Mistakes, preconceptions and limiting beliefs – we all make them and have them, and we should share them to help other people make a better start! So, here they are – the 7 things I wish I’d known before I started learning foreign languages. I hope they can help you on your journey!
1. You use 20% of words 80% of the time
When people start learning foreign languages, the temptation often is to learn as many words as possible. A lot of new words often seems like a lot of progress.
I was trapped in the same kind of mentality when I first started learning languages. I remember going through word lists, and even picking words at random out of dictionaries and memorising them. I knew the word for ‘abacus’ in French, the word for ‘anteater’ in German, and many more impressive but not very useful words…
The reality is that most of the time when you speak any language (including your own), you only use a small proportion of all the words that exist in that language.
Take the word ‘get’ in English. I bet you’ve used it in the last few hours, if you’re a native English speaker. What about the word ‘mysterious’ – when did you last use it? I can’t remember ever using it, for example.
So, I wish I’d known that I should apply the Pareto Principle when learning languages before I started – learn the top 20% most frequently used words in the language you’re learning and you’ll be OK for 80% of the time.
Also, check out my post on how to choose which words to learn in a foreign language!
2. You progress more quickly if you set clear goals
I’m a bit of a geek when it comes to goal setting and productivity. I use a lot of apps that help me organise my private and working life, and have read a number of books about how to get things done (when learning languages and blogging, for example).
Check out my post on the 12 things the most productive language learners do differently, to see what I mean 🙂
I wasn’t always like that, though. When I first started learning languages, I was only a teenager and I didn’t know much about goal setting. I wish I had, though!
So, if you’re only starting out, make sure you set yourself some very specific SMART goals for the things you’re trying to achieve. Check out my article on SMART goal setting if you’re not sure what I mean!
Setting, evaluating and revising your goals will help you move forward more quickly and avoid situations where you’re going over the same material over and over again.
3. If you speak, you always win, even if you stumble
Every single time you open your mouth to speak the language you’re learning is an opportunity to learn. You practise your speaking and your confidence when you do that.
Many years ago, I wasn’t as confident as I am now when speaking foreign languages. I used to think I didn’t have enough vocabulary or didn’t know enough grammar rules. I also often felt too shy to speak and afraid of making mistakes.
Now, though, I know that speaking is not as scary as it seems. Every time you speak is a great opportunity to learn so do it even if you don’t think you can! Learning languages is all about having the courage to speak and forgetting what other people might think 🙂
4. Native speakers care about your mistakes less than you think
When you speak to people in their own language, they’re grateful and happy. They’re also often impressed with your skills, regardless of the level you’re at.
I used to think everyone could notice every mistake I made, which made me reluctant to speak sometimes. Now I know that it’s not like that! People want to actually communicate with you and they’re more interested in your message than the medium (language).
If you’re talking to someone about football, for example, they listen for the content and often don’t care about the mistakes you make (if you make any!).
5. Native speakers make mistakes too
Guess what? Native speakers don’t use their own languages perfectly. They also make mistakes – just like us, foreign language learners!
As you get more fluent, you begin to notice that your grammar book says one thing and the people on the street say something completely different!
Nobody’s perfect – people make mistakes but they can still communicate, which is what matters, right?
6. People understand you even if your accent is not perfect
Learning how to pronounce things is important when learning languages. If you’re really keen to sound like a native speaker, you can indeed aim for that. However, don’t be mistaken – your accent does not need to be perfect for you to be understood.
Many native speakers are used to other people using their language as a second language and they’re capable of understanding it even if the pronunciation or accent are not perfect.
I wish I’d known this when I first started learning foreign languages. So, when you’re in this situation, go ahead and speak!
7. You can learn more than you think by yourself
For years, I used to think that you need to have a teacher or attend classes to learn foreign languages. When my Spanish teacher unexpectedly left London, I was left to my own devices and discovered self-study!
Now, I truly believe that you can learn a language from scratch (and to fluency) by yourself. With all the language blogs, resources and courses available online, sometimes there’s really no need for a physical class.
However, every language learner is different and if you do enjoy one-to-one interaction with a teacher or other students, then absolutely go for it!
So, this is it! I hope you found this article useful. Good luck with your language studies and get in touch to tell me how you’re getting on 🙂