The 12 Most Common Mistakes Language Learners Make and How to Fix Them 7


The 12 Most Common Mistakes Language Learners Make

This post is not about making language mistakes. It’s about mistakes relating to your learning process as you learn a foreign language.

Making mistakes is fine, and it’s a necessary aspect of learning anything. I still remember the first ‘flat’ cake I baked – it was burnt on the outside and undercooked inside. I’ve gone a long way since that day and my cakes are much more fluffy now.

However, if I continued to set the temperature in my oven too high, I’d be reducing my chances of baking delicious cheesecakes. Do you get my point?

Let’s look at the most common mistakes language learners make and how to fix them!

Language mistake no. 1: Not setting goals

Many language learners just ‘learn’ a language. When you ask them what they’re learning at the moment, they’re likely to say ‘I’m learning Spanish’ or ‘I’m trying to improve my pronunciation’. They’re not very specific goals so how will they know they’ve achieved them?

When you don’t set yourself clear goals, you may get frustrated and disappointed very easily. You will find it difficult to see your own progress and you risk picking learning activities at random. And random learning leads to random results!

How to fix it:

If you don’t know what you’re aiming for, you’re aiming too low. Having clear, SMART objectives will make your learning more focused and speed up your progress.

Make your goals specific, measurable, ambitious, realistic and time-bound (SMART). Each goal should relate to a specific skill or achievement that’s small enough for you to be able to meet with a reasonable amount of work.

For example, instead of saying ‘I want to speak French’, say ‘By the end of the month, I will have learned the 10 most common uses of the subjunctive in French’.

That way, you have a goal that’s not too overwhelming, and you can take specific actions to achieve it, such as look up examples of when the subjunctive can be used and examples of sentences containing it, and practise using it in speech or in writing.

For more details, see my article on setting SMART language learning goals.

Language mistake no. 2: Not evaluating your progress

The common mistake I mentioned above leads us on to the next most common mistake, in my experience, which is not evaluating your progress and not celebrating the achievements you’ve already had.

If you haven’t set yourself clear and SMART goals, you can’t possibly evaluate your progress accurately. You can probably say that you ‘feel’ that you’ve improved your speaking skills, or you ‘think’ you know more vocabulary than you did last month.

That’s not enough, though!

Evaluation is not just about congratulating yourself on your progress. It’s also about figuring out what went wrong and how you can fix it next time round. If you don’t evaluate and dig deeper, you risk making the same mistakes again and stalling your progress.

How to fix it:

Learning a language is a journey. Imagine you’re going through a desert. It’s big and hot, and you’re tired and disoriented. Getting to the other side is not as easy as it seemed. How can you motivate yourself to carry on and make your journey easier?

One thing you can do is stop and evaluate where you are in relation to your goal. The other is look behind you to see the enormous distance you’ve already walked. Say well done to yourself!

Now, is there anything you could have done differently to make your journey quicker and less stressful? Perhaps make fewer but longer stops?

Reflecting on your learning process is a very important element of learning a language effectively. What worked last month? What didn’t? What are you going to do differently this month? Was your goal too ambitious or not ambitious enough? Evaluate it and you’ll move on faster!

Language mistake no. 3: Going over the same material too many times

This mistake is about going over the same material either because you haven’t assimilated it properly or because your learning is not focused enough.

For example, some language learners may always look at the same set of examples of sentences to learn a grammar concept, or go over the same vocabulary list every time they’re learning vocabulary.

This means that they’re not using that time to learn new concepts and look at a variety of examples of language structures.

How to fix it:

Once it’s done, it’s done.

If your goal is to learn 10 new words, go over them until you can move some of them to a separate list – you can call it ‘words to go over next month’. Leave them alone until next month. For now, you know them but you may want to refresh your knowledge next month.

The same rule applies to going over the same resources. I know it’s tempting to read the same textbook all the time but it can be monotonous.

The key to acquiring language concepts effectively is to look at a variety of examples. The more examples you see, the more familiar the new language concepts will seem. You’ll also be less likely to get bored!

Language mistake no. 4: Focusing too much on a single resource

Agnieszka Murdoch learning Japanese 5-Minute Language

I’m learning Japanese from a range of resources.

This leads us on to the next mistake, which is focusing too much on a single resource or a type of resource. For example, just reading textbooks, just listening to podcasts, just learning grammar.

Why is it a mistake? Because by doing it, you’re making language learning monotonous and you’re more likely to give up. You’re also not developing the range of skills that you need to achieve fluency but just selected skills, such as grammar or listening skills.

How to fix it:

Learning a language is a holistic process. Put as much variety as you can into it. Read books, recipes and film reviews, listen to podcasts, news stories and songs, learn vocabulary from books and from conversations. Don’t rely on flashcards alone for learning new words – be creative and use different activities every time.

For some ideas, read my article about living the language you’re learning.

Language mistake no. 5: Learning random vocabulary

Many language learners learn vocabulary in ‘batches’. When they first start learning a language, they learn vocabulary relating to animals, clothes, family, and so on. Then, they move on to other, more advanced thematic areas.

This means that they may have some advanced vocabulary relating to science but they won’t be able to have a conversation in a group of friends about what they’ve been up to that week.

How to fix it:

Choose vocabulary to learn based on how likely you are to need it in a conversation. What are the most common words in the language you’re learning? Learn them and forget about ‘animal’ vocabulary for now.

Are there any specific situations in which you get ‘stuck’ and can’t think of what to say? Make a note every time it happens and focus on that area next time you’re doing a vocabulary learning session.

Language mistake no. 6: Focusing too much on grammar

Have you ever started learning a language by reaching for a grammar book? Some language learners are so keen to understand the grammar concepts of their target language that they forget that they can indeed communicate in the language without necessarily ‘knowing’ any grammar.

Focusing too much on memorising grammar rules means that you may neglect other areas of learning, such as developing your communication skills, enriching your vocabulary, or improving your listening skills.

How to fix it:

Try to learn grammar in context. If there’s a specific point that you’d like to understand, such as the past tense, read about it if you find it helpful, but make sure you look at lots and lots of examples and start using it in practice straight away. Once you start practising it and get better at it, it will become your second nature and you won’t even think of it as ‘grammar’.

One way to put your learning into practice is to find a language partner. You can use italki, for example, which is a great platform where you can connect with native speakers.

Language mistake no. 7: Not following your interests

Getting bored of a language is probably one of the most common reasons why language learners consider quitting. You can also get bored of the learning process itself – going through vocabulary lists, using flashcards or reading short stories about topics you have no interest in.

Many language learners don’t realise that they have the power to make language learning interesting. They don’t have to follow the textbooks they find boring if it’s not working for them.

It goes without saying that learning when you’re bored is not effective.

How to fix it:

Connect your language learning activities to your interests. What are you interested in? Sport? Use blogs about sport to do your reading practice. Find an online exchange partner who supports the same football team as you. Learn vocabulary that will help you discuss your passion. Watch YouTube tutorials on how to exercise effectively.

Always follow your interests – learning a language shouldn’t be boring!

Language mistake no. 8: Not speaking enough

Combining theory with practice is key if you want to learn a language successfully. Not speaking enough, or at all, is a mistake that many language learners make.

Learning lots of vocabulary and reading will indeed help you progress but you need to combine this with output. Otherwise, you’ll be a ‘fluent’ reader and listener but not a fluent speaker.

How to fix it:

When learning new words, try to put them into sentences as soon as possible – even if it’s just saying one sentence. It’s a great way of memorising vocabulary in context while practising your speaking skills at the same time.

There are also lots of different ways in which you can practise your speaking skills even if you have nobody to talk to. You can describe the world around you, comment on the news you’re watching in your target language or give little presentations to yourself on a topic of your interest.

Or, you can find a language partner online – italki is one example of a platform where you can connect with native speakers. Or, you can find a language meet-up where you live – just google it!

Make sure you speak as often as you can – it will help you progress but also improve your motivation!

Language mistake no. 9: Having unrealistic expectations

Another common mistake that language learners often make is having unrealistic expectations of themselves and their progress. Think you’re going to get fluent overnight? Are you getting frustrated because you’ve been learning for a year and you’re still not where you’d want to be?

Perhaps you’re putting too much pressure on yourself!

How to fix it:

I’m going to go back to setting SMART goals again. SMART goals should be realistic, which means that it’s possible for you to achieve them. Can you really learn 100 new words this week or start speaking fluently when you only started learning the language last month?

Have realistic expectations of yourself and you’re more likely to be a successful and satisfied language learner. Remember that learning a language is a process that requires commitment and self-discipline. You will see results sooner or later, though!

Language mistake no. 10: Lacking consistency and commitment

I’ve just mentioned commitment. Have you really committed to learning the language you want to be fluent in? Have you made a promise to yourself? Some language learners make the mistake of ‘wanting to’ learn a language but not being fully committed.

This means that they’re more likely to procrastinate, put off their learning sessions and make slower progress.

How to fix it:

Committing to something is really like making a promise to yourself. Success is about hard work and commitment – for me, these two things go hand in hand. Hard work only is not enough. You need to make the conscious choice of committing to learning regularly and making progress.

If you’re struggling with this one, ask yourself the following questions: what’s the minimum you can commit to? What’s the tiniest thing that you can commit to that will not really sound like a big deal? And do just that. Once you’ve done it consistently over a period of time, increase your time or workload commitment.

You may have heard the saying that if you want to start flossing your teeth regularly, you don’t have to commit to flossing all of them every time. Just commit to flossing one tooth – it’s so easy you won’t even notice the change. But once you’re at it, you will probably be tempted to floss more than one!

Language mistake no. 11: Comparing yourself to others

Having inspirational language learners around you is great – they can be people you know personally or others whom you follow on social media or whose blogs/books you read.

They can provide some inspiration and motivation, but they shouldn’t bring you down because they may be more fluent than you in the language you’re learning.

Some language learners make the mistake of always comparing themselves to other people – ‘this person has a better accent’ and ‘that person can understand spoken language to a level I’ll never be able to reach’.

This kind of attitude can hold you back and decrease your confidence.

How to fix it:

You’re working hard and making progress every day. The people that are now ‘better’ than you have gone through the same learning journey. You’re just not there yet but will be if you stay committed.

Anyway, you are you! And that’s what matters. You’re great and you should be proud of the achievements you’ve already had instead of looking at other people and treating them as a benchmark.

Language mistake no. 12: Worrying about making mistakes

This one relates to my previous point. Worrying about making mistakes means that you’re:

  • Less likely to speak when you have the opportunity to do so, and, as a result, you’re making less progress
  • Focusing on the negative more than on the positive, which can be frustrating and demotivating
  • Putting lots of pressure on yourself to always speak perfectly, and, as a result, you’re more likely to get stressed and less likely to be productive

How to fix it:

Reframe your way of thinking about mistakes. They’re not failures – they’re learning opportunities. If you do make a mistake, treat it as a lesson. What have you learned from it? What can you do differently next time? It’s exciting that you can learn stuff from mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes and nobody is perfect. Even native speakers! So, believe in yourself and go for your dreams!

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  • Katy

    Hi Agnieszka! I Wanted to tell you I really like your website. What you say is simple but yet very concrete and shows you have a lot of experience learning languages and coaching. I’m really happy to find a woman like you who seems so passionate about languages and language coaching, and your blog is much better than any other blogs or methods about languages learning I can find online. I’m so tired of reading the same advice over and over, from people that think they are language experts, and mostly men, like if we couldn’t dedicate ourselves to language coaching too! But at last I found you! I have a web site too. I don’t find much time to write, but I dedicate most of my spare time to languages learning, studying, teaching, and of course speaking. I hope to develop my personnal language coaching project in the future! Good luck 🙂

    • Hi Katy! Thank you for your comment – I’m glad you like reading 5-Minute Language 🙂 What’s your website about? I’d like to see it!

      You’re right that there aren’t as many women blogging about languages as men – perhaps we can change that!

      Good luck with your language learning and thank you once again for getting in touch!

  • I think there is danger in focusing too much on a single resource, but by the same token, too many of us abandon the resources we have too quickly. Instead of completing a book or program, we leap to the next one, almost with the fantasy that buying something else will finally bring some progress. At least, the discipline of going through a program from beginning to end without attending to anything else (apart from speaking practice) has worked really well. 🙂

    • Good comment Anthony. Sometimes it is difficult to complete a particular book or course. Other times it’s quite simple. I’ve noticed that the Routledge Conversational series is one of the the easiest to complete, but that doesn’t mean it is the best. Naturally, it also depends on the resources for the particular language we are learning. Nonetheless, for those who prefer to jump around with different resources, it seems like a good idea to revisit old material from time to time or to get back where we left off.

  • Great list! I think I’m always a little over-ambitious about what I can achieve and try to do too much at once. So I’m going to focus on creating more specific SMART goals. Just found your website and have signed up – loving what I’m seeing so far! 🙂

    • Great to hear that Rebecca! Looking forward to sharing more of my advice with you. Which language(s) are you learning?

      • Spanish – for many years – and now planning to start French in the new year. I’ll be starting it in a totally different way!