Five Mistakes to Avoid When Self-Teaching Yourself a New Language

I’ve always loved languages. I studied German in high school, Linguistics in college, and have lived in Boston, a multicultural melting pot of a city, for the past five years. I’ve found that learning in a classroom setting can be a crucial jumpstart to achieving linguistic mastery in a decent amount of time. However, in my attempts to learn Spanish, I’ve decided to try the self-teaching approach.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, using online resources and self-learning practices has never been more essential. Staying home has led me to be a bit more innovative in my studies, and thus far I’ve found success.

But let’s face it: learning a new language is HARD!

It can be a struggle finding the time to learn and practice, finding what works for you, and building the overall habit. I know from experience trying to self teach myself in the past. That’s why I’ve come up with five mistakes I’ve made trying to learn languages on my own and what you can do to avoid them.

The possibilities to make connections with others and experience new cultures become endless when you become multilingual, and I believe such an experience adds value to the overall human experience. With everything going on right now, learning something new could be just what you need to not only distract yourself and destress, but to develop a new skill that you can use in the future.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at the five mistakes to avoid when self teaching yourself a language and how to do so.

Mistake #1: Setting an Unrealistic Goal

The ultimate goal for any language learner is to be able to speak their target language fluently. The problem that most new learners face, however, is setting goals that are unrealistic and difficult to measure. For example, trying to learn Spanish in three months may not be as attainable as learning it in six months. 

When we set these types of goals, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to achieve them in the time frame that we set. Therefore, when we don’t reach said goal, we get discouraged and feel like we failed.

So before embarking on your language journey, set attainable, measurable goals so as not to overwhelm yourself. Make them smaller and specific to your progress and determine a method of tracking how far you’ve come. In doing so, you’ll be more likely to have pride in your small accomplishments and garner motivation to keep you going.

Mistake #2: Using One Learning Strategy

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it right?

If you’re used to a certain type of learning, and it works for you, then there’s nothing wrong with sticking to that method.

However, sometimes one learning strategy is not enough. 

When I first started learning German, I incorporated different learning strategies into my daily life to help solidify my understanding. I listened to German music while working out. I read German novels on my downtime in between homework. I watched the cooking tutorials and learning videos on YouTube. These were the same activities I did regularly in my native language, making my overall learning experience natural and still enjoyable.

Most self-teaching strategies are supplementary to each other, rather than sufficient on their own. Therefore, it’s better to have multiple approaches to learning not only to get the most out of it, but to add variety to your overall experience to stay engaged. Like watching your favorite movie in your target language? Try listening to a podcast as well. Enjoy reading in your target language? See if you can come up with your own material with the vocabulary you’ve learned so far.

In addition to this, you can still opt for purchasing an online course from platforms like Udemy and Coursera for a virtual classroom feeling from the comfort of your own home.

In general, cater your learning to your lifestyle. You’ll be surprised at the difference it makes in the long run.

Mistake #3: Focusing on Perfection

When babies first learn to talk, do you think they’re concerned with perfecting their grammar, syntax, sentence structuring and vocabulary?

No! 

They babble and coo to their hearts’ content, while learning new words from their parents along the way.

This is how we should approach language learning, especially when it comes to self teaching. Because there’s no structure to learning by yourself, there is a lot of freedom to experiment. You have a chance to better understand your personal learning style and find resources that can cater to them. 

The key here is to not focus on perfection from the beginning. Don’t prioritize learning every single word and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It’s okay to stumble and even sound silly at first. No one sounds like a native when they first start learning a new language. 

Rather than feeling self-conscious, practice the most common words and phrases spoken. Learn from your mistakes and keep making as many of them as possible.  Once you master the basics, your vocabulary will naturally expand and your confidence will grow. 

Treat your second or third language like a baby treats its first. Speak without fear and always remember to have fun with it!

Mistake #4: Not Tracking Progress

Why do you think personal trainers tell their clients to take progress pictures in their fitness journey?

So they can see the difference in their hard work, from where they started to where they are now. It’s a great motivational tool and a way to feel accomplished even if at first you don’t see a drastic difference.

The same goes for learning your target language. 

If you’re not tracking your progress, either through journaling or with a language partner, then you don’t know where you are or how far you’ve come. Another trap you may fall into is comparing yourself to other language enthusiasts. You may wonder why it takes you two months to learn what someone else mastered in two weeks, or whether you should be spending hours studying like other learners even though you may only have five minutes. 

Sooner or later, you’ll start to feel like a failure of a learner and before you know it, you’ll end up quitting.

To combat this, track your progress by whatever means you decide. It could be journaling after a session, using a habit tracking app, testing with a language partner, or marking a practice day in your calendar.

Always take time to check in with yourself, and remember that some progress is better than no progress.

Mistake #5: Not Being Patient

According to the US Foreign Service Institute (FSI), it takes 480 hours to reach basic fluency in Group 1 languages (e.g French, German, Spanish, Italian, Portugese) and 720 hours for Groups 2-4 languages (e.g Hindu, Greek, Bulgarian, Amharic, Russian, Hebrew, Turkish, Japanese, Korean, Arabic).

If one were to put in 10 hours a day in, then basic fluency in the easy languages would take 48 days and for difficult languages 72 days.Naturally, not everyone has 10 hours a day to spend just on their target language. For most, the only time they have to learn could be 45 minutes (or less). 

It’s easy to feel discouraged when you’ve been studying for a long time and feel stuck in the basics or can only understand a few words. It’s okay if your learning endeavours take longer than someone else; it doesn’t make it any less significant that you are at least trying.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey.” This is true about life, and especially about learning a new language. Make your learning journey as fun as possible. Take your time, but also enjoy it and before you know it, you’ll be fluent and proud of yourself in the end.

Happy learning!

Leave a comment down below what your native language is and what new language you’re trying to learn!

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