Learning a foreign language — Common mistakes

Fri Aug 18 2017

Learning a foreign language — Common mistakes

I’m French and I’ve been learning German for 10 months now. Even if I’m quite happy about my progress, I definitely wasted a lot of time during this process, because of mistakes that most of us do when learning a new language. This is why I want to point out here some of these mistakes and the pieces of advice I could give you from my own experience.

An image of a bus accident

Claude Ponti au jardin des plantes (Le Voyage à Nantes 2014) by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra (license CC BY)

Don’t follow the trends

  • I’m trying to learn German/Spanish/French.
  • You’re using Duolingo or something?

Everywhere I go, everyone I am talking to tells me at one point about this wonderful tool called Duolingo. It seems it’s been obvious now that it’s the leader on the market of language learning. But is it such a great tool? It’s the first tool I used and I used it for maybe one month. Let me answer you the short way:

Nope nope nope. It should be banned. Forever.

Useless vocabulary

You’re learning a new language from scratch. You would expect a tool like this to teach you useful vocab that you can use with a native speaker once in the country, like “How are you?” or “Where is the next station?”, right?


Among the first words I learnt, there was “das Haustier” (“the pet”), “die Enten leben” (“the ducks are alive”), or even “der Juwelenhandel” (“the jewelry”). Sounds like a lot of useful fun, doesn’t it? It seems it’s not only a problem with German. I saw German people starting to study Spanish, and one of their first words were “purse” and “shoelaces”. Believe me: you can survive a whole year abroad without even hearing these words.

Meaningless sentences

Sentences you are asked to learn and to translate are in general absolute nonsense. I ask you to believe me on this one: I had to translate “The dog gives a stamp to the daughter. You have absolutely no context whatsoever when translating a sentence. Seems for them a sentence is just a few words stuck together. You also have absolutely no grammar lesson. Worse: some translations you propose are the good ones (not literal, but they are much better translations) and are refused by the app. Even worse: some sentences you learn are not correct in German. I already encountered the situation where I said something to German people and they looked at me like “Wut? No one says that.” For sure, you can always complain on their kind of forums, but some mistakes have been there for a few years and it seems it won’t change for a long time. Learning with Duolingo does not just make you waste your time. It hurts your learning.

How did this project go that bad?

I think Duolingo is essentially famous for its very clever business plan. The idea of turning learners into free translators sounds like a genious idea to me. I was so enthusiastic when I heard of it for the first time! When I heard they got huge funds from Google, I was not surprised at all. The thing is, this huge idea was actually never really implemented. And since their model failed, they are now proposing paid accounts although they said Duolingo would be free forever. I don’t understand how with such a great idea and huge funds (and I suppose, great developers) they could end up with such a bad tool. It’s really frustrating.

Don’t see a language as a cold system to break

I think most of us learnt (or at least were supposed to learn) a foreign language at school. If your experience is the same as mine, you remember considering the language as a set of abstract rules you tried to fit in your tired brain. A perfect example is how teachers, in most languages, will teach you right away the genders and cases with their declinations. You assimilate the idea that this complex set of rules must be understood and learnt before you even talk in that language.

French people are specifically taught throughout their school years that they should not raise their hand if they do not know the answer. The institution does not want them to try and have fun. It wants them to be right. And that’s how we end up with a whole nation suffering from shame and disabilities when it comes to speaking english.

Most people I meet (whatever the country they come from) still have this idea that FIRST you learn a language and THEN you speak it. You could not make a bigger mistake. I realized it when I read “Fluent In 3 Months” from Benny Lewis. I could not advise you more the reading of this book. Here is what it taught me.

This list is obviously not exhaustive. Once again, go check the book “Fluent In 3 Months”. It will help you a lot in your journey.

Don’t bet everything on the environment

How many times, have I heard “I would like to learn this new langage, but for this, I need to travel in the country”? Sounds logical, right? Well, it’s not.
We all expect that if we go to another country, we will, by some crazy magic, learn the language easily and quickly. Actually, we rely on passive learning to do so. We think that if we are surrounded by native speakers, the language will seep through us and that it will be enough to level up. For sure, being surrounded by the language can help you a bit to be more familiar with it, but it is definitely not enough to level up. After all, we all know people who after a few years spent in a country do not speak the local language very well.

If you want to learn, you have to be active in the process. Don’t just turn on the radio and listen in a distracted way while washing the dishes. From time to time, take a short audio resource where people are talking in that language, and really try to understand it. First, you will only grab a few words and won’t even understand what is the main point. Do it several times (and don’t look at the transcription right away, if you have it). After several hearings, you will start to understand more and more, and even maybe understand the main theme. If you’re stuck after a few tries, try to transcript what you hear. Yep, that’s right, a good old dictation! Even if you don’t know the meaning of what you’re writing down, and how to spell it, it will for sure help you to break down the words and train your ear to recognize the special melody and breakpoints of the language. From time to time, go back to this same audio resource and notice how you understand more than before what it is about.

If you want to go abroad, it’s also because you want to improve your skills by talking with a native speaker, right? You can do this from home. And actually, you should even start your journey by this. A few nice free tools exist to find a tandem in a specific language. Internet has made it so easy to find a partner to exchange and level up in a foreign language.
I would advise you two interesting tools I like for this purpose:

Start your journey by looking for someone to talk to. Seriously. Even if you only know a few words. Before your first skype conversations, prepare your talk by looking for some vocabulary that you might use (how do you say “I live in London”? How do you say “What do you do for a living”?). You can find more details about this process in the book “Fluent In 3 Months” (yes, again).

Other advised resources

I started to learn german less than 10 months ago and my level is B1 at this time. It could sound not so great, but I work 40 hours a week as a web developer and I find time to do so much other things. Learning German is just taking me a few minutes a day. I never took private or shared lessons to do so. I actually tried once to go to a bar where a teacher would teach German to beginners for a very small price, but I realized I was definitely not the right person for this kind of environment: this very scholar process war really not my thing. I was bored and annoyed. I wanted to have fun.
If you think you absolutely need this kind of environment to learn, then go for it! But not everyone has to go back to school to learn something.

If you don’t use Duolingo, what resources do you have instead?

I hope that with these few pieces of advice, you will quickly level up and have fun in your new language as I’m having fun right now with German.

If you know other tips or interesting resources, please, tell me about it in the comments.

Viel Spaß!