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!
Also don’t forget to share this article with your friends on Facebook, Twitter, or your favorite social media. We can all learn from each others’ mistakes!
48 thoughts on “Learning a Foreign Language <br>– 10 Most Common Mistakes”
Great post Sam!
Thanks Brian! Glad you like it 🙂
I’d like to add one mistake. It’s something I discuss in a new e-book I just made available on Speaking Latino.
Many people spend too much time looking for the right (or perfect) learning tools. They’ll hop from one tool to the next, or even begin collecting resources and tools.
Instead, they should stick with the few they select, and get down to studying and practicing.
The perfect tool isn’t what’s going to make you fluent or not in a language. Obviously the right tools help, but what really matters is putting in the effort.
So, my advice to beginners is to find a few tools and start studying. Later on, as you improve, you can spend more time looking for the right tools to help you adjust and hone a specific skill.
Thanks for your comment, Jared.
I agree that the perfect tool (if there is any such thing) isn’t what’s going to make you fluent in the language. It’s also true that too many beginning language learners spend too much time looking for the “right” learning tool, or simply end up buying whatever they can get their hands on and most of it ends up collecting dust in the shelves (I’m guilty of this too!)
However, I always underline that there are some methods and textbooks that do tend to work better for the majority of people, and it’s always good to narrow down your choices to a few well-known resources that are employed by a lot of experienced language learners (rather than picking totally randomly the first thing you get your hands on). That’s why I have a “Reviews” section here on the blog where people can have a quick overview of the best material available on the market, and whether it might be the right fit for them.
Great post! (:
I really enjoyed reading the post and I’m going to be working on the
intonation skill you mentioned. Only recently have I even thought ‘I
wish I could learn Japanese from scratch’. A few months ago I started
Mandarin and I’ve found I’m making so much progress, being rather savvy
about the things I invest in and also using methods that have really
pushed my skills (Luca’s method and the Goldlist being just two of
these). I’ve been studying Japanese for about five years and yet
breaking through the barrier of speaking is tough. I finally plucked up
the courage to use Italki a few weeks back and I’m chatting
(chattingish) with people a few days a week. I think this is really
tough and I get frustrated with myself that I put off learning other
things like Kani for so long when I’m already knowing about fifty or so
Hanzi at this stage. Yes, I think I learned a great deal from my
Japanese experience but I wished I had had more confidence to have taken
those big steps early on. Ah well 🙂 Even now I’m speaking Chinese only a few months into to my Italki Chinese friends – although I do have to use a script. Tones 🙁
Actually from my personal experience, Japanese is a bit harder to start speaking than Chinese, so don’t worry too much about it. Due to the different structure of SOV of Japanese as opposed to Mandarin’s SVO, which is similar to English, it’s harder to start thinking in Japanese than it is in Mandarin.
As for myself, I activated my Japanese speaking ability through watching and listening to A LOT of variety shows that I could find on Youtube back in the day. Nowadays, these shows get deleted or are just harder to find unfortunately.
Anne and Alexander,
I do agree with Alex that Japanese, because of its SOV structure, is probably much harder to speak than Mandarin Chinese. Korean is quite similar in structure to Japanese and I can say that it hasn’t been an easy thing to develop fluency in the language, but it’ll eventually come.
Similarly with Alex, I listened (and still do) to a lot of Korean material, usually TV series, movies, and music. This, combined with a lot of speaking practice, has helped a lot. With Mandarin tones, just make sure you’re not learning them using the bottom-up approach I mentioned in the post, or else you’ll certainly have a hard time with them. I also wrote a post about how to learn tones a while back, check it out in the site’s archives if you’re interested.
Thanks Sam. Actually it is because of your blog that I think I’ve made so many leaps with Chinese. I’ve used the Assimil books you reviewed and followed Luca’s advice (I think this is the bottom-up method?) as well as the Goldlist method (as mentioned in your other posts). I’ve even started my own language blog and Uncle Davey kindly responded to my posts about my experiences with the Goldlist 🙂 Thanks again Sam for making my life easier with Chinese. Just in a slump with Japanese – it seems life’s fine as a beginner/upper beginner. Beyond that, well, it’s a tough road. Yet, I’m reading books like I would English books (albeit they are somewhat easier). Feeling like I’m sort of immersing myself in the language and not ‘studying’. Bit scary.
“Feeling like I’m sort of immersing myself in the language and not ‘studying’. Bit scary.”
That sounds pretty good to me! I think after a certain point there is no need to “study” the language, you can just immerse yourself in it and do whatever you’d do in your native tongue but instead, do it in your target language.
Thanks, Alexander – makes me feel better 🙂 I am trying to listen to podcasts and also watch dramas as much as I can. I’m going to keep on practising speaking and have started to do my own audio recordings every other day just to get me active in using the language. I sort of feel I’ve hit a wall with Japanese. I’m working through low-intermediate material (JLPT N3 level), reading easy newspaper articles and Murakami essays. Yet I’m constantly going back to my earlier JLPT N4 grammar books to revise the points by actually using them – they just don’t seem to be in my head and yet I recognise them when I read them! Hopefully this will improve in time …
I agree with most points here, although with some, specifically about starting to speaking, I’m still somewhat reluctant.
One point I did completely agree with is the second one, about diversifying your methods.
For me, I change methods quite often every time one of the methods doesn’t work as best as I had hoped for. Originally all the methods I use start very well and I decide to employ them for all my language. After some time, they stop working or the progress slows down or I lose motivation for this method and get bored by it, so I change to another method, so you might say I tried quite a lot of them!
One recent interesting thing I did, which seems completely unrelated to languages, is buying Buddhist concentration beads. The problem I was facing was that when I was going to work and trying to listen to material in the languages I study, I would get spaced out by some thoughts in my head, and after around 20 minutes, I would suddenly get reminded that I still have dialogue running in my earphones that I have been automatically shadowing, but not concentrating in, basically making it quite useless.
Eventually I decided to buy these beads which I twirl around my fingers every time I listen to some dialogue or other audio content, and it works wonders! I’ve been using it for around two months now to practice my Korean and Thai, and I feel that they both improved by a lot during those times. I barely space out anymore!
It’s a weird method and a weird suggestion, but personally for me, I have to do something with my hands in order to maintain focus in listening, and this helps me A LOT!
I’m surprised you somewhat disagree with point #4. Speaking is a skill, and frankly the only way to get better at it is simply to practice it. I think it’s also part of the whole enjoyment of learning a language (and usually it’s also one of the main points of doing so). When you start talking in the foreign language you see how much you improve and your small successes provide an impetus to keep going and not give up.
How long do you usually wait until speaking the language? What about your Korean and Thai? It’s really cool that you’re learning those languages. How are they going so far?
Thanks for commenting!
It’s not that I disagree with #4, I just am reluctant to start with it, mainly because at an early stage, this requires a lot of courage and mental focus, that I do not wish to burden onto others before I myself am able to carry it. This last sentence is a bit hard to explain, but I’ll use an example:
At a more advanced stage of my Italian, I used to watch videos of the video game Skyrim as played by an Italian guy on Youtube, commenting and talking as he played. This greatly engaged me and I really enjoyed it. After a while, I noticed that I am able to think in Italian and talk to myself in Italian in my thoughts. This is the point where I decided that I’m ready to speak to people in Italian, as now I will not be making as much effort to carry out and build a sentence in order to communicate. This means that my first step would be to learn how to think in the language, and only after that starting to speak in it with another person.
Interestingly, when someone offers to speak with me in a language I studied, I will say “Why not?” and try to communicate, even before I am able to think clearly in that language, because the person offered it. I wouldn’t offer it out of my own accord if the other person believes that communicating in English or some other easier languages would make communication better.
For me, it’s more important to communicate with a person to the effect where I can get to know him/her without overburdening the conversation. If I haven’t reached in Mongolian, for example, to this level yet, I will not try to start talking in Mongolian out of my own accord just yet.
Regarding Korean and Thai, I’ve been giving them more effort recently, although they are overshadowed a bit by Mongolian. I used to listen to Korean content on the way to and back from work, and do the same now with Thai through Thaipod101 lessons. After I’m finished with the Beginner Series to a satisfactory level, I will do the same for Mongolian, while at the same time practice Thai reading and vocabulary through the Word Power app.
I think the 2 biggest mistakes from your list are points 4 and 7. I used to make these mistakes when learning french and i learnt very little. 5 years of learning french with lots of motivation but making the mistake of 4 and 7 and i learnt very little. Then i changed my attitude. I used almost no grammar and spoke almost everyday and I then learnt french quickly, then soon followed by spanish and chinese.
Yes, they are also the most common mistakes people make I believe. I know it’s not easy at first, but making the leap and beginning to really speak the language is really important.
Glad your French got better quickly! How long have you been learning Chinese and Spanish for?
Spanish for a 1.5 years and Chinese 2.8 years more or less. Both are now conversational although i still need to improve both. I only started with grammar because i trusted the way i was taught at school. Now i know that was all wrong.
When I moved to Guadalajara, I found that the adults were too polite to correct another adult’s errors, so I borrowed a neighbor’s young child and explained to the child that I wanted him/her to help teach me. The child was thrilled at the opportunity and I had an unending supply of willing conversational Spanish teachers. They will willingly spend hours following you through your day and talking about your activities.
Linda, that’s a really good piece of advice you got right there! Kids usually make for fantastic conversation partners!
This is a GREAT idea!
Great and useful post.
I’m trying to learn english all my life, actually constantly since two years ago. I think I did (make?) all mistake you’ve written!
I have more less ten english courses, all miraculous, they say. The most of them adopts classical approach and except for Assimil I never be able to go over the first lessons, because they’re so boring. Anyway I did mistakes even with Assimil, I restarted it lots of times because I wanted to translate every lesson perfectly before to go forward, so I didn’t finished it yet! My bigger mistake is the number four, because I shy and I feel ridiculous to speak and even though my english level is almost intermediate, I find difficult to speak about elementary topics during a conversation.
Perhaps I’ll find a english teacher to fill this gap.
Another error I do is to waste a lot of time finding: the best learning method on the internet, the best way to learn english through reading texts, listening audio files, how to study grammar and so on. I became an expert to do all these things but at last I haven’t time to try them and I feel very confused, but at least I do something out of my daily study 🙂
Thanks for share. I’ll find a partner on skipe to exchange my italian with english.
Wow, thanks for sharing your story with us, Cristina. I hope you will have found this article useful, and I’m sorry to hear you’ve made all of the mistakes outlined above! In any case, your English is very good, so maybe you’re a bit too harsh on yourself!
If I were you, at your stage in time I would do things that you enjoy doing in your native language, but in English. This can include watching movies or TV series, readings travel/language blogs, meeting friends or traveler in your area, reading books, etc. At the level you are at right now, I think it’s time for you to really enjoy the language!
Good luck, and thanks for your comment 🙂
Hi, Cristina – I am keen to learn Italian and French, and would be able to talk on skype, if you would like. I am a 65 year old English man, and could send a sample of my voice if you would like to hear me speak – just let me know
Ciao Cristina, sono inglese, vorrei fare qualcosa insieme con te. io abita in Umbria, devo imparare di più italiano. fammi sapere, grazie Ruth
Wonderful post! Loved reading it. Among all the 10 mistakes which are very true, I feel the third one i.e starting abruptly is an important one, because adopting the right approach is one of the important aspects of learning any foreign language. I have been associated with a reputed online Chinese Learning School as a mandarin teacher, where I have come acrossed students who were following wrong approaches while learning the Chinese language and as a result they were finding the language difficult to grasp, which is otherwise a very interesting and unique language to learn. Then learning with the help of interactive media, and joining discussion groups the students are now slowly gaining their confidence and language skills. Thus following the right approach is very important
The third one is bullsh*t. Doing too much in one go is only a problem if you have an all or nothing mentality. If it’s overwhelming, your first instinct shouldn’t be to give up entirely. Just do less.
Well, not only a learner can make mistake. Even a teacher can cause a lot of problems. How? Read it:
I’m the kind of person that doesn’t speak much if I’m not sure I’m saying it right, so for me it was important to study grammar and sentence construction in the beginning to have the basics. After a while my written Italian became good, but I lacked the confidence and thinking speed to talk. What really improved my skills was doing a catchy oral course that had a nice and interesting story built in to it. Repeating sentences and words and learning how to construct sentences faster really improved as well as my intonation. I also listened to Italian radio and repeated sentences I heard. Before my annual trip to Italy I start preparing by repeating grammar and talking Italian with some Italian friends to rise the level again.
Hi! Really interesting and funny this article! My favourite part? “Don’t. Do. That.” That made me laugh, because I’ve made, if not all, almost all of the mistakes written here. I really enjoyed the way you express yourself in English, so I’ve read these paragraphs aloud, just to catch your ideas as much as I can. I’ve been trying to study languages all my life, I am 26 now, I’m Romanian but I grew up with a lot of Spanish, then I studied French and English. You’re right in what you said, almost always we approach the study of languages in the wrong way(s). I’d like to share with you all some old and recent experiences of mine related to languages. As I said above, I grew up with Spanish – since I was a child I listened to Spanish a lot (TV series and music), and I began studying it only at the age of 19, when I entered the University. It was then when I started to read books in Spanish and learn its grammar. On the contrary, with English was all the other way. I started to learn its grammar and read it when I was 11, but my English was very bad for years. It was difficult for me to learn a language only be doing my homeworks. What I didn’t mention is that I’ve loved Spanish from the beginning, while learning English was a need for me, first because I had it in my currircullum, then because it has become a universal language for work and travelling. Speaking from my experience, what I really want to point out is: 1) It’s easier to learn a language when you learn it with your heart, because you want it, because you like it, because you love it, not just because others tell you to do so; 2) It’s easier and funnier to learn it first by listening to it and then by writing it; 3) Social media is a trend now and you can make advantage of it even when you want to learn your favourite language. Just set the language you want to learn as default language for your smart phone and Facebook page. I was really excited when I bought my first smart phone which allowed me to set Spanish – my soul language – as default language. I also have my social media accounts set up in Spanish – while most of the people “like a page”, “yo pongo me gusta”. That can be very entertaining, believe me! 4) Leave your comfort zone. Today I’ve used Skype for the first time, and even if I wasn’t very confident in my spoken English, I spoke with a German friend for an hour and a half in English and, surprisingly for me, it wasn’t that hard to understand her and express myself in English! 5) Make a hobby from learning a foreign language. Studying a foreign language can become a hobby if you combine it with your favourite pastime. I, for example, I love music, and I’ve learned so much Spanish and English by listening to music in these languages. This way I’ve learned new words, new meanings of the same word, regional particularities, pronunciation, intonation, cultural aspects. It really works, believe me! All in all, at the beginning try the way that suits you best, but then try other methods, too! And whatever method you choose to use during this process, remember to always be self-taught! Good luck!
Hi Corina! Thanks for your message, I’m glad you liked the article 🙂
Regarding social media, I totally agree that you can take advantage of it to learn languages. In fact, I’m planning on writing a post on that in the near future! And congratulations with the Skype call, leaving your comfort zone is definitely one of the key to becoming a successful language learner. It’s not easy at first, but it can become addictive!
Corina, I think you’re absolutely right. I love Italian, which makes it a lot easier for me to learn and keep practising. I started to learn German once, but my heart was not in it, and I tried to learn in an evening class, which does not seem to work for me. I gave up very quickly!
I love learning languages. However, learning English as second language was my first experience, but I enjoy learning it immensely. Therefore, it was a bit of a challenge at the beginning, but with passage of time I figured out that the secret to learning English requires certain of amount of confidence and practicing daily. Ever since I started believing in myself and overcoming my fear and weakness, I have found the true method of learning English. I speak English every day through different ways. I watch movies, read online papers and chat for hours with my foreign friends who speak English as their native language. Anyways, thank you so much for bringing up these common mistakes almost every language learner makes.
Hi Farhad! Thanks for sharing your experience with the rest of us, I’m glad to hear that you’ve found of way to learn English that works well for you. I couldn’t agree with you more. Having confidence in yourself and practicing daily are important keys to success in foreign language acquisition.
The only mistake from your list that I have made is starting too abruptly – but in fact, though I take a rest for a few weeks at a time, I have never lost the impetus to learn. I accept that, for me, taking a break is a necessary part of the process. My best Italian language partner is an Italian native living in Genoa and teaching Italian (to Italian students) at ‘high school’ level. She tells me she is amazed by my progress and the level of competence I’ve achieved in a relatively short time, and by the fact that I sound more ‘Italian’ than any other foreign student she knows. She thinks I have a natural ability. I don’t. I think it’s just that I somehow miraculously hit upon the best method of learning: a mixture of different methods including online courses, podcasts, Italian radio, Italian music and films, and Skyping voice and text) with Italian natives. Duolingo is fun and helps to identify and fill in the gaps.
I can now read Italian blogs, the Italian Focus magazine and amazingly, reasonably simply novels! I can converse in Italian with most Italian natives. My Italian is very, very far from perfect. I cannot understand all words or all sentences and I make a HUGE number of errors. But my motto is ‘non si può imparare senza sbagliare’: one cannot learn without making mistakes. To those who are nervous about talking with Italians in Italy, I have found 99% of them incredibly kind, patient and encouraging to a foreigner who is trying to learn their language.
For a long time I felt almost guilty for not having started ‘properly’ and learned the basics of grammar and pronunciation first, in an evening class or from textbooks, so I’m really glad to have you endorse my ‘bits and pieces’ method!
Oh my goodness, what a moving and insightful article.
“Intonation is actually more important than pronunciation…” This explains a lot.
I have virtually perfect pronunciation in Spanish. Currently, I work as a TV reporter for a Spanish-speaking newscast. But, in the beginning people looked at my like I was crazy almost. I swore I was pronouncing the words correctly, but the “intonation” may have been off. Over the years, though, thanks to all the exposure, the “more normal” intonation has sunk in. Now people swear I’m Hispanic.
The top-down approach, awesome! I was always one of those people who felt guilty, sneaking to read the Spanish newspaper, despite not having mastered the subjunctive. But I was desperate to use “native-like” material.
Diversify – you’re spot on! You’re preaching to the choir on this one. I agree wholeheartedly. I not only use Assimil, but News in Slow French, Bien-Dire and a couple of other things, and it’s cool to see phrases that you learned in Assimil pop up on the news, or vice verse.
Thanks again for a great read.
Really interesting article, I am still practising my English so I recognise myself in your blog. Especially the part about the lack of confidence. Sometimes I don’t dare to speak because I am too scared to make mistakes and I end up stuttering. But your article increased my confidence a bit because it is absolutely normal for someone who is learning a language to make those mistakes. Moreover, I think that in order to learn a language you need to practise it in different ways. Like you said: “Learn how to actually enjoy the language you’re learning by not only getting stuck with textbooks, grammar drills and flashcards.” That’s why now I just watch TV shows in English and I try to read more articles in English, like yours.
I am grateful your wrote it..
Please keep up the good work.
Sofian El Mousselly and Mehdi Benaali
I really enjoyed reading this insightful article. Everything was well thought and a lot of important points were discussed. I totally agree with most of the points. I personally love to learn new languages so I will certainly apply these tips in my personal life as i’m trying to learn spanish. Confidence is a very important point u mentionned, it is key to improving your speaking skills which I know from my personal experience.
Thanks for this great read.
Diane from Brussels.
That’s an awesome article Sam! We think that the recipes of a good language are definitely those topics that you’ve discussed. We are practising our English and we are also facing those problems (at most the Bottom-up approach). We should consider English learning like a hobby and stop approaching it like a homework. for example instead of learn hunderds and hundreds of words in English by heart, watch a serie or a movie in English. This will not only improve your English but also give you the motivation to learn and practise your English. But of course we don’t have to forget that we have to practise English in the daily life instead of being scared to make mistakes when we’re talking in English because like the quote said “Confidence comes not from always being right but from not fearing to be wrong.” 😉
We’re sure your article will help us very much…
Please keep up the good work.
Youssef Hadi and Amineddine Mouniati
A very helpful article! that got straight to the point and spoke about many problems people who ( learn to) speak multiple languages struggle with.
“Be careful not to confuse competence with confidence. Competence is the
ability to do something, whereas confidence is your belief about your
Believing in yourself is very important while doing.. everything actually. I’m really happy that this article explained that little fact people tend to oversee quite profoundly!
Starting something with the right mindset is really what learning is all about. You won’t be able to learn anything if you don’t open yourself up to it.
“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.”
A lot of people forget this, including myself! I’m more comfortable reading & writing long texts than speaking them and trying to pronounce the words correctly..
This is all because I’m someone who loves to read / listen to a lot of stuff in English, I do it every single day! on apps like Wattpad / Youtube etc.
Because of all of this I didn’t really get to the learn how to speak part, which can get quite annoying since you obviously KNOW how to explain yourself fluently but still have to look for the right words to use.
Thanks for this great article and Keep up the good work!
Haydee from Brussels
“Intonation is more important than pronunciation” I totally agree. Everytime I learn a language, I study the grammar, the vocabulary, the pronunciation but I have never been able to learn the right intonation. No matter what language I speak, people always seem to hear what my native language is. It’s a real problem to me because I don’t know how to correct this. Before reading your article, I had never really thought about it but it was a real eye-opener. Thank you for the link of your interview with Luca Lampariello, I’ll certainly watch it and try to follow his directions.
Another very important element in the learning process is watching movies and series in the target language. You mentioned it in your article but I think you didn’t emphasize it enough. Learning grammar rules is just a detail compared to listening to native speakers. In the beginning, you can watch series with subtitles in your native language and when you notice the subtitles are not totally correct you’ll know you can leave them out.
To conclude, your article was very interesting and I totally recommend it to anyone who wants to learn a new language. Keep up the good work, we need more articles like yours.
I think that the best way to learn a foreign language is to get to know its culture first. It would be amazing to be able to go there one day and address the people who lives there. You have to make it fun to learn a language otherwise it will become boring and you won’t remember anything. I think that my 2 biggest mistakes are point 2 and 10 from your list. I always used to study English the same way, so I only did what the school asked me to do. In the 4 years that I have had English course at school, I never watched a series in English. But now I finally decided to improve my English and therefore watch all my series in the original version. I notice that I progress much more now than when I only used to study my course. When I want to sing a song, I always check for the lyrics so I understand what the message of the song is. Like that I know the “true” words of the song and I can better sing with it. My second biggest mistake is that I’m to afraid to make mistakes when I talk English so I don’t practice the language. But now I promised myself to always talk in English in English class, as well as with my older sister
I know it won’t always be easy but I’m motiveted and I’m gonna have fun.
I grew up speaking 3 languages…English, German, and French. Sadly, because of a lack of need for the last 2, I no longer know them. Due to all the moving around I did prior to high school, I find it damn near impossible to learn languages in a classroom setting, even if I spoke them fluently in my childhood. The conjugation trees just make it so effing confusing, because I feel like I have to think about a damn chart in my head and pick the right thing. On top of that, a lack of people who already speak those languages being available to practice.
I was 21 when I learned what a Verb was, and it’s only because of the commercial that was on at the time. When I took Latin years prior, I was confounded by ‘pluperfect subjunctive.’ I still have no damn idea what that even means.
Teachers…you have GOT to do better explaining this stuff, because it will kill a person to try learning a language when these categories of words don’t have any definition or meaning.
Learning a foreign language is like sailing: you have to actually BE on the water.
You have to be IN the country.
Learning a language is a sensual thing: you not only hear it, you smell it, you taste it, you touch it….you have to submerge yourself in it……You HAVE to speak it with the little you have already learned. Jump in and do it! Don’t prepare the sentence in your head first…..Don’t try to be perfect……SPEAK it.
Watch TV in the foreign language, best of all thrillers……the suspense keeps you guessing, the dialogue is pretty familiar……
AND you have to learn vocabulary! There is no getting around that….. Take a situation, learn the words off by heart…..in full sentences!!!
And try to ENJOY it….. Living in a foreign country is a waste of time if you don’t learn the language……
You need to be in a supportive environment for the speaking thing to really kick in. The claim that “everyone will be patient” and “everyone will just be happy for you trying” is a myth, I’m afraid, having witnessed first-hand people struggling to learn English being treated like they were stupid, a joke, or worse by English speakers. And also from hearing horror stories of people learning French trying to speak in Quebec and France being either treated poorly or – worse – being told to just speak English. Of course not everyone is a jerk, but the fact is this is a barrier that for many is real. Of course there are groups and clubs you can join, and of course language classes one would assume are “safe” environments, as are to an extent tourism-focused areas for obvious reasons (though they are more likely to simply default to English for convenience). But out on the street unless you happen to have a lot of self-confidence, it’s tough.