19 Things You Shouldn't Do When Learning A Foreign Language
- Donovan NagelTeacher, translator, polyglot🎓 B.A., Theology, Australian College of Theology, NSW🎓 M.A., Applied Linguistics, University of New England, NSW
Applied Linguistics graduate, teacher and translator. Founder of The Mezzofanti Guild and Talk In Arabic.
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”,