Why is Language Learning Harder for Some People?

by | Jul 17, 2023 | Language

Learning a new language can be rewarding but also difficult for many people. While some people seem to pick up foreign languages with ease, others struggle and find the process more difficult.

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the key reasons why some people find acquiring a new language harder, as well as tips to help overcome these difficulties.

8 key factors why language learning comes more naturally to some than others


1. Different Language Aptitudes

One major factor is that people have differing natural aptitudes for languages. Language aptitude refers to a natural ability to analyze patterns and learn languages. Just like some people have an ear for music, others have a knack for languages.

Research shows language aptitude is connected to abilities like phonetic coding (the ability to create associations between sounds and symbols) and grammatical sensitivity (an intuition for the syntax and structure of language). People with high language aptitude can more easily discern patterns and structures in a new language.

However, while language aptitude sets a base level for potential, it does not define or limit one’s ability to learn a language. Even those with low aptitude can become proficient with effort and practice over time. Aptitude simply indicates the relative ease or speed at which someone may pick up a new language initially.

2. Age of Acquisition

Age is another key factor in language learning abilities. Children generally acquire languages much more easily and reach higher proficiency than adults. Younger learners have greater neuroplasticity, meaning their brains are primed for language acquisition and can more easily form new neural connections.

Kids also lack self-consciousness that can inhibit adult learners. Furthermore, children are fully immersed in the language throughout the day, allowing for rapid development.

That’s not to say adults can’t achieve fluency in a foreign language. However, they may have to put in more time and effort compared to a child picking up their native language. Adults can optimize their learning by immersing themselves in the language as much as possible.

3. Previous Language Experience

Someone’s experience with other languages also impacts the ease of acquiring additional languages. People who grew up bilingual tend to have an easier time learning a new language later in life.

Studies show bilingualism improves phonetic coding abilities. Bilinguals are better at discerning and reproducing new sounds that don’t exist in their native language. Knowing multiple languages also gives learners more references to draw from when learning vocabulary, grammar patterns, etc.

Related: 11 Top TED Talks by Linguists and Polyglots for Learning a Language

Even monolinguals who have formally studied a foreign language in school have an advantage. Prior language learning experience develops learning strategies that can be transferred when tackling a new language.

4. Motivation Levels

Motivation is a major differentiating factor in language learning outcomes. Intrinsic motivation (a personal interest or passion for the language) produces the best results. Students who are self-driven to learn a language they’re excited about tend to thrive.

On the other hand, people who are extrinsically motivated (e.g. required to take a language class for school) often struggle to maintain consistent effort. Dweck’s research on growth vs. fixed mindsets also shows that believing your abilities can be developed, versus thinking they are innate and static, encourages persistence through challenges that leads to greater achievement.

Having discipline, patience, and belief in one’s potential to improve are key advantages when facing the inevitable plateaus and frustrations of language learning.

5. Learning Styles & Strategies

How well a person’s learning style aligns with their methods of study also affects the language acquisition process. There are many frameworks for categorizing learning styles, such as visual, auditory, reading/writing, kinesthetic, etc.

Learners who capitalize on their personal strengths while also expanding into other learning modes tend to see better outcomes. For example, an auditory learner may strive to incorporate more visual learning resources to become well-rounded.

Using ineffective strategies can also impair progress. Rote memorization alone usually produces poor results compared to a blend of active immersion, grammar study, spaced repetition, etc. Learners need to actively identify areas for improvement and be willing to try new approaches.

6. Opportunities for Use

The ability to use and be immersed in the language also influences learning capability. Students with more chances to interact with native speakers, consume media, and practice output generally gain proficiency faster.

Full immersion provides maximum exposure, but any venue to actively use the language will help. Compare two Spanish learners – one in Spain taking daily Spanish courses and using the language for errands, social situations, etc. versus another studying Spanish 30 minutes a day via online lessons in Canada with minimal real-life application.

Their progress will diverge greatly given the unequal contexts for input, practice, and usage of the language.

7. Psychological Factors

Psychological elements like mindset, anxiety levels, perfectionism, and confidence also impact someone’s language learning prowess. Students crippled by the fear of making mistakes often struggle to become conversational.

Perfectionists who fixate on minor errors rather than communicative competence also limit their progress. Developing self-compassion and growth mindset helps overcome the barriers these mental blocks create during the vulnerability of language learning.

Related Read: How to Stay Motivated and Build Habits to Master Any New Skill

8. Learning Disabilities & Cognitive Conditions

For some, language learning difficulties stem from diagnosed learning disabilities or cognitive conditions. Dyslexia, auditory processing disorder, ADHD, and autism spectrum disorder can present challenges with aspects like reading, listening comprehension, focus, working memory, and verbal communication.

However, with patience, adapted learning techniques, leverage of strengths, and sometimes therapy/medication, those with learning disabilities or cognitive conditions can still achieve proficiency too, especially in languages with more consistent spelling and grammar rules than English.

Tips for Overcoming Language Learning Difficulties

While some factors make language acquisition more challenging, any learner can improve their capabilities with the right strategies:

  • Optimize immersion – The more time spent actively engaged with the language through media, social events, lessons, books, etc. the faster skills will improve. Look for ways to increase exposure.
  • Find an engaging method – Don’t force a learning style that doesn’t resonate. Experiment to discover methods that make learning fun rather than a chore.
  • Set SMART goals – Smaller milestones keep motivation high. Having specific, measurable goals with action plans maintains progress between the big achievements.
  • Learn communication strategies – Don’t get hung up on perfection. Focus first on getting meaning across even with imperfect grammar and pronunciation. Fluency comes later.
  • Regularly practice speaking – Reading and listening alone won’t make you conversational. You must practice speaking through conversation partners, exchanges, tutoring sessions, or chatbots.
  • Utilize memory aids – Use mnemonics, associations, spaced repetition, etc. to boost retention, especially for vocabulary. Leverage your visual, auditory, and kinesthetic strengths.
  • Find cultural/personal relevance – Link the language to your interests, hobbies, career aspirations, favorite sports teams, travel destinations, etc. to boost engagement and recall.
  • Make technology your ally – Online lessons, immersive apps, digital flashcards, predictive text, translation tools, pronunciation analyzers and more remove traditional learning barriers.
  • Work around disabilities – Those with learning disabilities or cognitive conditions can leverage assistive technology, multisensory input, untimed testing, strengths-based learning, etc.
  • Get a consistent tutor – Ongoing targeted feedback and practice with a proficient tutor or teacher accelerates progress in areas you struggle to self-correct.
  • Develop growth mindset – Believe your skills can grow through practice. View mistakes as progress. Stay motivated by focusing on small wins.

Language learning difficulty depends on many interrelated factors like age, experience, tools, disabilities, and circumstances. While some people inherently find acquiring languages easier, that doesn’t preclude others from achieving proficiency through diligent, tailored practice over time.

With the right mindset and learning strategies, proficiency is possible for any motivated student regardless of their initial aptitude or ease of acquisition. Focus on sustainable habits, small incremental gains, and utilizing resources that cater to your unique needs and strengths.

By staying patient and strategic, you can overcome obstacles and become fluent in your target language.