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10 Common Language Errors and How to Avoid Them

When learning a new language, you’re bound to make mistakes every so often.

There’s no reason to feel embarrassed or discouraged when you slip up. Instead, use it as an opportunity to learn and improve! 

Language learning errors, however, are a bit harder to recover from because they can set your learning on the wrong path and make it harder than it needs to be. 

Avoid these 10 common language errors, and you can add more ease to your language-learning journey! 

Contents


What’s the Difference Between an Error and a Mistake?

It’s important to distinguish between mistakes and errors.

A mistake is when you know a rule but violate it accidentally. Hopefully, you’ll notice when this happens and correct yourself.

A language error is when you unintentionally deviate from the rules. This is a bigger issue.

In this post, I’ll discuss the following two types of errors:

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  • Linguistic errors — A linguistic error happens when we lack knowledge of the rules of the language we’re trying to learn. We haven’t learned enough about the language, so we implement rules incorrectly.

    Much academic research exists on how and why these errors occur. If you’re interested in the topic, you might read this article about the types, causes and treatment of language errors.

  • Perspective errors — There can also be errors in the way we think about learning a language. Without knowing or understanding the process of learning a language, we assert false beliefs.

Both of these are detrimental to language learning and should be avoided at all costs.

Linguistic Errors

1. First language interference

Also called L1 interference or language transfer, first language interference occurs when rules from your native language sneak in and affect your second language. While the exact nature of the transfer varies between languages, it often seems to include grammatical rules.

Positive interference can actually improve your language skills. This occurs when you apply rules from your first language that line up correctly with the rules of your second language.

Negative interference is what you need to worry about. This occurs when you apply rules from your first language that don’t match the rules of your second language. This interference can create errors in your target language.

Typically, these will show up in your speaking and writing when you try to implement structures from your first language like word order, grammatical gender or certain verb tenses.

The best way to avoid these errors is through focused study. Ask yourself what’s giving you the most trouble and make sure to set some time aside to get answers to your questions.

As you get further into your language education, you’ll have an easier time distinguishing between the rules of your first and target languages.

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2. Pronunciation

Some sounds in one language don’t correspond to sounds in another, and these unfamiliar sounds can be hard to pick up.

For instance, you may have noticed that many native Spanish speakers from Latin America struggle to make the “th” sound. Although you might hear this sound in Spain, the “th” sound doesn’t naturally occur in Spanish in other regions.

Whatever your target language might be, most native speakers will probably understand what you mean even if you don’t pronounce every letter correctly. However, mispronouncing some words can cause confusion (especially in languages that use tones) and will certainly be a clear signal that you’re not a native speaker.

The best way to combat these errors is through listening practice. The more you hear the sounds, the clearer they’ll be.

For particularly tricky sounds, you might even look for targeted lessons that focus on problem sounds. Many YouTube lessons cover tricky sounds, even going so far as to explain where to put your tongue.

3. Grammar

Grammar errors are the bane of any language learner’s existence. They’re often a result of incomplete or inaccurate studying.

For instance, Latin, Russian, German and Greek use the case system, which basically means that word endings change depending on each word’s role in the sentence.

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Since modern English has no equivalent, case systems are often difficult for native English speakers to grasp. All the words can be the same between sentences, but if one word is in the wrong case, it can completely change the meaning of the sentence.

Two other fairly common general grammar errors include:

  • Avoidance — This occurs when a language structure is particularly difficult. For instance, native Chinese and Japanese speakers often avoid relative clauses when speaking English.
  • Oversimplification — This also occurs when a structure is difficult. Learners consistently use a simpler form in place of complex structures because they don’t quite understand the more complicated pattern.

To avoid grammar errors, it’s important to study not only grammar rules but also exceptions to these rules.

Many languages have irregular verbs or other tricky rules that seem to violate the basic rules of grammar. While we can adjust to this fairly easily in our native language, it can be harder in a second language.

The only way to learn and remember these rules is through careful study. Find and use quality resources and/or seek a well-prepared teacher.

Additionally, difficult grammar structures won’t get easier if you don’t practice them. Try to use the most appropriate structures possible even if they require extra effort.

4. Vocabulary

Vocabulary errors occur when you lack a clear understanding of specific words.

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Even if you’re an expert in grammar rules, not having enough words in your arsenal or not having a clear understanding of a term will impede understanding (false cognates, anyone?).

While circumlocution (describing the word when you don’t know the exact term) is one tactic when you’re unsure of a word, more vocabulary study is a helpful way to prevent vocabulary errors.

To ensure you use vocabulary properly, it’s particularly helpful to use resources that show you vocabulary in authentic contexts.

You can do this with a language learning program like FluentU where you can see the vocabulary in context while watching videos.

FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.

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5. Imbalance of skills

Balance isn’t just for yogis. Language learners need it, too.

Let’s pretend that you don’t know how important each component of language is, so you skip over one entirely when you study.

You prepare for your trip to Russia by speaking with a native speaker on a language exchange platform almost every day, but you neglect your reading skills. After a frustrating day around Moscow, you almost have a meltdown in the middle of Red Square. You can’t read any of the signs!

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Be sure to make reading, writing, speaking and listening a priority in your target language studies in order to communicate fully.

This is especially important if you’re teaching yourself. You can do this by combining several resources or by finding a resource that focuses on a well-rounded education.

By covering all of the major language skills during your studies, you’ll also have a better chance of avoiding errors like overgeneralization (applying a language rule to a situation in which the rule does not apply).

Perspective Errors

You might have had a poor experience trying to learn a language before and need a slight attitude adjustment or some clarification. Some of the errors below might sound familiar to you and, hopefully, we can clear the air!

6. Wrong language

When you choose what language to learn, you’re choosing a life partner, so don’t make the decision lightly.

Choosing the wrong language can be demotivating and lead to you never meeting your goals. That’s why it’s important to consider your goals carefully and assess your objectives before you start your learning adventure.

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For instance, if you’re looking to learn a language for business, you might select a different language than you would choose if you were learning it for travel.

Motivation is key to language learning success, and choosing the right language will keep the experience engaging.

7. Unrealistic expectations

If you’ve tried to learn a language before and were unsuccessful, you might have had unrealistic expectations. A lot of people expect immediate results, but this just isn’t going to happen.

So you weren’t able to have a full conversation with that German exchange student in college after one semester of German, and that upset you. But learning a language is a marathon, not a sprint.

As long as you keep this in mind at the beginning, you can celebrate your successes rather than dwelling on how long the process is. If you go into it expecting immediate fluency, you’re almost surely going to be disappointed.

How long it takes to learn a language will vary based on the difficulty of the language as well as your skill, focus and commitment. The Foreign Service Institute estimates that languages take 575 to 2,200 hours of study to learn.

8. Huge financial or time commitment

A lot of learners are turned off by perceived obstacles. Language learning can seem too expensive or too time-consuming.

However, this error in thinking can be quickly resolved. There are a plethora of options for language learners. If you truly want to learn a language, you can find the right resource for your needs.

There are options for learners on a budget and there are options that take only minutes a day. You don’t need to let time or money stop you from fluency!

9. Inability to understand native speakers

The first time you listen to a native speaker speaking your target language, you might just have an anxiety attack. You’re sure you’ll never understand them. This is particularly true if you listen without any supportive texts or translations.

Language barriers exist, but you can overcome them. It’s important to remember that everyone starts somewhere. Michael Phelps swam for many years before receiving any Olympic medals, after all.

Similarly, natural rates of speech seem significantly slower the more you study a language. What once seemed impossibly fast will one day feel like a normal pace.

10. Dull resources

Some learners have no idea that there are a variety of resources to choose from for learning languages and therefore make the mistake of choosing the wrong ones. You think about that old high school or college language textbook and you shudder.

Fortunately, you’re not restricted to that anymore. Technology advances every day, which gives us an endless supply of resources to choose from. Or, if you prefer resources like that old textbook, you have more than one option to choose from.

If you like a personal touch, you might try a private tutor. You can find a professional language instructor you click with who can help you with any aspect of the language you want while pointing out mistakes and offering corrections and suggestions.

Whatever you choose, it’s important to select your resources carefully. You’ll want ones that exercise your reading, listening, speaking and writing, but you’ll also want to make sure these resources hold your attention and appeal to you.

 

Watch out for the above language errors as you begin your studies in your target language.

If you avoid wrong turns and get yourself on the right path to learning, fluency will come easier than you think!

And One More Thing...

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With FluentU, you'll learn real languages—as they're spoken by native speakers. FluentU has a wide variety of videos as you can see here:

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