Language learning blunders

I’ve been thinking about how I’ve approached language learning over the years since I first became interested in it. I’ve made a staggering numbering of mistakes, and thought it would be interesting (at least for me, and potentially for others) if I listed some of them out. A few of the major ones:

Fluent in 12 weeks!

I underestimated, by far, the amount of time and effort required to learn a language. The first language course I ever bought was Teach Yourself Gaelic, when I was (I believe) 16. I remember calling up my nephew and asking him excitedly if he wanted to learn Gaelic with me. His response was more or less, “Um, what? No thanks…”

Anyway, I naively thought that with such a course, why, I would be fluent in 3 or 4 months. At the time, if I remember correctly, I thought that all one had to do was learn the equivalent words, and then you were golden. Word order, grammar intricacies, different ways of expressing the same thing… none of these were an issue in my young, ignorant mind. Oh, how quickly this fantasy was torn down. (As an aside, being wholly ignorant of how to approach a foreign language, Gaelic bested me rather quickly. I still have the book for “later”, though.)

Listening? Later.

When I first started tackling German, I went months without really listening to anything in the language. I had the curious notion that if I simply became competent with the written language through reading and writing, I would be able to magically start listening and understanding anything that came my way. This was obviously a very bad idea. Because of doing that, I’ve struggled for a long time to get my listening skills caught up with my reading ability. Knowing the words and being able to process them quickly are quite different things.

Whenever I start a new language now, I more or less require that I find some sort of audio with transcripts, whether it’s online news, in a course, or an audiobook.

No native content yet

For a long time, I had the mindset that before I could approach any native materials, I had to have done so much formal learning. I had to be ready, in other words, before really diving in. I had to prepare by finishing this course, and that course, and studying this grammar book and doing these exercises.

I’ve come to see that this is just throwing up fake barriers for oneself, barriers which, if you were to stick to them, you would never touch native materials, because you’re never really ready. Courses are great, as are grammars, and I use both a lot. But at some point, you have to take off the training wheels, at least some of the time (and eventually all the time). I, at least, found it very easy to slip into a pattern of just sticking to the courses – Assimil, grammar exercises, vocabulary books – and never making use of other things. This was a very bad mistake. It was also rather disheartening because, when I did turn to native materials, I quickly saw that I had simply chipped a bit off the top of the iceberg. Better to recognize that fact earlier and continue chipping away, rather than staying on your bubble and thinking you know more than you really do.

What are some blunders you have made?

10 thoughts on “Language learning blunders”

  1. I’ve made these same mistakes! I also bought “Teach Yourself Gaelic” in my teenage years, though at the time I was under the impression that it would teach me Irish, not Scots Gaelic. Sadly, I no longer own the book.

    I’m also very guilty of not listening to enough material in my current Spanish studies, with the result that I can read and write Spanish, but when I hear the language spoken, I’m lost. I’m starting to take action to correct this now.

  2. I am curious to what kind of material you listen to practice understanding daily German (or any other language you are learning).

    I am learning Italian myself and I am trying to listen to Italian radio stations, watching Italian movies en television. However, I find it hard to understand anything of the things I hear. Will it come with time or is there a better approach?

  3. @Josh: I’ve found that native audio input is the most important too. You have to train your ears with repeated exposure. BTW, maybe you know already but you can get custom audio files recorded for you by native speakers at rhinospike.com

    @Rene: When watching TV don’t focus on the language at all. Just watch and try to guess what is happening. Pick movies/shows that would be easy to understand even on mute. If you can understand, even vaguely, what is going on in the scene, that’s all you need. Don’t even think about language or word meaning or anything. The language falls into place on its own over time. That’s my experience learning Japanese anyway.

  4. In my quest to learn Arabic I have tried to listen to audio from a variety of sources such as TV, film, “Read out loud” eBooks, radio talk shows, music and online chatrooms. I feel that I am benefitting the most from listening to childrens TV shows (aimed at 9-12 year olds). The language is not overly complex, but they tend to speak at ‘normal’ speed.

  5. Could not agree more with points 2 and 3. I’ve always started by listening for a while, then getting into the learning materials. And I usually dive into native level material as soon as I can get my greedy little hands on it. As a beginner working with authentic material, you have to learn to be proud of tiny accomplishments. With the language I’m learning now, I read women’s magazines, bilingual dictionary at the ready, for an hour or so every day even though I’m lucky to understand 4 or 5 words in a row with looking them up. If I can understand a whole sentence, I’m thrilled!

    @Rene, to add to what Peter said, try listening when you think you’re too tired to understand anything. I mean like when you’re almost ready to fall asleep. You might be surprised at how some words jump right out at you because you’re no longer straining to understand everything at once.

    Also, try listening to weather reports. It seems those are always what I’ve been able to understand first. Also try soap operas, as they use a lot of simple, every day vocabulary with plenty of drama to help you understand from the context. Kids’ shows might help, too, since the actors may speak a little more slowly and use simpler words.

  6. Personally I could care less about reading or writing. I want to be able to *speak* and *understand* the spoken language.

    For that Anki is the bomb.
    I previously used Supermemo to learn Spanish and it worked well in the sense that I had tons of vocabulary but I found I could speak broken Spanish reasonably well but couldn’t understand anything. It wasn’t until I had about six months of watching telenovelas that I was able to more or less understand. Spanish was pretty good because it’s phonetic so the pronunciation was easy, the problem was I eventually figured it was hard for the brain to make the connection between the written word and the actual sound of the word in my head. I think it was more than double the effort. Since my goal was to become fluent in the *spoken* language I found the written language to be interfering.

    I’m now learning French and I’m ignoring written text altogether this time and focusing purely on audio. I’m using a word frequency list and getting mp3 files of the individual words into Anki as well as listening to the French radio over the internet. I find that certain words and phrases that I don’t have in Anki are starting to stick in my head without me knowing what the English equivalent is and I’m starting to get the flow of it without actually understanding everything that’s been said. Sometimes I can get whole chunks of the conversation and other times I get very little, but I’m getting there. wikipedia is an excellent source of .ogg audio files for french. So is shtooka.net and so is audiofrench.com. For German there is beolingus online dictionary.
    Google translate also has spoken text for translations in French, German and English though the sound quality is not great. That said, the sound quality is better than nothing on google and would work as a last resort to get an idea of how the word is actually pronounced compared to how you think it’s pronounced.

    On a side note, the same thing happened with Spanish [picking up tons of words by sheer exposure]. There were a few words here and there that came up in the telenovelas always in the same situation. I didn’t even need to look up the English equivalent. After a few weeks I just *knew* what they meant. From that perspective, if your goal is anything other than being able to translate texts, listening to a TON of audio is a key component in the quest.

    Anyways, great blog.

  7. @xxd
    Very interesting comment. I’d tend to agree that it would be better to focus on speaking and listening. After all, the fun of learning a language is it opens new possibilities to to speak to people and so getting most of their culture. For this I’m focussing on spoken word in Italian.

    I am curious where you get a frequency word list? Do you create your own? Can it be downloaded? I think it could help me too. Thx.

  8. Hi Rene,

    Sorry for taking so long to respond.
    There are various frequency lists on wiktionary.org and they can also be found on the internet.

    The link to the wiktionary frequency lists is:
    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/Wiktionary:Frequency_lists

    My progress: It’s been three months now since I started accumulating french audio vocabulary via anki and listening to the radio.
    I attempted to converse with a native French speaker a couple of weeks ago and as long as she spoke slowly I could more or less do it. I had big gaps in my ability to reproduce, however, but I’d say I had more than enough passive vocabulary to carry me through.

    My understanding of full speed radio is still low, though I can consistently get two to three full sentences at a time now depending on the accent of the speaker and the topic being spoken about.

    On the productive side I have no clue how to construct certain verb structures but I can speak in the present and the compound past and compound future.

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