Six common language-learning mistakes to avoid on any language-learning journey, whether your first or your twentieth.
It’s the dream of many to add another language (or more) to their portfolio. But whether it’s your first, second or third language, it doesn’t necessarily get easier to add another language. Every language is hard in its own way.
So it’s totally normal to feel, after months, that you’ve been wasting your time doing the wrong thing. It’s not your fault — guidance on learning languages varies massively depending on who you ask. Some people will claim that you should enrol into an institute and pay thousands of dollars a month. Some say you can only do it in the country. And others might even say language learning is a waste of time if you speak English, because eventually, everyone will.
But your mission to learn a language is yours alone. You do it for your own reasons. Maybe you have a partner with a family who doesn’t speak English well. Maybe you just want to feel at home in a foreign environment far from home. Whatever it is — it’s your mission.
Language-learning mistakes in a nutshell: Are you wasting time?
Take a good hard look at what you’re doing and ask yourself: “Am I wasting time?” Is there something you’ve been trying that hasn’t been working? Are other people who’ve spent the same amount of time as you on the language way ahead of you — even though you feel like you’re just as smart, if not smarter?
Every time we learn a study language (I’m on my fifth new language, and Jo’s onto her third) we make mistakes in the language-learning process. And promise not to make the same language learning mistakes again. We’ve learned countless lessons, from when and how to use tutors, to what books to use, apps to use and even just how to prioritise our language learning. All in all, it has brought us to ten languages between us so far.
We’re here to share what we’ve learned with you in the hope that it’ll help you change what you’ve been doing and stop wasting time.
(Also read: How We Learn Languages — Lessons Learned from False starts for a longer take.)
It’s true: your learning productivity drops as you get tired. But this is where learning a language is different to most endeavours: your mind isn’t data storage device. It’s an organic input-output engine that is trained through hard work. As you train your mind, you get tired, and your retention rate drops. But your overall retention increases and your stamina increases. Thus, not only do you learn more in the one day, but the amount you can learn every day keeps rising. This means you’ll learn at an exponentially increasing rate.
Here are six of the most common language learning mistakes we’ve learned to avoid.
Mistake 1. You wait too long before speaking
Every time we learn a language we worry we’re “not ready” to get a tutor, language partner or even just to say anything out loud to someone.
But the first time we speak another language to a tutor or language partner, we always learn so much. Often we learn things that help us course-correct massively. For example, when I was learning Korean for a few months last year (I’ll need to revisit it…), I spent a while learning words, and then my tutor told me I was mispronouncing all the double letters. When we started working on Arabic in Egypt, we learned a whole bunch of greetings in Arabic from apps (more on that next), and then realized we barely need to use any of them in Egypt. Why? Because people always wait for us to speak Arabic first.
The reason we delay it so long is insecurity. We know we’ll learn a lot. We also want our teachers to like us and to be impressed by us, for some reason. But that doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t matter what the teachers think; it matters how much we learn.
It’s so easy to get a tutor or conversation partner these days. Hellotalk is a great app for finding language partners, and italki is what we recommend for finding tutors — for as little as around $5 an hour, depending on the language.
One crucial point is you don’t have to wait until you’re in a country that speaks the language just to start speaking it. You can create your own opportunities well before you land. You definitely should, because otherwise, without speaking your language is not going to be good enough to speak for a while after you land anyway.
There are specific mistakes we can make in the way we work with our tutors. Like only getting one tutor, or not working off a curriculum. See our tips on getting the most out of italki tutors for more guidance there.
Mistake 2: You spend too much time in apps
Apps are so tempting. Anyone reading this website will have come across Duolingo, Memrise and many many others specific to languages.
We like apps for the basics (see this list of our favourite apps for varying stages of learning). If you have to learn the alphabet in Arabic, then, by all means, use Memrise. If you want to practise your Chinese characters, then you should invest in one of my favourite speciality language learning apps: Skritter.
But once you get past a certain point, don’t worry about keeping your Memrise plants healthy, your Duolingo lingots score up or whatever metric your app is using. There’s a risk that you’ll end up spending time in the app just because it “feels like” productive studying, when in actual fact, it’s just playing a game. This is what we call the app unproductivity trap. Don’t get stuck in it!
Mistake 3: You don’t learn to read and write
It’s tempting to not learn to read and write if your focus is speaking. There are romanisation systems for every foreign language. Particularly in Chinese, it is tempting to think “I can just learn Pinyin! Plus, I bet in a hundred years all Chinese will be pinyin.”
It is a mistake to not learn to read and write. It doesn’t matter how difficult the writing system, it will definitely slow down your progress if you don’t know it.
The main reason you need to learn to read and write is to build mental links that help you learn. For example, in English you can see that “knowledge” is similar to “to know” and “unknowable” because you recognise the element “know” in those words. You also know they’re unrelated to “no” or “porridge”, even though those sound similar to “know” and “knowledge”.
Similarly, in Arabic, you will learn that the words for “time” and “hour” are the same, connecting the two items, but that the word for “cold” is different because of its spelling even though it sounds the same. Similarly knowing characters in Chinese you would know the words for “market” and “city” are related because of a shared character, but avoid confusing them with “exam room” and “honesty” which respectively sound very similar.
There are so many other benefits to learning to read and write. Here are a few:
- You can read menus and product names in supermarkets. You will continue to exist as a human!
- You can learn more words by seeing them in everyday life. It’s like real-life flashcards, because you get constant reminders about the most important words in everyday life.
- You can write a secret magical code. Even just a note that says “thank you” for the housekeeper, or a label that says “broken” on an appliance.
- You’ll learn a lot faster past the ~500 word point. Very quickly, not knowing the script becomes a hindrance for learning. It becomes harder to talk to teachers. You can’t use online resources like dictionaries and Google Translate as easily. It really slows you down to not be able to read.
- You can text people, and read texts. For some reason, every time I call an Uber driver, they text me back and forth to confirm where I am and whether I’m coming to them. Jo doesn’t seem to have this luck.
- You feel more at home, and miss the script when you leave. After you spend time learning a script and seeing it around you in everyday life, you’ll find yourself missing it when you’re no longer surrounded by it.
Every time I walk past the one Chinese eatery in our current town in Egypt I over-enthusiastically read the characters for “Chinese Food” and my heart skips a beat for The Middle Kingdom.
Mistake 4: Speaking only when you have the energy
When do you speak your native language? All the time. It doesn’t matter if you’re tired, if you just woke up or if you are about to go to bed. There’s no special talking time like a classroom — there’s a chance you have to talk the whole time.
For example, f you have a roommate who is asking you if you can move some food in the fridge, you can’t say “Excuse me, it’s morning and I cannot speak Spanish. Can you please speak to me in the afternoon when I’m ready?” (I tried this once. Luckily it was so weirdly hilarious I got away with it.)
Studying is a lot like learning to run long distances or lift heavier weights. Train for longer and your stamina increases. You’ll be able to endure longer and longer learning sessions.
Some learners believe that if they don’t learn every word (see Mistake 6 below!) then it’s a waste of time studying. It’s true: your learning productivity drops as you get tired. But this is where learning a language is different to most endeavours: your mind isn’t data storage device. It’s an organic input-output engine that is trained through hard work. As you train your mind, you get tired, and your retention rate drops. But your overall retention increases and your stamina increases. Thus, not only do you learn more in the one day, but the amount you can learn every day keeps rising. This means you’ll learn at an exponentially increasing rate.
When you don’t feel ready, speak. When you’re exhausted, speak. If you feel good after an hour of class, start doing two hours of class a day. Keep going until you’re exhausted.
Mistake 5: Insisting on speaking another language even if it hurts communication
Answer this question honestly: Why are you learning a language?
Is it to flex a muscle and show off?
Or is it to communicate with people and learn something about the culture?
We often find ourselves in situations where we’re with a bunch of people who speak a language we’re trying to learn, like Arabic, and yet they speak English for our sake. We have two options in these situations: either force the conversation to the second language or keep going in English. We usually choose to speak English and casually blend in as much of the language as necessary or possible.
The reason we do this is that our primary motivation is communication. Often, the people we’re speaking with have far better English than our Arabic (or whatever language). They have often spent many more years studying and being exposed to English, sometimes have been educated or worked in English-speaking environments. We know people in many countries who regularly blend in entire English sentences when speaking another language — it’s the inevitable effect of globalisation via the Internet.
What it means, of course, is that we need to spend more time learning about people who don’t have as high a level of English. We often do this by meeting conversation partners and their friends. But we don’t force an unnatural situation.
Mistake 6: Worrying too much about learning everything
The early learner wants to learn every word and every phrase for every situation.
It’s common to be inundated with 50-100 words and sentences in just two hours of tuition. But it’s impossible to remember everything. Firstly, you get tired. Secondly, something strange happens with some words and they just never stick in our heads.
Similarly, it’s tempting to think we should know words for every situation. We want to be able to go to the doctor and explain our conditions. We want to be able to understand the most authentic recipe possible for a special dish so we can make it at home. But this would mean knowing words and phrases like “dull, throbbing pain” or “sauté it in a frying pan over a low flame” which is the kind of thing you know after years of speaking in a language. Never mind that health specialists are very highly educated and often know these words in English extremely well through constant exposure to them.
The answer: don’t worry about learning everything at the early stages. Adopt an 80-20 approach to learning where you ruthlessly discard things you don’t need to learn until much later (see learn to speak fluently faster with easier words). Learn to describe words rather than learning them.
The best advice I received one day when I was feeling exhausted was from my best Chinese Teacher, who said “If I teach you 100 words in a day, I expect you to remember 60 of them at most.” Regardless of the fact that 60 still meant a lot of hard work, this was a huge relief. From studying the science of learning, he knew that the brain was an organic device, not a data-storage machine. He expected me to try to remember and to try to improve how much I learned every day, but would never hold me accountable to an impossible goal of 100% retention of a large amount of data.
The very first words I encourage you to NOT learn are words about grammar and linguistics. Teachers all seem keen to teach these. Don’t learn words like “past tense”, “passive voice”, “conjugation” or even “noun”. I guarantee if you ask ten English (or any language) speakers what these are, they’ll struggle to give a clear definition anyway!
There are many more mistakes to come. We’re looking forward to it, because they’re mistakes we can help others avoid.
If there’s anything you want to share, comment below or send us a note.