Need insight (perpetual failure) what is the magic process I’m unaware of?

I’m not new to language learning. I’m new to actually trying to make it work. After so many failures, I really want to know how others seem to get there. So here’s the scenario: I spend countless hours looking at words and learning grammar lessons. Then I try to interact with real world writing or speech and its as if I haven’t learned anything. Happens every time. I’m terrible with memorizing and actually remembering an hour later. But even the words I DO remember, the way I see or hear the language in real time, nothing makes sense. It’s like I only make progress when my little learning book is open. In the real world, it’s like the grammar makes all the words magically foreign. It’s as if the words I learn never take root in a meaningful way. Language learning feels more like an exercise in repetition or copying than actually increasing what I know. “Learn 10 words a day,” “read for an hour a day” ”move to the country and survive” “go to a local ‘speak in’ and [embarrass yourself or feel completely left out]”, these are the suggestions I’ve heard and I have actually tried all of them. And yet, when I hear or see German, Russian, or Spanish (all which I’ve made a go for in the past) none of them ever feel anymore familiar then they did before I took my first lesson. Can anyone provide some insight into at what point in this journey things are supposed to actually click? What I learn I forget, what I do remember never seems to actually exist in real world speech, the grammar in the real world seems to never match the learning environment, I literally have nothing to say to a speech partner or pen pal, and words never take root (im still converting English to target language and vice versa). I’m still motivated to keep trying but I have never done it right. WHAT IN THE WORLD is the magic process to make this work?! When do I hit a critical mass where it’s not perpetually brand new? When does progress become useful in the real world? How do I make language useful for actual communication, not just flipping flash cards?
Down but not out, thanks for any insight.

Personally, I find that Mr. Kaufmann’s advice works well for me. I am by no means great at my target languages but through reading and listening to content that I find interesting (In my case interesting novels in the target language), I have found that my progress creeps up on me. Lose the anxiety for success and enjoy the process.

A personal anecdote. I have started learning german a few weeks ago and just two days ago, while chilling, watching a very American movie, a short conversation of about 3/4 sentences happened in German. It wasn’t anything complex and, most likely, 3/4 year old Germans would not be excited to realise that they have understood what just occured. I, however was super-excited for this cause I understood that just a few weeks prior, it would have been noise to me.

My little progress crept up on me at the point and from my experience, I know that that’s how it works for me whether as a beginner or an intermediate. I no longer worry about the results while doing the most I can via listening and reading. Don’t fret, just keep it moving (hopefully in the right direction).


For me the “magic formula” to learn a language is this:

Exposure + Consistency + Patience x Time

It’s taken me a few years to really understand that this is all that’s needed. I read this exact kind of advice when I was struggling to understand how it would be possible to decipher a foreign language, and although I thought it was good advice, it’s only much later, after more experience, that I truly understand it, the fog does clear eventually.

Leave expectations to one side and just get yourself into the language as much as possible, and enjoy it, be proud of the things you can do, even if it’s just recognising a word in speech that you’ve recently learned. Everything counts towards the goal of ultimately understanding the language.

Think of it like a dripping tap filling up a swimming pool, it’ll take a long time but eventually if you keep it dripping it’ll fill up that pool, if you switch the tap off at any stage it’ll take that much longer. Just keep plugging away in small increments and you WILL accumulate enough of the language to make it comprehensible, it’s unavoidable if you remain consistent.

So long as you have a functioning brain you can learn a language. There isn’t a human on earth who can’t do it. You’re not a different species, you have the same tools as every other human being to do this, you just have to trust it’ll happen if you stick at it.

Your post makes it sound like you’re trying to learn from textbooks? Grammar study isn’t something you should worry about until you have a decent grasp of the language. It’s OK to be curious and check every once in a while if something is stumping you, but don’t use a grammar book as your main source of learning. Make sure that listening is at least 50% (preferably more, ideally 80%+) of your “study” routine, and try to read what you’re listening to. Repeat listen many times, like 50+ times if need be, so long as you’re paying attention this will help solidify the patterns of the language.

Also, if you’re really feeling like it’ll never happen, try focusing on just one language, get yourself to a comfortable level in that language and only then branch out into other languages. I feel like most successful language learners first learned one language and then started dabbling in multiple languages. To bounce back and forth from one language to another without any real experience of what it takes to learn a language, can’t be helping. It’s not like there’s a language out there for you and the secret is to find the right one, they all take time to learn, you just need to be really, really patient.


“I spend countless hours looking at words and learning grammar lessons. Then I try to interact with real world…”

In my limited experience, this is exactly where the problem lies. There´s a disconnect between the studies and the real world. The magic lies in learning directly from “real” content, instead of just preparing for it. Listening to radio programs and reading their transcripts has worked wonders for me as far as understanding the real spoken language.

“…the grammar in the real world seems to never match the learning environment…”

As you have noticed, natives rarely speak like they do in textbooks and example dialogues. Magic trick? Simply read/listen to the words of real people speaking naturally instead. It´s never too hard, it´s just a lot of new words, and it just gets easier.

Studying real content also gives you something to talk about in the target language. For example: “hey, yesterday I listened to a radio program about x, they said y and z, what do you think about this?”. And hopefully they will reply using some vocabulary you learned from that program.


Your English seems fine, so it’s probably not a learning disability. The advice others have offered in this thread is excellent. Just approach the opportunity with equanimity instead of trepidation. Stop trying so hard and just let the language flow over you. Trust the process. I’ve been letting Portuguese wash over me for 45 days, I’m now reading newspaper articles and short stories with relative ease. I didn’t do anything except follow Mr. Kaufmann’s suggestions.

It does take time and consistency. I’ve been “studying” 8 hours a day and haven’t missed a day since I started. An hour or two a day is probably the minimum commitment required for progress. You might want to learn 10 or 20 thousand words before you try speaking, if speaking is difficult for you. I learn through reading and listening, so speaking is way down the list of my priorities. I didn’t learn any grammar, but found a reverse conjugation website a big help.

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First, the good news: you probably have a very good base of grammar thanks to your grammar studies, so you don’t have to study that anymore. But studying grammar and trying to memorize words have been regarded as not very effective ways to tackle a language with.

Reading and listening is of course the answer, BUT you may ask, “what do a I read and listen to” and the chorus will say, “things that are interesting to you” – and of course it’s not that simple when you’re a beginner.

My usual advice for people in your position is to give the Assimil system a try. It is very well regarded by most language learners, and the core of it is built around reading and listening, allowing you to build up from beginner all the way up to being able to read and listen to books.

Memorization doesn’t work, exposure through context does. Studying grammar is sometimes needed, but it should only make up 5-10% of your language studies, the rest should be gradual exposure.


I agree heartily. Time and patience are exytraordinarily important in addition to whatever works best for you in the way of “studying.”