By Benny Lewis
If I asked you to name some language learning mistakes, what would you say?
Bad pronunciation? Not knowing the right words? Messing up grammar?
These are pretty common mistakes, and people make them all the time when learning a language.
But these aren’t the mistakes that will hold you back as a language learner.
In fact, these “mistakes” – having limited vocab, messing up grammar, having a thick accent – are a natural and necessary part of the learning process. So, they’re not really mistaken at all.
Today I’d like to share with you eight of the most common mistakes that will hold you back. I see language learners struggling with these issues every day. Don’t be one of them!
Luckily, although these mistakes will stall your language learning, they are easy to fix, just by making a few small changes in your mindset. Language hacking is all about mindset.
Language Learning Mistake #1: Freaking out about Making Mistakes
Mistakes are an essential part of learning languages (or learning anything, really). So don’t beat yourself up about them.
Think about it. There’s no way that you can reach fluency without making lots and lots (and lots) of mistakes. It’s utterly impossible. So why even try to avoid them? Instead, embrace being a beginner and accept that it means you’ll feel out of your comfort zone for a while.
The purpose of making mistakes it to learn from them. An excellent strategy is to learn your lesson as quickly as possible and move on, better and stronger than you were before.
If your experience of learning a language is filled with stressful emotions you’re much more likely to give up. By avoiding speaking until you can say things “perfectly”, you’ll silence yourself. Worrying too much about being perfect will paralyze you.
Always remember that mistakes are the gateway to improvement and are essential to our development. Without mistakes, your progress will stall.
The Language Hacker’s Fix for Making Mistakes
Learn to love your mistakes.
At the very least, learn to learn from your mistakes. At the end of each day take a few moments to write down the mistakes you made with your language learning. Then, next to each mistake write what you learned from the mistake and how you can improve your process the next time around. After a while, your mind will naturally start to shift from being stressed out about your mistakes to looking at them as an opportunity for improvement.
I have a very easy-going attitude with mistakes in language learning. They are so necessary that I have a goal to make at least 200 mistakes a day when I’m in my most intensive learning mode! By saying things wrong 200 times, I know I’m using the language, and I know I’m learning how to say them right as fast as possible.
Language Learning Mistake #2: Thinking You’ll Never Pronounce it Right
With hundreds of different sound units (phonemes) in the world’s languages – between 300 to 600, depending on who you ask – it is easy to feel overwhelmed.
It seems like an uphill battle when tackling the German “ch”, Chinese tones, or the long strings of consonants in Czech and Russian. Even when you look at a really familiar word like “radiation” in a language like French, it’s pronounced closer to “Hhah-dee-ah-see-ong”, which is very different from what you’d expect as an English speaker.
I’ll let you in on a little secret:
It isn’t that these words are hard to pronounce, but that English pronunciation and spelling rules are so weird.
Think about it. Why is the “ough” spelling pronounced so differently in though, through, plough and cough? As an English speaker, you have an advantage of already being comfortable in a language filled to bursting point with complicated phonetic rules. If you can learn English pronunciation then it’s a safe bet you can learn to pronounce any language.
The Language Hacker’s Fix for Pronunciation
Identify the phonetic rules in your target language that give you the most trouble.
Then take a list of words (ideally relevant to you, such as where you’re from, your hobbies, your work, or studies) and try to say them yourself. You can check your pronunciation from home by searching for the words on Forvo.com to see how native speakers pronounce them. After a while you’ll start to internalize the patterns.
Repeat the words again and again, and muscle memory will eventually take over. Your mouth and tongue will have a bit of work to do at first to learn how to make these new sounds. But with repetition, you’ll eventually be pronouncing even the toughest words with ease.
Language Learning Mistake #3: Getting Tangled up with Grammar
Yes, the language you are studying has grammar. And yes, some of the grammar might be “hard”. But guess what? Every language also has aspects of grammar which are easy!
There are two related mistakes people make with grammar. The first is ignoring those aspects of the grammar that make the language much easier. For example, you’ll never need to conjugate verbs in Chinese or know noun cases in Italian. Don’t forget to embrace the parts of grammar that make things easy!
The second grammar mistake is to focus on the details of “hard” grammar without stepping back to see how things can be simplified. Genders in languages like French are much easier when you realize it isn’t about the word, but about the last letter(s) of the word! Even truly tough aspects like the rules of plurals in German have clever shortcuts you can use.
Every language has these “hacks” that can simplify the grammar and make learning much easier.
The Language Hacker’s Fix for Grammar
Enjoy the grammar points in your target language that are easy – they all have them – and find rules to simplify the parts that are “hard”.
Take a step back to see where you can identify those parts of the language that can be simplified into easy-to-understand rules.
Language Learning Mistake #4: Focusing on the Wrong Vocabulary
One of the biggest mistakes you can make with vocabulary is failing to choose the right words for you.
Vocabulary serves you best when it’s relevant to you and your life. After all, you’re much more likely to talk about your hobbies, family or hometown than you are about the top kiwifruit producing country in the world (Italy, believe it or not).
By focusing on words that are specific to you, it allows you to quickly build a list of vocabulary that you can use in conversations right away. Not only that but since the words you’ve learned are relevant to you, you will find them much easier to remember.
The Language Hacker’s Fix: Vocabulary
Don’t grab a generic list of “1000 most common words” in your language! Many of those words probably won’t be relevant to you as a beginner.
Before you start studying your language, write up a one-page document introducing yourself and your life. Talk about your family, hobbies, school, work or anything else that might come up in conversation. Then identify the most relevant words and focus on learning those first, as well as any words that complement them. For example, if I”m learning the word for “vegetarian” then it is also useful to learn the words for “vegetables”, “eat”, “food”, “meat” and the names of a few of my favorite dishes.
Language Learning Mistake #5: Believing Immersion is All About Living Abroad
If you believe that you can only be immersed in a language by living abroad, then you’re not alone. I’m constantly amazed at how many people have never taken the plunge to get spoken practice online.
Unfortunately, this is a big mistake. The Internet makes it really simple to immerse yourself in a new language, wherever you live.
Immersion has less to do with your location than your environment. Build a lifestyle where exposure to your target language is around every corner — through music, TV shows, movies, software and the people you see regularly. For example, if you’re learning French, watch a great French movie like Amélie to help prepare yourself for chatting with native French speakers.
Infuse your day with exposure to the language and your skills will develop at a much higher rate.
It’s so much easier than you might think.
The Language Hacker’s Fix: Immersion
There are three easy things you can do right away to create a language immersion environment. First, and foremost, set up a Skype conversation exchange or language lesson on italki.
Don’t be intimidated to get started. Most people say their biggest regret is not starting sooner!
Second, load up foreign language files (music, podcasts, audiobooks, etc.) on your audio player so that you have natives speaking (or singing) to you wherever you go. TuneIn is a great site to get free streaming radio in your target language.
Third, change the language on all your digital interfaces (smartphone, Facebook, computer, web browser) to give yourself full virtual immersion.
Language Learning Mistake #6: Getting Frustrated When Listening to Natives
One of the first things you’ll notice when learning a language is the speed at which natives speak. Even if you understand words written on the page, when you hear them spoken at full speed by a native speaker you can feel like you’re listening to a confusing collection of random sounds. This is especially true if you’re learning Spanish, as native Spanish speakers typically speak at lightning speeds (but there are ways around even that).
Instead of becoming frustrated, realize that this challenge can be overcome by training your ears to associate the sounds of the language with the written form.
With a few weeks of consistent practice, you can train yourself to listen as well as you can read. Once you reach that point, it just becomes a matter of improving your vocabulary and grammar.
The Language Hacker’s Fix: Listening
While there are many great methods for developing your ear, just a few you can test out include checking out a TV show or movie you are familiar with (with dubbing and subtitles in your target language) watching it, listening in your target language, all while following along with the subtitles. After a while, test your improved listening skills by watching it again, this time with the subtitles turned off.
There are also tools that allow you to listen to content (video and audio) that is slowed down for learners, depending on the language. I especially love using podcasts to hear full-speed sentences broken down piece by piece.
Language Learning Mistake #7: Having a Study-Heavy Approach
If you want to improve your language skills, I recommend studying less, not more.
Unless you are studying for a specific exam, burying your head in a book will actually slow down your language learning progress.
One of the biggest mistakes I see language learners make is believing that studying languages is about acquiring knowledge. Newsflash: it’s not! Learning a new language is about building a communication skill. Like any skill, you have to use it to improve it. Don’t get so mired in the study of a language that you forget the whole reason you’re doing this — to communicate with people around the world!
The Language Hacker’s Fix: Studying
Put down your book!
Schedule time to meet up and practice with native speakers. It is the fastest way to build up your skill in a new language. You can use your spoken sessions as a basis for your studies and as an opportunity to practice what you learn. This way you’re building that important muscle memory early on.
Language Learning Mistake #8: Believing it has to be Hard
While language learning is many things, believing that it is intrinsically “hard” is one of the biggest mistakes I see with language learners.
Does it take time and focused commitment? Absolutely! Can it be scary and intimidating? Sure! But is it “hard”? Not necessarily.
Your attitude towards language learning is the biggest factor in how difficult or easy a language will be to learn.
The truth is, the difficulty doesn’t lie within the language itself, but in the study methods and materials you use, and your attitude towards the language. Adapt your approach to be like a scientist testing out new theorems. Find the methods that work best for you instead of committing yourself to one that is familiar, but ineffective.
The Language Hacker’s Fix: Difficulty
The biggest fix here is in changing your mindset.
Don’t aim for perfection or use excuses such as bad luck or “bad genes”. Focus on short-term tangible goals and seek out language learning methods and hacks that can cut hours off your study time and make language learning easy.
There are also lots of fun ways to learn languages. I love learning through music and through gamified social systems like memrise.
Why Learning Languages is Easy
Mistakes are a necessary and valuable part of the language learning process, but that doesn’t mean you have to allow yourself to keep making the same ones over and over.
Focus on the big picture and always look for ways to “hack” your language learning with new approaches, systems and techniques. You’ll soon find that learning a new language is actually easy.