Why Our Top 10 Excuses NOT to Learn a Language Don’t Hold Water

by Corey · 17 comments

By Corey Heller
Photo © 2011 J. Ronald Lee

For those of you who read Top 10 Excuses We Like to Give for NOT Learning a Language, this post is my rebuttal for why those excuses don’t hold water. They are things we say to buy a little more time or to get people off our back but the truth is, no one falls for them anymore.

Of course, there are people who really, honestly don’t feel any desire or need to learn another language. I can understand that. And I totally accept that as a very good reason not to learn a language! There are all sorts of things that others rave about that I don’t think are important, so to each their own!

I also know many monolingual parents who never learned a language themselves yet go out of their way to help their children learn a second language, often because they never actually learned another language themselves.

For the rest of us who would like to learn a language, and we know who we are, our excuses are more about not setting priorities than anything else. As mentioned in the comments after the original post, motivation is key. It is hard to put language learning at the top of the list when (1) we don’t feel that we have any place to use the language regularly and (2) when it is going to mean that we won’t have time for more important things. Some may say that language learning is one of the most important things we can do in our lives, but that is for each person to answer for themselves.

Read these rebuttals to the Top 10 Excuses in the hopes that they will help us break out of excuse mode and jump into language-learning mode:

10. Wrong Fit: The truth is, short of living in a country where the language is spoken, there will probably never be a perfect language learning environment. The key is to change our mindset rather than wait for the perfect program to come along. After using a variety of programs in Language Challenge 101 (Spanish) and Language REFRESH 101 (German), I was reminded of how important our state of mind is in all of this.
If we are excited about learning a language, pretty much anything will help us stay on track. Yes, some programs should be thrown in the garbage, but there are many others that we can use to have challenging fun while learning a language. Free online language-learning programs like the ones we used in Language Challenge 101 and Language REFRESH 101 are all over the place and many are fantastic! They key is to find out where they are. Start asking around today!

9. Return On Investment: This is just plain untrue when viewed on a global perspective. Companies everywhere are taking language skills into account when deciding who to hire. Having worked in the software industry for 13 years, I can say for a fact that just because language skills doesn’t appear on the resume this doesn’t mean they dosn’t come up when discussing who to hire for a position. At the very least, it is an added bonus.
Even if there is no financial benefit where you work, the personal rewards can be out of this world. Each time we hear someone speaking our target language, we will light up and get excited. We’ll be able to speak to people in our community and start reading books and online resources in the language. We will start thinking about visiting the country where the language is spoken. We’ll feel a sense of great accomplishment as we learn new words and sentences each week. The list goes on!

8. Don’t Travel: Well, all I can say to this is that if you are able to travel, you should be traveling. And if you aren’t physically capable of travel for whatever reason, then visit international districts in cities. Enough said.

7. Not good at it: Excuse me? I have heard that excuse so many times, it blows my mind. Ok, let’s say this: You are stranded in a small village in the middle of India for 9 months. You can’t leave for 9 months. No one can speak your language. No one. I guarantee it that you will realize just how darn good you are at learning languages after mastering the local dialect in those 9 months.
I agree that language learning seems to go more smoothly for some than others. However, when people say, “I’m not good at learning languages,” what they are really saying is, “I don’t have a need to learn it because everyone else speaks my language.”

6. Finances: For those of us who are on a budget (which is something I can relate with!) and feel that there are no good free programs out there, think again. Sure, there may not be any free comprehensive language programs in your target language but there are most certainly resources, support and people who can help point us in the right direction. The first step is to get out of our shell and reach out. Start asking people what they recommend. The other idea is to see if you can do some kind of trade. You help someone with your language and they help you learn their language. Don’t have time for this? Ah, well, that is number 3.

5. Too old: Are you serious? Did you watch that Dr. Kuhl Ted Talk and believe that only children can learn languages? Wrong! Yes, you may miss a window of picking up a native accent (which is what she is talking about), but who cares. Jump in anyway and ignore all of that stuff about how hard it is to learn languages when we are older. In fact, studies have shown that adults learn languages faster than children. Really! We already have the knowledge of how languages work so we can more easily piece things together.

4. Commitment: Yes, language learning takes time. This is the main reason we should start when we are young – we’ll have so many more years (decades!) to pick up new words and master our pronunciation and grammar. The question is whether you want to put language learning toward the top of your priorities or not. If not, then no worries, but then use a different reason for not learning a language, which is: my personal choice is to not make language learning a high priority.

3. Consistency: Same as #4 above. If you don’t have 20-60 minutes of undivided attention to pay to language learning each day, then so be it. But make sure that it is clear that this is simply a choice of priorities – language learning isn’t high enough on the list. I encourage you to write down what is at the top of the list to make sure you are happy with those being there. What if we limited our Facebook, Twitter and internet browsing by 20 minutes a day? Hmmm.

2. Embarrassment: Even though few people admit it, most are worried about looking like a fool when learning a new language. This is another reason why we should start when we are young. Kids don’t care if they say something incorrectly. They haven’t yet learned that saying something wrong is such an embarrassment.
The only answer I can give is: get over it. In fact, learning to feel stupid while learning a language is an extremely cathartic process. I wrote about my own experiences of feeling like a child during my first year in Germany in the book Call Me Okaasan: Adventures in Multicultural Mothering. And you can see me speaking German in front of the camera for the first time. I can tell you, it was pretty painful sharing that video with everyone but after I did it, I realized how many of my fears started melting away.

1. Global lingua franca: Yep, you got me here. If you speak one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world then you will not have the same motivation to learn a language as someone who doesn’t speak one of those languages. But wouldn’t you rather be able to speak with people using words that they intimately understand? The words we use influence how we see the world. Wouldn’t you like to know how the world is seen by others? At the very least, learning a new language just might help you save a wad of cash or catch the right train when traveling abroad! Here’s just one of many real life, practical example from my experiences for why we do want to know at least the basics of a community’s conversational language:

Long ago a boyfriend and I were in on a whirlwind holiday travel venture through Europe. We had leased a Citroën in Paris and were fine until we arrived in Germany. As soon as we entered the gas station we realized that we didn’t know what “unleaded” meant in German (we didn’t know any German for that matter). As we looked at the different options, the word for diesel was pretty clear but we weren’t sure what Beifrei meant. Did it mean “with lead” or ” without lead”? Or maybe something totally different.

Confounded, we consulted the gas station attendant (in English) who replied something in German that clearly meant “I don’t understand you.” We asked a few people who came by and no one spoke English. Finally, many hours later, my boyfriend threw a coin to decide and proceeded to fill the tank with the gas that did not say Beifrei.

We shelled out over $100 of our hard-earned student money to fill the tank and were about to drive away when someone arrived who spoke a little English. He said, “Bleifrei means ‘lead free’. You just filled up your tank with gasoline that has lead.” Four hours later (and many mouths tainted with leaded gasoline), my boyfriend and three other men were able to siphon out the leaded gas. We filled up with Bleifrei and shelled out more than $100, yet again.

Lesson learned.

Later that evening we found ourselves drawing pictures of chickens, pigs and cows to order dinner. I think the other patrons actually enjoyed watching two Americans make animal sounds and flap their arms around.

I am the biggest excuse-giver for why I haven’t practiced my language skills over the years! I even have a perfect need to do so: I am raising my children in one of them!

The biggest problem is keeping the language alive. As someone said in the previous post:

I learned French for 7 years at school, the last three on college level. Yet I have forgotten most of it because I have few opportunities to speak it here in the US. So why bother learning another language?

Yep, I hear you!

And now, before I end this post…

We can take this all one step further and think about how our children feel when we tell them why it is so important/wonderful/valuable to learn languages. Without having a good reason for “why” (the “need”) and language resources to utilize, it is hard for anyone (children and adults alike) to stay motivated!

What are your thoughts on language learning? What are your answers to people when they dish out a list of excuses?

Corey Heller is the founder of Multilingual Living and the Editor-In-Chief/Publisher of Multilingual Living Magazine. Multilingual Living is the place where she shares her knowledge about raising multilingual and multicultural children. Corey, an American, and her German husband live in Seattle where they raise and homeschool their three children, ages 14, 12 and 10, in German and English.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Lila December 9, 2011 at 12:45 pm

My husband should definitely see this, his excuse for not learning German is that it is too different from the languages we already use everyday (English-French-Spanish),so we would never learn it properly. I agree, it is difficult and indeed, different. I’m sure we won’t be proficient in one year but at least we can pick up the basics. My idea is having German just as a foreign language, without aiming to a high level,(just like most monolingual people who know a little bit of another language) but he thinks it will be too confusing for our trilingual family to deal with this.

What do you think? Should I give up?

Lila x x


2 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:03 pm

I think you should introduce German slowly and with a bunch of fun! Get some children’s DVDs to learn German and see how that goes. As you said, you can have fun with it and learn what you can. It is fun to be able to say hello, goodbye, etc. to one another in German, even if you don’t get too much further. That in itself opens up so many ideas about culture, language, foods, view-points and more! Totally worth it!


3 Dustin December 9, 2011 at 5:07 pm

I have been learning Spanish for years and is one of if not the passion of interest in my life. I understand that not everyone has this passion towards learning a foreign language. But when I hear excuses, that is what all it is, “excuses”, not reasons. If you don’t take the time to learn then case point is you kinda deserve the consequences that follow. I’m not saying it should be a law, but if you know it is going to be useful in your upcoming situation, then make some effort for at least just some survivl words. This is no command but just very recommended advice that can help you. its ultimately up to you do it and if you refuse then, lets be honest, thats no one’s but your fault.


4 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:05 pm

You make some good points, Dustin. If we know we are going to need a language down the road, then there is no time but the present to get started learning it. As you said, survival words can be a ton of fun to learn and who knows where things will go from there. Language learning takes a lot of time and patience so it is very easy to keep putting it off (something I can relate to as well!).


5 Dustin December 9, 2011 at 5:15 pm

i have to also mention that people who will try to put you down or make fun that your interest is in learning a foreign language is just thier negative way to not only disrupt and discourage you, but it also tells you that they envy you for knowing what you have learned. I have been studying spanish for years. I really like it and when I was young like 12 yrs old that is when i started. and then became hooked to it. My siblings and friends and some others disscouraged of such an interest. but i still tried to learn more and more hoping one day i would be fluent and show those who discouraged me that this was worth it. Now, at 23 yrs old. i am fluent and my siblings are so surprised when I spoke fluent spanish to a native speaker and is now asking me to teach them. Point being, don’t expect to recieve the rewards without putting the work behind it. Then and only then will you appreciate other cultures and people of other ethnicities much more along with your self achievement.


6 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:08 pm

Wonderful that you put in so many years of effort, Dustin! You are right on: language learning takes time, a lot of time! Many say that children learn languages more quickly than adults but the truth is, children simply give language learning a lot more effort than we give them credit for. It is like children learning to walk – they are trying it over and over and over again for a very long time and before that they were crawling and crawling and watching others walk. They don’t just realize one day that walking is something they’d like to do and suddenly do it. Wonderful what you accomplished!


7 Sabine Panneau December 13, 2011 at 8:56 am

Hi Correy, your article is so spot on.
In my nearly 15 years of expatriation (in 3 different languages) I’ve probably heard these excuses thousands of times. Speaking a foreign language is definitely one of the strongest assets anyone wishing to spend some time abroad could have. On a daily basis I use 3 of them (French, Spanish, English) and this has been key to integration and well-being overseas. Sadly, there are many people out there, living in a country whose language they don’t speak. So I always encourage people to at least some lessons as it is never too late, especially if already abroad, this is your best opportunity. As you said, the cost shouldn’t be an issue as there are many ways to do either for free or for little money.


8 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:14 pm

You bring up a great point, Sabine: learning to speak the language of the country we live in should be at the top of our list. It may be very difficult but if we are going to live somewhere for much of our life, it is important that we learn to get around in that culture by speaking the language(s). This is partly out of respect but also for safety and a sense of accomplishment. It doesn’t feel good to live somewhere and not know what is being said, fearful that something important might be happening that we don’t understand. I can totally understand why so many people have a hard time learning the language, for example, I know people in the US who lived in Germany on military bases. They didn’t feel the need to learn German since they could get around on the bases fine and most Germans spoke English anyway. However, all of them told me that they felt horrible not learning the language. They said that there were so many opportunities to learn the language but they never did it.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts and congratulations on so many years abroad and your multilingualism! Fantastic! I’ll bet you’ve found (as have I) that it is so much easier to learn a language while living in the country?


9 Tarik Hussein December 14, 2011 at 5:12 am

You cannot claim a good monetary return on investment of learning, say, Roma or Sioux, but it may give you some unforgettable experiences.


10 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:16 pm

What a wonderful comment, Tarik! I totally believe that what you say is true! At the very least, it can be a great “secret language” while maneuvering in the big cities! 😉 And what a cultural connection!


11 Elisabeth Humphrey December 16, 2011 at 2:31 pm

I think this article is written by a huge language buff, who thinks that it should be everyone’s number one priority to learn another language, because it’s her passion. Another person might say – what you only read two books a year? or You only ever eat out? food is THE most important part of being human. You never go to live music shows? You only watch blockbuster movies!? You don’t buy only organic!?

Come one!

Her story about Germany isn’t without merit (who goes to a country without speaking that language and doesn’t bring at last a phrase book!?) but going to another coutry and not understanding the basics about their culture could be just as disastrous as not speaking the language. I have taken several years of Russian, but still made some serious cultural mistakes while visiting, because my knowledge of Russian super Markets wasn’t up to snuff.

Just because you’re really into something doesn’t mean everyone around you has to drop all their passions and take up yours. I speak three languages and am learning a fourth but I understand its not for everyone and no one should have to make excuses. You don’t want to learn, for whatever REASON, fair enough. I don’t want to be a gourmet chef either.

Elisabeth in Ottawa


12 Corey January 3, 2012 at 11:22 pm

Thank you for your comment, Elisabeth! I think maybe you misunderstood the audience for this post. As I say here at the beginning: “Of course, there are people who really, honestly don’t feel any desire or need to learn another language. I can understand that. There are things that other rave about that I don’t think are important, so it all works out.” The point being that not all of us are into language learning and that is completely fine by me!

I then point out who this post is for: “For the rest of us, and we know who we are, our excuses are more about not setting priorities than anything else. ”

This post is for those who continue to WANT to learn a language (and even complain to others about wanting to learn a language) or work on improving a language (like me with my German!) but for some reason can’t get our behinds in gear to do it. We have a long list of excuses and this post is to help us all fight off those annoying excuses to actually get into the groove of language learning.

As I say at the beginning, I would never expect that others should “drop all their passions and take up” mine! For the rest of us, maybe this post will help us get motivated and get started with something we have been talking about for a long time but haven’t gotten going.

Fantastic that you speak so many languages! That is something for which I am envious!


13 Alex March 19, 2012 at 10:24 pm

Our family is home schooled, very busy and yet we are trying very very hard to incorporate German . We have Rosetta Stone and CDs and books. Our kids are older, though, and even though I know some facts behind being tri lingual and or more , I still wonder if we should go ahead with French and Spanish. Could you please give any tips on learning three languages simultaneously?


14 Corey May 4, 2012 at 6:24 pm

Alex – you might want to check out this post by Donovan. It specifically talks about learning more than one language at a time: http://www.mezzoguild.com/2012/05/03/learning-multiple-languages-at-the-same-time/


15 Mike March 21, 2013 at 6:25 pm

I enjoy learning Klingon. Does that count? Andoran will be next of my language learning pursuits. LOL.


16 Auggiedoggy August 10, 2015 at 8:01 pm

Count me in as someone who is quite content knowing only my native language, although I did learn French many years ago due to job requirements. I’ve forgotten much of it since my wife is English and I live in an English-speaking community. My French friends and ex-colleagues (I’m retired now) all speak English very well so there is really no pressing need for me to maintain my French. I thought I’d like to learn Spanish but I don’t travel outside of Canada and likely never will from this point on so Spanish is pretty much useless to me. You could say I have zero motivation and zero need to learn any languages. Call them excuses. Whatever. They are what they are!


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