4 mistakes I made when self-studying a new language

Language techniques take time to learn

Language learning is always going to be a challenge. If it were easier, we’d have way more multilinguals and polyglots in this world. The truth is that it takes a lot of time, dedication, effort, sweat and sometimes tears. But it’s not that scary, and the more you go easy on yourself and the more you learn the right techniques, the more rewarding it is going to be.

I started self studying languages in high school, so it’s been more than a decade for me. I didn’t have all the answers at the start, and it took many years of trying different techniques to figure out what works for me. Language learning is also a very personal thing, and the resources, methods and mindsets that work for me might be completely different for you.

I’ll be sharing some things that I wish I knew at the start, and some mistakes I made when I just started out self-studying languages.

Mistake 1: Learning vocabulary without context

When I took French lessons in high school, I remember our teacher giving us very long vocabulary lists about a specific topic. We might have learned about furniture or rooms in a house, and we never learned example sentences to go along with these vocabulary words. We were tested on remembering the meaning of a specific word. Our teacher would say the English word, and we would need to write the French word. None of that was useful to me or helped me be able to speak.

It is much easier for me to learn Spanish now than it ever was for me to learn French at school. That’s because I realize the value of learning vocabulary within the context of a full sentence or a conversation. I go to a lot of Spanish language exchange events (when safe distancing restrictions allow) and just sit, listen and talk to people in Spanish. If I hear a new word, I will learn it in the context of a full sentence. I remember who said it, what they were talking about, and how they said the word. If I were just learning a long list of Spanish vocabulary words, it would be much harder for me to form a connection with a specific word.

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The more I expose myself to languages in different contexts, the easier it is to encounter the same vocabulary word in different examples. Maybe you’ll hear a word in a podcast, see the same word on a sign, and read it somewhere in an article. If you were just learning from a single list of words, it’ll be harder to remember. I wish I knew that earlier and upped my exposure to the French language so I wouldn’t waste time trying to memorize long lists!

Mistake 2: Too much intensive reading

Similarly, at school I was also taught mostly to read a foreign language intensively. This means looking at every single word and grammar structure and not really being able to complete a storybook or a piece of text because I was so focused on analyzing each sentence. 

Olly Richards writes about reading techniques in his short story graded reader books (like 1010 Conversations in Simple Spanish that I’ve been reading) and that’s where I was introduced to the concept of extensive reading in contrast to intensive reading.

He suggests that it is a much better technique to read extensively, which means you’re reading like a native speaker, for the purpose of completing and enjoying a piece of text. If we read intensively, we waste time looking up small details. With extensive reading, you’ll be surprised how much of the gist of a book you’ll be able to get, and still be able to enjoy it without slowing down, trying to understand minor details.

I wish I knew more about the concept of extensive reading earlier in my language learning journey, because it is only something that I’m now starting to do much more of and reap the benefits of. If you’re interested in the graded readers that I use for extensive reading, click here to see books in various languages that I recommend.

Mistake 3: Being too scared to speak

There is nothing wrong with being an introvert or being a little shy! I have discussed this a lot in my YouTube videos where I give advice for introverts (like myself) to start speaking a new language. Generally, we are afraid that people are going to laugh at us when we make mistakes in the language we are learning.

By putting myself in a lot of situations where I’m able to practice new language, I’ve realized that native speakers rarely, if ever, laugh at me or get frustrated. On the contrary, they are hopefully surprised and very excited to help me practice.

Growing up and wanting to practice Korean in South Africa (a country with very few native Korean speakers), whenever I saw a Korean person in a coffee shop, my dad would gently encourage me to go up to them and say hello. I was too shy and in most cases just let the opportunity go, feeling a sense of regret late for not being able to muster up the courage to practice my Korean. Once, my dad encouraged me more than usual and I shyly walked up to two friendly-looking Korean people, introducing myself and telling them that I was learning Korean. They were pleasantly surprised and we had a lovely conversation, eventually becoming good friends and meeting up a few times after that. If I hadn’t been so shy, maybe I would have been able to make more friends in different situations.

Mistake 4: Too much grammar, too little natural practice

Focusing too intensively on grammar will frustrate you and won’t help you progress quickly and naturally in a language. This is a mistake I made when I just started out learning Hungarian. Hungarian is notorious for having very complex grammar, and I thought it would be helpful to memorize verb conjugations from the start. Not only was it extremely boring and intense, but I wasn’t able to understand longer sentences or practice speaking to people because all I knew was simple verb conjugations without context. It’s easy to get discouraged when you see how complex grammar is and you are only focusing on that. Grammar will come naturally though using a language – this is how we learned native languages as babies, after all!

That being said, once you’re at an advanced level, I do think there is a lot of value in studying grammar intensively. You may be comfortable enough to have conversations fluidly, but you might be looking for ways to sound more advanced. It’s also important if you’re planning on taking an exam, and you are going to be graded on specific grammar structures or conjugations that you need to have down very accurately. In these cases, it is beneficial to use a grammar textbook to learn new structures that you wouldn’t otherwise use. For Korean, I recommend the Korean Grammar in Use series.

Now, most of how I’ve been learning Hungarian these days is through lessons on italki, just talking to my tutor. For those wondering who my wonderful tutor is, his name is Bence and you can book a lesson with him here. I don’t have a Hungarian textbook and I do not memorize verb tables anymore like I used to. It’s just much easier to learn grammar naturally when I encounter it in a sentence and see how different is from English.

Taking lessons with my tutor italki has been very beneficial because we spend more time talking and learning about the language than doing homework intensive grammar study. It has been much more freeing, and I remember grammar more naturally instead of trying to memorize tables in a boring format. If you’re interested in trying out italki for language lessons, you can get $10 credits after booking your first lesson if you sign up using my link here.

Do you have tips to share?

I know I’ll keep changing my language learning methods to suit the language and the time of my life I’m in. Let me know if you’d like a part two with more things I’ve learnt, or if you have a tip to share in the comments!




5 responses to “4 mistakes I made when self-studying a new language”

  1. Zahrah Avatar

    A part 2 please! You know it’s always irritating to hear the same thing over and over again but honestly I still need to get this through my head and absorb it over and over just to relieve myself from all the worries that I’m not doing enough in a particular language. I like using flashcards then later coming across it somewhere and then I’d go: Oh, I’ve seen this word before!
    I don’t know about you but that’s probably one of the best feelings you could get from learning a language and also having fun with it will be so much more beneficial than blindly memorizing words!!

    I learned those tips from you as well! That we can try learning words through contexts in order to make connections. Our brains aren’t built to learn things separately because we learn through connections!

  2. J. Avatar

    Another thing I’d like to point out is that a lot of learners often say that you start with the script (in case it’s a different one) and then proceed to other stuff. While this approach is good (and indeed helpful in the long run), a lot of learners are not good at memorising 48/50 new letters in the span of weeks. It ends up frustrating the learner. Instead, what I think is, we should all have our own approach. Maybe start with basic greetings and conversation that you look up on the interest. Once you get interested in the language and can speak a word or two, you’ll automatically want to learn the script in order to be able access more resources or for other reasons. There’s no point getting all stressed out about the script right at the beginning and giving up.

  3. KAMIL Avatar

    Sometimes we spend more time looking for how to learn language instead of just starting to learn it. Greetings from Poland.

  4. Yuliya Ivanova Avatar
    Yuliya Ivanova

    It’s interesting that most, if not all, of these mistakes are “learned” – school teaches us that that’s the way to study a language, so that’s what we do. I made all 4 of them and it wasn’t until I had the experience of living in a foreign country for a few months and picking up he language naturally that I realised something was wrong with the way I perceived language learning. I also find it interesting that this seems to be true of schools worldwide. I wonder who came up with these ideas of learning and why they’re so persistent.

  5. Milan Avatar

    I have only just stumbled across your YouTube channel and am loving the content. I am currently in lockdown and have decided to start learning Serbian and have followed your advice on learning grammar and vocabulary in context. I have learnt more in a week than I learnt at school when studying German. I wish I could help with your Hungarian, but I learned it orally as my grandparents spoke it to me as a kid, so I never learnt it formally and therefore it’s very messy… hahaha!!

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