how to work with it to achieve the best results. As a long-distance runner, I have learned to appreciate the setbacks as part of the process of a life-long passion.

So why then, has it been more difficult to enjoy the setbacks as I learn a second language? Why do I get down on myself for not understanding a conversation? Why do I feel upset and embarrassed when I mispronounce a word?

For some reason, what I see as challenge in my running training, I see as a failure in my language learning. I think part of this is due to the lens in which we view physical effort versus mental effort.

From an early age, we experience mental efforts as a pass or fail system. We passed the homework assignment or the test. We passed the grade or graduated from school.

While we may have passed, we lost sight of the learning process, which is actually very similar to the physical process. We move forward in vocabulary acquisition, gain listening skills, go back to fill in article usage, jump ahead to an advanced verb tense, return to learn specific terms to talk about getting a haircut, then advance confidently to our business presentation.

Learning a language is not a “speak like a native in 6 months” program. When you take on the challenge of speaking another language, you must invest for the long haul. And likewise, the marathon of learning a language will be full of ups and downs, because that is how we learn.

Yes, there will be moments of doubt. And times when you feel like you’ve lost all your skills.

But you haven’t.

This ebb and flow is normal and to be expected. Instead of fighting the difficulties, embrace them. It proves you’re learning.

When you make a communication mistake, don’t freeze up. Take it as an opportunity to figure out how to say the right thing.

Look at my own error for example: When I mixed up something as simple as 10 and 12, instead of getting down on myself, I could take it as a reminder to review my Spanish numbers. And despite my wrong word, the cashier still understood my order, and I understood her clarification. So, in reality, the experience should have left me feeling confident, but instead I focused on the one mistake, not the overall positive result of getting my take-out order.

When you feel you’ve gone backwards in your second-language, take a moment to reflect.

One possibility is over-confidence. We all reach a level of language learning where we establish conversational skills. We know we can travel or write an email. We know we could survive in this new language if needed. And sometimes, that confidence leads to laziness.

We stop paying attention to our mistakes. We stop studying on our own. We stop absorbing media in our second language. We stop taking conversation classes.

If this is the case, recognize what you have let slip, and put it back into place to continue advancing your skills.

Or, sometimes, it is the exact opposite. Maybe you’ve been doing all the right things, but you still feel blocked.

In this case, routine might be your downfall. Just like marathon training, if you run the same distance, same route, and same speed every day, your body adapts and stops improving. You need variety in your language training as well.

Your ear becomes accustomed to the same voice, intonation, vocabulary, and accent. So if you love your favorite podcast or series, it’s time to branch out. Find a new one with a different accent, unfamiliar topic, or faster rate of speech.

Hitting the language wall is normal.

We all get to a time and place when we aren’t progressing. Or, rather, we feel like we aren’t progressing. But if you are still practicing the language, you are learning. You are putting in the work, and one day you will feel the difference.

Just remember, learning a language is a daily practice. You can “take off” for a few days or weeks, but you need constant speaking exercise to keep your language flexibility and strength ready for the next challenge.

Learning another language is really more than just a hobby. To truly become advanced, you need to think in your second language as much as possible.

From what you consume in your entertainment to what you think about before you fall asleep, switch as much of your habits to your target language. Find a routine, and then mix it up. There is no right way to learn a language — but what is true is that it will be a process.

As I often used to tell myself on my 20-mile runs, the secret lies in one step at a time. Just keep moving. Eventually, you will look back and see how far you have come.

Born a Midwestern American, now a permanent Mexican resident. Outdoor adventurer, language enthusiast, and lover of classical music.