My Worst Language Learning Mistakes

a pair of male legs in trainers running a marathon

As I shared with you in my last blog post I sat in over 20 language courses for about 15 different languages over the course of 20 years. I don’t speak many languages though, mainly because I have no need for them and my motivation to pursue a language just for the sake of learning one waned year by year accelerated by experiencing bad teaching plus approaching learning a language in a mainly unstructured manner. Here’s a few of the mistakes I made and learned from and which my online German courses help you to avoid without having to do anything.

1. The Lack of Structure and Interesting Content

The worst mistake I made was that I didn’t follow a consistent structure long enough. I had book courses like Assimil and Langenscheidt or Pons, sat in live language classes and even played with Rosetta Stone (they were the frontrunner back in the 2000’s) and later Memrise and Anki before Duolingo, Babbel and Busuu showed up. But I tried these too of course.

But I got bored pretty quickly with the content. The structure was nice to have but on its own it wouldn’t really do much to me and while my motivation was always strong in the beginning I felt it drain after a few months if not weeks of working with them. So I started course jumping which today I still see many students doing.

2. The Lack of Continuity – Not Discipline

Initially I was always infatuated with any new language I had to tackle but the initial high only lasted so long and when the honeymoon was over, I became sloppier and sloppier. I skipped a day here, an exercise there and soon the flow ebbed out and studying the language became more and more of a struggle. It’s obvious to me today that this isn’t how one runs a marathon but back then I simply lacked this experience and knowledge of how we actually learn languages.

You might think that a bit of discipline would have helped overcome this but in my experience whenever a student says “I need more discipline” what they imagine is them punishing themselves for not performing according to their unrealistic expectations. I can assure you that you don’t need even a tiny bit of discipline to learn German or at least not the kind of discipline that you can consciously add to your learning routine. The moment you want to apply discipline consciously you are already doomed and should reach out to me and I’ll help you see what you are doing so that your misery finds a quick end.

3. The Lack of Proper Practice

The older ones among you (50+) will remember those grammar drills where one only had to put in one word in a sentence or phrase with a gap looking something like this:
a) Peter _____ (go) to school at 8am.

This kind of exercise is still popular among learners due to the lack of training of their teachers. It is a scientific fact that this kind of exercise will make you better at only one thing: doing this kind of exercises. The only benefit I can find is that of a Placebo (meaning: I please [the Lord]) and for that reason I will add some exercises of this nature to my courses at one point. But with a big warning that one should not feel sufficiently prepared by having done a bunch of such exercises.

The other kinds of exercises were also often too little structured, too stiff in nature (especially those fake dialogues that one had to practice with one’s mate), were random and taken out of any context other than a grammatical one and provided not sufficient – if any – feedback.

4. The Lack of Interest in the Language’s Culture

Learning a language for the sake of studying it is totally fine and can get you a long way but for the most of us it will be simply impossible to master it if there’s not enough interest in the country, people or culture that speak this language or are based on it.

I was and still am always first interested in the different kind of people of any language that I’m fluent in. Other languages like Old-Mongolian didn’t really strike me as languages worth pursuing beyond the required level at university as I simply wasn’t interested enough in the history of the Turks. Though if I had had the pleasure of taking more seminars with Herr Schönig, I might as well have become an expert in that language by today.

Lucky for you that didn’t happen 😉

Culture is a vast term and includes so many topics that it should be no problem to find a few things that you could put your focus on if you wanted. Of course there are also many ugly parts of a foreign culture or let’s say it more accurately, things that I simply can’t get on board with due to my own cultural, moral and social upbringing. And that’s fine. If there’s a hair in your soup, simply take it out and enjoy your soup. There’s be enough left of it to enjoy even after you have removed a whole wig from it. So, Guten Appetit.

Here’s a thesis for you to ponder on: If we were able to let go of our educational and cultural programming, there would not be a single language that we wouldn’t like to explore.

5. Not Realizing I was Running a Marathon

It took me years to realize that learning any language is actually like running a marathon and that one has to train for it. For a minority of humans it’s a Kinderspiel in the sense that they are extremely gifted or just smart enough to figure out how to hack this process. Most polyglots belong to this category. But that’s really just a minority. Easily 99% of learners learn a language the long and hard way and are often not even especially good at it and yet manage to get to an agreeable level of competence.

If only there was a way to learn a language the smart way, language learning would enjoy a far better reputation than it does today. And people would stop blaming themselves for failing at it “I’m just not very good with languages”.

6. Some Minor Time Wasters

Let me just list a few more things I did that I consider a waste of time today. If you got time to waste, all good but if time is precious to you as it is for me, this might ring home:

Looking up every word

When reading books in another language I always looked up too many words because my mind needed to know every word to feel at peace. Over time I let go of that habit and only looked up crucial words and reading has become a joy again instead of being a chore.

Using a mono-lingual dictionary

I was taught that from a certain level onwards it would be beneficial to use a mono-lingual dictionary. That’s one that explains unknown English words with simpler English words. And there were some sample sentences for each word as well. Those dictionaries were huge and heavy back then. But that wasn’t their problem. Their problem was that they are utterly useless with the exception of the sample sentences maybe. Monolingual language tuition is scientifically proven to be slowing you down significantly (see Butzkamm, Dodson et al.) and to cause confusion as one can never be fully in the clear about a words meaning when it’s explained in a language one does not fully understand yet. You won’t find too many such dictionaries for German learners online anymore but the approach to teach you German using only German is still very wide spread and hurts language learners dearly world wide.

Sticking too long with what doesn’t work

Like in relationships, some of us tend to hang onto things for too long that one has invested in a lot of money or time already. So if you booked a six months German classes package from your local language school to save 20% on the fees but the realize after 2 months that something isn’t working, you are more likely to see the remaining 4 months through despite already knowing that it will not be worth your money and time. Here’s a motto I always repeat: money can always be made again, time can’t. And yes, you need time to make money but it’s still a lot smarter to quit a bad German class or end working with a tutor one knows isn’t working out than to hurt one’s motivation by dragging oneself through.
Trust your feelings: if it doesn’t feel right, address it and see whether you can fix it and if not, end it and look for something better.

I’m certain I made a lot more mistakes but those were the most crucial ones that I find again and again in my students experiences. The good news is that despite all these mistakes, I still managed to become fluent in Polish and English and I still enjoyed the language learning process a lot for a while in any language I set out to study.

After all, we are learning machines and it really takes a lot of effort or incompetence to defeat this innate desire to learn of ours.

How my Courses Help with These Problems

My online German courses are all designed with these mistakes in mind. Of course they are also based on all the things I did well in the past when it came to learning new things. You’ll find a solid and effective learning structure, compelling content (three criminal stories in A1-B1), various exercises training your grammar, sentence structure and vocab and all your skills – even speaking freely at one point – interesting bits about the German culture (B2, C1) and my personal learning and teaching philosophy pointed out to you on crucial points so that all you got to do is to trust my lead and the learning process and to enjoy what there is to enjoy. I’m not saying that it won’t be a lot of work but the amount of work never is the real problem. It’s the amount of energy one has to put in and the level of pleasure that one derives from this work that decide whether or not one reaches their desired goal.

Are you ready to reach your goal of mastering the German language and to let me support you until you get there?

Then check out my online German courses and our journey begins today.

© featured photo: Photo by sporlab on Unsplash