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Lauren Harsh

12 Biggest Mistakes to Avoid When Learning a New Language

When you learn a language online and self-direct your study, it’s easy to pick up some bad habits.

So you want to learn a new language. There’s never been a better time to take the plunge!

“How to learn a second language” has over three billion search results on Google. The world is more connected than ever before and language apps, online tutoring, tips to learn a language, and classes are available at your fingertips. However, when you learn a language online and self-direct your study it’s easy to pick up some bad habits. Knowing some common mistakes that other learners make early on and planning will help set you up for a successful language learning journey.

Using an approach that doesn’t match how you learn

What’s the easiest way to learn a language? That depends on how you learn best. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Think about how you like to learn:

  • Do you remember things best by reading, listening, watching, or doing?
  • How good are you at memorization?
  • How much structure do you need to thrive?

The answers to the questions can help you figure out an approach that suits you.

Having vague goals

A lot of the language learning material online focuses on how to become fluent in a certain amount of time. Instead of focusing on a proficiency level you want to reach, think about what you want to do in your target language and why you’re interested in it in the first place.

Do you want to go on a trip to a country that speaks the language? Do you want to be able to watch movies without subtitles? Are there certain books you want to read in their original language? Would learning the language have career benefits? Those are all goals that will be much more helpful for keeping you on track than “I want to be fluent.”

Not starting with sounds

Learning any new language will involve saying sounds your mouth isn’t used to. Some people skip over understanding which letters make which sounds in which context and have trouble later. Keep in mind that it will take practice to get your mouth used to making those sounds and don’t put off working on listening and speaking because you think you have to be good at reading it first.

Getting discouraged by your mistakes

If you’re the type of person who is tempted to give up when you’re not good at something right away, you’ll need to overcome that instinct.

You will probably excel in some parts of language learning, and find there are parts with which you struggle. Reading might come easily for you, but pronunciation might be difficult. It’s important to view mistakes as learning opportunities instead of failures and not to give up.

Remember: the only way you can get better is to keep practicing.

Focusing on the wrong vocabulary

When you’re learning vocabulary, focus on words that you will actually use, not what other people think you should learn.

Most people need words on typical beginner topics like greetings, numbers, and colors. But once you become more advanced, what you need to know will likely be very different from what other people tell you to know.

Learn vocabulary that is specific to your life. Focus on subjects that you talk about regularly like your hobbies, job, family, and other interests. Since these are words you will use often, it will be easy for you to remember them.

Getting too tied up in grammar

Grammar is definitely important, but that doesn’t mean you have to get bogged down by the details. Some grammar concepts will seem logical and easy right away, but others will seem more intimidating.

You may be asking, “How can I learn grammar naturally?” Though you will not be able to avoid rote memorization altogether (sorry, it’s a part of learning a language), recognizing patterns will help the concepts make sense.

Not giving yourself enough time

How long does it take to learn a new language?

It depends.

If your native language is English, it will take you a longer time to learn Mandarin than Spanish. It also depends on you.

Are you good at memorization? Are you self-motivated? What does your strategy look like? When do you consider yourself “done” learning? Those will all affect how long it takes you to make progress. If it takes you longer to learn the same language than someone else you know, that doesn’t mean you’re doing a bad job. Learn at your own pace.

Not asking for help

The point of learning a language is to communicate with other people, yet certain self-directed language learners take pride in “doing it on their own”…to their own detriment. At some point you are going to need help from other human beings in order to learn. That could be a tutor, a conversation partner, members of an online community, or even people you know from your life who speak the language.

Thinking in translation

When you’re starting out, it may make sense to think about what you want to say in your native language and then translate it into your target language. But a lot of people fall into the trap of staying in that mindset too long. That’s a problem because speaking a language isn’t just about memorizing words and phrases - it’s about forming sentences on your own and thinking in that language.

When you’re expressing more complex ideas, the way to do it in another language will typically be very different. The word you are looking for may not exist in that language. The structure of the sentence will usually be different. And if you’re using colloquialisms, forget it. You will build up your ability to think in your target language faster if you think of the idea you want to express and work out how to express it in the language instead of translating an exact sentence.

Getting frustrated when listening to native speakers

Listening to native speakers and emulating them is a great way to pick up good speech habits. However when you’re a beginner, your listening comprehension skills can’t keep up with how fast they typically talk. It can be easy to get frustrated and stop trying to converse with them.

You can always ask the person you’re talking to to slow down, but at the same time, work on your listening skills until you don’t have to anymore. Listening to the news and podcasts is a great way to start since newscasters typically speak clearly and use plain language. Then you can move on to movies and TV series. Start with audio in your target language and subtitles in your native language, then move to both the audio and subtitles in your target language, and eventually forgo the subtitles altogether.

Thinking you have to live abroad to immerse yourself

You may have heard that the best way to learn a new language is immersion. There is truth to that statement, but some people take it to mean, “If you can’t uproot your whole life and spend a year living in Paris, you will never be good at French.”

If moving to Paris is an option for you, by all means, go for it! Plenty of countries let you take language courses there on a student visa. If you’re like most, though, it’s not.

There are lots of other ways that to immerse yourself into your new language. You could seek out the kind of media you enjoy in the language. Apps like italki or Tandem make it easy to find a conversation partner. You can even change the language settings on your phone, email, web browser, and social media.

Incorporating parts of a new language into your everyday life will help you learn more, and use language more effectively, without it feeling like work.

Thinking language learning has to be difficult

If you’ve never learned another language before, the thought of it is probably intimidating. This is especially likely if you were raised in the United States and don’t know anyone who is bilingual. The way mainstream US culture devalues foreign languages keeps them mysterious and intimidating.

If you go into learning a second language thinking, “This is going to be so hard, and I’m going to have to work so hard to accomplish any semblance of fluency,” your mindset will get in the way.

Start learning from a place of curiosity. This makes a language an adventure, not an obligation. Plus, if it feels like you’re slogging away at it, it will be hard to stay motivated.

Learning a language will take a lot of effort, but you can absolutely set yourself up for success. Start by naming what you want to accomplish and how you learn best. Then start working on pronunciation sooner rather than later, learn words that are relevant to you, and look for patterns.

Over time, work towards thinking in your new language and incorporating it into your everyday life. Getting an online tutor will help keep you accountable at any stage of the process. Most importantly, enjoy it and be patient with yourself.

Knowing a second language will change the way you experience the world. If you spend all your time with your nose to the grindstone, you’ll miss it.