How to sell language learning to a skeptic

by Jakob Straub
December 01, 2020
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Not everyone enjoys the thought of learning a new language. Are you skeptical that acquiring language skills is for you, or do you know someone who is not convinced of the benefits? We’ll show you how to persuade a language learning skeptic!

Convince a skeptic of the benefits of language learning

If you or someone you know is skeptic towards the idea of learning a new language, the way to persuasion follows these simple steps:

  • Understand the problem or the reason for their skepticism
  • Empathise with possible frustrations regarding learning a new language
  • Explain possible solutions to overcoming the problem
  • Convince them of the benefits of language learning
  • Gently nudge them towards taking action

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Understand language learning reluctance

When trying to persuade someone or even yourself to start learning a language, it’s tempting to launch straight into a rundown of the benefits of language learning – and there are many, such as improving your mental health!

Before you do that, it’s important to understand the skeptic’s position. They usually have a reason which to them appears very convincing, and if you ride in on the high horse of know-it-all polyglot, you’ll stand no chance of winning them over.

Don’t judge or belittle the skeptic and their reasons: just because they’re reluctant to learn a new language doesn’t mean they’re ignorant or lack sophistication. Reluctance can come from a perceived weakness, a bad experience, a lack of motivation, attention span, or time, financial hardship or a completely unrelated source of stress that’s preventing the skeptic from getting started. Engage the skeptic on their level and let them lay out their view first.

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Strengthen the connection to the language

Humans are both rational and emotional beings. We follow our hearts or guts more often than we think: we make an emotional decision, but justify it in retrospect with rational arguments, essentially telling ourselves a story about our ‘good reasons’.

These reasons might genuinely be good, but they could also stem from deep-rooted feelings. If those around us feel differently, they’re likely to not understand or follow our reasoning.

You won’t convince a skeptic with scientific facts on reason alone if you don’t connect with them emotionally. Ask them how they feel about foreign languages and learning a new language. Foster any emotional binding to a language and understand that feelings of aversion or dislike need not be rational and can come from fear of competition in class, test anxiety, or being shy to speak in front of strangers.

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Build confidence

A skeptic’s negative feelings towards learning a new language can be related to a lack of confidence or low self-esteem. Studies show that language students have a heightened self-concept compared to students not learning a new language.

Building up a skeptic’s self-image can be the confidence boost they need to get started. Remind them of other skills they have mastered and how that increased their confidence. Languages are like any other skills, they give you the warm feeling of achievement when you improve.

Even someone who’s skeptical towards learning a new language knows at least one language already. There is no reason they cannot understand another, and thus make them better at their first language as well. We also become more interesting with new skills we acquire, so what better way to convince the skeptic than to tell them they’ll be more interesting?

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Overcome projection bias

In a nutshell, projection bias describes the phenomenon that people tend to assume circumstances for them will not change over time. They project their current situation into the future and see the same thing. This bias in turn can lead to underapprecion of the impact we can have on our future.

A language learning skeptic can be biased that way, saying: “I don’t need language skills now, I won’t need them in the future.” No one can know the future, of course, but even though that means we cannot prepare for all eventualities, we can prepare for what we can anticipate, which is infinitely better than not being prepared at all.

Remind the skeptic of a situation in which they could only do too little too late; the only way to avoid future regret like that is to take action now!

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Look to the past

But when looking to the past, it’s important to not only consider regrets the skeptic might have, but to remind them of their wins as well. They could have had success with language learning before, or have any other positive learning experience.

Help them determine what kind of learner they are. That way you can persuade them to tackle language learning in a strategic way, playing to their strengths. Do they retain vocabulary better with flash cards? Do they need to listen to a native speaker to master pronunciation? Are they the visual type, or do they need to read to retain knowledge?

Knowing your learning type makes studying more efficient and allows the learner to maximise the effect of even smaller or shorter efforts.

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Clear away language learning misconceptions

There are a few persistent misconceptions when it comes to language learning which might lead a skeptic to believe that they’re fine with their current skills:

  • Everyone speaks English: The skeptic assumes they can get by all around the world by speaking English. While it’s true that English is a global language, around 75 percent of the world’s population do not speak English. Moreover, roughly a third of non-native English speakers have only basic or low level proficiency. So no, you won’t be able to speak English with everyone!
  • It’s too late: It can be true that it’s harder to learn a language when you’re older, but you’re never too old to learn a new language! Adult language classes are geared towards people who want to advance their careers, grow personally and enrich their lives. You can become proficient at any age.
  • There’s an app for that: Yes, Google Translate is a basic tool which helps you get by with somewhat useful translations. But ordering a coffee with machine translation and knowing a language are two different things. Similarly, language learning apps can serve as effective supplemental learning aides, but are no replacement for online language classes with a certified teacher who is a native speaker.
  • Language skills are useless on your CV: On the contrary, the demand for language skills is seeing an upward trend across all occupations. In the global job market, companies of all sizes look for employees with the skills to compete in foreign markets and to engage foreign customers. Find out how learning a language online will boost your career!
  • Growing up bilingual is confusing: No, the opposite is true here as well. Learning two languages at the same time helps children develop their cognitive ability. Growing up bilingual or learning more languages is no impairment to development, mental capacity or sense of identity. Explain to a skeptic what exactly it means to be bilingual.

Don’t exaggerate

Convincing a skeptic or yourself of the benefits of language learning means charting a route to a brighter future. However, be careful not to overshoot: it can be tempting to make the goal or destination look every bit as impressive as the Instagram version of your last vacation. Painting a perfect picture will only feed the skepticism.

Instead, be honest when sketching both the way and the destination. Injecting a sense of reality doesn’t make you less persuasive, but it gives you an advantage over the dishonest sales pitch where you claim the skeptic will learn a new language with zero effort and change their life completely overnight.

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Every step of the way

Be aware that overcoming language learning skepticism might not be a one-time thing. Self-doubt, negative thinking or loss of faith can occur while taking classes already. The skeptic has to overcome their reluctance again and again.

You can be there for them by reminding them that every learning achievement is already an improvement compared to the initial status quo. Celebrate their wins with them, remind them you’re there for them and that they’re not alone in this.

Persuade the skeptic that even with online classes, they’re not learning by themselves but receive instructions from a teacher and join others in a virtual classroom. Lingoda classes have all the benefits of learning a language together!

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