“I Can’t Learn Languages!”

After 5 years of being taught German at secondary school I got a C grade for my GCSE qualification.

When I started secondary education, I sat in a French lesson in tears because my form had been randomly allocated French as the language to learn. No consultation with us, the pupils.

I had always wanted to learn German because half of my family is of German origin. I felt a strong desire to be connected to them and to be able to communicate with them as I had not been able to before.

French translation

So my tears flowed. I was a frustrated 11 year old, with no clue how to get out of my fix. I was sure learning French would be a disaster.

During the lesson, I learnt how to address the teacher correctly in French and how to say hello. But I couldn’t stop wondering what my counterparts in the German lesson were saying. What was I missing out on? And if I could somehow join them, how would I cope with being a whole lesson behind them?

I found out quickly that I could transfer to a German class if I got a letter from my Mother. Thankfully, she wrote me one! The following lesson I was delighted to join the German class. I had already bugged my maternal Grandmother to learn a few bits and pieces of German so I would at least have a head start, and so began 5 years of undergoing German lessons.

5 Years, But Little To Show

At the beginning I was filled with enthusiasm, but found it difficult to learn from the way I was taught. At the time I believed that I just wasn’t getting it and that my memory wasn’t equipped to learn languages.

The years went by and I became more convinced I was just not up to the task. I finished school with the reasonable pass grade, and yet I could do no more than vaguely understand some conversational German in passing and could not actually converse with anyone in the language. Obviously I couldn’t learn a language.

Fast forward to a few years ago. I had my young child and realised the importance of being surrounded by different languages. I truly wished that I was one of ‘those people’ who can magically learn languages with ease. I felt that my shortcoming was going to hinder his development. I buried my head in the sand about languages.

All this came from the belief that some people are fortunate to have an innate ability to learn and others (like myself) had to work 300% harder for the same results.

A Mindset Shift

As time has passed, my belief has shifted. We all have strengths and weaknesses, but that does not mean that some people have an innate ability to learn languages whilst others do not. Different methods, whether schooled or self-taught or otherwise, bring different results depending on the person and their experiences. There is no ‘one size fits all’.

This shift of outlook made me fundamentally question all the assumptions I had come to believe as truths, as a result of my own experiences. I now strongly believe that a growth mindset with regard to learning is fundamental to achieving, along with finding learning resources that ‘speak to you’ and leaving what doesn’t for another time (or never).

I had made my assumptions about not being able to learn languages as a young child, and have subsequently been carrying those beliefs on my journey through life (as many of us do!).


2 Weeks, And So Much Gained

I made a statement to someone earlier this year that I couldn’t learn French. Indeed, I didn’t want to because of those classroom tears many years ago!

The moment I said the words, I had a lightbulb moment. My assumption didn’t fit in with my ideals any longer. My belief that people can learn anything they put their mind to, with enough practice and material or support that suits them.

I immediately made a follow up statement:

“Because I said I can’t learn French, I make the decision to challenge that assumption and I want to learn French and will find a way to do it.”

I spoke to my husband and did a few things right away:

  • bought a children’s French/English dictionary which has words, short descriptions and pictures;
  • learnt a few words from the dictionary;
  • got hold of a ‘First French Words‘ book for my son and worked alongside with him;
  • started listening to the Paul Noble Learn French CDs;
  • signed up for Duolingo, a language learning site.

I haven’t spent a huge amount of time on any of these things, but these focuses have been invaluable. I am already delighted with the results of a fortnight or so of learning a new language.

I can speak more French in 2 weeks than I could speak German after 5 years of school tuition. When I am done, maybe I could learn German too and get closer to my childhood goal of having a proper conversation in the language. Here’s to finding the best resources to suit your personal needs!



Natalie has spent many years employed as a scientist. Since she committed to supporting her children's whole-life learning, Natalie has developed a strong interest (both general and personal) in how and why people learn and develop. This interest led to the creation of the site you’re currently on, “Learning, Always”.

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