Why Do We Start Learning Languages And Then Abandon Them?

I’m not telling anyone anything new when I say that it takes a momentous effort to learn a foreign language. Most people are forced into taking one up at school, only to ditch it as soon as the curriculum permits. And who can blame them? Poring over grammar exercises and vocabulary lists can be deathly boring, repetitive and time consuming. The much hoped for pay-off, i.e. being able to hold a conversation or read an enjoyable book in that language without having to resort to the dictionary for every fifth word, seems about as close as a functioning Middle East peace agreement.

Much easier just to bake a cake for some instant gratification. Or get a certificate in advanced origami skills to hang up on your bedroom wall to feel proud of for the rest of your life without straining your fingers (never mind your brain cells!) any further in that direction ever again.

The do-it-and-forget-about-it approach doesn’t quite work with languages. I may well be shot down for saying this, but formal qualifications are pretty meaningless where languages are concerned. We’ve all come across people with A-levels and university degrees in a foreign language who, a handful of years later, weren’t able to string an intelligible sentence together, and as for participating in a colloquial native-speaker conversation, forget it.

I remember interviewing someone for a job once in German, and all they were able to do, despite convincing paper qualifications, was to recite a pre-learned speech. When it came to responding to any of my questions…well, let’s just say it was an epic fail.

Anyway, getting back to my original point, even if we’re not obliged by the educational system to knuckle down, and we choose to embark on a language learning project of our own volition, more often than not, we give up before our hard labours have borne any really juicy fruit.

I’m no exception here – I’ve left three languages, in which I’d invested quite heavily, by the wayside.

Why did this happen?

Russian
I studied Russian for two years, aged 14-16. It was not part of my school’s curriculum, but offered by a neighbouring school in desperate need to boost numbers to keep the class going. A classmate of mine had suddenly developed a burning interest in Russian (her mother, at that time, was dating someone who spoke Russian, and she was competing for attention), so I went along with her. I enjoyed it and I always did my homework, but one lesson a week didn’t get me very far in terms of competency. I barely reached A2 proficiency by the end of it.

Remember, this was before the internet, at the height of the cold war with 99% of native Russian speakers held captive in their country, so there wasn’t much of a chance to practice outside of the classroom.

Once I left school at 16, I had no access to further teaching, and even though I had found the experience interesting and rewarding, I hadn’t sufficiently fallen in love with the language or the culture to take it up again.

I can still read and write Cyrillic script, which is useful at times. As a teenager, I wrote my diaries in Cyrillic script (see above), safe in the knowledge that nobody in my immediate family would be able to decipher them

Chinese
My interest in Chinese was first sparked over a decade ago, through a university friend who was learning it at the time. He later went to live in Beijing for a few years. I visited him there in the summer of 2008, and after that visit, I seriously considered moving out there for a bit, and that prompted me to start learning Chinese.

I primarily used a podcast-based course called Chinesepod, which was very entertaining. However, after about six months of working at it, I started to ask myself the question of whether I could REALLY see myself living in China. The honest answer was no, I couldn’t. The pollution, such a profoundly different culture, political repression and inconvenient internet firewalls… my initial excitement over the prospect had waned, little by little, and so I stopped learning Chinese.

Japanese
Japanese culture and language first started to intrigue me in my early twenties, when I was working for a large travel company in the UK. One of my co-workers was Japanese, and there was also a lovely Japanese-speaking American colleague I made friends with, who had lived in Japan for many years.

Nearly a decade later, in 2003, I had a Japanese flatmate in London, and I actually started dabbling a bit with the language. In 2005, I made a more concerted effort for about six months with books, podcasts and other teaching materials. Plus, I found a Japanese woman to meet up with once a week for language exchange lessons, which I enjoyed greatly. But after she returned to Japan, the whole thing fell flat. I’d have loved to have gone to Japan at that point to do an intensive course for a few months, but it just wasn’t financially feasible.

I do feel sad now when I look at my notebooks and my pages and pages of writing practice from years ago, when I studied Japanese

I do feel a pang of sadness every time I look at my notebooks and my pages and pages of writing practice from years ago, when I studied Japanese

After giving up on a language, I always experience a profound sense of regret, which never seems to fully dissipate. They are achievements never fully realised, like sprouted seeds withering in barren soil. They were once windows to other cultures, people and friendships, but the shutters came crashing down, and there’s barely a ray of light coming through.

Of those three I’ve abandoned, it’s the Japanese I lament the most. I’m determined to get back to it at some point. Right now, though, I’ve got enough on my plate with Spanish and Portuguese.

What about you? Are there any languages you were once into that have since bitten the dust? What attracted you to them in the first place and why did you veer off course? Are you intending to take them back up again…?

[If you’re missed my post on how I almost remained a monoglot, click here.]

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22 thoughts on “Why Do We Start Learning Languages And Then Abandon Them?

  1. northern_star

    I remember your Japanese phase. Hmmm… I wish I had been taught Spanish at school and not French. It would have been so much more useful.

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  2. יונתן קסר

    There’ve been plenty of languages that I’ve had fits and starts in. My Spanish, even, lay fallow for the better part of a decade when I moved back from Texas to the US East Coast… but you’ve hit the nail on the head – the hardest thing is to actually keep up with it in the absence of native speakers and/or availability of travel to where each language is spoken.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      That’s what deters me from having a serious go at the Japanese… I just can’t afford to travel to such a far-away expensive country on a regular basis. European languages are much more convenient for me in this respect.

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  3. The Polyglut

    I once started to learn Norwegian on a whim only to realise a few hours later that I had real qualifications to be thinking about! I’m always so tempted to start a new language and it takes a lot of will power to resist! I think the only thing stopping me is the knowledge that I couldn’t bear to have all of those notes in Japanese and not pursue it. I really hope you can get back into it one day.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      I find it hard to even keep the German going, lol. Blog, Email, SMS – what the heck gender are they?!? I’ve got to look it up every time, coz these words (and hundreds more) were introduced after I left!

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  4. Loving Language

    I don’t feel bad about leaving behind a language– I can always come back to it. Eg I don’t speak French much, but Friday I had to make a call to Quebec. There just may be some Japanese tourist getting off a plane right now who will bump into you and will need a little help 🙂

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  5. languagewanderer

    It happens quite often that people abondon languages that they used to study. Usually it stems from the fact that motivation is not sufficient, I guess. I abondoned two languages, Spanish and Russian. I had Spanish classes at univ. but I wasn’t motivated that much. When it comes to Russsian I was learning it on my own and later I had sessions with a private tutor. And I was in love with Russian!:) but.. Later Norwegian took over so I decided to leave Russian for some time. And now I’m pretty sure that I’ll continue with Norwegian:)
    In my opinion the key factor in studying a language is motivation:)

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      1. languagewanderer

        When I heard Norwegian, I decided that I must learn It. It was an immediate decision 🙂 I’ve never devoted so much time and energy to any other language, or even any other goal. So now I can’t see any possibility of abandoning Norwegian since I invested so much time 😛 sure thing, I’m not always motivated, sometimes I don’t feel like studying at all!but I’m trying to fight with my laziness 🙂 i’ve noticed that level of motivation changes, sometimes it’s higher and there are days when motivation is diminishing. But in my opinion it’s a natural cycle. What do you think about it?:-)

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      2. ladyofthecakes Post author

        I was just being curious… I do like the sound of Norwegian (and Swedish), but I guess I wouldn’t invest time and energy in it unless I decided to go an live there for some reason.
        The languages I’m primarily concerned with at the moment are useful for my work, although this isn’t the primary reason they interest me. To be honest, I don’t have any strictly rational reasons for focusing on Latin-based languages right now – I’m not an aficionado of Latin culture. It has pleasant aspects to it, but I’m learning to appreciate these now while actually living in Spain, rather the culture having been a motivating factor in my language-learning decisions.

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      3. languagewanderer

        I understand your point of view. Delving into the culture of a country where a language is spoken must be a great experience, I have no doubts about it. I also perceive culture and communication with people as a very important factor in language learning.

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  6. Melissa Dalton-Bradford

    This conversation is rich and right up my alley. How to keep the languages alive? Funny, how just a phone call or the need to write an email, or picking up that one book in that language for your 5-hour flight is enough to rekindle the sparks,and you realize, yes, I’ve lost some practical fluency, and dang, I had forgotten that idiom, but I can find it again. Hands down, the best way to fan the flames is to be in the country again. One week, and things come flooding back.

    thanks for following my blog, also. I so appreciate the support as my book, Global Mom:A Memoir, comes to the public in a couple of weeks.—M.

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    1. ladyofthecakes Post author

      Hi there!
      I do seriously worry about losing my edge in German and English (to some extent, this has already happened), but there’s no way round it, sigh. It takes a conscious effort to keep it alive and updated. But it’s just so rewarding 🙂

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  7. Rachel

    The languages I’ve “abandoned” the worst are the ones I tried to learn before I was 13 – Indonesian, Italian and Korean. (Strange, since you’re meant to learn languages better when you’re younger). My first school did Indonesian – four years of it, and I have to admit I can still count to ten. My primary school did Italian – we did half an hour a week and most of it was cultural stuff. I ate so much pannetone. That said, I can still order a lemon gelati. Most of the other students had grandparents who spoke Italian (and only Italian, but usually dialects that bore little resemblance to the standard version they were trying to teach us). Korean was something my whole family embarked on shortly before going to South Korea for my uncle’s wedding. It was the first language I actually *tried* to learn, but failed miserably. I think learning something so completely different from my own language first off was a bad idea. I want to go back and try that again someday. Apart from that, French has slumped, mostly because the only place to learn was the Alliance and that is very expensive above A2 level. I help out at a French-speaking Sunday School once a month, which means that I can now say the Lord’s Prayer fluently in French, but my conversational skills have almost disappeared.

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