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Many Native English Speakers Don’t Realize How HARD It Actually Is to Learn a Language!

Learning English is actually hard

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Have you ever heard a native English speaker make a comment about some foreigner which clearly shows their irritation with the fact that the said foreigner doesn’t speak in English fluently enough or can’t understand what the native English speaker is saying?

I’ve been the target of such judgmental, opinionated thinking myself as well as witnessed other foreigners becoming targets of unfair treatment just because they didn’t understand what they were told or weren’t able to say something in English, and here’s a typical scenario of how such treatment manifests itself:

  • A native English speaker says something to a foreigner very fast, or even worse – with a strong local accent.
  • The foreigner has NO IDEA what he was just told, and oftentimes he’s too embarrassed to say anything in response – he’s just smiling or nodding his head in agreement just so that the native English speaker would go away and leave him alone.
  • The native English speaker then makes a comment about the whole situation by saying something along the lines of: “It’s about time they started learning some English…” or “He’s been working here for so long and still he has no English at all!”

All I can say about that is the following – those native English speakers have NO IDEA of how difficult it actually is to learn a language ❗

They have no idea that it’s impossible for foreigners to learn English by listening to very fast speech spoken by locals so they don’t even bother slowing their speech down thus making it impossible for the non-native speaker to understand them.

They think that English is somehow “picked up” by foreigners simply being around English speakers, but in reality nothing could be further from the truth.

One has to make a lot of CONSCIOUS effort in order to learn English and be able to understand others as well as speak the language, and it requires many hours of spoken English practice to get to a level where the foreign English speaker can finally start speaking with other people in English comfortably.

Some native English speakers may have been lead to believe that picking up English is fairly simple by the analogy of small foreign children of pre-school age – they start speaking in English pretty fast once they start going to a kindergarten or school so surely adult foreigners should be capable of the same, right?

Not really ❗

You can’t really compare small children with adults because children have no fear of making mistakes and they can speak ALL THE TIME thus improving their English very fast whereas for many adult foreigners at work opportunities to speak are quite limited – not to mention the embarrassment and judgmental treatment which are LIMITING their potential.

All in all, learning English is quite a tricky process for the average foreigner, so let’s look at the various aspects of it a little bit deeper.

“How Come Your English is So Bad?”

Calling someone’s English “BAD” isn’t right to begin with.

It implies that there’s something WRONG with that person, it makes it sound as if that person’s intellectual abilities aren’t sufficient in order to learn English properly.

Nonetheless, this is how many English speakers’ skills are branded:

  • poor English
  • broken English
  • bad English

I guess it goes without saying that when a person hears their English being referred to using such and similar negative descriptions, it damages their self-confidence big time and it can have far-reaching consequences in terms of their ability to learn and improve their English in the future.

I would like to ask the following question to all those people – native and non-native English speakers alike – who call other people’s English “bad” and “poor”:

“How would you feel if I called you FAT in case you’re overweight?”

To me it’s the same thing – calling someone FAT doesn’t really motivate people to lose weight and describing someone’s English as being BAD isn’t the best motivator to learn and improve English!

“How Long Have You Been Here?”

This is what one of my native English speaking work colleagues told me about a foreign girl who didn’t understand what he said to her: “She didn’t have a clue of what I was saying, how long has she been here anyway?”

Now, this statement clearly illustrates a total lack of understanding of how language acquisition works!

First of all, just because the foreign girl didn’t understand him, doesn’t mean she doesn’t know any English. Years ago, when I just arrived in Ireland, I was also having a hard time understanding locals because of their unique way of English pronunciation – and to this day I can’t really figure out those native English speakers who will not make the slightest effort to slow their speech down and pronounce words more clearly.

Secondly, just because the foreign girl has been living in an English speaking country for a year or so, doesn’t mean she’s been actively engaged in English learning 8 hours a day over the last 365 days!

It’s actually possible for a foreigner to live in another country their entire lives and still not speak the local language if they don’t make the slightest effort to do so, so basically it all boils down to the TOTAL AMOUNT OF TIME spent on ACTIVELY being engaged in various English learning related activities:

  • speaking
  • reading
  • listening

And please don’t get me wrong – I’m not trying to justify those foreigners who’ve lived in the States or the UK for 10 years and don’t make any effort whatsoever to learn English and enjoy their lives through it.

All I’m saying is that the average foreigner will learn the English language based on its relevance to their PERSONAL lives and if they’re not FORCED into situations where they literally HAVE to open their mouths and start speaking, they just won’t do it – and it’s totally wrong to assume that just because someone has been in the country for X number of years, their English would somehow “imprint” into that person’s head.

“Don’t Worry, He’ll Pick It Up!”

This is what one of my previous supervisors said when I told him the person who he was talking to didn’t understand what he was saying due to his fast speech.

He’ll pick it up?

Yeah, right! 😀

Would you pick up some Chinese in a short space of time if a Chinese speaker were to talk to you very fast?

I don’t think so ❗

Once again, a statement like that clearly depicts that a lot of native English speakers don’t have the smallest understanding of how one learns a language. If you just listen to very fast speech, it becomes an empty sound that washes over your ears – you can’t distinguish any individual words, nothing makes sense, and it only causes a lot of stress and frustration.

Basically native English speakers should understand that learning English isn’t as easy as they imagine.

Just because they’ve been talking to someone for a long period of time and that person still doesn’t understand them or can’t say a thing in English, doesn’t mean that the person in question is dumb and unable to learn.

Yes, on many occasions a foreigner’s inability to speak and understand can be attributed to their lack of effort (if ALL foreigners moving to English speaking countries engaged in serious English practice on a daily basis, then every single one of them would be good at English!), but then again – the point of this article is to bring about the awareness of the fact that English learning and improvement isn’t EASY, it’s not about looking at why many foreigners don’t make enough effort to learn the language.

Learning and improving English is hard work, and I really wish more native English speakers would be more understanding of this fact.

Being judgmental and condescending isn’t really the best way to encourage people to learn!

Robby

P.S. Would you like to find out why I’m highlighting some of the text in red? Read this article and you’ll learn why it’s so important to learn idiomatic expressions and how it will help you to improve your spoken English!

P.S.S. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out my English Harmony System HERE!

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Yeaaaaaaah! Finally we could agree on something!!!! 😉 Thanks for the lengthy comments and I’m sorry for being an asshole when saying “Then I can’t force that into your brain now, can I?” – I gotta admit I crossed the line there with that. I guess no one is immune against being an asshole at times, so I guess I also have to try and understand those native English speakers being assholes to foreigners! 😉

  • Fallout Girl XP

    There is a huge distinction though ignorant means lack of knowledge being an asshole is just someone being overly rude. But yes if that is what this article is about then yeah I agree that natives shouldn’t act that way being bilingual is a huge accomplishment that I think everyone should try and be praised for.

  • Well, if you’re making this huge distinction between people being ignorant and being assholes, then there’s only one thing I can say – sometimes native English speakers are being total assholes in the way they treat foreigners because they don’t know what it’s like to learn a second language – and that’s pretty much what I’m trying to say in this article!

  • Well, I guess I can’t possibly make you understand my point of view because you have your own opinion on this and I could argue with you till cows come home to no avail. Believe me – I’ve got more important stuff to do so – if you simply can’t understand the fact that I made this article based on COUNTLESS experiences of my own and also others, not just the example with the Polish girl, and that the whole point of it is to highlight the fact that there are native English speakers who assume that learning English is easy-peasy because of the fact that they probably haven’t got any second language experience themselves, well.. Then I can’t force that into your brain now, can I?

  • Fallout Girl XP

    * In this article I’m not talking about ignorant foreigners who aren’t bothered to learn the English language -* In this scenario it didn’t seem as if you even told the native speaker in question to slow down – well, guess what? I would say things such as “Can you say it again?” etc., but the particular situation I witnessed involved a shy Polish girl (her English was quite good) addressed by an cocky Irishman and it was obvious that he didn’t give a damn if she understood him – and not only did he not slow down, but he was speaking twice as fast!-Alright here we go, first your little encounter with this wasn’t the case of why you apparently made this article, ignorance and being rude are two completely different things. The fact that you made this article based around (Ignorant natives) but your own experience was a guy obviously meaning to do this just to be a douche makes me wonder why you even made this article. No I haven’t been in a situation of an English speaking person talking to fast unless they were doing it on purpose (literally), Also someone mumbling is completely different from talking to fast if this were to happen to a foreigner I wouldn’t think that said native is being ignorant just talking to low in which case would be solved by the foreigner asking if they can talk a little louder and problems solved no article about ignorant natives needing to be made. On to the next subject *You expect people to just change the way they talk for your sake – yes, just like I said – it’s only normal! If I were to speak in my native language with someone who’s speaking it as a second language, I would make sure the other person understands me.-How do you expect then to change it if you aren’t even telling them what to do slow down, talk louder, can you repeat that. If you say that you did do this and they still insisted on speaker in that manner then this should be an article about rude native speakers and not ignorant natives speakers because as of right now your article if kind of pointless.

  • Seriously? I’m under the impression we’re discussing completely different topics!

    * In this article I’m not talking about ignorant foreigners who aren’t bothered to learn the English language – I’m talking about foreigners speaking decent English here faced by ignorant attitude by natives on certain occasions so your “ughsuhshisbb” is completely beside the point.

    * You expect people to just change the way they talk for your sake – yes, just like I said – it’s only normal! If I were to speak in my native language with someone who’s speaking it as a second language, I would make sure the other person understands me.

    * In this scenario it didn’t seem as if you even told the native speaker in question to slow down – well, guess what? I would say things such as “Can you say it again?” etc., but the particular situation I witnessed involved a shy Polish girl (her English was quite good) addressed by an cocky Irishman and it was obvious that he didn’t give a damn if she understood him – and not only did he not slow down, but he was speaking twice as fast!

    * Also did it ever cross your mind that to them they are talking at a normal rate? – maybe you haven’t noticed it, but there’s PLENTY of situations when natives don’t understand each other, for instance in my last job the locals where constantly shouting at each other “What?” and repeating stuff twice or three times because they were speaking too fast and mumbling. So it goes to show that it IS possible for the native English speakers to speak too fast.

    * I have also never heard an English speaker talk fast without a reason – there doesn’t have to be a reason! Some people just speak fast because that’s how they speak, but if you still don’t get it, my point is – would it hurt for them to slow down a little bit to facilitate the communication???
    But I guess you won’t get it because you keep being focused on some extreme type of scenario in your head whereby you keep imagining me as a retarded foreigner who can’t say a damn thing in English and no matter how many times I keep explaining you the point of this article you just keep going on about something else…

  • So according to your opinion, foreigners just cannot go to English speaking countries unless they speak fluent English at a level that allows for native-like communication.
    Alright… I have 2 main issues with this.
    First of all, it’s unrealistic to expect that ALL (just think about figures involved here – it’s literally millions of people worldwide!) foreigners would dedicate their utmost effort to learn English to a near native level before going there. It’s the same as to say that nobody on planet Earth should smoke and drink because it’s the ideal state to be.
    Secondly, a lot of people decide to or are forced into circumstances whereby they have to move to an English speaking country quite suddenly and they simply don’t have enough time to achieve English fluency before going there!
    Furthermore, if we extend your logic to all people, no native English speaker should go to another country unless they spoke the language of that country fluently.
    Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d say – it’s an utopian scenario at best, and I can’t really see why you’d say such a thing!
    The whole purpose of this article was to point out the existing double standards among natives whereby they think that we, foreigners, can simply “pick up” English just like that and we’ll be able to understand super fast native English speech with ease while at the same time they don’t think about the fact that if the situation was reversed, they’d be totally lost!
    On the finishing note, your comment about speaking to another person slower than normally making them feel dumb was totally misplaced. There’s nothing wrong with slowing down your speech to allow for better comprehension! And I’m not talking about something ridiculous here, maybe you think I’m saying that natives should talk to us as if we were retarded or something.
    Well, guess what? All I’m saying is that it wouldn’t hurt for a native speaker to slow down a little when he can clearly see that the person he’s speaking to is struggling to understand their fast speech, it’s called being polite is all!
    Best Regards,
    Robby

  • Fallout Girl XP

    I gotta disagree, my dream place is Japan and to be honest I know that I cannot go there until I speak proper Japanese. If you know you’re going to a place that has a specific language set and you know it then I think it would be disrespectful to go there speaking your own language knowing that no one can understand you and expect them to change their speaking pattern for your sake. Also if I went to say Brazil I think that it would be even more rude for them to speak to me in a slow manner as if I were dumb. Bottom line is if you don’t want people either talking to you like you’re a child or talking to you normally then learn the language before you try tackling that country I don’t think anyone expects it to be easy but it’s equal amounts of disrespectful for both the person’s involved. That’s my opinion anyways.

  • Thanks Jerry!

  • Jerry Bauer

    Robby, excellent post! You are 100% correct in everything that you wrote. Learning 2 languages at once, my head hurts!

  • Hello Juhapekka,

    Thanks for commenting!

    I can tell you one thing – I was struggling with my spoken English BIG TIME. It was making me depressed and whenever I had really bad fluency days, I would feel like a total and utter loser. I was pretty bad in terms of my mental state, and even though there isn’t a way to stack up my suffering against what you’re going through, I dare to say that yes, I have been struggling with my spoken English just as much as you.

    Moreover, it’s not as if I can forget about fluency management nowadays – I have to be constantly aware of the various issues that can surface up at any time (worsening pronunciation, inability to speak as fast as normally etc.) and then I have to take appropriate measures to counteract those symptoms. All in all, you could say that I’m struggling with my fluency do this day albeit at a different level – my bad fluency days are what my best fluency days would have been 3 or 4 years ago.

    At any rate, we can comfort ourselves with the fact that the overall fluency trend is always going UP (you can read more about it here if you haven’t seen this article yet: http://englishharmony.com/english-improvement-trend/) provided that we work on our English regularly, and I bet you’ll notice the same if you compare your spoken English today with the level you had, say, 2 years ago.

    Speaking of other English speakers lacking tolerance for those who can’t understand fast speech etc. – here’s another aspect I don’t think I’ve mentioned.

    Those are most likely the kind of people not having spoken another language in their lives. They simply DON’T KNOW what it feels like to engage with a speaker of another language and all their assumptions about the process are based on what they’ve seen on TV.

    One of the things I’ve noticed in films and TV shows is that actors portraying non-native English speakers speak PERFECT English in grammar terms – they simply put a foreign accent on. In real life, however, we – non-native speakers – make mistakes, hesitate etc. – but in films we don’t often get to hear that because actors portraying non-native speakers are in fact native English speakers who can speak with foreign accents. Needless to say, they also can understand anything that others tell them, so it creates an impression that any non-native speaker is just like a native speaker except for the accent!

    It may sound a bit far-fetched, but I believe that this has contributed into this phenomenon we’re discussing here.

    Also, another contributing factor could be the following.

    When native English speakers try and speak another language, anything they say is often met with standing ovations – requirements for them are as high as for 4 year old children. Basically if they can say anything at all in a foreign language – that’s a real achievement. When it comes to us, foreigners, the standards are 100 higher – we have to be able to understand and say everything in English!

    How’s that fair?

    Well, it’s not, but such double-standards clearly exist… and I don’t think it’s possible to change people’s attitude in relation to that.

    All we can change is OUR attitude – and I’ve spoken about it ad nauseam on my blog:

    * Ignore others opinion of your English
    * Don’t compare your English to that of others
    * and so on and on and on!

    That’s the only thing we can do in order to stay sane in this tough world! 😉

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Juhapekka

    I think this article is spot on and its purpose is clearly not to justify foreigner’s laziness in relation to language learning. Even though I have never lived in English speaking countries, I have noticed exactly the same phenomenon. I have been in situation which clearly illustrates the problem that some native or nearly native English speakers don’t always bother to slow their speech down or reduce their accent even though I have politely asked them many times to do it. In fact, they can do the opposite: one at least nearly native English speaker somehow hotted himself up emotionally and he even speeded his speech up when I asked him to slow it down! And this happened in my own home country, in Finland! I don’t understand at all what was the logic or the emotional background behind his behavior. I really hope that my particular experience is in marginal among English speakers because if all native speakers behaved like that, it’d give really hard time for foreigners. Despite this, I have to emphasize that those few English speakers, I have met, have been usually really friendly and sympathetic!

    But as big or even bigger problem can be those foreigners who can speak English really well but they have forgotten how hard it was to learn English. Actually, I can see it clearly in my own home country where it was very rare that some ordinary chap could speak English at all, say, 20 or 30 years ago but nowadays many younger generations can speak English at least somewhat and if you can’t speak English, some people can “watch you like a cheap sausage is watched”. How would you say this previous idiom in English? But anyway, I meant that they are feeling superiority only because they’re speaking better English than you. And in the same time they underestimate the importance of our own native language which is great stupidity, in my opinion.

    As the bottom line, I like to mention that hopefully we won’t ever forget the hardness of language learning in the sense that we can be more helpful and more understanding towards them who struggle with languages even more than we’re struggling right now or we have struggled in the past. Although, it’s sometimes hard to believe that someone has struggled with spoken English even more than I have but rationally I know it can’t be true: I can’t be the only one who is struggling as much as I do with spoken English.

  • Hi Sachin,

    You nailed it by saying that some people don’t realize that there are other big languages and that English isn’t the end of it all!

    Moreover, if the person in question has never learned and spoken another language himself/herself, they can’t possibly know what it feels like to be a foreigner. I have suspicions that some of them think we, foreigners, are on the same level with small children: just because they talk to us in a simplistic manner to explain things, they might get an impression we are just as ill-equipped to do the job as a five year old would be…

    Of course, not all native speakers are like that, but you get the drift.

    Also, some of those foreigners who’ve risen through the company ranks and speak very good English now are treating other foreigners even worse – contrary to what you’d expect them to do. I mean – they’ve been in the same boat, but now they’ve forgotten how they’ve been treated themselves?!

    Thanks Sachin for the comment,

    Chat soon,

    Robby

  • sac chi

    Clearly, Robbi’s article is directed towards native speakers who don’t give a darn about slowing down their speech when it comes to speaking to a foreigner.

    since english language is widely accepted language all over the world as a professional language native english speakers is always has a winning edge. And world never bother to be considerate towards looser.

    I dont see their rebuke as their arrogance when it comes to not slowing down a bit while talking, as speaker expect non native has already acquired the language skill.

    secondly native speaker might be thinking that what the hell you (a foreigner) were doing so long rather than preparing himself/herself for the globalization.

    But whatever is the reason at least native speaker should be made aware of the fact that world is not just made up of English.
    There are countries like China, Japan, France, Germany and Rassia still hold their language as potent as english and have progressed with the help of it.

    At the end i would like to say, Its his/her personal choice to be nice with us when it comes to interaction … 🙂

    cheers…!

  • Hi Gabriela,

    So here’s what I think in relation to your issue of having a hard time understanding certain groups of native English speakers because of their accent/fast speech.

    You pointed out yourself which countries they come from: America, New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain.

    Watching films and doing plenty of passive immersion helps, but it’s a LONG process (you’re exposing yourself to a particular language in GENERAL); it took me a good few years living in Ireland to get used to the local accent and get my ears attuned to the Irish ways of pronunciation.

    What you require for your job, however, is to be able to understand SPECIFIC phrases, words and sentences – surely your customers aren’t asking about EVERYTHING, right? Most likely it’s related to your tour, to the architectural objects you’re observing and so on.

    Of course, I do realize it sill covers a vast amount of English vocabulary and variations of asking the same thing can reach an astronomical number, but surely you could possibly narrow it all down to, say, 100 – 150 most commonly used questions that your customers ask you?

    Next thing, get people on Fiverr.com to record videos for you for a few dollars where they read out all those phrases in specific accents and fast. You can find anything on Fiverr.com and finding specific English accent speakers shouldn’t present much difficulties.

    Then you obviously playback the recordings and listen to them over and over again till you’re comfortable enough listening to those specific phrases being said by representatives of various English accent speakers.

    Now, it won’t solve the problem 100% obviously, but it would definitely help you big time because there’s only so many things a person can ask, and any other phrase that wouldn’t be included in your list would definitely be a variation of one that you’ve thought of.

    It would be hard work, but I can definitely see benefits of doing that, and the logic behind this whole exercise is that you could spend a long time exposing yourself to listening while hearing something you’re not even sure what it is at times OR you could do a targeted practice whereby you listen to something that you know 100% what it is PLUS it’s highly relevant to your actual job! That way you’d develop your comprehension ability much quicker.

    Hope this helps,

    Best Regards,

    Robby

  • Hi Robby,
    my mothertongue is german – I’m living in Vienna, but as a tourist-guide I’m confronted with native english speakers all the time.
    regards
    Gabriela

  • Hi Gabriela,

    In order to help me understand the nature of your particular situation a bit better, would you mind telling me which country you live in and what’s your national background?

    Thanks,

    Robby

  • Thanks Pacholek for the explanation, it’s spot on! I wouldn’t have said it better! 😉

    Regards,

    Robby

  • Hi Arkadiy,

    Believe it or not, but I’ve largely improved my own English doing exactly that – sitting at home and speaking with myself!

    Self practice has a lot of benefits among which are reduced stress levels (it’s really important!), you can read more about it here: http://englishharmony.com/speaking-with-yourself/

    Speaking of you telling other English speakers to slow down if you don’t follow them – that’s the right thing to do! A lot of foreigners simply pretend they understand, and obviously it’s much better to admit you didn’t get the message.

    You shouldn’t be ashamed about it though, it’s not the other person’s business that you’re at a certain level with your English, and the best way to go about that is by ignoring whatever bad emotions the other person might try to invoke within you (either consciously or sub-consciously) – read more about it here: http://englishharmony.com/ignorance/

    I’m really glad you find my highlighted collocations useful – keep practicing and you’ll definitely see your English improve (especially if you do oral practice as I suggest here: http://englishharmony.com/spoken-english-practice/)

    So all in all, there is a solution to your issue.

    It’s not super-easy. It’s not a walk in the park.

    It is, however, manageable, and in case you’ve got any further questions please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me at support@englishharmony.com !

    Cheers,

    Robby

  • pacholek

    This article, for me, is meant to encourage foreign English speakers to ask natives to speak more slowly, because it’s not a shame not to understand natives thoroughly. And in case you meet a native who doesn’t make any effort to help you understand him, don’t lose your time with this kind of person (if you can). So that’s the message I brought from this article. Maybe I got it wrong, but that is how I see it.

  • Arkadiy

    Hi Robby,

    Here was my response to your article, but it disappeared i do not know why. The article is great, though as usual. It is very usuful, because i get a lot of new phrases and collocation, which you use in every day speech. As for as i am concerned, i have very seldom opportunity to talk with native speakers, only on my vocation twice a year. If i have to begin to talk to somebody i usually do this: “i am sorry, i speak pretty bad English”, as a rule it helps, then everything going better. For me mainly to start. If somebody has a go at speaking to me and i do not get him, i feel shame and reply that i do not follow him or ask to speak not so fast. Something like this. On the whole, it is a very big issue and resolve it sitting at home seems to me unreal.

  • Sergio

    I really couldn’t understand what the purpose of this article was.Is it supposed to show how hard learning English is? In any case, I still don’t know what positive effect it may bring to the readers.

  • Hi Robby,

    thank you for this article. My problem is not only to become a fluent speaker, but also to understand what my guests want to tell me. My guests are coming from America, New Zealand, Australia and Great Britain. I lost a customer because the guests complaint about my lack of communication skills. (I am a tourist guide)

    Your sentence:

    quote: “The foreigner has NO IDEA what he was just told, and often times he’s too embarrassed to say anything in response – he’s just smiling or nodding his head in agreement just so that the native English speaker would go away and leave him alone.”

    This is exactly my point…. 🙁 and I can understand that this is really a lack of communication skill.

    Besides all the specific vocabulary I have to learn for my job – the understanding what I’m asked is a really big problem.

    You can believe that I tried everything – watching English films, series and documentaries …. some of them I can understand, others are not possible to follow even with subtitles in English.

    I refuse to be always afraid when I have to guide a native-English-group – I have to do something! I don’t want to change my profession. 😉

    best regards
    Gabriela