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The Biggest Mistake Language Learners Make


"The biggest mistake that prevents people from succeeding in their goal to become fluent in a new language is that they stay with beginner material for too long. This is quite unnecessary."

I think this is true, how about you?

I need to push myself more.

November 16, 2016



Definitely true for me. I don't push myself nearly enough. I like the comfort of familiar material too much.


That's all I really do. I shiuld be advancing into the harder stuff but I just don't feel like it and instead try to strengthen my skills.


I partly agree with this and partly disagree. One shouldn't take an age trying to learn all the beginner material perfectly before moving on but neither should one discourage oneself by making a book into an onerous task. If you have to look up more than 10% or so of words it is too soon imo. One learns best when one enjoys the process. Getting frustrated with slow progress is not enjoyable. Watching tv with subtitles in your native language is fine early on to aquaint yourself with the sound and rhythm of the language, but don't ruin it by dissecting it. I think it is far better to move through the beginner material at a brisk pace familiarising oneself to the way things are done in the language. Then go through it again with that familiarity on board. It will come together much better second time through. After that you may be ready to watch tv with subtitles in the target language. Next work on adding to your vocabulary until you have at least 300 words. Then try a proper adult book. I guarantee it won't be the horrible experience it would have been earlier on. Don't be in a rush to turn off target language subtitles as they will continue to teach you new vocabulary and different ways to phrase things even after your listening skills are really good. I think duolingo is the perfect initial tool. It teaches you the basic grammar first time through, then hones it with each successive pass. Even the much lamented to much translation out of target language can instead be treated as listening practice. I am currently going through the Russian tree without looking at the sentence to be translated unless I am clueless about what it means. The tree is a wonderfully flexible structure that can be used in many ways. Especially as the apps are so different from the website, meaning there is quite a variety of different exercises. It isn't just for beginners.


Yes, I think this is true. I started learning Spanish 3 weeks ago but I have only been using Duolingo and I have been redoing the beginning sections over and over to try and remember those words before moving on to further sections. After reading the article you posted I think I should probably try muddling my way through a book or tv show in Spanish and just see how I go!

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I always think of how we learn language as children: it starts slowly but then we find ourselves in a torrent of words. We start picking out the words that mean the most to us personally but we're still constantly awash in thousands of others. When we learn to read, we find thousands more. That's why my learning regimen includes telenovelas, books, Spanish radio, and anything else 'over my head '. And after you work your way all the way to the end of the lessons in Duolingo, the lights you put out at the beginning start coming back on again anyway so you still get the basic drills you need. La Reina del Sur on Netflix has subtitles in English and Spanish, btw. ;)


The biggest mistake learners make is being afraid to make mistakes! Personally, I don't think it's a big problem if you repeat beginner material, quite the opposite. The beginner material is often the language's very core vocabulary and phrases that you will use every single time you interact with somebody in that language.


The familiar has a lot of comfort! I am scared to move onto unfamiliar ground because I don't want to make a fool of myself in front of natives or even another language learner. However, I learn the most by just winging it in conversations, getting corrected, and listening to responses from others. So true!


Definitely immerse yourself in 'advanced' material. It's how you learn. The simple is the key that lets you enter but it's normal for your passive understanding of a language to be higher than what you can produce yourself. Slowly some of the stuff that you don't understand will click, and build on the 'simple' drills you're happy with and your command of the new language will increase. Push yourself - but not every day!


And in math for example, once you learn about e^ipi+1=0 you realize that you really do have the times tables covered. In retrospect, I only gained a good control of conjugation when it became a tool in a sentence with more complicated grammar. But make sure once you move on that you go back and master material that you don't have a good grasp of. It will only trip you up.

Getting swamped is bad, ducking your head under the water when you're learning to swim is good.


For the first time in decades, I am currently learning Italian. Since I started a month ago, I have progressed to learning Possessives which is lesson number 8 I think. Im not concerned if I am progressing faster or slower than I should be, my aim is to be able to confidently speak with enough fluency to order food, drink, and ask basic questions with an understanding of the replies. In all cases of my education, school, college, sports, music etc etc, I have been aware that something you learn and remember that is considered advanced, sometimes solves the mysteries of earlier stages that you never got to grips with. You have to walk before you can run, and sometimes when you run you will fall,


These are all good points, especially regarding getting involved with authentic material. Too bad Duolingo hasn't done anything to incorporate authentic material into the courses. Immersion, in it's current state, is not the answer. Good post, Michael!


I have read that it's important to begin conversation in the target language as early as possible. Also, on one of the Ted Talks, they say if you force yourself to speak /only/ the new language (using dictionary and translator), then you can learn the new language in 3 months.


I've watched the video before and i was super hyped for it but the problem is, for people like me, if you wanted to send a long message to a friend quickly but you have to change it into your target language, you end up not sending anything...


I'm never scared to move onto unfamiliar content since it gives me more experience in the language that may help me with just that little bit of experience i need to complete a sentence or identify how to use a grammar rule


Yes, if you do too much repetition you won't improve much anymore on what you're repeating while you're also not learning anything new. So a good balance between repetition and new content is important. When repeating too much you'll also tire out, reducing your efficiency. But also don't take this as a reason to completely drop repetition.


I totally agree. I think the other big mistake is arrogance.


Huffington Post has an Italian edition. Maybe make that your default for a while? (I have bookmarked it a few months now). Whatever forces you to read something different everyday.


I'm not sure of it's impact on my fluency, but when I was a beginner in Mandarin Chinese, I really struggled with listening comprehension. I got so incredibly bored with listening to beginning podcasts with simple, uninteresting dialogues (as I found out once I read the transcript/translation), that I finally decided "If I can't understand anything anyway, why not at least use interesting content?" I used a Slow Chinese podcast instead, which was waaaaay over my head, but because it was more interesting it was more motivating. I still learned to pick out sounds better, which is what I needed. I could have gotten the same results from beginner material but probably would have gone slower because I was bored, if nothing else.


I have been visiting France for many years and have a large vocabulary of French words. I started using duolingo to improve my grammar 2 months before going to France. I have just returned from a three week holiday in France. My language skills were much better, but I wish I had spent more time improving some of the basics instead of moving ahead too quickly. I am now going back to the basics and moving through the levels more slowly. I have only come across 20-30 words that are completely new to me out of the 2500 words that I have on my Duo lingo word count. I might have had a different approach if the language was completely new to me. I think it is important to get the basics that allow simple communication before trying to advance too quickly.

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