19 Things You Shouldn’t Do When Learning A Foreign Language

korean hagwon

Language learning is all about trial and error.

You try one approach. It gives you crappy results. You try something else.

Those of us who have already learned foreign languages tend to find it much easier to learn another one because we’ve learned a lot from our previous mistakes. We know what not to do the next time round.

While everyone takes their own approach to language learning as well as the plethora of “you should do’s” (some of which may benefit some but not others), for today’s post I’ve decided to share 19 “do not do’s” which I believe are hugely important for all language learners.

The most important thing before you do anything of course is to have a real purpose for learning and to be resolutely determined to succeed no matter what.

Whatever distractions get thrown at you, you’re going to see this through to the end.

If you don’t have that level of motivation then stop reading now and find another hobby.

But if you do then read on! :)


1. Don’t miss the importance of being able to paraphrase and describe

We all have a different understanding of what fluency means.

I talked about what I believe to be fluency a while back which can basically be summed up as this:

Being able to describe or ‘paraphrase’ unknown target language content using the target language itself without needing to translate using your own language.

For example, I might not know the word for ‘library’ in Russian say, but if I can describe a building that has many books which I can borrow, a quiet place, a good place to study, etc. using Russian then you could say I’m conversationally fluent.

Specific vocab can be acquired over time as required.

You’ll never ever know every word and every aspect of grammar (even in your own language) but if you can describe and elicit it then you’re already where you need to be.

One of the biggest mistakes people make in my opinion is that they spend too much time trying to learn specific vocabulary and not enough on the core fundamentals (e.g. focusing on terms like ‘library’ which is extremely limited in its use instead of learning how to actually describe the place and its function).


2. Don’t squander your time

Language learning takes time.

A lot of it.

While it’s definitely possible to achieve limited, semi-functional fluency in a few months, you need to understand that learning a language properly takes serious time and to achieve even basic conversational fluency in several months requires daily dedication.

One lesson a week or occasional study periods won’t cut it.

Remember too that there’s only so much we’re capable of learning in the hours we have. Excessive study over many hours at a time will also produce detrimental results.

What this means is that 8 hours in 1 day does not equal 1 hour a day for 8 days.

It’s not the same.

I’m confident that the latter would yield far better results.

You need spaced repetition and you need mental rest which is all part of the learning process.


3. Don’t work against your learning strengths

I told the story a while back of how I failed nearly everything in school and my first year of college.

I was hopeless at anything that involved study.

That was until I discovered that I’m a visual-spatial learner which enabled me to radically change my approach to suit my strengths and weaknesses.

We’re all very different so take some time to assess what works for you and if need be, do as I did and get advice from a professional who can help you identify the things that aren’t working for you.


4. Don’t speak English (or any other language)!

Don’t speak anything other than your target language unless absolutely necessary!

This is such an important point.

I’m currently working as an English teacher in Korea so my job requires me to speak English.

Outside of work and apart from times like this where I have to write a blog post in English or communicate with English speakers (rarely), I use Korean.

I saturate myself in Korean every day.

If you’re not living abroad then you need to allocate as much time as possible every day to do this.

For those of you living in a city where your target language community can be found, make a habit of spending your spare time in that area.

In my home town of Brisbane we had a very small Arabic-speaking community who all lived around one particular area of the city and I used to hang around that spot constantly just to get as much language action as I could.


5. Don’t use outdated, inefficient methods

Grammar-translation methods and tedious memorization of words and rules have been standard practice for centuries all over the world.

They’re outdated and totally ineffective.

I’ve worked in Georgia and Turkey for example where I’ve seen students who have been learning English for years – sometimes decades – and still can’t communicate ‘at all’. They can read and they know English grammar better than most of us do but they can’t respond to the most basic questions.

Whether you’re in a classroom or learning on your own, focusing on conversational, functional language use is crucial.

Learn in context through interaction with other people.


6. Don’t have a macro goal without setting micro goals

What do I mean by macro and micro goals?

A macro goal would be something like, “I want to learn French to pass a C1 test in 2 years”.

It’s a large, long-term goal that you’re ultimately aiming for but you need smaller goals along the way to help you keep moving.

The micro goals are the small outposts that you conquer which give you constant motivation and a way to measure your progress when you look back on what you’ve done.

For example, good micro goals for a fairly new learner would be something like “have 5 conversations every day each week”, “get a haircut”, “make a transaction at the bank”, “instead of using a basic word like ‘go’ which is too easy now, use a more natural-sounding, better alternative like ‘attend’, ‘travel’ or ‘visit'” and so on.

By constantly setting these new goals you’ll never allow yourself to get comfortable.


7. Don’t work hard on one skill and neglect the others

When I’m not learning languages or stuck at work, I’m probably training at the gym.

If I miss a gym day I can’t live with myself!

One of the things I’ve learned to be careful about is making sure not to miss a major muscle group during the week.

This is to avoid ending up like those blokes who have strong upper bodies and then an embarassing set of pencil-thin legs to go with it because they neglect it in their training.

I think of speaking, listening, reading and writing as muscles that need plenty of divided attention.

If conversational fluency is all that matters to you then you might place less emphasis on reading and writing but never underestimate the overall benefit that those skills will have on each other.

Often when I’m speaking I’ll recall words and phrases that I’ve read or written before so it’s all helping achieve the same goal.

Writing is the alternative for practicing output too when speaking is impossible.


8. Don’t use crap material

A lot of people just can’t tell the difference between good and bad material.

Antiquated or overly polite terminology and expressions that nobody in real life actually uses, irrelevant content, confusing or messy grammar explanations, use of a romanized text rather than the original script are common problems.

The issue with bad material is that people spend so much time just trying to make sense of it and find what they’re looking for before they actually get to learning anything.

It’s really important to seek out opinions from experienced learners.

Scan the forums (HTLAL is good for this), blogs and product reviews on sites like Amazon and Book Depository. Ask people who have had success already for advice.

A high price and a pretty cover do NOT necessarily mean high quality.


9. Don’t disregard the culture

As I said before, this is one of the things that separates people who have ordinary success from those with outstanding success.

Language is made up so many intricate expressions of culture and books and courses never adequately cover them.

I’m talking about the way in which the average, ordinary person interacts with other people in his or her community – gestures, intonation, slang, proximity, interjections and cuss words, fillers, etc.

These things take years to pick up even for the best learners but it’s important to realize that they’re part of the whole package.

You need to develop a very good eye for detail and most importantly, a desire and willingness to assimilate into the target language community.


10. Don’t spend too much time studying

Study in short, spaced sessions.


Sitting in front of a book or screen for hours on end going over rules, flashcards and so on isn’t going to make you learn faster.

If anything it’ll hinder you.

Have study periods of 15-30 minutes and spend the rest of your available time putting the language to use.


11. Don’t abuse your physical well-being

Common-sense advice really.

Most people should know that physical well-being directly affects the brain’s performance.

If you sit in front of a computer or TV for hours on end, eat shit food and don’t get enough proper cardio exercise, it’s going to wreck your ability to problem solve and retain information.

Stop poisoning yourself.

The best days I have learning foreign languages come after an awesome sleep and a good, early morning workout.


12. Don’t wait until you’re ready to speak

You’re never going to be “ready”.

People have this idea that if they acquire enough input over time then eventually they’ll be at the point where they can finally start conversing with other people.

While I do believe that input should take some precedence over output (especially in the early stages), to hold off from speaking entirely is to miss out on crucial skill development.

This is not to mention all the interaction and important relationships you’ll deny yourself as well.


13. Don’t focus on grammar study

Heavy grammar study kills conversational progress.

I wrote a contentious post on my position about this here.

You started studying grammar in school after you became a fluent speaker of your native language. Grammar study is for literacy skills at higher levels, not for conversational fluency in the early stages.

I’ve shown this with Arabic and Irish, and I’m about to do the same with Korean.

Focus on dialogues and actively using common language patterns (chunks as some call them) and save the grammar study for later on.


14. Don’t read and listen to stuff that’s way above your level

I made this point in a video I made a short while back.

It’s best to use material that you already understand most of.

Once you’ve moved through the elementary coursebook material and start to use other resources, don’t overwhelm yourself with advanced level content that you understand hardly anything of.

If that means you have to stick to children’s books for a while instead of politics or thick novels, so be it! :)


15. Don’t allow other people to give you unrealistic expectations or feelings of inadequacy

Don’t be discouraged by that guy or girl who speaks amazingly well.

They’ve probably been learning for many years and put in a lot of hard work to get to where they are now. Let it encourage you.

Just focus on what you’re doing.


16. Don’t procrastinate with activities that make you think you’re achieving something when you’re not

It’s very easy to spend an addictive few hours using popular programs like Anki, Memrise or Duolingo.

There comes a point however where these things become just another form of procrastination – and a deceptive one at that.

Think of them as supplements to your learning and limit your time using them. An hour spent just flicking through flashcards is wasteful.

There’s a world full of people out there. :)


17. Don’t let technology make you stupid

I have to say I do agree with some that the more technologically advanced we get, the stupider we become.

It’s so easy to jump on Google and immediately find an answer to something that we used to have to work hard to figure out.

While there are definitely huge benefits to having so much online material at our fingertips, it also means that we’re not training our problem solving skills enough anymore (this applies to many areas including foreign languages).

Do your brain a favor and spend some quality time away from the screen (this includes your phone!).

I force myself to have technology fasts where I shut off the computer and sit down with the old-fashioned pencil and paper, a coursebook and a real dictionary.

Try it sometime.


18. Don’t pay for low-quality teachers

There are some seriously shit teachers out there. Lots of ’em.

You’re the paying student – you’re in charge!

If they don’t give you a top-quality, communicative lesson and clearly identify your needs, allow you plenty of time to speak, demonstrate patience and so on then find another one.

I’ve had horrible teachers in person and online who just don’t know (or don’t care) how to teach.

The great thing about my favorite language exchange site italki is that you can take trial lessons with teachers to see what they’re like.


19. Don’t rely too much on teachers

And as a follow-on from the previous point, when you do find a good teacher don’t rely on them for your success.

A teacher can’t make you learn.

It’s up to you, the learner, to put in the time and effort to make it happen. Some people blame their lack of progress on the teachers but the truth is a good student will make the most of any lesson – even if it’s bad.

Language teachers are meant to be facilitators and helpers but the rest is up to you. Remember that!


Do you have anything you’d like to add to this list? Share your thoughts below! :)

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Donovan Nagel
I'm an Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. I have a huge passion for language learning (especially Arabic), raising awareness of endangered minority languages and simplifying language learning for millions of people around the world. Sign up and stay connected.

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  1. says:

    I really enjoy this post, and agree with most of it, especially number 17. I used to use google to find out everything I wanted to know about Japanese phrases (proper usage, natural sounding alternatives, etc.) I recently started writing down all the questions I have and going to a Japanese teacher to ask them instead. What used to be a five second search on the internet is now a 15-20 minute conversation with a native speaker.

  2. says:

    I've got to chew on these awhile. They're great suggestions. I have to figure out how I'll do them. I've already got #19 down! I see that fluency in a language may make us of a teacher, but the teacher won't grant fluency.

  3. DiAnne Johnson says:

    I don't think there is any one way to teach foreign language. All kinds of techniques have validity and a variety of them is required to get results with older students. The most effective way to teach foreign language is to start when children are still in the years of language acquisition and not wait until they have crossed over the bridge where they have to learn it. It's time for this nation to get behind the teaching of foreign languages from the earliest age.

  4. says:

    I agree with many of these, especially #12 regarding speaking. But I have some partial disagreement on a couple, namely #5 and 13. Memorization of words / Grammar study isn't all bad. Although I appreciate the communicative method, and actually use it myself for the most part when teaching, memorization of words and grammar study is very effective when done in moderation and in conjunction with more meaning-focused activities.
    It depends on learning style, of course, but I found when I started learning Korean that a little grammar went a long way. Of course it would've been useless if I weren't using it, but since I kept speaking when I had the chance, I found it accelerated my learning quite a bit.
    The main fault with the outdated methods of old is they completely focused on only one aspect of learning. But we needn't throw the baby out with the bathwater – a balanced approach can be very effective.

  5. Sara K. says:

    Evidence for #19

    The first foreign language I studied was French, in high school, with a terrible teacher (though it took me a while to realize how terrible he was, since I didn't have anybody to compare him to). If he had been a competent teacher, I might have just relied on the in class lessons. However, the lessons were so ineffective that it because obvious early on that I would have to take responsibility and do my own studies on the side, which were much more effective than what we were doing in class. This made me a much more independent learner of foreign languages from that point on – and even though he was a terrible teacher, I still managed to learn some French from him.

    I suppose this is also evidence for, if you're determined to do something (i.e. learn French), you'll find ways around the obstacles.

  6. languagewanderer says:

    An interesting article with a good insight into studying languages:) i like especially 19 don't rely on teachers. That's totally true since you must learn a language by yourself, no one can make you study:-)

  7. says:

    This is a great list – so many articles focus on what you SHOULD do, that it's easy to overlook some methods that are actually detrimental to the learning process. I particularly agree with #6 – reaching an end goal can seem really overwhelming, especially at the start, so breaking it up into bitesize, 'doable' chunks is a great way to make the process more manageable. Speaking from the start – or throwing yourself in at the deep end – can seem daunting and scary, but once you realise that no one is going to laugh if you mess up the grammar or get a word wrong, it can really boost confidence – great point!

  8. Zirien says:

    20th "don't": Keep living in your native language and put the foreign one on top of that. A very common mistake. Leave the safety of your textbook and use the language in your life asap. Want to watch a tv series? Why not in your target language. The same can go for books, googling etc. Sure, it is possible only from intermediate level up but your skills will improve much faster than expected. It worked for me

    One thing I don't agree on entirely. The grammar learning. Some people just like to know how the language works as they meet the examples. I do not memorise charts or things like that but I do practice grammar right away because it helps me. It makes me stumble in my practical skills much less. I have met teachers who were all about the "communicative method" but their students often sucked at speaking because they lacked basic grammar and vocab.

  9. Mason says:

    Thanks a lot for these helpful tips. I'll keep in mind these 19 don't and do's while learning a second language. I've heard learning a foreign language is very tough and hopefully such tips might come in handy for me.

  10. says:

    I have absolutely no grammar knowledge at all of my own language. I have been struggling to learn spanish and German (currently) and you have given me hope that I can learn them. I get so frustrated that over the past 2 years when I should have learned a lot, I have quit and restarted again and again. I am taking you up on learning how you have mentioned. Hope it helps. I wish you were close by to help me. : ). Thanks!

  11. says:

    I have mixed feelings about grammar, and admittedly I'm probably biased because I had a bad experience with a teacher who wanted to use the communicative approach when I really never had any experience with the language. I don't think grammar can be studied by itself without more exposure, but at least in a classroom environment, the communicative method seems to work the best when none of the students are really starting from zero. I don't think it's a "bad" method, but for me the only way I finally understood German cases was by writing out overly-literal translations of several different sentences. I really agree though that only focusing on grammar isn't going to help you understand how the language really functions.

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