how to study a language

How Not to Study a Language: 7 Common Mistakes You Might Be Making

We all make mistakes.

There, it’s out there.

That’s probably no big news—but when you learn a foreign language, you might be surprised by just how many mistakes you end up making.

Too many language learners assume that this is a bad thing and end up feeling discouraged.

But mistakes can be very productive!

The best way to improve your language skills and make the most out of the learning process is to identify these mistakes, learn from them and try to avoid them as best you can.

Even if you study languages at school or college where professional educators help you deal with pitfalls, mistakes are still bound to happen to you, in class and after class.

Now, we’re going to discuss how to turn these mistakes into productive learning experiences.

Language study can’t be called a one-size-fits-all process. Learning styles vary, learning techniques develop and upgrade and students open up to new ways of learning, but we all want one thing: to master the language we’re learning.

We have something else in common. There are some common mistakes that far too many of us make! Let’s learn from those who have gone before us. Here come 7 common mistakes for you to remember and avoid while learning foreign languages. These are so common, and so very subtle, that they often aren’t recognized as mistakes that make an impact on learning.

How to Study Any Language Effectively: 7 Common Study Time Mistakes to Avoid

1. Try to remember tons of new words at once

When you learn a foreign language, it’s needless and virtually impossible to remember ALL the words.

Even native speakers don’t use them all, only regularly dealing with 2,000-3,000 on average. For example, while an adult native English speaker might have tens of thousands of words stored in their brain, you only need about 3,000 words to be able to read the vast majority of modern English texts in existence.

The same goes for most languages: To understand and speak a language, several thousand words will be enough to get by in conversation and while reading modern writing. You’ll need more if you’re going to tackle more specialized or academic writing, or perhaps if you’re going to become a translator or interpreter. But we all have to start somewhere.

How do you know which words to learn and remember?

We live in the digital era when the Internet surrounds us everywhere. So, check the list of most widely used words in the language you’re learning or download some applications that show you popular words, helping you to remember them along the way.

You can also watch FluentU videos in your target language. Thanks to the vast array of modern, relevant video content here, you’ll be able to become more strongly familiar with the most common words used by natives.

Tip: Using visual elements is the best method to learn new words, as they cause associations in our head, making it easier to remember permanently, not just learn by rote. (Another reason to try FluentU!)

2. Try to memorize all grammar rules

Certainly, grammar is important, and no one is going to say that you shouldn’t learn it.

Regardless of the language, grammar is always tricky for non-native speakers (well, let’s be honest: it’s often tricky for native speakers, too). All those gerunds, tenses, infinitives and exceptions are useful when you write academic essays, do research or write professional emails. You need to build a foundation of great grammar in order to speak and write correctly.

However, if your primary goal is to communicate, prepare for a trip abroad or master just the basics, don’t stress about this too much. If you’re seriously turned off by the nitty gritty of grammar, don’t torture yourself trying to remember all the rules at once.

Many learners get discouraged by the idea of studying grammar and end up avoiding their daily practice. Don’t procrastinate. On days when grammar fills you with dread, treat yourself to some movies, games or music videos in your target language. Keep building familiarity with the language every day, and you’ll start learning grammar naturally.

Some educators recommend starting off with full immersion—constant exposure to the language through a diversity of authentic materials—and never cracking open a textbook or starting formal grammar study until you’ve developed basic proficiency in the language. You can always give this route a try!

Tip: Write something every day. Write blog posts, diary entries, shopping lists, notes to yourself or anything else that is already part of your daily life, but do it all in your target language. Using grammar in practice will improve your skills many times over.

3. Forget about listening

While learning a foreign language, we usually pay lots of undue attention to vocabulary and grammar. Our goal is to learn how to read, write and speak.

That’s all well and good, but we often forget about listening to a target language despite the fact that it’s key to understanding and communication.

Learners too often discover the hard way that speaking a language and understanding it aren’t the same thing.

Sometimes one can speak but can hardly understand native speakers at all while listening to songs or watching a movie in the target language. Never underestimate the importance of listening skills; you need to practice them on a daily basis.

Tip: To develop your listening skills, you can watch movies or TV shows with subtitles, listen to a radio show in your target language, play games, try to understand all words from your favorite songs and so on. Keep it fun and casual! Listening to TED lectures is always a good decision, too.

4. Read classic literature to learn new words

Five bucks say I’m right: Your past or current language teachers have assigned you the task to read a book in the language you’re learning, make a vocabulary list of unknown words from it, learn them and discuss the book in the classroom afterward. I got those five bucks, didn’t I?

Such exercises are great unless your teacher asks you to read classic literature in the target language. They often don’t, and instead opt for abridged and otherwise simplified reading material.

Why?

First of all, it can be difficult to understand a plot and get pleasure from reading a book if you don’t know the meaning of most words. The “extensive reading” method encourages learners to choose texts where they know 95% of the words on any given page.

Secondly, books of classics may contain lots of archaic vocabulary (let’s take Shakespeare, for example). There’s no real need to learn all words from classics, as no one uses them in everyday language anymore.

However, many language learners make the mistake that teachers strive so hard to avoid—they dive into deep, complex literature and other texts that are well outside their reading level. They want to read what they want to read, even if they can’t read it! As you may already know, it can be very discouraging when you don’t understand most of what you’re reading.

You’re not giving yourself the chance to develop good reading habits. You won’t learn how to get into the flow of a native text if you’re constantly stopping to use your dictionary. You also won’t be able to pick up words via context if most of the language is way above your head (for the time being), and this kind of deductive work is critical for learning a language effectively.

So, what to do?

If you’re at the beginner level of learning, children’s books would be the best option for you. Intermediate and advanced learners can always try reading simplified versions of classics to learn some new words and grammar rules. If you’re pretty advanced, you can start tiptoeing towards the classics. Start with modern classics.

No matter your level, always read books that suit your learning level.

5. Spend all your time studying from textbooks

Going by the book is one of the biggest mistakes you can make while learning a foreign language.

The textbook can give you all the essential building blocks, but it can’t take you much farther.

Have you ever heard the people speaking in the audio files accompanying English textbooks? They’re speaking perfectly correct English, but they sound a bit forced and awkward at times. That’s because they’re reading a script designed for learners. It’s easy on the ears, and great for becoming familiar with the basics of language, but you’ll probably never hear a native speaker who talks quite like that.

Slang, idioms, jokes, regional dialects, pop culture references…they usually can’t be learned from standard textbooks. To really understand native speakers, you must learn casual language.

This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t use textbooks at all. Some of them are worth trying, and one can find many reasons to use modern textbooks: They’re well-designed, they provide useful content and a road map for learning, they give lots of practice opportunities and they usually offer audio components.

Just don’t make them the only instrument you use for learning that target language.

6. Consider the target language a task to complete

Some learners aren’t super passionate about languages, and instead consider reaching fluency just another task to complete. It’s just another task on a life list, bucket list or resume building plan. There are a couple of noteworthy problems with this:

  • It’s very difficult to pinpoint the exact moment you reach fluency, so you may never be able to check the “task complete” box.
  • You don’t know a language just because you score all A’s and 100’s on your exams.
  • You need to find some personal motivation coming from within to really master a language without ever losing focus.

You can’t just study for the test. Fluency doesn’t come until after you’ve put your language skills into action, spoken with natives for hours, listened to native speakers intently and followed their directions. You also need to learn the culture behind the language to a certain extent, or you’ll find a large gap between you and natives while communicating.

Not to mention, you have to constantly be updating your language knowledge. Languages change and develop all the time. Don’t miss a chance to learn the culture of those people whose language you learn, chat with your native speaker friends, watch movies, listen to songs, travel to countries and interact with locals.

If you make the language enjoyable and something you genuinely look forward to studying, it will be much easier for you to master it.

7. Rely on language schools

This may be the most common mistake made by language learners. They rely on whatever course they’re taking, whether they’re taking it through a college, university or institute online, at home or abroad. This “reliance” comes in two forms:

  • Relying on the course to give you all the material and exposure you need to learn.
  • Holding the course or teacher responsible for your successes and failures.

When you learn a language, it’s good to have a teacher who will help and support you, but it doesn’t mean he or she can do everything for you. Teachers guide you—they can’t inject the language straight into your brain. It’s only you who’s responsible for your learning.

If you feel like the books and materials your school gives you aren’t effective or sufficient on their own, find a different textbook or other language learning materials to accompany the coursework. If the coursework doesn’t target your preferred learning style, learn how you learn best on your own time. If you learn best through music or visual cues, but simply don’t get enough of that in class, take care of yourself at home later.

Don’t only do your homework, study for tests and call it a day. Read and listen to your target language every day, communicate in it, go to language exchange clubs, make friends with native speakers and seek out new articles, blog posts, YouTube videos and more in that language. Become ravenous. Consume as much of the target language as you can on a daily basis.

Ask your school to assist you where needed, manage your emotions and try to stay motivated and optimistic.

If you don’t study properly and perform poorly on tests, take responsibility for this. If you ace all the reading and writing assignments but can’t speak without a heavy accent, then take responsibility for this and double up on speaking practice. The teacher and coursework can only get you so far.

It’s you who’s learning the language.

It’s you who needs it.

And it’s you who will succeed.

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