Mistakes to avoid when #learning a foreign language

Years ago, I was learning #Italian when I just thought, oh there’s #Spanish right there at my fingertips, why not learn it? You know, to have the full collection of Romance #languages. So, I went into it thinking that my francophone brain plus my fast-paced skills in Italian would decipher the many words ending in os and as but that magic didn’t work.

Some time afterward, a Spanish-speaking lady was offering weekly Spanish lessons in a community center, I thought that these would be the support I needed to launch my Spanish acquisition journey. I went there promising myself that this was not “studying” but a way to open the door for my brain to understand Spanish. You see I did a lot of studying at the time and I could not afford one more stress added to the mix. And so, I would sit there, listening and understanding everything, I would do the classwork and pick up a few words here and there. In fact, it all made sense to me, the grammar, and the vocabulary. Well, not exactly everything, since some different words were so similar. Basically, the classes were low maintenance and enjoyable. But that did not free my Spanish tongue, it was still locked down!

Later, my learning process went on and off. I did a few things on my own over a long period of time, you know, playing with language apps, listening to Learn Spanish in your car, and podcasts, but I made so little progress, so I stopped.

Then, a couple of years ago, a colleague of mine suggested we met once a week to exchange languages. And I was tempted to give Spanish one more try. Although I had stopped learning it, I never stopped wanting to speak it. The weekly sessions went on fine and my colleague was very helpful, but it had one problem, it was not enough. We used to split the less-than-one-hour session between the two languages, but we had to work monolingually on some days because of lack of time. And so, I did not go past what I had already learned before.

Well, the good news is that I recently re-created my whole Spanish learning system with a different approach. And now I’d like to go over the big mistakes I did in my first attempt to learn Spanish and why it was not effective.

1. I explored Spanish but didn’t actually learn it, which are two different things. I started with a simple wish to explore the language and when I realized I wanted to learn it, I did not shift from the exploration mode to the learning mode. There’s nothing wrong with exploring a language, just for fun, without really putting the effort and time to learn it. But since my goal was to achieve a certain level, I needed to do the actual work.

2. I underestimated the amount of work needed, thinking that since this is my third language and since I already speak French and know a lot of Italian, Spanish will be a picnic. Well, not really. True, the more languages we learn, the more efficient our learning becomes. The similarities between languages help us in vocabulary retention and grammar concepts. We get savvy over time with the methodology and we benefit from our past knowledge in the other languages. However, a new language is just that a new language and must be given the attention it needs. Everyone will learn at their own pace, but we all start from a beginner’s perspective.

3. Although I knew what I wanted to achieve, I did not match the methodology with the goals. So, it would be much helpful to set a goal or goals with a clear vision of how many phases/stages you need to go through to achieve these goals. In my case, the goal was to be fully fluent. I wanted to be able to chat with my Spanish-speaking friend in Spanish. I wanted to read in Spanish whenever I felt like it and to watch movies without subtitles. So, I was aware of my goal. I wasn’t looking, though, to use the language professionally, so I was not going to enter exams or study in Spanish because that would take the language learning to a different area.

4. I did not have a clear discipline or a defined schedule. Even if it was only for fun, some consistency would have made all the difference. When I went to those lunch hours at the community center to attend the Spanish classes, I had a schedule for that but not for studying the language. I did the homework but that was it. When I reflect on those days, I think that I lacked consistency more than anything else. These classes were offered sporadically, they would get canceled when there was another event, or a holiday or the teacher would have other engagements. So I ended up being sporadic myself with my study times.

5. I used an offhand approach all the time, as I did not want to learn in “conventional ways”. I wanted to immerse myself in the language, which is great and I will explain in other articles how I am doing that now, but not in the way I used to do at the time. Although my purpose was to be able to write and speak correctly in Spanish, I did not want to put in the effort of really doing practice exercises and activities. I enjoyed doing those, but I didn’t have the time, or rather I was hasty to see some progress, so I didn’t really have a holistic approach to the language.

6. I explored the culture and did not focus enough on the language. Exploring the culture puts the language knowledge in a proper authentic context, especially with a language like Spanish, which is spoken in so many countries and has such a rich culture. But my mistake was not aligning both aspects together and profiting from them both.

7. I was impatient. I even thought that because I was francophone and knew some Italian, I would be able to master Spanish in no time. But my methods were not effective, so the longer the time, the more frustrated I became with myself

8. I gave up on myself. I was not making much progress. I was sporadic and random in my learning, with little repetition which made it hard for the new words and concepts to stick. In fact, I understood less and less Spanish over time and I was overwhelmed with the huge work required for learning it.

9. I yoyoed between levels, jumping from the beginner to the advanced levels. I did not want to invest a lot of time in Spanish, as I wanted to move on to other languages. Although I was able to go through some of the advanced materials relatively easy because of my knowledge in French and Italian, it was mostly frustrating. I would be reading a novel, for example, that is obviously difficult for me to understand, and I would have to go back and forth between the novel and dictionaries which disrupted my reading flow. Most importantly, this was not paying off because I did not master the advanced language structures needed at that point.

10. I did not monitor my progress or do any type of reflection from time to time to see what had been working and what had not. That fluidity of time and lack of productivity control contributed to not getting the results I was looking for.

11. I didn’t combine writing, reading, speaking, and listening properly at the same time. Sometimes, I would prefer to just listen, in some sort of passive immersion. And sometimes, I would be focusing on some language and grammar materials without combining listening or speaking components.

12. I didn’t customize the resources to my personal preferences. Self-study is awesome and has so many advantages. You have a chance to customize the learning material to your liking. I didn’t take advantage of that, although I picked the materials myself, I did not combine them in a meaningful way to serve my purpose.

This will be my focus in my next articles. I would like to share my language learning journey with you and explore the different tactics that really work.

But, most importantly, I would love to hear about your experiences in learning a foreign language. What were the challenges that you faced and how much of what I had been through resonate with you?

(You can listen to a podcast on the same topic here.)