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The 15 Biggest Language-Learning Mistakes and What to Do Instead [Mega Post]

Man looking frustrated at his computer after making one of the 15 biggest mistakes.

Hello, my linguas-didici people! With The 15 Biggest Language-Learning Mistakes and What to Do Instead, we celebrate yet another debut article of a new category: “Learning Tips.” I am sure a lot of you will have a look at this section with particular interest. In this entry, you will get to know many reasons why people don’t fulfill their dream of learning a new language or quit on the way. But, you already know that I don’t like lengthy introductions. So, let’s jump right into it!

#1 Be Overwhelmed by the Amount of Effort Required

People use to get overwhelmed only by thinking about how much you have to learn to be able to speak a language. The result are excuses. I cannot remember how often I have already heard that learning a language is too time-consuming. The result are the following excuses/ statements: “Nah, it is too much work.” Another one of my favorites is “I would love to, but I don’t have the time.”

This way of going about learning a language is mostly counterproductive and your project will be doomed to failure. Change your attitude and way of thinking! Instead of thinking about the amount of work, think about the number of new experiences you will gain. Rather than thinking “Studying will be stressful”, think “Studying will be exciting.” As opposed to thinking about the time you will have to invest, imagine how your life will change once you speak the new language.

You surely think that all of this sounds nice and easy, but how can I put this into practice? Easy. Set yourself various milestones. Divide the grand project into a lot of smaller projects. For example, you would like to learn a specific list of words in 14 days. Be wise and give yourself enough time. Most importantly, reward yourself for every milestone you reach to make use of the incentive effect of external rewards.

#2 Fear Making Mistakes in Real Conversations

For me, this is the most common error. The majority of language learners don’t open their mouth when they find themselves in the golden situation to talk to native speakers. Even worse, many choose to speak in English! Frequent reasons are that you might think you are not “ready” yet. You console yourself by saying that you will speak up later when the time is ripe. I was also a victim of this self-deception.

Image illustrates how important it is to talk to native speaker to avoid one of the 15 biggest language-learning mistakes.

Several reasons exist why the fear of making mistakes might be your most potent enemy. For once, you need to talk in a language to become fluent in it, to find words quicker and more subconsciously, and to gain experience in real talking situations. Listening to native speakers respond will train your comprehension skills. Most importantly, making a mistake will reveal your weak areas in a language and which aspects you need to work on.

Well, how do you make the most out of the possibility to talk in the new language you are learning? Say the following to everyone from the very beginning: Don’t you speak to me in English! Then, try to talk in the foreign language. It does not matter if you make mistakes or don’t know the words. Learn how to ask “What does XYZ mean in your language?” and ask! Nobody will laugh at you for being interested in learning their language! My experience has shown that you will receive a lot of support and, with time, speaking the language will become natural to you. This will happen faster than you might expect, I promise.

#3 Believe That You Need Talent

This one is a classic. A lot of people out there are convinced that you need some God-given talent to learn languages. In their mind, this is the reason they had terrible grades in language classes at school. Many think that only a handful of blessed persons are born with the gift of being able to become polyglots.

Excuse me for the urban words, but I call bullshit on that. I love to ask these people how they even communicate with me. If they are not language talents, what is their explanation for being able to speak their mother tongue so well? How come they don’t use their hands to express themselves? Is it talent?

The truth is, it does not matter. You do not need talent to learn a language. You need attitude. You need commitment. You need motivation. You do not need talent.

How does a baby learn to speak? Because it practices every day. It has no other choice than to learn as there is no alternative. Of course, your mother tongue will always be the language you are the best in, and the majority of people will always have an accent in the foreign language. Though, there are methods you can get rid of it. Everybody on this planet is able to learn any language. You proved it when you learned your native tongue! So, instead of believing that you need exceptional talent, better believe that you have already done it once and you can do it again! Tired already? There are still eleven of the 15 biggest language-learning mistakes waiting for you to read them!

#4 Study in Irregular, Long Sessions

This mistake is tragic because you show the motivation to sit down and study for long hours. It then becomes even more frustrating when you notice that progress remains absent. It is normal that you have obligations from Monday to Friday and decide to make a long learning session on Saturday and/ or Sunday. However, doing so is quite ineffective. I have done the same for one year while I was learning Spanish, and my progress was ridiculously slow. I would even dare to say that this might be even be the worst of the 15 biggest language-learning mistakes. So, believe me when I say that this is a waste of time!

Imagine learning a language is like pouring a flower. Now, please pour it only once a week (please don’t!) with 2 liters of water. It will most certainly die (unless we are talking about some sort of super flower). The same is happening when you study once a week (well, you will not die). What is the right thing to do then?

Image showing a clock.

Language learning is repetition. Hence, nurture your newly developing brain areas in your brain with short, daily study sessions. My personal experience has shown that doing 15-20 minutes a day for seven days is drastically more effective than studying 4 hours on the weekend. In the end, you will even save time. Go ahead, do the Math. Study smart, people. And let your flower grow.

#5 Use Only a Single Source for Learning

This is another of my past mistakes. Every person knows what the most convenient way of learning for him or her is. E.g., some person likes to watch tv shows in a new language in order to get better at it. Another person listens to music. A third person might choose to read books. What do all of these have in common? They all represent one-dimensional forms of learning. What else? They all promise you an unnervingly slow pace of advancing.

What is the right thing to do? You need to accompany your favorite activities with other language learning exercises. Your brain learns faster when you feed it with various impulses. Don’t just watch a series but also read blogs or small articles in the foreign language. Write a couple of sentences into a notebook. Try saying a couple of sentences out loud. The list goes on: Write down vocabulary. Spell difficult words. Write words on Post-Its and hang them up. Do the same with verb conjugations in different tenses etc…

Just be creative! Speak, listen, and write in distinct situations, variations, forms! Try something else every day. Beat the monotony and have fun! Your progress will grow exponantially.

#6 Believe That You Need a Language Course

This is another of my past mistakes. When I was learning Spanish, I attended several language courses over the years, making me spend quite some money. Do you think I had more success in that period or when I started to study all by myself? Exactly, latter is the case.

Now, of course, I still believe that such classes are a proven way to learn a language. It is normal to participate in a language course if you are, e.g., new to Spanish. Yet, it is not normal, in my opinion, to pay massive amounts of money for advancing from A1 to A2 in three months. In three months, you can without a doubt progress twice as much on your own.

“Why, how?” you might think. The reason has to do with what I have written about in mistake #4. Unless you have the time to take a crash course, classes will only be 1-3 days a week. Moreover, people often fail to establish a follow-up routine to repeat what they have heard from their teacher. Why? Because many think: “I have gone to classes. I have done my part. So, I can wait until the next class without feeling bad.”

Folks, a language course is neither necessary nor sufficient. Rather, it is an optimal additional learning method. The moment I realized this and started to accompany my private Dutch learning exercises with 1-2 lessons of Dutch with a professor, my progress skyrocketed. I recommend you to do the same!

Empty classroom shown.

“You do not need talent to learn a language. You need attitude. You need commitment. You need motivation. You do not need talent.”

#7 Learn a Language Out of the Wrong Reasons

I could have named this blog entry “The 15 Biggest Language-Learning Mistakes made by Petar Petrović.” In my case, I had the wrong motivation for learning Russian, which is why I failed in learning it, while making significant progress in French. I only started this East Slavic language because a lot of people on this planet speak it and it might boost any future job search efforts. These are like the worst reasons one can find.

Unfortunately, you will often read that you should learn a new language to advance in your career (e.g., here). This reason is a typical form of extrinsic motivation, which has an overall low motivational value. What does extrinsic mean? It implies that you are motivated by something that is not a personal, self-generated motivation factor. The perceived rewards are external.

This is why finding and having intrinsic motivation factors is so crucial to mastering language. In short, doing a particular activity is naturally satisfying to you!

Now, make use of this finding. Take a pen and write down at least five reasons that intrinsically energize you to learn a language. This could be e.g., that you want to understand the family of your partner better or that you would love to be able to read an author’s book in its original language.

#8 Attack Several Languages at Once

Guess what? Exactly. Another mistake I made recently. I have come by several blogs that advocated learning two languages at the same time. Reasons were that you would learn each language more slowly but, in the end, you would learn both languages together quicker. Now, this might be true if you have a lot of one resource: time.

A lot of books representing one of the 15 biggest language-learning mistakes "Attack Several Languages at Once"

And, this is where it gets tricky because you still need to invest at least 15-20 minutes per day to experience at least a bit of progress. With two languages, you need twice the time or a little less. I tried to do this for several months with French and Russian (and Italian) until I abandoned all but French.

Moreover, I did not learn less. One hour French per day became the standard learning period. In 2 months, I advanced more than in the 4 months before. This is why I strongly advocate the view of learning one language at a time! You will have a lot more satisfying results when diving into one new culture only with your entire mind than in several at once. We are halfway through with the 15 biggest language-learning mistakes!

#9 Begin With Advanced Material Before Internalizing the Basics

From what I have seen in various courses I have participated in, many aspiring learners underestimate the basics of a language. Simple lectures like greeting in the right manner, forming simple subject-verb-object phrases, or forming the present tense are not repeated.

What happens is that such pupils pass the pivotal grammar quick and, at this moment, they actually know it and use it correctly. However, if you don’t take the time to revise the basics, you will forget them when moving on to more challenging sections. As you should not build a house on an unstable grounding, your effort to use more entangled phrases will fail.

Believe me, I have been there when I was learning Spanish.

Instead of advancing fast, you will find yourself feeling frustrated. Any minute you then spend on understanding new grammar will be an unproductive minute. Thus, be smart and respect the basics. The better you know them, the faster you will learn everything that comes afterward!

#10 Put Yourself Under Pressure

Remember one thing: Learning a language has to be exciting and fun. If you don’t feel this type of feeling, then you are doing it wrong. Human beings love to compare themselves to others. We like to give us deadlines. We aspire fast rewards with little effort.

Now, putting yourself under pressure can work if you lack discipline and do have some short-term goals you need the language skills for. I, e.g., had given me a goal of getting from B1 to B2 in Spanish in one month because of an important test for a scholarship.

Even though I managed to pass it, I recommend not doing this. In German, there is a lovely saying “Der Weg ist das Ziel”, meaning “The path is the goal.” Learning a language is a lot more gratifying when you take the time to enjoy the ride. Study every day and the results will come all by themselves. Be patient as it might take its time. But don’t panic and don’t give up!

#11 Study Without the Help of a Native Speaker

When you have a legal issue, you ask someone who understands the law. When you are sick, you go to the doctor. When you have a question in a language, you search the internet. Wait, why? Why not ask a native speaker? This is number 11 of the 15 biggest language-learning mistakes. At least I can say that I did not make the mistake of learning without the help of one or more native speakers.

A woman is frustrated because she has been studying without help.

Why are native speakers so much better than reading on the internet? It might sound like a contradiction, but the reason is that they do not know the grammar rules. Huh? Yes! A native speaker will tell you: “I cannot explain it, but it sounds wrong in my ears.” Then, you will receive an easy and straightforward explanation without any grammar terms or rules. Such descriptions ofter lead to further tips and increase your feeling for a language. This is the goal. You don’t want to think about “Ok, he, she, it, the verb needs an S.” No, you must develop a feeling. Your errors need to sound wrong in your ears, too.

So, make use of all of the native speakers wishing to help you. Get a buddy and ask him or her as much as you can! If you do not understand the explanation, then you can still look it up. Conversation Exchange is a handy website for getting in touch with mother-tongue speakers. But, you will also always find somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody.

#12 Stop Using a Language Once You Know It

This is like when you save for a TV, finally buy it, and then never use. In other words: A waste of money and, most importantly, time! In the course of my life, I have met a loooot of people who had learned a language for several years at school, had reached a respectable level, and never used it again.

For me, this is a real shame as I consider each language to be a unique gift. And once having reached a fluent level, maintaining it requires little effort. Don’t just jump to the next language and forget about the former one. Instead, keep doing small things in the language you have mastered. For example, read a book, talk to your foreign friend on Skype, do some Duolingo exercises from time to time, etc. Doing this, you will send the language into your longterm memory, where you won’t forget it.

#13 Learn a Bunch of Words You Don’t Need in the Beginning

Attention, folks! This is one of the most time-consuming mistakes and it surely deserves its place amongst the 15 biggest language-learning mistakes. At the same time, the practice of making language novices learn hundreds of words per chapter is still prevalent. Just think about language lessons at school or the books you use in language courses. As the geek I have always been, I remember studying all the words in English and Latin for hours and hours until becoming familiar with all of them.

Image with a dictionary visualizing the language-learning mistake of learning too much vocabulary in the beginning.

However, is this truly necessary, especially in the beginning? No. Guess how many words you need to be able to hold a nice and simple conversation. Only about 1, 0 0 0! Believe me, this is no joke, and I am not the only one who advocates this view.

Thus, it is not advisable to study a ton of words in the beginning because doing so will postpone the moment you can finally start a conversation. Keep in mind: This is the most critical milestone when learning a language. From there on, you will progress a lot quicker. So, just google “the 1,000 most important words in XYZ”, download/ print the list, and learn these words by heart! If you are interested in a specific topic and want to be able to speak about it in the foreign language, you can still get acquainted with the necessary vocabulary later on.

#14 Study a Language Without Showing Interest in its Culture

Equating a language with one single culture is, obviously, in most cases not correct. Just think about how many countries and different cultures speak Spanish. But, why is it important to show cultural interest? Well, if you don’t, it is a reliable indicator that you are learning the language out of extrinsic reasons (see #7). Furthermore, the interest in its culture(s) will automatically make you have more contact with a new language, which clearly speeds up the process.

I use to tell people: “If you are not truly interested in a country and its cultural uniqueness, don’t learn its language.” Clear and simple. This phenomenon is especially evident in the Netherlands. As the Dutch are the top English-speaking people, learning Dutch is not a necessity to make a living in the Netherlands. Especially for highly-skilled jobs, you are okay with English, which is why many expatriates pass several years in “Holland” without ever truly becoming part of its society.

Time to come back to how you should avoid this mistake and what you should do instead. First, take a moment to think about a language you would learn and why (see #6). Is one of the reasons that you would love to get to know its culture? Great! If not, you might still make an effort to learn it. Be advised, you will have a harder time doing so. If your answer was yes, then write down what in specific you want to know more about. Is it music, food, politics, or maybe cities? Later on, you can use this list to read or watch content about this very topic!

#15 Write Down Vocabulary but Never Revise It

Last but not least: Another language-learning mistake of mine. I am sure that everyone knows the following situation: You sit in a language class and work on some new sections. The class reads through an unknown text and the pupils ask the teacher what the unknown words mean. You are prepared. With your pencil, you write down the translation over the new term and think to yourself: “Nice, I will get back to that later at home.” LIE. YOU WON’T! You have stumbled into another of the 15 greatest language-learning mistakes.

Most pupils don’t even revise the regular vocabulary sections (mostly in the back of the coursebook). So, by what logic is someone going to take his or her time to memorize these specific new words that only popped up in some text or audio? Only a few persons do it.

You will be surprised by my recommendation in this case. Don’t write down any words in this occasion. In most cases, this is a waste of time and intellectual energy. Rather, focus on the exercise you are doing and start to get a feeling for deducting words you don’t know.

Now, if you insist on writing down the translations, doing so is, of course, laudable. However, do it in a smart way. Take out an extra piece of paper and write down a list of both the unknown words and their translation. Then, study these words before going to bed on the same day. Revise once more a couple of days later and then again in one month or so. That being said, we have discussed the 15 biggest language-learning mistakes. So, let’s start studying the right way!

The 15 Biggest Language-Learning Mistakes and What to Do Instead (Mega Post) – The Coming of a Different Blog

In this blog, you will discover a bunch of proven tips on how to crack the language-learning game! Just give me a bit of time. I got this! Anyway, I hope you liked The 15 Biggest Language-Learning Mistakes as my first blog entry in the section “Language Tips.”

There will be a loooooot more articles coming!

Are you asking yourself: “Who is this guy whose words I am reading right now?” You will find some information about me here.

Coffee standing between MacBook and notebook.
#3 QuickTip: Spell difficult words a couple of times out loud.

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1 Comment

  • 2capability


    February 17, 2022 at 17:05
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