Foreign Language Acquisition – The Challenges of 2020

challenges of 2020

As a new decade dawned on 1st January 2020, there was a huge wave of hope that filled many with positive feelings for the future.  This included language-learners who hoped to make this the decade they embarked on self-improvement by mastering an entirely new language. We weren’t to know yet the challenges of 2020.

By now, of course, a more unsettling wave of disruptive and disheartening reality has swept across the world, making 2020 probably the most challenging year ever for accomplishing these and other goals. Acquiring a new language is never exactly an overnight transformation, but 2020 is taking difficulty to whole new levels. 

It is pretty clear that one single major factor brings much of the challenges in 2020, and that is the global pandemic – Covid-19. 

How exactly is this pandemic making language acquisition more challenging? 

1 Lack of travel opportunities 

With governments around the world implementing stringent travel bans, it has become virtually impossible to immerse yourself in the country in which your chosen second language is spoken.  The virus has spared no corner of the world.  The great language-learning centers of the world for English and European languages have been particularly affected (the UK, US, France, Germany, Spain, etc.), making any sort of meaningful language-based travel experience nearly impossible.

 

“We see an intensifying atmosphere of resentment that is not a healthy or nurturing environment for the acquisition of foreign languages.”

 

2 Growing hostility to internationalism

The spread of Covid-19 has raised the ugly head of hostility to internationalist sentiments, with many wishing to draw their national borders more tightly, raise the drawbridges and maintain suspicion of outsiders.  As restaurants and other businesses in China, for example, put up signs declaring “no foreigners, please” we see an intensifying atmosphere of resentment that is not a healthy or nurturing environment for the acquisition of foreign languages. 

3 Inability to access learning infrastructure

While online learning is booming right now, that itself presents new challenges to many.  Furthermore, the reason everything has moved online is because the more mainstream channels of language learning have all been closed down, namely the learning centers, English corners and other face-to-face activities we were able to engage in before Covid-19 dominated the horizon. 

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The Challenges of 2020 Beyond Covid-19

Of course, it is not only this disease that presents us with a challenge in our new decade. Sooner or later, Covid-19 will be dealt with and the following additional challenges will become front and center.

“Besides online learning, there are now many language apps available, which boast terrific results in a short period of time.”
  • Adapting to new platforms and learning styles

Even before Covid-19 accelerated its growth, online learning was a growing phenomenon attracting a great deal of teacher talent and high-quality resources. Learning online, however, is a very different animal to the traditional classroom environment.  Interactions are made more challenging and learners have to contend with technological issues like connection problems or equipment failures on top of any existing difficulties with learning the language. 

Besides online learning, there are now many language apps available, which boast terrific results in a short period of time.  One challenge we now face is how to choose the right one for us and how to adapt our approach to use it effectively.  These platforms are so new that very few people have taken the time to really experiment with methods and tricks to get the most from them, and some can be prohibitively expensive. 

  • The problem of staying focused

The year 2020 is one in which we are now also inundated with smartphone apps, social media and other digital platforms that are in constant, and frankly irritating, competition to gain and keep our attention.

If you are using a language app, and you suddenly get a Facetime call from a friend, or you are tagged on Facebook, or your idle smartphone game reaches a new milestone, it becomes very difficult to focus on the task at hand. 

This is truly an age of distraction and shorter attention spans.  Notifications from one minute to the next are constantly diverting our attention and our minds.  It has never been harder to really sit and focus on the intricacies of language for a good protracted period of time.

“The growing influence of the European Union also suggests that perhaps German could be making a comeback.”
  • Choosing a “useful” language for the future

The political and economic winds have been shifting over the past few decades, and now we live in a world in which English is not the only international language of choice.  While English is sure to remain an excellent skill to master regardless of what happens probably in the next half-century or more, there is the question of what other languages would be equally useful?

Mandarin Chinese leaps to mind as a rival candidate to that of English.  The growing influence of the European Union also suggests that perhaps German could be making a comeback.  Spanish, too, remains attractive as burgeoning economies in Latin America make headway and attract investment and interest.  Which to choose, then? This is another of the big challenges of 2020. 

Truth: Language Learning is Always a Challenge

The fact remains that learning a foreign language is always a significant challenge, regardless of your individual circumstances.  Beyond memorizing words and phrases, truly acquiring a language is about gaining insight into another culture and way of life.  That is not something you can achieve instantly. 

Perhaps all this difficulty really shows us that there is a true and widespread need for a global language that we can all master together. 

To end on a positive note, now, in 2020, more than ever before we have the tools and the opportunity to learn new things, especially with technology as the wind beneath our wings.  We should cherish this chance and, by all means, take full advantage of it, for our own sake. 

What do you think is our most important challenge in 2020?  What can we learn from it?

See Slobodan’s other posts