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Culture,  Travel

5 Mistakes New Language Learners Make

Learning a new language is a daunting task, and takes a lot of trial and error. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes like misunderstanding or misusing language, because you are going make a lot of them. I once misunderstood what someone was asking me while I was in Mexico and accidentally convinced him I was an alcoholic, all the while oblivious to what I was saying and feeling proud that I was using such long sentences. View these mistakes as lessons and use them as tools to strengthen your memory rather than getting down on yourself. You can read more about what you should do here, but for now here are some mistakes you can make during the learning process which are detrimental:

1.Thinking it will be easy

It won’t be. It will take a lot of hard work and a very long time. Unless you are dropped into a total immersion setting, you will spend years becoming fluent. By total immersion, I mean spending the majority of each day completely surrounded by the language being spoken. Even then, it will take at least a few months. Be patient and keep working hard, and it will be worth it.

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2. Getting discouraged

Feeling down about not learning fast enough or comparing yourself to someone else is the worst thing you can do. Everyone’s brain is wired a little differently. Some people are more prone to memorizing vocabulary or catch onto popular teaching styles faster. That is not a reflection of your intelligence and it does not mean that you won’t learn. It will take time. If at any point you feel stagnated, like you aren’t really improving, give it time. You are probably learning a lot more than you thing. When I was studying in Chile, I spent a lot of time feeling stupid because I didn’t feel like I was improving at all despite being completely immersed. There were three major reasons for this. One was that I was surrounded by native speakers, who speak very differently than professors teaching a class do, and who will always understand the language a little bit better than me because it’s what they grew up speaking. Another reason was that the people in my classes, who were also studying abroad, were learning at a similar pace to me and were at the same level as I was. If I would have stepped back onto my college campus and walked into a Spanish classroom I would have been able to more accurately judged how much I was changing. The last reason is that I was mentally exhausted at first from trying to keep up with the 24/7 content overload. I had lots of days where I struggled to keep up with conversations I should have understood simply because I was tired and needed a break. I was still learning, but my brain was maxed out and not running as fast as normal because it was spending so much energy learning.


3. Overdoing the grammar

Don’t get me wrong, having a good grasp of a language’s grammar is super important. However, making that your main focus can be detrimental. The reason children tend to learn so much better is because they aren’t sitting around studying verb conjugations; they’re playing games and watching movies and beginning with listening and speaking. This has been proven over the years as a far more effective way to learn a language, and it’s the models companies like Pimsleur use. Think about it: You learned your own native language as a baby by observing and participating. You didn’t start learning about spelling and grammar in an academic setting until after you already had a decent grasp on the language itself. Now that you’re older, and already have an understanding of how grammar structures act in language, you can incorporate those elements earlier in the learning process. Just don’t let that be the focus. Listen, try to speak, and read picture books intended for an audience younger than you.

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4. Learning for only a few hours per week

To be fair, spending a few hours each week will get you there eventually. If you have an extremely busy schedule and that’s all you can manage, it still makes a difference and helps you improve; it just takes a lot longer. My advice is to spend a few hours a week learning in an academic manner (whether that’s taking classes and doing homework or studying on your own time) and spending more time outside of that doing fun things in that language. If you’re feeling confident, try to find a place like a cultural center where you can communicate with or listen to people speaking your target language. Other great things are read a book or watch a movie in that language, or listen to music. Just find ways to keep the language active in your mind as frequently as possible, and you will be grateful you did.

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5. Ignoring the culture

This one is a big one. Culture is so important. While not absolutely vital to being able to communicate, you will gain competence speaking through cultural studies. That includes learning about how vocabulary changes in different countries/regions where your target language is spoken. More than that, though, you are personally missing out on something very special when you neglect to do some research on the cultures associated with places that speak your target language. Understanding the world and the people in it by appreciating both the similarities and differences between them and you makes you feel less divided into sections of types of people. You might even find yourself picking up traits of the cultures you study. Spending time in Chile taught me to be a less stressed, more go-with-the-flow person because I was in a place which didn’t place much value on timeliness. Showing up late to a party was expected rather than a major faux pas. There are so many beautiful, wonderful cultures in this world, and learning their languages makes it easier for your to connect with them. You can read about some of my experiences abroad here.

I’ve listed off some of the biggest mistakes people make when trying to learn a new language. What are some of your tips and tricks for language learning?

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I am a writer, actor, translator, and social activist.


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