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Why Learning L2 is Harder Than L1

Why Learning L2 is Harder Than L1 | ITTT | TEFL Blog

Over the past two years, as part of an international community, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting people from all over the world. We share the common experience of learning an L2. I’ve spoken to nearly 100 people now, and what I’ve learned about learning L2 is, well, it’s hard.

This post was written by our TEFL certification graduate Janis U. Please note that this blog post might not necessarily represent the beliefs or opinions of ITTT.

Most people I’ve “interviewed” have either learned an L2 over many years or are still in the process of learning it. Of those that have learned an L2, they tend to be more fluent than accurate and most have learned L2 out of necessity within 1-3 years.

I consider myself in the process of learning my third language, even though I am still not fluent in my L2, which is Esperanto.

So why is learning L2 so much harder than L1?

Well, there are many reasons for this, but the short answer is: we learn L1 through a long, slow process that we just can’t replicate when learning L2. We need L1 to survive within the environment. We see and hear L1 everywhere and we learn all about L1 throughout formal schooling.

And if we are not lucky enough to have exposure to another language throughout the process of learning L1, chances are we’ll never be as confident learning L2. Some people will never learn another language because they simply don’t need to. For some people, including me, learning an L2 has been quite a struggle and we’ve had to work very hard at it.

Even if you choose a simple L2 to learn, such as Esperanto, getting past the well-formed circuit of L1 can be quite challenging. I believe this is due to many factors including:

  • Age
  • Lack of motivation/necessity
  • Natural ability
  • Unnatural learning process of L2

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L2 is challenging to learn, especially for older adults.

The average age of people I’ve met who are in the process of learning an L2 using a formal process is 36. While most have been exposed daily to their target language, L2, they still have had difficulty remembering and using what they’ve learned.

This makes L2 very hard to use spontaneously in certain situations.

Additionally, most of these people have access to groups where their native language, L1, is spoken. This makes the use of L2 less necessary. And on top of all that, their home language is still L1, so motivation “to struggle” with L2 is absent. Without this type of struggle, new neural circuits to support L2 simply won’t be made.

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As you can see, this lack of necessity is quite damaging to L2.

You can surround yourself with L2, but if you don’t need it you’ll lose it. I know this situation quite well. Even though my father and both sets of grandparents spoke Spanish, I didn’t learn it. I was encouraged to speak “English only” so there was no motivation, no need, for me to learn Spanish.

The most successful adult L2 learners I’ve met have learned their L2 because they married someone who was fluent in the L2 and non-fluent in their L1. I believe the strong motivation they had to communicate with the person they love gave L2 a strong chance to blossom. This is why motivation or necessity is crucial in learning L2.

But even if one has a strong motivation to learn L2, “the struggle is real” for those lacking in natural ability. I also know this first-hand because no matter how hard I try, I don’t learn languages as easily as my husband does.

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Why? Maybe I just don’t possess a natural ability to learn.

There are many different theories out there about natural ability. One theory suggests that my ability to learn math and music should make learning L2 difficult for me. Other theories suggest that math is just another language and, if I am good at math, I should be good at learning an L2.

I don’t think we know for sure what role our brain has in learning languages yet. I did some research in preparation for this assignment and came across an article that suggested: “our own brain’s unique wiring can pre-determine language success1.”

Other articles I found suggest we have enough research findings to encourage us to explore the possibility that some people are just better “wired” for language learning.

And if you haven’t been born with the best wiring for learning L2, I can only imagine that the unnatural environment we normally try to learn L2 in is most unhelpful. Of the people I’ve met, 90 percent have chosen to learn L2 in a language school setting. While I believe ESA is a great method for learning L2, it is still not as potent as the process we have for learning L1.

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Our L1 learning is so gradual.

We learn L1 in a variety of ways over a long period. This slow, immersive process allows L1 to become part of us. L1 becomes a part of our identity. Nothing can replace this unique, natural way we learn our native tongue. L1 becomes so deeply ingrained in us, we simply don’t think about what word to use and when.

This has become very apparent to me throughout my TEFL course.

There have been several times when I’ve paused in amazement. How do I know when and how to use the right conditionals and verb tenses? I don’t know, I just use them. English is my L1, so I can feel when something is “off”. This level of unconscious competence is not something we can acquire as easily with L2, and certainly not within a couple of years of study.

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But who knows, maybe if you have the right brain wiring, any L2 can become as ingrained as L1. I haven’t met anyone yet who hasn’t struggled to learn an L2, even if they feel confident now, and this is why L2 is harder to learn than L1.

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