Top 10 Beginner Mistakes I wish I knew when I started learning a language

Making mistakes are an integral part of language learning, both using the language and trying to figure out what works for you. That being said, here are 10 mistakes I wish I knew when I first started learning, and 10 mistakes you should definitely avoid!


 1.) Spending too much time with English


This was probably my biggest mistakes when I first started learning Cantonese. It's all too easy to completely rely on English explanations with courses like Pimsleur, or listening to podcasts like innovativepod101. The thing is, the vast majority of what you will be listening to is English, and if you rely on techniques like this you simply won't get enough exposure to learn the language.

This is how teaching at school works in England, and why me and many others learn a language for years at school and don't get anywhere.

Instead what you need to do, is spend time with the language listening and reading. Find a good beginner course, and dissect the language dialogues, listening and reading many times over. Listening comprehension is the hardest and probably the most important skill in language learning, and if you don't spend enough time listening form the start, it will only cripple you later down the line.

If you enjoy audio courses or podcasts then great, use this as a supplement, but don't let this make up your core study time. There is simply too much English to make proper use out of it.


2) staying with beginner resources too long


Another huge mistake I have seen people make is staying with beginner material for too long. Using and listening to short dialogues designed for a beginner, never changing your strategy and then getting frustrated when you cannot understand native speakers or movies.

Language learning is progressive, and in order to keep progressing we need to ramp up the difficulty as we go. Finding more interesting and difficult material is key and if we don't progress from using beginners material then it will be impossible to progress onto the intermediate and advance stages. Most people wait way too long before moving on, and this can be a massive waste of time and energy.



3) Keeping a notebook of new words and not doing anything with it

This is something I think we have all been guilty of before. If we don't write down all of the words we want to learn, how will we know to come back to them? Keeping a notebook and having endless lists of words you need to remember, but never going back to study them. The notebook just sits there and collects dust.


Instead what we need is to be strict about what words we decide to learn, and have a set method for how to learn them. My personal favorite is using SRS flashcard apps, such as Anki.


 4) Trying to do too much

Language learning is about being consistant, and doing what is sustainable over the long term. When I first started I went days without studying, then when it came to the weekend I tried to make up lost time so sat down to try and do 3-4 hours in a single sitting. Not only is this not sustainable, it's downright ineffective. Sitting for long periods of time your concentration will be gone, you won't enjoy what you're doing and studying so infrequently it will be hard to remember anything.

One of the most important aspects of language learning is consistency. Turning up day after day, over the long term. It is much much better to do 30mins a day every single day, than it is to do 5 or 6 hours over the weekend.


5) thinking you can learn a language through 5mins a day on an app

How many times have you heard your friend say they are learning a language then only to find out later they are spending about 5 mins a day on Duolingo? There are a few major problems with this. The first is that you cannot learn a language in 5mins a day, in order to learn we need a huge much of exposure and at only 5 minutes a day it will take years and years before you start to make any serious progress.

Furthermore, a lot of these apps teach you random disconnected pieces of information, half of which aren't even that useful, teaching you words like "Penguin" and "Lion" before you learn how to say words like "because" or "and". Similar to the point about spending too much time with English, you simply don't get enough exposure to the language in order too learn properly.

I believe apps can play an important role in language learning but when used to supplement our study instead of replace it.


6) waiting until you are "ready" to start speaking

Waiting until you are "ready" to speak a language. This is a catch 22, because we don't start speaking until we feel ready and we won't feel ready and comfortable speaking until we speak a lot. Why you don't necessarily have to Speak from day 1, I think it is important that we don't wait too long before we start. We should set a goal of when to start so we don't wait until we feel "ready", for me this is typically 1-2 months after I start learning a language.


7) Spending too long reading about language learning

Reading about language learning online is incredibly useful, it has helped me and many others navigate away from mistakes and get on the right track a lot quicker than relying on trial and error through our own experiences. The problem here, is that if you get drawn in and end up spending more time reading about language learning than actually doing it, it starts to become counter productive.

There is a plethora of experienced language learners online offering their tips and tricks, and if you get sucked into the rabbit hole you can spend hours upon hours reading strategy's without actually starting to implement anything yourself. Also, what works for one person might not necessarily work for you, so you won't know how best you learn languages until you get out there and actually do it for yourself.


8) trying to remember big lists of vocabulary out of context

This is extremely similar to the problems of relying on apps like Duolingo and memrise, learning vocabulary is incredible important when first starting to learn a language. However if you just learn big lists of words out of context this will do little to nothing to actually boost your comprehension, and you run the risk of knowing a ton of words in isolation without actually knowing how to use any of them.

Instead, what's better is to get a lot of exposure to the language through listening and reading and gradually building up your comprehension and known words. Be selective about the words you try to memorize, and when you do decide to learn a word or phrase, make sure to capture it in context and learn the whole sentence as opposed to just the single word.


9) Choosing the wrong language


In language learning passion and motivation are everything. In order to learn a language you need to put in the time, and if you aren't motivated or you aren't enjoying the process it won't happen.

Let's say hypothetically you are deciding between learning Japanese and Spanish. On the one hand you think it would be really fun and interesting to learn Japanese, you love Japanese food, you have Japanese friends and love watching anime and reading manga. On the other hand you think it would be a lot easier to learn Spanish because it is closer to English, and think it would be useful to learn Spanish because of the amount of native speakers. Which do you think is the right choice in a situation like this?

If you start off learning a language you aren't passionate about, when it turns out that learning Spanish isn't as easy as you originally thought, you will start to burn out and give up. If on the other hand, you get excited even thinking about the idea of being able to use the language with your friends, travel to the country, watch movies and read books in that language, then without a doubt this is the language you should learn, regardless of it's perceived difficulty.

At the end of the day it doesn't matter how "hard" or "easy" a language is, if you have the drive you will learn it, everything else is just a matter of time.


10) Not setting appropriate goals

When I first started learning Cantonese, I had one goal and that was to become "fluent". I had no real idea of what fluency actually meant or how much it was open to interpretation, and I had no real time goal or way to break this down into steps.

Setting goals is an incredibly powerful way to boost your learning, but the goals need to be specific, measurable and have a specific deadline for when you are aiming for completion. As a beginner one of the most common goals I set, is aiming to complete a beginners text book or a certain number of chapters within the first month of studying. If you know specifically what you are aiming for, and how long you have, you can break down exactly what you have to do each day in order to achieve that goal.



These are some of the most common mistakes when first starting to learn a foreign language. I hope reading this will help you save some of the pain that I had to go through, so you won't have to. But at the end of the day, mistakes are inevitable and you won't know what works for you until you get out there and try things out for yourself!

What are some of your biggest mistakes that you wish you knew when starting to learn your first foreign language? Let me know in the comments below!