5 Big (Avoidable) Mistakes We Make When Learning Languages

5 Big (Avoidable) Mistakes We Make When Learning Languages
5 Big (Avoidable) Mistakes We Make When Learning Languages

Munich, Germany, 2005

“It’s a good start. But you sound like an Australian trying to speak German with a Japanese accent.”


I’m not sure who looked more confused – Chris or me. He was looking at me with a wry smile that said “you don’t get it yet, but let me make fun of you for a bit longer, and you might get there.” He wasn’t far from the truth.

When I first started learning German, the only other language I’d studied in depth was Japanese. Much to the amusement of my German-speaking friends, when my brain came across a word it didn’t know in German (and there were a lot of them), it would insert the Japanese word sometimes. For words I did know, it just added a Japanese twang. You can imagine how silly it sounded. What was I doing wrong?

The bad news first
Every week, thousands of people start learning languages. And every week, thousands more stop before they reach their goal. Language schools’ classes the globe over have huge popularity in beginner’s classes, with numbers gradually tapering off towards the more advanced levels. This is understandable – language learning takes time, and it can be just another commitment we need to squeeze into our already tight schedules.

Now, the good news
There are ways to overcome all of the barriers that rear their ugly heads after we’ve started learning. Knowing the difficulties up front allows us to better prepare for them.

Five big (avoidable) reasons why many of us start – but don’t finish – our quest to conquer a language

I’ve suffered through all of these challenges at some point, and all of them will be covered in more detail in my upcoming guide (to be released in January). In the meantime, I have some honest suggestions for each one.

  1. We’re scared of making mistakes and looking silly, so we don’t talk enough, or seek out opportunities to practice. This is natural (right now I’m going through this with my French.) Remember: native speakers love it when you make an effort to learn their language. They will help you, and if you make a mistake, you will remember it… Especially if it’s a silly one like this. Push through, encourage others to correct you, and embrace mistakes as a fun and necessary part of the learning curve.
  2. We think our accent is bad, or sounds stupid (especially to English speakers), and we talk ourselves out of believing we can pronounce new sounds. We’re all human. We all have the same pieces in our mouths and throats that produce all the same sounds that other humans can make. The only difference is that we haven’t grown up speaking those other-worldly sounds. I believe it’s all a matter of practice: try, make a mistake, correct it, repeat. I practiced my Spanish rolling r in the shower (where no one could her me) for months before it came out of my mouth, but I got there eventually!
  3. We don’t persevere at it, because it’s a time-consumer. It’s not a part of our lifestyle – it takes up more time than we are willing to give. It becomes an ‘extra’, and to do it, we need to take time out from other things (work, socialising, eating out,, etc.). Making languages a part of your lifestyle is easier than it sounds. Through music, podcasts, friends, movies and the Internet, you can use downtime to your advantage and work the language into your day, if you really want to.
  4. We focus too much on things that don’t matter, like unimportant vocab, exceptions in grammar, or tiny nuances in accent. These are all important to get right in the long run, but the hurdle is getting past the first few levels. Focus on getting your point across, and iron the kinks out as you go. You need positive reinforcement and signs of progress to keep you going; focus on these first, and grammar later!
  5. We think it’s all about theory and don’t get started. We envisage textbooks, boring grammar, classrooms with whiteboards and overbearing teachers dishing out homework to no end. Let me present a more refreshing view: interesting people in classes, passionate teachers, new genres of music, new cultures, friends and exotic places. Try to focus on the end goal (what you can do with the language), and if you do get bored along the way, find a different way of learning.


So, what happened after I was fumbling through my Japanese-dotted German?  I was experiencing many of these problems at the same time – I couldn’t pronounce the sounds (they’re not perfect now, either – but they’re better), I thought I sounded silly, and I wasn’t speaking enough.  After I returned to Australia, I knuckled down and took some German classes at Goethe Institut, and these helped me immensely.  The teachers were great, and the other students helped me through.  It was fun, and I learned to let go of some of those ‘I sound silly’ moments.

Question: what other challenges have you come across? Did you overcome them, and if so, how?
Share in the comments if you like.


Photo credit: Josephrobertson

2 Responses »

    • Hey Samuel, glad to hear it – I’ve been looking ridiculous for years, but now I find that the most fun part. Making mistakes helps us remember things better. I’m sure your Korean must be going great guns!

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