Language learning is, by definition, all about mistakes: You simply can’t learn to speak, read, and write a new language without making mistakes, and lots of them. But the mistakes that get you down on a daily basis — plurals in German, gender in French, tones in Mandarin — are minor errors. We want to talk about the big language learning mistakes you may be making… and how to fix them.
Mistake #1: Thinking You Can Teach Yourself a Foreign Language
In the Internet Age, it’s easy to believe you can learn everything you could ever want or need to know online, and on your own. But when it comes to language learning, that’s a big mistake. There are absolutely fantastic resources and apps designed for language learners of all levels, but these materials will generally serve you best as supplements to instructor-led language classes.
The importance of the early stages of learning a foreign language cannot be overstated, and there are clear benefits to having a professional language instructor physically or virtually present to guide you through the building blocks, monitor and correct pronunciation and accent, and help set you on the right track to mastering the target language. You can’t teach yourself a foreign language entirely independently, and it’s important to understand that websites, apps, and online programs have their place — alongside traditional language classes.
How to fix it: Sign up for a language class! Look for language schools and instructors in your area and enroll in group classes or one-on-one lessons to jumpstart your learning and make sure you avoid the biggest language learning mistakes.
Mistake #2: Not Focusing on the Right Vocabulary
If you’re learning a language to improve your travel experiences or give yourself a leg up in your career, you’ll need to learn the vocabulary that will best equip you to meet those goals… and those words may not always be included in standard vocabulary lists.
How to fix it: Make your own vocabulary lists! Vocabulary is most helpful when it’s relevant to you, plus you’ll be more motivated to learn words that you know you’ll be using on a regular basis. If you’re learning a language for work, here’s a simple exercise that can help. Spend a day or two being exceptionally mindful of your conversations on the job. Throughout the day, take note of the most frequent and important words you use in meetings, client calls, and office chatter; then share that list with your language instructor and focus on learning those words and how to use them in polite, professional conversation.
Mistake #3: Giving up on Pronunciation
How many times have you heard a language learner exclaim in frustration: “I give up! I’ll never have a good accent!”
Well, getting discouraged with your pronunciation is one of the biggest language learning mistakes students can make. Here’s the real reason it can be such a daunting challenge for English speakers to master foreign sounds: English itself is a very complicated language, with many borrowed words, unconventional spelling rules, and more than a few hard-to-pronounce sounds. If you speak English, you’ve already committed a long list of rules to memory. It is only natural that adding new sounds to the mix is going to be challenging, and it’s understandable for language students to become frustrated and question the value of putting time and energy into building strong pronunciation skills and a natural sounding accent.
How to fix it: If that sums up how you’re feeling right now, keep working at it! Take a deep breath, and remind yourself that learning a language takes time. Recognize that it takes children years to master their first language and learn its intricacies, and that you still make mistakes in your own first language sometimes. Ask your language instructor to guide you through pronunciation exercises that will help you differentiate between similar sounding word groups, try out these 10 tips for improving your accent, and don’t give in to the frustration!
Mistake #4: Misunderstanding “Immersion” Experiences
Most people believe that “immersion” only applies to international travel and living abroad, when it actually refers to any intensive experience in the target language.
Immersion is an important component of language learning, and fortunately immersion experiences can be found anywhere you are. Yet language students often shy away from engaging in organized language immersion, and they tend to do so because they’re intimidated by using their novice language skills with more experienced peers and native speakers. That nervousness is natural, but it’s worth it to push through the nerves so you can reap the dramatic benefits of language immersion.
How to fix it: Immersion experiences are frequently offered as part of special language training programs, and many corporate-sponsored language classes include an intensive immersion component.
Language exchange apps are another great way to engage in immersion and practice speaking with natives. And with a little work, you can build your own language immersion environment, too. For starters, change the default language on your computer, phone, and social media accounts to increase your exposure to the target language during screentime. Start watching more foreign language movies and listening to podcasts, music, and audiobooks in the language you’re studying.
However you choose to immerse yourself in the target language, just don’t be intimidated to get started! You’ll be glad you did.
Mistake #5: Trying to Rush the Process
The last in our roundup of common language learning mistakes cannot be emphasized enough. Learning a language demands patience, consistency, and hard work. It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of wanting to rush through the learning process, take shortcuts, and cut corners, but it’s important to remember that learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint, and to motivate yourself to stay the course.
How to fix it: Stick to a routine. Break down your learning process into manageable chunks. And remind yourself each day of the bigger picture: your ultimate goal of linguistic and cultural fluency in the target language.
Good luck, and happy language learning!