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

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