Many first time second language students feel that learning a new language is indescribably hard. Many have a "mental block" of sorts that prevents them from remembering new vocabulary, or even "hearing" words they have already learned.

The more astute students may even recognize that the problem is their own mental block, as opposed to the inherent difficulty of the material.

As an example, on vacation I recently met an American living in Spain, who admitted that he had a "mental block" to learning Spanish. He had essentially "decided" that Spanish was too difficult for him to learn, and thus he was unable to pick up even the simplest phrases, or even remember simple Spanish names (street names, restaurants, etc).

Other, more active students, I have interacted with, may have an academic mental block, which has convinced them that conjugations are "too hard," or that "French sounds too funny to understand," or other conscious or unconscious mental barriers to learning or remembering foreign material.

As a teacher or tutor of language students, how can I help them overcome this mental block?

  • 1
    @user3169: But I want to know how to overcome a mental block, not any generic difficulty in learning.
    – Flimzy
    Apr 7, 2016 at 19:54
  • What I am trying to say is that a "mental block" is a symptom of a condition that may or may not be related to the activity at hand. Rather than just say "mental block", you should describe what it means. Also "generic difficulty in learning", what is that?
    – user3169
    Apr 7, 2016 at 22:06
  • @user3169: I have no idea what a generic "difficulty in learning" would be--I was responding to your term.
    – Flimzy
    Apr 8, 2016 at 6:53
  • @user3169: In any case, I have edited my question in an effort to add clarity (rather than remove it, as you seemed to suggest).
    – Flimzy
    Apr 8, 2016 at 6:57
  • get inspired by @user3169, I think we should have the psychology tag
    – Ooker
    Jun 16, 2016 at 17:45

5 Answers 5


The concept of Gamification have taken over the domain of language learning too. Duolingo is a nice example for the same.

The lessons are divided into bite-sized chunks which are just enough for a day, and points are earned for both learning and practicing, so that the student also practices which is already learned rather than just keep on learning new vocabulary.

The huge success of the platform shows the power of gamification (the idea of modeling a task in the form of a game) in the domain of education.

In addition to gamify the learning experience, as wythagoras has neatly put, flashcards is an old but still an effective method for language and vocabulary learning.


Recently, there has been a lot of investigation on how to make language learning more enjoyable. Most online resources include games in their sites. This makes it more fun to learn the language, and when something is fun, it is also more effective. FluentU has a great article on this.

Also, it is good to give some choice in other assignments so that students can choose what they want to write. For example: "Write an essay about the holiday you liked most". If you give this choice, then something will be more fun, which means that students will remember it better.

Further, don't forget to tell the students about good language learning tricks, such as (online) flash cards, that they can use to learn the vocabulary.

Finally, you should make clear that vocabulary and grammar are the foundations of a language and that without it, you can't write, read or converse – which are of course the goals of learning a language.

  • I always hated writing those "mitt sommarlov" -texts about my summer holiday. It still remains a stereotype about a boring and mindless language learning task in our family. but then I was also reading far too difficult texts about interesting subject matters in the language voluntarily.
    – Tommi
    Feb 17, 2022 at 7:41

A new language student doesn't know what to do when you tell him: "Here are ten new words, please learn them by next week". They lack a structure.

If you on the other hand tell them: "Download Anki and use this Anki deck I give you. Work through your Anki cards every day" the promt is specific. The student doesn't have to invent a system for learning vocabulary but can simply follow the instruction.

Trouble with hearning words can likely come from the fact that the student didn't hear the words during the learning process.

Duolingo has specific exercises where a learner has to transcribe a sentence. That exercise can build the ability to hear the new language. It can also make sense to have the same in an Anki deck for a new learner.


Students need frequent success in order to be motivate to learn. A rule of thumb is that for the first time a student is exposed to a task, they should be able to complete the task with about 60% accuracy. If they fail more than this, they often become too discourage to learn. On the other hand, if then have more success than this they can become bored.

A mixture of success and failure allows a child to learn while still having something that they know they need to work on.


Use some gamification. When I mean by that is, make the lesson into some sort of game. Where the student will earn a prize like a sticker, privilege, or just the prize of knowing something after so much struggle. Most difficult things like learning a new language and chores, are usually "converted" into a game so they seem less challenging and to inspire the student to learn.

Use tricks to guide your student away from his own mental block and make sure to explain to him what will happen if that mental block gets in the way: which is that he cannot read, write, or talk to anyone who knows that language. Even cooler is to talk to him in that language: if he wants to understand what cool things you are saying, he will have to learn and get past that barrier.

Split the lessons into small chunks, to avoid cramming and the sense of too much work to do. This will make the lesson longer but easier for the student to comprehend as he progresses on.

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