1. Early passive exposure can reap rewards later on
  2. The younger you’re introduced to a language or music, the better your chances of success
  3. We’re not all naturally good at it—some have an aptitude, and some don’t
  4. We can’t all be prodigies, but we can all get to an acceptable level
  5. Neither speaking English nor playing music is about perfection—it doesn’t exist
  6. Whether playing the guitar or speaking English, you won’t get better without one thing—practice
  7. Playing music and speaking English in front of people involves some performance anxiety
  8. Without an expert/teacher to tell you what you’re doing wrong, it’s hard to improve
  9. Many nuances are difficult for novices to grasp and use
  10. There are rules that you can break—once you know them
    What’s my point? I’m not really sure I have one…

I’ve thought a lot about learning English as a second language (ESL) and English as a foreign language (EFL). I’ve also thought a lot about learning to play the guitar. Playing guitar is my passion but also one of my greatest struggles. The more I ponder these two different topics, the more I realize how similar they are. 

I draw parallels between my students’ journeys to learn English and my own journey. Not my journey to learn Korean—my journey to play the guitar. Science doesn’t completely understand the ability of humans to learn languages. Researchers know even less about how we learn a second or third language—especially later on in life.

A vector image with the word why appearing several times, along with several question marks introducing the idea that researchers don't fully understand why learning a second language is so hard.

So why is learning English as a second language so hard? For that matter, why is learning to play the guitar so hard? (The points I make apply to other languages and instruments. But I’m gonna stick to what I know.)

1. Early passive exposure can reap rewards later on

We may not know precisely how language learning works, but evidence suggests exposure to a language in the womb can be beneficial. There is also some evidence that early exposure to complex music like jazz and classical music may help develop perfect pitch

Like everything in this list, there are no absolutes. A lack of exposure to English in the womb does not mean your child will never learn English. Likewise, not playing jazz to your unborn child doesn’t mean they won’t develop perfect pitch. But exposure doesn’t hurt—and if anything, only increases the possibility for success. 

A picture of a young girl playing the piano, introducing the idea that people usually have better success with languages and instruments the earlier they're introduced to them

The guitar isn’t considered the ideal instrument for young children. The piano is often preferred for the linear arrangement of its keys. But pre-teens routinely pick up the guitar—and often do pretty well. Most guitarists don’t pick up the guitar until their late teens. The ones that start playing earlier have more than a decade’s head start on those ‘late bloomers.’ Ask any musician about their biggest regret. Most often, they say they wished they’d started playing earlier. 

2. The younger you’re introduced to a language or music, the better your chances of success

Whether we’re talking about language or music, the earlier you’re introduced to it, the better. Children that have a strong foundation in music are more likely to excel musically later in life. The same is true of language, especially with regards to pronunciation. It is much more difficult to attain native-like pronunciation in a second language after the critical period (usually around the age of 10). 

The muscles in our lips, tongue, and throat are used to producing the sounds of our native language. As such, it becomes much more difficult to produce sounds that don’t exist in our native language. The same is true for learning music. Learning to play guitar in early childhood helps develop coordination and dexterity. Those abilities are tougher to develop later on in life, especially without previous exposure.

An image of woman with her face mainly covered by her hat. Her lips are pursed to indicate she is forming a sound

Learning to play the guitar as an adult is no simple feat, especially if you’ve never played an instrument. The dexterity required to fret notes and hold chords is challenging. So are many of the stretches between fingers needed for some chords and passages. But watch young children play the guitar. Though their hands are smaller than the average adult, they manage. They carry this flexibility and dexterity with them as they continue playing.

3. We’re not all naturally good at it—some have an aptitude, and some don’t

Though you may not want to admit it, some people have an aptitude for certain things. That doesn’t mean that an incredible amount of hard work and effort isn’t needed to excel. But think back to your language classes in school. Don’t you remember a kid that seemed to do well in English class? But you don’t remember them studying hard. English seemed to be easy for them.

A picture of a young boy playing an electric guitar and rocking out
Background photo created by valuavitaly – www.freepik.com

What about music class? You spent hours practicing your piece on the guitar, but there was always one kid that made it look so easy. Their fingers flew over the fretboard. Every note rang clean. Of course, they practiced, but it somehow seemed different when they played. So effortless—on a different level. Their playing had something yours didn’t.

4. We can’t all be prodigies, but we can all get to an acceptable level

We can’t deny the existence of musical prodigies. The Internet is littered with young kids playing way beyond their years. Some people pick up languages with ease. Despite having never lived abroad, they appear fluent in foreign languages. I’m not suggesting that there is no effort or sacrifice made. But these things come easier for some people. 

But that doesn’t mean we should all give up. You may never reach the level of fluency in English to become a simultaneous translator. But you can learn English well enough to carry on a conversation. You can become proficient enough to work in an English-speaking environment. It may always be noticeable that you’re not a native English speaker, but so what?

A picture of a house painted blue, white and red, the colors of the Acadian, to introduce that my father is Acadian and speaks French

My father is Acadian. He was born and raised in a French-speaking area of Canada. He didn’t start learning English until he was in high school, past the critical period. He had to move to an English-speaking community because of my grandfather’s job. 

If you were to meet him, you would immediately know that English isn’t his first language. He speaks with a very noticeable French accent. But he is also fluent in English. If he weren’t, we’d have a lot of trouble communicating, as I speak more Korean than I do French.

I’ve been learning to play the guitar on and off for over two decades. I will never become a professional musician. But I reached a level where I was able to join a (very patient) band a few years ago. I still make exponentially more mistakes during practice and performances than my bandmates. But I’m doing it. 

A picture of Gulag Chicken rockin' out at Alleyway Taphouse, playing  Basket Case to show that I've become good enough at playing the guitar to perform in public.

The point is, I’ve become proficient enough at playing the guitar to perform in front of others. You can become proficient enough in English to converse, travel, and work. People may never mistake you for a native-English speaker. No one will ever mistake me for a professional guitarist. But we can both reach a level of proficiency that works for us.

5. Neither speaking English nor playing music is about perfection—it doesn’t exist

When playing live gigs, I want to avoid making mistakes. I don’t want people to laugh and point at me. You don’t want to say something during lunch that causes your coworkers to laugh at you.

These are both great goals, albeit unrealistic ones. Professional musicians make mistakes when they play. Native English speakers make mistakes speaking English on a daily basis. Stop chasing perfection. It doesn’t exist.

Proper study, preparation, and practice will help you reduce the number and types of mistakes you make. But don’t become paralyzed with fear—so much so that you don’t even try. Should you make a mistake, guess what? Most people won’t notice! 

A picture of a crowd making heart symbols, showing their love for the performers.

I’ve come off stage, beating myself up over my terrible performance. But then people from the crowd come and tell me what a great show it was. Either they didn’t notice my mistakes—or they didn’t care. The same goes for speaking English. People may or may not notice your mistakes in conversation. And more often than not, if they do, they won’t care.

6. Whether playing the guitar or speaking English, you won’t get better without one thing—practice

My students often asked about the ‘secret’ to learning English. I always gave them the same answer—practice, practice, practice. The same goes for guitar. I’m a very intermediate guitar player. But without the thousands of hours I’ve put in over the years, I’d be even worse than I am now!

You need to study when learning English. You need to remember vocabulary and grammar. You also need to study when playing the guitar. You need to learn about muting techniques and picking skills. We want to know the theory involved and how the experts do it. But studying theory will only get us so far.

A picture of a hand filling out a standardized test form introducing the idea that Koreans are good at studying for English tests, but not using English

Koreans tend to be great at studying about English. They’re often not nearly as good at using it. I used to put it to my students like this. 

Imagine you wanted to learn to play the guitar. You read books and books from guitar experts. You watched hours and hours of YouTube tutorials on guitar techniques. You spent months reading and responding to online guitar player forums. But during this time, you never actually touched a guitar. Would your guitar playing improve? 

Of course not! Reading about how to minimize finger movement to increase your fretting hand speed is great. But it won’t make a difference until you try those techniques yourself. Watching experts demonstrate picking techniques won’t improve your playing. Not until you try to replicate them yourself. All the chord theory in the world won’t mean anything if you can’t transition from a G chord to a C chord.

The same holds true for English. I’ve met several Koreans that have received perfect TOEIC or TOEFL scores. Yet, they struggle to keep a conversation going for more than a few minutes. They can argue obscure English grammar points with you—in Korean. But they forget to use the past tense when talking about what they did yesterday. They know a lot about English. But applying that knowledge is a challenge

7. Playing music and speaking English in front of people involves some performance anxiety

One of the biggest obstacles second language learners face is performance anxiety. It’s one thing to repeat sentences into your language learning app. You think to yourself, “Yes, I can do this!” Then you meet a native speaker, and the conversation starts off great.

Native speaker: What’s your name?
You: My name’s Park Sujin.
Native speaker: Nice to meet you, Sujin. What do you do?
You: I’m a software developer.
Native speaker: Oh really? My company is hiring software developers. We should keep in touch. What’s your phone number?
You: Uh, zero one zero–uh nine…four…three….two, no uh nine…four..three…one uh….seven….seven….two…uh…..six.

A picture of a smartphone, introducing the idea that it's hard to give your phone number in another language if you haven't done it often

You realized you’ve never given someone your phone number in English. You know how to count in English, but having to ‘translate’ each number requires a huge mental load. Speaking English in the real world is difficult! This is where that “practice, practice, practice” thing I mentioned earlier comes in.

Funny story—I’d struggle to give you my license plate number in English. “But aren’t you a native English speaker?” Why yes, yes I am. But I’ve only ever had to tell someone my license plate number in Korean. Trying to do it now, I’m thinking in Korean and translating those numbers, one by one, into English. It rolls off my tongue in Korean. In English, it’s like the phone number example above.

Playing your guitar at home, jamming along with your favorite backing track—you’re a rock star. Then you step on stage. There are lights in your eyes. People are looking at you—expectantly. You’ve never turned your amp up this loud in your bedroom. It’s loud, and now you’re hearing every little mistake—mistakes you never noticed before. There’s so much going on in your mind that it’s hard to play the simplest of songs.

A woman sitting on an amp, playing an electric guitar at home, representing the idea that playing music at home is different that playing in front of a crowd

Speaking English and playing the guitar both feel great when you’re in your comfort zone. But actually having to use what you’ve studied and learned in real-time? That is a very different experience. But if you follow my tip about practicing, the more you practice, the less stressful and awkward it will feel. It may never be completely stress-free—but things will get better. If I started giving my license plate number in English more often, it would quickly become much easier.

8. Without an expert/teacher to tell you what you’re doing wrong, it’s hard to improve

Whether playing with my band or during my weekly guitar lesson, I’ve noticed a recurring problem. I practice a passage or an exercise all week. I drill it for hours. I’m sure I’ve got it down. It sounds pretty good, and I can play it well—most of the time. But then D-day comes.

During practice, my bandmates will point out 2 or 3 things I could’ve done better. During my lesson, my teacher will comment that a particular aspect of my playing was good—but that I’d neglected another. Even when I record myself and listen to my practice sessions, I still miss these things. Once someone points them out to me, I can hear them. But until someone does, I’m oblivious. 

The same goes for your speaking. You decide to focus on using the past tense correctly. You’ve reviewed regular and irregular verbs. You correct yourself when you forget to use the correct verb tense. You’re confident you’ve got the past tense down. But what about your pronunciation? Are you pronouncing “~ed” the same way at the end of passed, cleaned, and started? If so, you shouldn’t be!

A picture of a middle-aged female ESL / EFL teacher writing on a white board to introduce that ~ed has three different pronunciations.

You may not be aware that “~ed” in passed sounds like /t/, like /d/ in cleaned, but like / Əd/ in started. You may also be unaware that it adds an extra syllable in started, but not in passed and cleaned. You may sometimes be using the simple past tense when you should be using the present perfect. But once someone points these things out to you, you can start working on them. But until someone does, you often have no idea you’re doing something wrong.

Both music and language are complex things. Guidance from an excellent teacher to show you the way and point out things you may have missed is invaluable.

9. Many nuances are difficult for novices to grasp and use

I can play Mary Had a Little Lamb on the guitar. Slash can play the same song. Even if we only played the exact same notes, I guarantee his version would sound MUCH better than mine. Why? His timing, tone, vibrato, and picking would be leaps and bounds better than mine. Sure, you’d recognize the tune when I played it. But it’d be a very different experience when Slash plays it.

The same goes for speaking English. You may have pretty good pronunciation. Your grammar may be almost perfect. But what about your intonation? Do you move the syllable stress when you say photograph and photographer? The words you choose to express yourself might get the message across, but not as eloquently as a native speaker.

A picture of pink scrabble tiles spelling fat burn, to introduce the difference in the terms skinny, thin, and slim

I recently wrote a post about the importance of tone in writing. This is also important in speaking. If you want to compliment your sister, who’s been exercising hard to lose weight, which phrase should you use?

You look so thin!
You look so skinny!
You look so slim!

Your sister will take one of those sentences as a compliment. She won’t appreciate the other two. A guitarist can work on subtle nuances like tone and vibrato. And an EFL speaker can work on intonation and word choice. It can be a long, frustrating journey. And you’ll likely need an expert to help guide you on that journey.

10. There are rules that you can break—once you know them

Everyone loves shortcuts. When learning English, who doesn’t love to find a simpler way of saying something? For example, when you learn English, sometimes you’re taught that it’s okay to hyphenate a word at the end of the line.

But then you get people who wr-
ite paragraphs like this because th-
ey don’t know the actual rules gove-
rning the use of hyphens in this si-
tuation.

EFL students learn that apostrophes represent missing letters, like in you’re, we’re, and they’re. Some students will add apostrophes to words like there’re and this’s—and it doesn’t work.

A word cloud with several incorrectly formed contractions, such as there're and is'nt to introduce the idea of incorrect apostrophes use

You can use hyphens at the end of a line to split a word—but only between syllables. You can use apostrophes to represent missing letters, but there are rules about how this works. Not knowing the rules for using apostrophes led me to believe a native English speaker did not create this shirt. (Warning—NSFW content!)

A knowledgeable musician may play a few notes out of key on purpose. It’s not a mistake. They do it to create an effect or mood. But they do it based on their wealth of knowledge and experience. They know during which parts of the chord progression those “out of key” notes will work.

A picture of a young man with his fingers in his ears, representing the idea that playing wrong notes sounds unpleasant
Music photo created by diana.grytsku – www.freepik.com

An amateur musician playing notes out of key may get lucky once in a while. But more often than not, they end up sounding horrible. Shortcuts are great, but you need to learn the proper way to do things first. Only when you understand how things work can you start bending or even breaking the rules.

What’s my point? I’m not really sure I have one…

The more I practice guitar, the more I’m struck by how similar my musical journey is to my students’ journey to learn English. As an editor and proofreader, I notice things about language use that many people overlook. I spot mistakes with ease.

But as a guitar player, I’m using all my mental faculties just trying to keep up. I’m happy if I play the right notes most of the time. I don’t have the hope of excelling any time soon. But am I planning to give up? 

Not yet! I keep practicing every day. I keep playing live shows, despite making more mistakes than anyone who’s played as long as I have should. I’ll never be a professional musician, but I can still enjoy performing music—well, I can try to enjoy it.

And you shouldn’t give up on your journey to learn English. You may never be fluent. You will likely never speak English like a native speaker—and that’s okay. Language is about communication. If you can understand what someone is saying to you and get your point across to them, you’re communicating. Mission accomplished!

I would love to hear your thoughts on my ramblings. Leave a comment!

One thought on “10 ways learning English as a second language is like playing the guitar

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