32 Lessons That Language Learning Has Taught Me.

Language learning can be a frustrating and rewarding roller-coaster ride.  It’s never boring and it’s all about keeping an open mind and an even temper.  I’ve learned a lot the last few years and I continue to learn more every day.   That said, I am proud to present to you the 32 most important lessons that language learning has taught me.  Warning:  Long post ahead.

  1.  Anyone can learn a foreign language.  If you learned your native language, you can learn a foreign language.  I have met people with learning disabilities, dyslexia, speech impediments, and even High School dropouts who have successfully learned not just one, but in some cases several languages to an advanced level.  There is no such thing as being “bad at languages”.  Give me a reason why you can’t learn a language and I’ll show you people who have done it under the same circumstances.
  2. Learning a language is hard work.  Fact!  You know that old expression “Nothing worth doing is ever easy”?  Well, I think that guy (or girl) was talking about language learning.  It IS hard work.  There is no substitute for drilling, memorization, and practice.  I had no idea when I started learning languages that the process was such hard work.  It takes dedication and a strong desire to succeed.
  3. You have to be motivated to learn a language.  This is a given thanks to #2.  Learning a language is too long and demanding of a process to be navigated with little or no motivation.  In fact, this life lesson may actually be understated.  You not only need to be motivated, you need to be REALLY motivated.  There will be days that your motivation will be tested.  How you deal with this will determine your success.
  4. Don’t believe the hype.  This is one of the reasons why so many people fail.  Marketing departments feed on this.  They advertise that anyone can “learn a language in 10 days” or “Speak Spanish in 24 hours” or “Learn French in just 15 minutes a day”.  Experienced language learners know to laugh this off, but first timers don’t.  And what happens when a first timer DOESN’T learn Spanish in 24 hours?  He quits.  He chalks it up to being too hard and assumes he doesn’t have what it takes to learn a language.  This kind of gimmick marketing is unfair to new learners.  They go into language learning with unreasonable expectations.  On the flip side, any company that actually advertised how much dedication and hard work is involved with learning a language would never sell anything.
  5. Not everyone is as fascinated by languages as I am.  I’m sure most of you reading this can relate.  Most of my friends think I’m crazy for being as obsessed as I am with languages.  I can’t understand how anyone could NOT be obsessed with learning languages.  I have come to find out, that I am in the minority here.  It takes a lot self-restraint to not just blabber on about languages to all of my friends who couldn’t care less.  But, unfortunately, it is a fact of life that i must deal with if I want to continue a relationship with said friends.
  6. Everyone learns differently.  This would seem self-explanatory, but it actually took me awhile to grasp this concept.  As a beginner, I would read suggestions from polyglots and other experienced language learners and would be utterly devastated when some (or most) of those suggestions didn’t work for me.  Why not?  Because people learn differently.  There are almost as many methods as learners when it comes to languages.  Some people are visual and can’t stand audio courses.  Some people are more auditory and seek out all the audio lessons they can find.  Some people struggle with grammar concepts until they see (or hear) real life examples and it just clicks.  Find what works for you and be open to suggestions, but don’t expect them all to pan out.
  7. Everyone has an opinion.  I’ll phrase this politely (because this is a family friendly blog): There’s an old saying “Opinions are like belly-buttons, everybody has one”.  This is embodied quite nicely in the language learning/polyglot community.  Everybody has advice for everyone else.  Everyone is convinced that their “method” works, and it does…  For them.  Some of us have very strong opinions.  I have seen simple posts turn into angry flame-wars quickly over simple disagreements.  We are a passionate bunch (we have to be) and it shows sometimes.  My advice, listen to everyone who is willing to offer advice, and take it all with a grain of salt.  Take what works for you and leave the rest.
  8. Choose your languages wisely.  This ties indirectly to the motivation mentioned above in #3.  This has nothing to do with “difficulty” or “usefulness”.  This is all about motivation.  The language you choose (if you choose wisely) will be your constant companion for years (potentially for the rest of your life).  You need to have strong reasons to learn a language to an advanced level of fluency.  Disclaimer:   If you are a dabbler and/or wanderluster, the above does not apply to you.  This lesson is really intended for long-term learning of a specific language. 
  9. Time management is essential.  There are hidden moments in every day.  10 minutes standing in line at the grocery store, commute time, sitting at a red light, even shower time.  These hidden minutes add up quickly and if you manage your time well, you can use them for language learning.  Additionally, time management is absolutely essential to make sure you are taking advantage of scheduled study time.  It’s not enough to schedule time, you need to make the most of it.
  10. Establish your priorities early.  What do you want to do with your new language?  If your goal is to read literature, then stop spending so much time talking and listening to audio courses.  You want to speak fluently and don’t care about reading or writing?  Stop reading so much and get out there and talk.  You can save a lot of wasted study time by establishing your language goals early in the learning process.
  11. The method doesn’t matter as much as you think.  This may sound counter-intuitive, but I am convinced of this.  Almost every method on the market has a lot of the same information.  Most of the differences are cosmetic.  To me, the method is not nearly as important as sticking to it.  This doesn’t mean you need to buy a course and not deviate from it, but you should follow a plan of some kind through to completion.  I have derived tremendous motivation from completing a course (or plan of study) in it’s entirety.  It gives me a tremendous feeling of accomplishment and reinforces the “one step at a time” philosophy of language learning.
  12. Do something every day.  This one gets thrown around a lot in language learning circles and rightfully so.  If I skip a day (or more) of doing something in a language, it puts me behind.  It also makes it easier for me to skip another day, and another, and another…  Make it a point to do SOMETHING every day.  Even if it is 10 or 15 minutes of listening or reading or flash cards.  It may not seem like a big deal, but it is.
  13. Do not neglect listening.  See this post.  Enough said.
  14. Do not wait to start talking.  This one may not be applicable to everyone.  My main focus for every language I learn is speaking, so this one is super important to me. 
  15. Flashcards DO work.  True story.  I know this is a can of worms, but I think that flash cards can work for anyone.  Caveat:  They need to be the right kind of flash cards.  I’m more of an audio learner, so I prefer my flash cards to be electronic and to include audio.  I know others who are visual and prefer paper flash cards.  I know some who think flash cards are boring. For them, there is Memrise (not flash cards in the traditional sense, but effectively the same thing).  For the more adventurous, there are cloze-deletion options in ANKI.  ANKI also allows pictures and video.  These aren’t your grandparents’ flash cards.
  16. Get involved in the community.  This one is huge.  There is a massive support system available to all language learners through the internet.  From Facebook groups to Twitter, to language forums, to blogs just like this one, help is out there.  The language learning community is one of the most supportive and encouraging communities I’ve ever had the pleasure to be a part of.  If you are learning a language and you aren’t a part of this community, you need to get involved.  I will have a future post devoted to some of my favorite places to find language learning companionship.
  17. You cannot buy fluency.  He who has the most toys does not win in the language game.  You cannot substitute hard work with money.  All the books and courses and classes in the world will not help you learn a language if you do not put in the time and effort required.  Course makers are glad to take your money, but buying something will not make you fluent.
  18. Everyone’s definition of fluency is different.  I have seen more flame-wars over this particular topic than any other.  I’ve known some people that consider “fluency” to be a solid grasp on the basics (300-500 words) and being able to use those basics without hesitation in a fluid conversation.  On the opposite spectrum, I’ve known people who consider only native-level speech and literacy to be “fluency”.  Most people’s definition is somewhere in between.   Be careful tossing around this word.  Some people get really riled up.
  19. You never stop learning.  This is a big one.  Before I started learning languages, I would always think “Just wait until I know Spanish” or “It’ll be awesome when I finish German”.  Through the years it has been painfully clear that you never “know” or “finish” a language.  I don’t really even “know” all there is to know about English and that’s my native language.  You never stop learning languages.  That can be kind of frustrating sometimes because there is no “finish line”.  There is no “job well done”.  As son as you think you’ve got it licked, you find more words you don’t know or obscure grammar concepts you’ve never heard of.  Personally, I like it.  Some people, not so much.
  20. 1 hour with a good private tutor is worth 10 hours with a book.   Key word here is “good”.  The ideal tutor will either be a native speaker or an advanced speaker with extensive teaching credentials and experience.  Just being a native doesn’t always cut it.  A native speaker who can’t explain grammatical concepts or teach you in a logical and methodical way isn’t good for much other than speaking practice.  A good tutor who has experience and training is worth their weight in gold.  I can learn more from a one hour tutoring session than I can in a week of unguided self-study.  Tutoring isn’t an answer in and of itself though.  A good tutoring session should leave you with hours worth of study material (homework so to speak).  Just like with classroom teaching, tutoring is only a tool.  Without independent study, it won’t accomplish much.
  21. The internet is teeming with free resources for almost any language.   The internet is a language learner’s dream.  Not only are the “big” languages (English, French, German, Chinese, Spanish, Russian,Arabic, etc) VERY well represented, but the internet is a goldmine of resources for the lesser studied languages like Georgian, Telugu, Albanian, Tamil, Latvian, Twi and many others.  The best part?  Most of it is free!   I will be publishing a list of my favorite internet resources in a future post.
  22. Work on correct pronunciation from the beginning.   Check out this post for my view on pronunciation.  Enough said.
  23. Read more.    Even though my main focus is speaking and listening, I learned early on that reading is a great way to pick up vocabulary and to maintain languages that you are at an intermediate or advanced level in.  Obviously if your focus is reading, then this is kind of a no-brainer.
  24. Don’t neglect writing.   I have discovered that writing is an excellent way to practice active skills without necessarily having someone to talk to.  Get your writing corrected by natives on websites like lang-8.com or italki.com.  I have found that extensive writing can actually help me improve my speaking skills.  If you don’t do much writing, give it a try.
  25. There is no such thing as a “hard” or “easy” language.  Labels like this only discourage people from learning the languages they want and encourage people to learn languages they don’t have any real motivation for.  If you are properly motivated, there is no such thing as a hard language.  By the same token, without motivation there is no such thing as an easy language.  Stop worrying about ease or difficulty and just follow your heart.
  26. There is no such thing as a “useless” language.   If you are motivated, it doesn’t matter how obscure the language is.   Even if you never end up using it to communicate, if your heart is in it, then it isn’t useless.  Don’t pay any attention to people who ask you “why learn such a useless language”.  They are the ignorant ones, not you.
  27. There is no “magic method”.   There is no silver bullet.  This is similar to “don’t believe the hype”.  No matter what you read or hear, there is NO substitute for hard work and motivation.  No one can help you “learn a language in 30 days” or help you to “effortlessly learn a language in just 15 minutes a day”.  It’s just not possible.  There are methods and techniques that can make language learning more efficient, but there are no “miracle methods”.
  28. Stay organized.  Similar to time management, but this lesson relates more to organizing your materials and planning your lessons for maximum results.  I find that tracking time spent on different activities helps me determine where I’m slacking off and what activities might not be working as well as others.  I will feature a bog post soon about how to organize your study time and materials.
  29. Don’t believe everything that you read.   You will read/hear a lot of things in your language learning journey.  Don’t just automatically believe it all.  I’ve seen many people massively over-exaggerate their language levels as well as under-exaggerate the amount of time and effort they have put forth.  I’m not saying you should doubt everyone you come across, just be aware that just like in other communities, the language learning community does have it’s fair share of show-offs and pretenders.
  30. Don’t fear mistakes.  You will make mistakes.  You will probably embarrass yourself more times that you will care to keep track of.  Just accept it.  You cannot be afraid of making mistakes.  We learn from mistakes.  Mistakes are a huge part of language learning.  Accept it, embrace it.  Now, go out there and talk!
  31. Short term goals are more important than long term goals.  Short term goals keep you motivated.  For me, monthly, weekly, even daily goals are more important than ultimate long-term type goals.  When I reach a short term goal, it energizes me.  It keeps me going and gets me excited for the next goal. 
  32. Have Fun!  The most important lesson of all.  Make sure that you include some fun in your study routine.  This could be watching TV shows in your target language, listening to music, even playing video games.  Language learning isn’t math or science.  There’s a certain element to language learning that is supposed to be fun.  If you aren’t having at least some fun, YOU ARE DOING IT WRONG!