As an avid language lover, learner, and teacher, I’ve seen many approaches to learning over the the years. I’ve also witnessed – and made – some key mistakes. You know the ones – the things that hold us all back from our full language learning potential. As a reminder to all of us, here are some of the classic mistakes to avoid when learning a new language.
Mistake # 1: Being afraid to make mistakes
Believe me, the irony of having this is not lost on me – but hear me out.
Speaking in our language comes with a feeling of control. Without giving it much thought, perfectly formed sentences come out of our mouthes most of the time. We’ve been using this language so long that we’re familiar with the pronunciation, grammar, and vocabulary and can focus solely on communicating our thoughts.
This all changes when we learn a new language. Suddenly we’re faced with new sounds, structures, and words, which means we have to focus more on all of those things in order to produce a sentence. Plus, without all of the experience that we have in our native languages, we might not even be sure if we’re getting it right every time.
This means that you’ll make mistakes when learning a new language. You won’t have full control over it at the beginning, and that can be scary. Maybe you’re worried about not seeming intelligent enough, or effortless enough, or cool enough in this new language. I know I’ve definitely felt that way.
Many people respond to this fear by avoiding mistakes, which often only serves to amplify their anxiety.
There’s also a bigger problem: avoiding mistakes prevents you from using grammar and vocabulary that you haven’t mastered yet – and as we all know, practice makes perfect. By avoiding mistakes, you prevent yourself from getting all of the practice you can. You might stick to familiar language – simpler words and structures – instead of striving to correctly use something more advanced. This can limit your growth in your new language and if you’re taking a class, it can make it more difficult for you to get useful corrections from your teacher.
It’s important to realise that making mistakes is normal – even native speakers do it occasionally.
No one is perfect when they’re first learning a new skill. Even the people who seem to speak a new language fluently are probably very good at avoiding unfamiliar structures. Sometimes that can be a useful skill – but not when you’re trying to learn.
As I always tell my students, what it boils down to is this: if you’re not making any mistakes, you’re probably not learning anything new.
Mistake # 2: Believing that signing up for a class is enough on its own
For many busy people, learning a new language is another thing on their (already very long) to-do list. Believing it will force them to learn, they sign up for a weekly group class – and then show up every few weeks. Another variation? They show up tired after work and barely participate, or they never do their homework. Inevitably they are disappointed with their progress and with the class.
If you want to learn a language, showing up to class isn’t enough. Participating actively and doing the assigned homework are important, too. Will you learn anything if you don’t do those things? Maybe – but probably not enough to justify the money you spent, and there isn’t much a teacher can do for you’re not engaged.
What if you can find the time for a class, but your busy schedule prevents you from doing homework during the week? In that case, I recommend taking a one-on-one class and speaking to your teacher about your schedule. If they know what’s going on, they can probably find a solution with you.
Once you’re actively participating in your classes, you’ll be much happier with your progress, but don’t forget that language learning shouldn’t stop when you leave the classroom. Watching films, listening to music, chatting with other speakers are all things that will help you progress faster.
Mistake # 3: Losing sight of communication goals
It can be so easy to focus on drilling new vocabulary words with flashcards or doing grammar exercises. These things feel concrete, we can measure our success, and they are available to us from the comfort of our homes. Of course, they’re very useful – used correctly they can really improve our skills in a new language.
But it’s important to remember why you’re learning words and structures in the first place, and to centre what you learn around communication goals.
For example, you might choose words and structures which are united by a theme, such as going to the train station. Having a context for the words will make it easier to remember them, as they all have a communicative purpose – just like memorising the numbers of players on a hockey team is easier than memorising random numbers.
Many language learning books are structured this way, so be on the lookout for those.
Mistake # 4: Forgetting the value of muscle memory
Think back to a time when you were learning to play a piece of music, or to dance, or even when you were memorising a new PIN number for your bank card.
At the beginning, when everything is new, you have to think about the steps involved. Learning how to do these things takes time, effort, and conscious thought. But after a while, there comes a point when the movements seem to come automatically. Suddenly you’re playing Vivalidi, or dancing the cha-cha, or taking out money of your bank account without even really thinking about the steps involved.
This is all thanks to muscle memory. After learning to do something and repeating that action over and over, it becomes encoded in your muscles.
Muscle memory is useful when it comes to language learning, too. Phrases that you repeat over and over, like “How are you?”, “Can I help you?”, “I would like…” and many more will eventually become second nature after you’ve used them enough.
The great thing about this is that you can help the process along by repeating a phrase correctly over and over, just like practicing the piano.
Mistake # 5: Waiting until they’re “good enough” to have a conversation
Because they’re afraid that they’re not “good enough”, language learners often wait to have conversations in their new language.
Instead, they focus on the skills that they can practice by themselves at home – reading, writing, and listening – or they favour written communication with other speakers so that they can think about and edit their responses.
But having a conversation is a skill, and like any other skill, only practice will improve it. The earlier you begin the better.
Focusing on all skills – not just the ones you can do alone and at home – also allows you to develop them all at a similar pace. Many learners often have stronger reading and writing skills in a language not because reading and writing is necessarily easier, but because they have more practice in these areas.
And to some degree, yes, your knowledge of grammar, vocabulary, reading, listening, etc. will help you have a conversation – but they can only go so far. It’s also important to practice looking for the right words and structures in real time, and to expose yourself to a variety of speakers with different accents, styles, tempos, etc.
If it improves your confidence, work on grammar at home a little first – but make sure that you jump into conversations, even short ones, as soon as possible.
Do you only know how to say “What time is it?” in your new language? That’s great! Asking a few people for the time is a great way to practice that phrase over and over again. It will also expose you to authentic answers from native speakers.
Just remember: Having conversations as soon as possible gives you more opportunities to practice your conversation skills.
What learning mistakes have you been guilty of? Let me know in the comments below!