Ten mistakes when learning a language

In the following article, we will go over 10 common mistakes made by students within the language class. Whereas some are avoidable and require a change of approach, others act as mental blocks which can be traced back to our days in high school. As we know, the first step to solving a problem is always to be aware of it so let’s dive right into it. Here are 10 common mistakes made by language students.

1. Over-reliance on the teacher

We start this list with the most surprising of all perhaps: an over-reliance on the teacher. For better or for worse, our high schools have taken it upon themselves to include languages in their curriculum. A less desirable result is a mental association between “giver of the knowledge” and “receiver of the knowledge”.

Long after we’ve left high school, we reproduce the same behaviour as in high school without questioning the role of the school teacher versus the role of the language tutor. We forget that a school teacher has a much bigger presence in the lesson because of the “monitoring” function of schools. We think that because the school teacher was there 100 percent of the time during the learning experience in class, so must the language tutor.

This causes students to lose the faculty for independent learning as they start to believe that a teacher is a like a little pitcher of water who fills up the glass when the class starts. The pace of the learning is always set by the high school teacher which causes many to believe that no learning can happen without a teacher present.

They think that learning equals lecturing.

The fact is that we learn by doing, not by listening. The only true learning is always done when we are all alone facing the study material.

Our advice: Keep busy. Don’t wait for your teacher. Learn independently.

2. A misunderstanding of what a teacher does

Close to point number one, there is a misunderstanding of the function of the language tutor. Many learners around the world book weekly classes where they sit around a table in their local language school and place themselves in the position of recipient.

They de facto limit their own mental faculties by reducing their curiosity and by over-relying on the delivery of the knowledge. If this were a garden, instead of digging and looking for your own acorns, you’d be waiting for a teacher to tell you how to hold the spade and where to dig.

The role of the teacher is never to pour knowledge in your head. The wise teacher has a way of structuring the information, of guiding you towards the right questions, of assessing your knowledge and generally surrounding you with beneficial coaching.

An unfortunate confusion has happened in our understanding of the definition of the word “teaching” which we think is synonymous with “makes the learning happen”. Frightfully untrue!

You and only you can put the knowledge in your head.

Our advice: Benefit from your tutor’s coaching but get your hands dirty.

3. Believing a language class is a seminar

The model of the classroom or the conference room is once more to blame here. Too many people have the mental picture of the unidirectional transfer of knowledge from orator to listener. Although there is a part of technical knowledge in languages, it is mostly an ability.

In the same way we will not learn the violin by listening to a seminar, neither will we learn the faculty of using a new foreign language. Certainly, a teacher may take a few seconds to explain the theory behind certain behaviours within a language but for the most part the tutor wants to see you busy.

The busier you get, the better they can serve you.

Our advice: Get busy !

4. Confusing attending and learning

High schools are full of mystery, both for the person who is presently attending and for the person who attended at some point in the past. Children misunderstand what is actually unfolding in the present moment and adults have already forgotten.

What remains in the “shared consciousness” is that attending high school somehow got us through high school. We confuse volume with results and forget what actually got us those grades. Schools are also partly to blame because of the nonexistence of classes on the “method of learning”. We are told to learn things but never reflect on how learning actually works.

The resulting blurry memory of high school causes students to believe that attending equals learning. Although we rationally know it isn’t factually true, this behaviour nonetheless causes us to approach language classes in this way.

Common sense isn’t always a good tool to point such students in the right direction either. It isn’t because we recognize what isn’t true that we know what is true. We may somehow know that attending doesn’t get us through a class, but we may not know what does get us through a class.

This issue is a lot more widespread than might seem, affecting even those with college degrees who might just remember their years of fun and partying in their twenties that somehow led to a degree. They might have the diploma but not the method of obtaining the diploma.

Our advice: Keep in mind that attending a class is not the same as remembering !

5. Preconceptions and beliefs

Our first 4 points on this list were all linked in some way to preconceptions and beliefs but there are others that get in the way of successful language learning.

Many students approach a class with the notion that learning a language will takes ages. They might not even think that they will one day speak the language (see point 7) They might come into the class with a negative idea of their self-worth or mental faculties. The more a student lets themselves get in the way of the knowledge, the less any learning will take place.

Ideally, the student should approach the language class with a blank state of mind ready to be guided. There is an ideal balance to reach between modesty and self-trust. You have to be coachable and active at the same time. Modest and bold. You should take advice when needed but take action when action is called for.

The more you free your mind of you preconceptions, the better the class and the better the result. These might be preconceptions about your own worth or about the way a language is learned.

Ask your tutor. Allow them to guide you. Limit the impact of your beliefs. You will learn quicker and much better.

Our advice: Ask yourself what you think about language learning and how you developed those beliefs.

6. Lack of visualizing

Point 6 and 7 are very closely tied and both underline a lack of mental preparation. The question is: how well do you see yourself performing in your new foreign language? How high do you place the bar and which efforts do you see yourself make? What do you see yourself giving in order to get to the state of fluency that you have visualized?

Attending a class with a “hands in your pockets” attitude as if we were visiting a museum will produce those exact results. They will be the results of someone who has only visualized a leisurely stroll through language learning.

Consider the following analogy: When we pick up the sponge to wash our car, it is with the mental picture of a clean car. We start the action while already seeing the benefits. We are able to clean that car because we already saw it clean before we started.

Languages answer to the same principle. If you do not see yourself doing well, chance are that you won’t do well.

Our advice: Take a moment to see yourself speak well in a foreign language. Visualize the road ahead.

7. A lack of decision

Students often sign up for a language class after making the decision of signing up for a class. The result they get is often the result of one who has signed up for a class. There is a world of difference between deciding to know a language (stepping into the house) and signing up for a language class (standing on the doorstep)

A good teacher will do everything they can to entice you into the house but can never pull you in without your consent.

Ask yourself what exactly was the nature of your decision when you signed up for a class. Was it to be entertained by means of a seminar on languages or was it the decision of mastering the topic?

As innocuous as it may seem, the decision you make changes everything about the result.

Our advice: Make the decision of knowing the language. Not of simply signing up.

8. Lack of understanding of what a language truly is

The way a teacher and a student see a language is very different and is a gap that should be closed if successful learning is to take place.

Often, a student sees a language as a mishmashed collection of words that are “foreign” and which they will somehow need to remember. They will not see a language as building blocks or formulas, but rather as random “words”.

A teacher sees it in a very different way. For this reason they will have the ability to learn a new foreign language faster than a student. The reason is only in the way they are able to take apart a language and see various “building blocks” and “skills”.

Allow your language teacher to show you that everything in a language can be broken down into a formula or skill. A certain tense has a certain function. A certain sound is represented by a certain letter. Etc.

Everything in a language falls withing a rule or principle. It is a science.

The better you see through the fog the better you will learn.

Our advice: Allow your teacher to help you make sense of a language.

9. Lack of trust in the teacher

Students might not fully understand the function of their teacher (point 2) or not entirely trust them. There is the saying that “the student is only as good as the teacher” which needs to be taken with a pinch of salt.

For a teacher to be “great”, the student needs to empty their mind (point 5), and show trust in the guidance. If they have faith that their teacher can get them to the highest levels of the language and if they are ready to follow the guidance it will happen.

Your teacher will only be as good as you allow them to be.

Our advice: Allow your teacher to be as good as they can be. Together you will form a powerful team.

10. Acceptance of, and beliefs in myths

Similar to point 5. there are many myths surrounding the proper technique of language learning. These might be spread by people who are not language specialists and they might also be reinforced by what passes as common sense.

Facebook forums are full of well-intended advice such as “watch series on Netflix”, join a sports club in a foreign language, find a tandem partner, or use a certain free and low-quality app on the internet.

These remedies are simply destined to fail, if only because they are not condensed enough. The mathematical odds of encountering all the cases of a certain grammatical rule by speaking to someone or watching a film are infinitely low.

Not only must you encounter all the cases, but you also also need to notice them, recognize them when they pop up, see them more than once for the knowledge to sink in, hope your tandem partner can locate them within a rule of linguistics… The number of variables is so high that it would takes years of listening or random talking for it to ever work.

In case this last point is too vague, consider the following question: which are the French verbs that cannot be used in the passive mode the same way that English verbs can?

Option A, you can learn this straight from us and know the answer in a minute. Option B, you can start watching series, chatting with random native speakers and hope the answer somehow crosses your path. (you might also hope these sources of learning miraculously mention the notion of “passive”…)

Our advice: See who’s talking and gauge what they really know about accelerated language learning. Opinions are the cheapest commodities.

To conclude

These 10 mistakes are the ones I have most often encountered during my functions as a language tutor. They remain very avoidable provided the student and teacher are both aware of them.

Ideally, there is a cooperation and symbiosis that needs to take place before tutor and student produce great results together. Think of it as a little ballet of two.

At OuiCommunicate, we know that anyone can learn French to a high level of quality with our guidance and resources. Everything that is currently slowing you down can absolutely be avoided. All it takes is to log in to our website, download a worksheet, watch a video, and learn. Simple as.

The most remarkable part in all of this is probably that by looking for an “easier” and “non-painful” way of learning, students everywhere are actually making the learning much harder, laborious and ultimately, void of any worthwhile results. The only “real” shortcut to language learning is what looks like the “long and hard” way of approaching learning.

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