Learn from the mistakes of others. You can never live long enough to make them all yourself.
― Groucho Marx
Learning a foreign language is no easy thing, but it does get easier over time because you learn from your mistakes and you get to know yourself better as a learner. The best thing is that you can considerably shorten your learning curve by learning from other people’s mistakes.
In this post we’ll have a look at the 10 most common mistakes that language learners make. Get ready to take down some notes, because if you avoid most of the mistakes outlined below, you’ll be on your way to fluency in no time!
1. Approaching learning as homework
The overwhelming majority of people see language learning as some kind of homework. Curiously enough, people don’t usually see learning how to surf or play the guitar the same way. Why would languages be any different?
Learning a language shouldn’t be seen as “homework,” but rather as an enjoyable process to open up a world of opportunities and reach a personal goal. Learn how to actually enjoy the language you’re learning by not only getting stuck with textbooks, grammar drills and flashcards.
Remember, anything you really enjoy doing in your native tongue can also be enjoyed in the language you’re learning. Whether it be reading a book or a blog, watching movies, playing computer games, meeting friends, or listening to music, the possibilities are endless. This approach will also get you to discover more about the culture of the people who speak the language you’re learning, which is always very interesting and rewarding.
2. A single method
A lot of language learners fail to diversify the methods they use, and often get stuck with the same textbook for months. No wonder they end up quitting out of boredom.
Make sure you diversify the methods you use and develop a healthy habit of approaching the language from various angles. In my interview with polyglot Luca Lampariello, Luca says that he usually tries to stick to one or two textbooks in the beginning stages of language learning. He encourages learners to do the same by picking one or two language series that they particularly like.
As you reach an intermediate stage, however, Luca really underlines the importance of diversifying the methods you use. Coming back to the previous point about not approaching language learning as a homework, don’t forget that anything you really enjoy doing in your native tongue can also be enjoyed in your target language.
3. Starting too abruptly
Being extremely motivated for a short period of time can drain your batteries, after which you’ll have to take a break and relax. We’re all super excited when we start learning a new language. We feel like buying every single book we can get our hands on and spending hours every day studying the language. Most of us have this initial motivation boost, but the problem is that when this flow of motivation comes to a stop and the tide reverses, we’re in for some disappointment. A lot of people give up because they drain themselves way too quickly. Don’t be one of them.
The secret here is to start slowly to make sure you don’t drain your batteries so as to keep yourself motivated for the long-run. In the beginning stages, try not to study more than 30-40 minutes a day. This may seem counter-intuitive but consistency is infinitely better than starting abruptly, giving up after a few weeks, and then returning back to the language after a long period of absence. As you progress and reach an intermediate level, think about gradually putting more time every day toward the learning of your target language. This is sustainable because you’ll already have developed healthy habits and a solid base in the language.
4. Waiting too long before speaking
Speaking a language is a skill, just like driving a car or playing a musical instrument is. No matter how much knowledge you gain about it through books, your skill is unlikely to truly improve unless you practice it. Many language learners nevertheless hold the mysterious belief that somehow years of textbook cramming and classes where a teacher is lecturing a monologue will magically make their skill develop. Others want to wait until they can make next to no mistakes before opening their mouth so as not to embarrass themselves.
Don’t. Do. That.
You really have to overcome your fear and your embarrassment and practice speaking with somebody as soon as you can. Nothing bad will come out of it. I don’t necessarily recommend “speaking from Day 1” as polyglot Benny Lewis does, but you should certainly start practicing basic dialogues after a few weeks of exposure to the language. This will also improve your pronunciation and your ability to retain new words and expressions, and as an added bonus you’ll get to meet new friends!
5. Not listening enough
Listening to the language you are learning is extremely important, yet so many language learners never make an effort to listen to anything beyond the boundaries of their textbook’s CD (at best). The problem is compounded by the fact that most audio files that come with language textbooks are highly artificial sounding, pre-fabricated conversations that bear little resemblance to how actual native speakers talk in real life.
We all learn by copying, and the only way you can copy a language is by listening to someone speak it. Even in the early stages of your learning journey, when you still can’t understand much of what you listen to, don’t hesitate to get exposed to the language as much as you can (i.e. music, movies, radio, the news, etc.). Besides your listening skills, your pronunciation and intonation will really make leaps and bounds if you do so, because you’ll get used right from the start to the “flow” of the language.
6. Rigid Thinking
Languages involve a lot of uncertainty. Every day you’ll come across words you’ve never seen before. Most beginning language learners get all fussed about it and feel like they have to know every single word they come across before passing on to something else. This makes their life miserable. The problem is, we can never know every word there is out there, much less the definition for each and every one of them. Think about it, the word “set” in English has approximately 464 definitions. Do you know them all? Not even close.
Good guessing skills are very important when it comes to acquiring a foreign language, and you should ensure you remain flexible and open to uncertainty. Get into the habit of guessing the meaning of new words from context. Don’t worry, you’ll eventually learn them through repeated exposure, in different contexts, at different places. This process is called assimilation. However, you should look for words that are vital to your understanding of what’s happening if there is no way you can guess them. Just don’t get bogged down in the details; keep your eyes on the big picture.
7. Taking a bottom-up approach
Many people start by looking at the individual pieces of the puzzle and then assume that eventually everything will line up and fit together; that’s called the bottom-up approach. It sounds intuitive, but it doesn’t work that way. If you start by learning all the grammar rules and the pronunciation for every individual word before actually stringing sentences together, you’ll end up with a rather unpleasant experience and little success in terms of fluency development (remember your high school language class?). The same thing applies when learning tones; you simply cannot expect to learn the tones for, say, every individual Chinese word and then string them together and somehow sound natural.
The top-down approach encourages the learner to first be exposed to entire sentences and gradually learn grammar and rules in a more inductive manner, just like children naturally acquire their mother tongue. Grammar is important, no doubt, but you should be exposed to the language first. That’s the method language series such as Assimil use, and from the experiences of several distinguished polyglots I’ve interviewed, it’s also their method of choice.
8. Translating concepts directly
Many learners don’t understand that languages are different from each other, and that very often you simply can’t translate particular words and expressions directly. Doing so more often than not results in very unnatural sounding speech. A very simple example is the use of personal pronouns such as “I” or “You.” In so-called “pro-drop” languages such as Arabic, Spanish and Korean, personal pronouns are very rarely used because they are redundant. Yet the vast majority of English speakers learning these languages seem to have a hard time getting their head around this simple fact.
When you start learning a foreign language, start from a blank slate. You need to forget about whatever patterns or expressions you got used to employing in your native tongue, especially if you’re learning a language from a different family. Get used to absorbing new patterns and expressions without always referring back to your mother tongue. You’ll thank me later.
9. Forgetting about intonation
A lot of people dedicate little time to really working on their pronunciation, and much less on their intonation (what I like to call the “flow” or “music” of the language). This results in them sounding totally foreign and hard to understand. This might surprise you, but intonation is actually more important than pronunciation if you want to get yourself understood.
Recently, Brian Kwong had a really great interview with polyglot Luca Lampariello, in which Luca underlines the importance of intonation and gives very specific steps through which you can improve it. Generally speaking, a lot of listening will help to fix this problem, but it’s always good to consciously work on it too through recording yourself and going over exercises.
10. Lack of confidence
Last but not least, too many people start learning a foreign language with the wrong mindset. “It’s too hard,” “It’s too boring,” “I won’t make it,” or any similar type of thinking will drag you down and may even turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy. Be careful not to confuse competence with confidence. Competence is the ability to do something, whereas confidence is your belief about your competence.
My belief is that everybody has the ability to learn a foreign language. After all, you learned your mother tongue, didn’t you? You just have to learn to step outside of your comfort zone and believe in yourself. You will have, one day or another, to get over your fear of speaking the language with natives. You will have to get over your fear of being ridiculed (don’t worry, it most likely won’t happen) or of not being perfect (nobody is). As long as you’re confident in yourself and in your ability to learn a language and use it to communicate with natives, the rest will follow its natural course.
I leave you with a quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, who once said that “Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong.”
Have you made one or many of the mistakes listed here in this article? Do you think there are other mistakes that language learners should be aware of? Let me know in the comment section below!