You just saw Anastasia and are dying to learn Russian. You desperately want to read In Search of Lost Time in its native French. A friend invited you to Kyoto and you plan to pick up some Japanese before you go. Whatever your reason for learning a new language, it’s an adventure!
It can also be tricky.
To make your experience as easy and fun as possible, avoid these mistakes that many learners make.
1. Many learners set unrealistic goals.
When you begin a new language, the sky's the limit. You’re amassing new words left and right, you’re pretty sure you sound like a native speaker, and grammar is so simple. (You could do subject/object/verb in your sleep!) At this rate, you’ll be fluent in a couple of months. Right?
Unfortunately, no. Fluency takes time. You will plateau. The “simple” grammar rules will have exceptions, and those exceptions will have exceptional exceptions. You will realize your pronunciation isn’t as flawless as you thought, and you will wonder how you’ve been stuck on the same set of vocabulary words for three weeks.
Avoid frustration by setting realistic expectations from the start.
Don’t try to become fluent in six months; aim for a B2 level in one year. Instead of studying three languages, learn one. If you set reasonable goals, you’ll be more likely to achieve them.
Speaking of goals…
2. Many learners set vague goals.
Set SMART goals. These are goals that are specific, measurable, action-oriented, reasonable and time-bound.
Don’t aim for “fluency.” That’s too vague—fluency means different things for different people. Spanish fluency for a businessman talking Peruvian clients into investment opportunities looks different from fluency for a grandson chatting with his abuelita.
And there are so many different dialects! Say you want to become fluent in Arabic. Moroccan Arabic is unintelligible to Emiratis, and Emirati Arabic is unintelligible to Egyptians. Do you have to learn every dialect to consider yourself fluent?
Instead, make your goals specific and measurable. This could be anything from passing level 1 of the HSK Chinese proficiency exam to reading your favorite book in your target language by the end of the year.
3. Many learners don’t have an accountability partner.
Eventually, you will grow tired of your target language.
It’s unfortunate, but it’s true.
It might happen after a few months. It might happen after a few years. You’ll plateau.
When that happens, one thing can keep you going—an accountability partner. A partner will remind you why you loved the language in the first place and force you to continue even when you want to quit.
The ideal partner should be:
Someone who is on a similar language-learning level or slightly above,
Someone you feel comfortable making mistakes around and
- Someone who builds you up and critiques you constructively.
If it’s someone you see in person, that’s great! But it could also be someone you find on a language-exchange website or the Rocket Language forums.
4. Many learners don’t check their progress with official tests.
Picture this: Every day at six a.m., you crack open your Portuguese textbook. You review your wordlist, you write an email to your accountability partner and you watch an episode of Avenida Brasil.
But then you take a trip to Portugal—and you’re completely lost. You don’t know nearly as much Portuguese as you thought.
What happened? You were doing everything right!
Everyone learns differently, so strategies that work for some people won’t work for you. The only way to figure out whether your strategies are actually effective is to test yourself.
Take the practice exams for official certifications—you can often find free versions online. They’re a fast way to test whether you’re progressing the way you think you are. And if you aren’t, adjust your study methods accordingly.
You can also try the tests in the My Benchmark section of your Rocket Languages course. Keep doing the tests regularly to keep on track.
5. Many learners only use traditional methods.
Textbooks. Flashcards. Word lists.
You probably studied a foreign language in high school. How much of it do you remember? For many people, not much.
There is so much more to learning a language than memorizing words off a page. Put your index cards down and start brainstorming. Use social media. Play video games. Get creative!
6. Many learners don’t speak to people.
At the end of the day, language is about communication. How well can you exchange ideas with someone? The true marker of a language is whether you can successfully exchange ideas with someone—which requires you to speak.
It’s normal to be nervous, especially if you’re just starting out. What if your accent isn’t good? What if someone doesn’t understand you? The only way to improve is to try!
Start small. If you’re learning the language on your own, chat with a tutor in our forums. If you can’t visit a country that speaks the language, go to a local community center or find an exchange group in your area.
Don’t be self-conscious. The important part to practice, practice, practice!
7. Many learners walk away from the language when they burn out.
If you burn out, you might want to walk away completely. You’ll convince yourself that you’ll return to the language when you get your fire back—in other words, when it’s as fun and easy as it was when you started.
Unfortunately, the language won’t get any easier after you walk away. You’ll start to forget what you’ve learned, which will make you even more frustrated when you return.
Instead, try something fresh, like a new TV series or album. Or pare back your studies. Instead of studying new material for an hour a day, for example, set a concrete restraint: For ten days, study for only fifteen minutes a day, reviewing what you’ve already learned.
8. Many learners walk away from the language when they think they’ve “finished” it.
On the other hand, maybe you’re taking a break because you’ve reached your goals. You’ve passed the highest HSK level or you’ve gone on your trip to Kyoto.
Unfortunately, a language is a skill. If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it—fast. Maintain your skill by keeping up with a penpal in the language, watching movies weekly regularly or just reviewing a stack of flashcards every day before bed.
Keep at it!
Above all, keep at it. As long as you persevere, you will improve and so will your study habits. So follow the easy tips above and you’ll be well on your way to success.
Post by guest blogger Jamie McGhee: Jamie McGhee is a novelist, playwright and aspiring polyglot currently making her way through East Africa with a backpack.