What’s The Most Challenging Thing About Learning A Language?

It’s a question that has been debated for decades. Linguists, school teachers, students, scientists… We all have our own opinions of what makes learning a second language so difficult.

Some of us, like Alexis below, are born grammarians. We love the rules and the structure of language. “Give me all the rules, and I’ll fit them into my mental grammar table,” a colleague of mine once uttered to me.

But for some of these grammarians, the endless lists of words are sometimes too much to bear…


Vocabulary … IT’S TOO HARD FOR ME

Vocabulary … IT’S TOO HARD FOR ME

But wait, not all of us think like Alexis.

As this girl so eloquently puts it:


English and its “difficult-ass grammar rules”

English and its “difficult-ass grammar rules”

This, unfortunately, is often the first reaction of any ab initio second-language learner. Too many rules that I’ve never heard of before. Too many words to memorise. How can I possibly learn all of this!?

Why does learning a language feel so difficult?

At Wibbu, we stand firmly in the belief that the most challenging thing about learning a language is motivation.

Charlotte, a contributor to the popular #langchat Twitter channel, agrees with us.

The most challenging thing about learning a new language
As world-renowned psycholinguistics professor Zoltán Dörnyei puts it, “Without sufficient motivation, even the brightest learners are unlikely to persist long enough to attain any really useful language”.

Dörnyei, in his excellent book titled Motivational Strategies in the Language Classroom, talks about the values that we develop during our upbringing and as an outcome of our experiences. The three values that Dörnyei cites correspond to our level of desire to learn a second language:

        1. Actual process of learning the target language –

intrinsic value

        2. Target language itself and its speakers –

integrative value

        3. Consequences and benefits of having learnt the target language –

instrumental value

So how do I motivate myself?

As a lifelong learner of multiple languages, I have witnessed myself fluidly slide between these different values during my process of learning a new language. What I personally find interesting is how one value impacts another.

At school, I always found studying Spanish far easier than any other subject. However, to begin with, I wasn’t engaged with the culture, and I had never met a native speaker. I began my language-learning life with a strong Value 1: I enjoyed the learning process.

Then, a few years later, I travelled to Spain on a class trip. I stayed with a Spanish girl, Elena, and spent the week with her and her friends. I immediately felt the positive consequences of speaking Spanish, and I was enjoying integrating with native speakers.

I was making new friends. I was connecting with people around the world. I was accessing new ways of thinking, new cultures, new ways of looking at the world. I was discovering Values 2 and 3.

After this, there was no turning back. The integrative and instrumental value that I got from speaking Spanish fuelled my intrinsic love for the process of learning the language, and vice versa.

How does this apply to language-learning apps and games?

Of the three values, the first (enjoying the learning process itself) is the only one that can be made tangible during play. The interaction with native speakers and the positive consequences of your new language skills only become apparent later on, out in the real world.

But what a game can do is give you the best possible chance of developing values 2 and 3 later on. By focusing on interactions with NPCs (non-playable characters), on dialogue and instant messaging, and on language for use on social media, we are able to prepare you for the “outside” world – the real world. When you begin to use your new language skills with native speakers, in person and online, you will immediately feel a connection and the positive consequences of speaking a second language.

By delivering this through a game like Ruby Rei, we are guaranteeing your engagement and enjoyment. The key is to keep you learning, even if you haven’t quite developed those motivational values yet.

We’d love to hear your comments on what motivates you to learn a language. Do you think a video game could keep you motivated? Share your thoughts!

By Dean, CEO of Wibbu.