Mistakes that I have made as a language learner and how you can avoid making them

Kirsty giving English lessons to students at a table

Mistakes that I have made as a language learner and how you can avoid making them

It’s true that I’m a teacher but I’m also a learner. I feel comfortable speaking and writing German now but a few years ago, I began with a new language, taking myself right back to the beginning of the language learning process. I’d like to tell you about some of the mistakes that I made along the way and how I learned to address them in the hope that this may help you on your language learning journey.

You can also listen to my podcast on this subject here.

1. Only focussing on the things that I enjoyed and could do well

I love reading. After a while, working on listening tasks comes quite naturally too. However what I really don’t like when I start learning a new language is the S word. Speaking. It stresses me out because I know I will make mistakes and not be able to say all the things that I want to say.

As a result of this, I used to focus on the things that were fun for me. I would start reading an interesting article or writing to one of my language tandem partners and avoid making arrangements to actually talk with someone.

Working on the things that we’re good at isn’t wrong. It helps us to develop and can be a great confidence boost. However if we do this and neglect our weakest area, which in my case was speaking, this skill will always be a big weakness.

I got round this problem by setting myself a target to do a certain amount of speaking each week. If I did other things as well, that was a bonus, but I knew it was a bad idea to neglect my weakest area just because speaking made me feel uncomfortable. I also knew that the only way to get good at it is to actually do it!

2. Trying to learn every new word

Building your vocabulary is great, but you can only reasonably remember so many words in one go. I have a fairly good short-term memory, which meant that I could easily pass vocabulary tests, but I found it harder to commit the words to my long-term memory if I didn’t use them.

The way I got round this was to develop my own vocabulary list. I used my dictionary to look up new words, but not all of the new words made it on to my list. I only recorded the ones that I thought I would use again or that I might need in the future. In this way, I built up a vocabulary list of useful words and I was more likely to remember them as they would come up in conversation or writing tasks.

3. Choosing the wrong learning materials

Working on extra material out of class is a good thing to do because it helps you to practise and develop your language skills. However watch out and don’t set yourself up to fail by trying to translate or understand impossibly difficult texts. I like a challenge but one day I tried to translate an article because I thought it looked interesting. I kept at it and felt more and more miserable because I really couldn’t do it. I then found an English translation of the article and it was full of engineering vocabulary that I didn’t understand in English. I could have made better use of my time by choosing a text that was more appropriate for my level.

4. Taking things personally

It’s hard if someone laughs or doesn’t understand you if you’re already nervous about speaking the language. However the truth is that some things really do sound funny. It’s not the best reaction but it can be a natural one and unless you’re talking to someone who’s particularly mean, they probably are laughing at the sentence, not at you. Try not to take it personally and don’t let it ruin your day!

The same goes for people who get frustrated if you’re looking for words or who make stupid comments about your language skills. In my many years of language learning, I think this has only happened to me twice. Both times, I was dealing with people who only spoke one language and their reaction said more about them than it did about me. I knew this, but it still bothered me for a while!

5. Not realising how far I’d come

As a language learner, I’m quite driven and focussed. Setting goals and sticking to plans isn’t that hard for me but as soon as I achieve something, I go on to planning the next thing that I want to do without really enjoying the thing that I’ve just accomplished. This is sad really because although it’s good to keep looking forwards and aim to improve, we shouldn’t forget how far we’ve come and the progress that we’ve made. For me, this was more of a one-time decision and then something about which I had to remind myself regularly!

6. Being a perfectionist

It’s good to aim to be the best that you can be. I used to think that my perfectionism helped me because it meant I had really good attention to detail and I wanted to learn properly. However I would never be as strict with my students as I was with myself. I grew to understand that the perfectionism and the associated fear of failure were actually holding me back from trying out new ideas, attempting more difficult sentences or playing my part in conversations. This was definitely not a good thing, so I tried to keep it in check from then on.

What problems have you solved or are you in the process of solving?

Everyone is different and everyone struggles with different things. What are your experiences? How have you dealt with problems that have been holding you back and hindering your progress? Let me know in the comments.

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Kirsty working with students

Author: Kirsty Wolf

I am an English teacher and a language enthusiast who also speaks German and Romanian. I help motivated professionals to improve their English so that they can communicate confidently and authentically.

4 thoughts on “Mistakes that I have made as a language learner and how you can avoid making them”

  1. Hey Kirsty,

    I always enjoy reading your posts. While I am not learning a language at the moment, your writing has got me thinking in terms of life lessons. Using our strengths to focus in on our weaknesses. Putting time into overcoming our limitations is a worthy cause.

    When a non-english person makes a mistake with their English, I will not even want to correct them, always amazed they are gutsy enough to attempt a new language. However my smile has been known to give it away. Generally it is enjoyable and you are right, I don’t make fun of that person it the sentence.

    I am a bit like you when it comes to goals. I get to my planned destination and while I think job well done, I never stay there too long because I am always looking for the next. Maybe I should stop for a little while and just lap it up. But I never felt the need for it really.

    The perfectionist. So true, it can hold us back and be rather time consuming. I like to think I am getting better at it, but sometimes I do see that I get tangled up in wanting every thing precise. That is when I question – is it necessary? If the answer is no – then I struggle with letting go. But I am aware. That is a start right? Big smile. Thanks for a wonderful post.


  2. Hi Rachel,

    I always look forward to your comments to. You put a lot of thought into them and always have something interesting and encouraging to say.

    I think that recognising the perfectionism and where it could be holding us back means that we are already halfway there when it comes to solving the problem. These tendencies can become such an engrained part of how we think and react that we are often completely unaware of them, which makes it difficult to do something about them. So realising when the perfectionist thoughts are coming up is really important.

    Have a great week!

  3. Hi Kirsty

    I can relate to these mistakes because I have made some of them myself. It is great that you share your experience and I see so much insight from the post.

    When I was much younger, my friends would make fun of my when I made a mistake when speaking English. I would get personal about it but over time, I learned pretty well how to handle such situation.

    Although, I am not a language learner, I can relate to choosing the wrong materials. I found out that not all materials are meant for everyone. You just need to look for one that fits you.

    As for goals, I am still learning and I am not there yet. Thanks for sharing. Take Care

  4. Hi Ikechi,

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting on my post.

    I think it’s easier for people to hurt our feelings if we’re trying really hard to do something. You’re right – we need to learn how to deal with those situations or they will make us doubt ourselves or stop us from learning new things.

    I also agree that not all materials are for all people. If I don’t like a book after a couple of chapters, I don’t go on to read it to the end. Instead I find one that I will enjoy because I want reading to be a pleasurable experience. I think it’s the same when it comes to extra materials for language learning.

    Have a great week,

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