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Why does it take so long to learn a new language?

If you haven’t read our other post about this, feel free to take a look!

Another reason is likely the enormous amount of time we put into learning languages. 

Languages are learned over a lifetime. It can be difficult to comprehend quite how much time that is.


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There is basically no other skill we do as much or devote as much time to. This time provides massive room for languages and cultures that are incredibly complex to be learned and integrated into our life.

Here is what this means: we are all incredibly capable language users. 

We are artisans of our culture. We are the Michaelangelo of our language. Over our lifetimes we devote hundreds of thousands of hours to our language and culture and we master it to a degree unparalleled to anything else we do. This is in fact an incredible feat. You just probably didn’t notice this fact is because it’s so normal.

Imagine from the age of two, you were put in a small car. For some reason you were sat in that drivers seat from morning till night. You eventually figure out that the way to get anything you want in life (attention, food, friends, anything) is by driving. 

Not only that, the better you drive, the more often and more easily you can get it. Imagine you were constantly pushed through new cars and new courses, up until you were driving f1 cars in Monaco. How good do you think you would be at driving by the age of 18?

With the right car you’d probably blitz any driver on the course. You’d make Michael Schumacher at his peak look like he’s still on his learner’s license. Much of this would be thanks to the fact that you’d have surpassed his time spent behind the wheel by a factor of ten or more. And that would show.

Now, driving may have natural limits that prevent you outperforming the best F1 drivers to a significant degree. 

But, as we have discussed, the limits of language and culture are far higher. From the narrow river of basic structures and beginner phrases, languages flow into an ocean of grammatical complexity, subtleties of word use, irregularities, cultural references, and idioms. That takes time to master.

The reason language learning seems faster at the beginning is because basic structures let you use the language in its most basic form. 

But beginner structures only cover a fraction of what is out there to be learned, and that complexity takes most of a native speaker’s childhood to master. Native speakers get there by surpassing adult learners’ time with the language by more than an order of magnitude.

In conclusion, languages take a long time to learn because they are the single most complex thing any human does. 

It might not feel that way, since you’ve spent such a long time using your native language it feels easy, but your language ability is an incredible feat. Don’t let the relatively fast progress of the beginner stages fool you, reaching that high level in another language is no small task.

Does that mean you need 18 years to reach a very high level? Not necessarily. All you need to do is keep calm and keep going no matter what obstacles you encounter on your language learning journey.

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