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Learning a foreign language: 5 most common mistakes

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By Valeriya Nikulina (Russian)

Learning a new foreign language is never easy, but it's a lot harder if you fall into some common traps. If I asked you to name some language learning mistakes, what would you say?Bad pronunciation? Not knowing the right words? Messing up grammar? These are pretty common mistakes, and people make them all the time when learning a language. But these aren’t the mistakes that will hold you back as a language learner.

In fact, these “mistakes” – having limited vocabulary, messing up grammar, having a thick accent are a natural and necessary part of the learning process. So, they’re not really mistakes at all. Today I’d like to share with you some of the most common mistakes that will hold you back. I see language learners struggling with these issues every day. Don’t be one of them! What’s more, those mistakes are very common not only for those who learn Chinese, but also for those who learn other languages.

Mistake #1: FREAKING OUT ABOUT MAKING MISTAKES:

Mistakes are an essential part of learning languages (or learning anything, really). So don’t beat yourself up about them. The purpose of making mistakes it to learn from them. An excellent strategy is to learn your lesson as quickly as possible and move on, better and stronger than you were before. By avoiding speaking until you can say things correctly, you’ll silence yourself. Worrying too much about being perfect will paralyse you. Always remember that mistakes are the gateway to improvement and are essential to our development. Without mistakes your progress will stall.

Mistake #2: FOLLOWING A SINGLE METHOD

Some learners are most comfortable with the listen-and-repeat drills of a language lab or podcast. Some need a grammar textbook to make sense of a foreign tongue. Each of these approaches is fine, but it’s a mistake to rely on only one.

Language learners who use multiple methods getto practise different skills and see concepts explained in different ways.  Above all, combining different learning methods will help you to not get bored. When choosing a class, try to seek a course that practises the four language skills (reading, writing, listening and speaking). For self-study, try a combination of textbooks, audio lessons, and language learning apps.

Mistake #3: FOCUSING TOO MUCH ON GRAMMAR CONSTRUCTIONS

Yes, the language you are studying has grammar. And yes, some of the grammar might be hard to understand and memorise. But guess what? Every language also has aspects of grammar which are easy!

There are two related mistakes people make with grammar. The first is ignoring those aspects of the grammar that make the language much easier. (For example, you’ll never need to conjugate verbs in Chinese – how awesome is this?) Don’t forget to embrace the parts of grammar that make things easy!

The second grammaticalr mistake is to focus on the details of “hard” grammar without stepping back to see how things can be simplified. If you are not sure how to build a sentence correctly – make it as simple as possible so people can understand you. Every language has some “tips” that can simplify the grammar and make learning much easier. Enjoy the grammar points in your target language that are easy – they all have them – and find rules to simplify the parts that are “hard”. Take a step back to see where you can identify those parts of the language that can be simplified into easy-to-understand rules.

Mistake #4: LACK OF CURIOSITY

In language learning attitude can be a key factor in how a student progresses. Learner who is keen about the target culture will be more successful in their language studies.  Don’t get caught in an endless loop of using textbooks for language learning. Be curious – you can learn from so many different resources: television, iInternet, newspapers or even labels on the food that you buy in supermarket. In fact, this will help you to know how to use the things you’ve learned from your textbooks in real life.

Mistake #5: GETTING FRUSTRATED WHEN LISTENING TO NATIVES

One of the first things you’ll notice when learning a language is the speed at which natives speak. Even if you understand words written on the page, when you hear them spoken at full speed by a native speaker, you can feellike you’re listening to a confusing collection of random sounds. This is especially true if you’re learning Chinese: the speed in which Chinese people speak plus a mix of different accents from all around the country will drive you crazy in the very beginning.

Instead of becoming frustrated, realise that this challenge can be overcome by training your ears to associate the sounds of the language with the written form. While there are many great methods for developing your ear, just a few you can test out include checking out a TV show or movie you are familiar with (with dubbing and subtitles in your target language) watching it, listening in your target language, all while following along with the subtitles. After a while, test your improved listening skills by watching it again, this time with the subtitles turned off.

One more tip: don’t be scared to ask people to repeat the sentence slowly instead of pretending to understand. Never worked well for me.

To sum up, don’t be afraid about making mistakes! Focus on the big picture and always look for ways to “hack” your language learning with new approaches, systems and techniques. You’ll soon find that learning a new language is actually easy and very interesting.

2016-06-21

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