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difference between success and failure in language learning

Sebastian Coe


This guest post is by Sebastian Coe, who is an information security professional at one of the world’s largest telecommunications companies. Sebastian is also a hobbyist language learner. He’s dabbled in English, Spanish, Italian, Chinese, and lately Norwegian.


You can see Sebastian’s YouTube video in Norwegian here:


What Makes the Difference in Language Learning?

Learning a new language is a commonly heard goal, but many times one that ends in frustration and self-doubt. It doesn’t have to be this way, but it usually does because language learners:

Need to Have a Reason behind Their Goals

When the going gets tough, human beings are designed to give up, we are designed to forget things, and there is nothing wrong with any of this.

Can you imagine trying to turn a doorknob with your nose over and over again to no avail?

Should I tell you to “just keep trying”? Or, perhaps better advice would to recommend abandoning that route, by using your hands, or just informing you that the door is actually locked?

When I was learning Italian, what got me through all those hours of Duolingo practice was that I wanted to visit Italy. My great-grandfather had immigrated from a small town over a hundred years ago, and I wanted to visit his birthplace. I practiced everyday, and towards the end even hired two tutors on iTalki for intense conversational sessions.

In a few months, I went from no Italian, to being able to hold a conversation, with occasional bumps. I went to Italy, spent weeks enjoying the country, and even visited my great-grandfather’s home town.

Did I come back energized and ready to take my Italian to the next level?


I came back thinking Wow, Italy is really going through tough times! One of my tutors had a Ph.D and was living off 800 euros a month! With no immediate plans to visit Italy again, and with few speakers to use the language with locally, I stopped advancing.

Languages are tools, no different from physical ones. Use it, and you will sharpen your skills, especially when you test them with others. Stop using it, and you are sending signals to your brain that this knowledge is no longer important or relevant, and to focus on other things that are coming up more frequently. As these skills rust and collect dust, eventually they start becoming unusable.

So, I should give up on Learning a Language?

No, that’s not the message at all. Just make sure that when you set a language learning goal, the goal is not an end in itself, but there is an overarching reason to all of this effort. It can be as simple as “I’m learning a new language, because it’s proven to postpone age-related Dementia”. 

Maybe you have no immediate plans to visit Spain or Greece, but with a goal like that, it doesn’t matter.

As long as you have a powerful reason, you’re goals will follow.

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Suggestion 88(-)
Original text you’re
Suggested correction your
Explanation you\'re = you are so your is the possessive pronoun that you need to use here
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Suggestion 87(-)
Original text but it usually does because language learners: Need to Have a Reason behind Their Goals
Suggested correction but it usually does because language learners: Need to Have a Reason behind Their Goals
Explanation It would be a good idea to change the punctuation here. For example: ...it usually does because language learners need to have a reason behind their goals.
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