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5 Dangerous Language Learning Mistakes You Should Avoid

5 Dangerous Language Learning Mistakes You Should Avoid

5 language learning mistakes

I’ve realised something lately…

Getting better at learning foreign languages isn’t just about learning new tips and tricks.

What’s more important is avoiding language learning mistakes that can cripple your progress.

That’s why I’m pleased to feature this guest post today from Sean Patrick Hopwood, a polyglot and language enthusiast, who shares the 5 big mistakes you should take care to avoid.

Here’s Sean… 


While some people take to learning a language like a duck to water, for others; it’s more like the Titanic’s maiden voyage!

But just because you’ve had bad experiences in the past, or the very thought of expressing yourself to a foreign audience gives you nightmares about hitting an impending iceberg, doesn’t mean you have to succumb to your fears.

Learning a language, just like learning any new skill can be entirely achievable by a simple shift in perspective.

Mistake Number 1: Fear Of Embarrassment

Many students are comfortable reading and writing in a foreign language, but when it comes to speaking it, the very idea sends chills down their spines and gets their heart rates racing.

It doesn’t matter how confident you are as a person (well, a little bit of extra confidence doesn’t hurt); this almost irrational fear of looking stupid in front of other people can be as appalling as the thought of walking naked into work or school.

If this sounds like you, take heart; you’re not alone.

It happens to college students…

It happens to executives…

It happens to CEOs and politicians…

Even Barack Obama freezes up at the very thought of speaking in a foreign tongue.

Fear of embarrassment is particularly strong in Eastern cultures, where it’s important to save face in public, and many foreign language students even at advanced English levels will flat out refuse to speak it, for fear of making a mistake.

But how is it that we can give presentations, negotiate business deals and even run a country, yet we can’t give in to speaking a few words in a foreign language?

The key to overcoming this fear is by pushing through it.

Honoré de Balzac famously said:

Our greatest fears lie in anticipation.

And it’s true.

So stop worrying about it.

Quit going over and over the worst case scenario in your head and take the leap into the unknown.

Nobody was born speaking a language and everyone who has ever learned a second one has made mistakes at some point; that’s how we learn.

Making mistakes is not only the best way to improve our command of a foreign language, but it can also be a great way to break the ice between you and your foreign counterpart. Learn to laugh at your mistakes and embrace making them as a way of getting continually better at speaking.

Also, it goes without saying that the more you speak, the faster you will learn, so if you still don’t have the confidence to speak in public just yet, then make sure you speak as much as you can in class, at home, or with whomever you do feel comfortable speaking with.

Mistake Number 2: Failing To Listen

language mistakes listeningIf you frequently fall into the trap of failing to listen to what a foreign language speaker is saying, the chances are it’s rolled into your fear of losing face.

You see, many of us get so caught up in the necessity to annunciate perfectly, to conjugate correctly and to deliver a flawless diatribe that we forget to actually listen to what the person is saying.

And that’s not good.

In fact; that’s worse than replying with mistakes, as you’re more than likely going to come out with something irrelevant, or be thrown off keel when they don’t reply as you’re expecting.

Learning a second language starts with a silent period. Silent because you should be listening, learning and assimilating information. Like a baby when they’re learning to speak.

Although your “silent” period hopefully won’t last as long or contain as much babbling, you get the idea. Also, you can improve on your listening skills by listening to podcasts, watching movies, or listening to music in your desired language.

The more your ear becomes accustomed to the accent and annunciation, the easier it will be.

Mistake Number 3: Making It Into A Mountain

Ever heard the one about making a mountain out of a molehill?

Well, while learning a new language may be a little bit bigger than a molehill, if you make it into something insurmountable then your brain will shut down before you begin.

The trick here is to realise that learning a language is a marathon and not a sprint.

There are ways that you can speed up your learning, obviously, according to necessity and budget; but not everyone is lucky enough to have the time or money to move abroad or take accelerated courses.

So, break it down into chunks and achievable goals.

Don’t just assume that other people are more intelligent than you are because they speak two or three (or more) languages. They weren’t born that way and I can personally guarantee you that everyone of them has gone through a period of learning, frustration, misunderstandings, miscommunication and feeling socially awkward.

It’s a rite of passage.

If you haven’t found yourself at a random social gathering in a foreign country where you didn’t understand a word of what was going on around you, then you haven’t lived (just joking).

So the third language learning mistake is to make the whole journey into a mountain.

It’s utterly achievable with the right tools (such as online classes and online language services providers) and a healthy attitude.

Mistake Number 4: Not Being Open To Culture

cultureIf you’re learning a language with a closed mind, it will reflect in your progress.

The idea is not just to learn a language, but to live the language. Be open to finding out about and experimenting with different cultures.

If you aren’t willing to try new foods and celebrate other people’s customs, then you simply won’t get to enjoy the best part of foreign language learning.

You’re far more likely to learn faster when you feel motivated to do so, and the more involved you get in the language you’re learning, the better.

So go celebrate Christmas Day on Christmas Eve, try eating meals with your hands, throwing tomatoes at strangers and dressing up in carnival gear.

Who knows? You might even enjoy it!

Mistake Number 5: Overestimating The Power Of Immersion

I personally know way too many people who have fallen into this trap; believing that living a few months, or a year in a foreign country and they will come back fluent.

I’m sorry to tell you, but you still have to work pretty hard at it.

You will have to study, practice your speaking, and make every effort to speak the language whenever you can. When abroad, expats like to get together.

And that means that you’ll make a tons of amazing, multicultural friends.

But that also means a lot of speaking in English if you’re not careful.

So choose your “immersion” destination wisely. If you can cope with being in a small village where no one speaks your language, then you’ll have to ask yourself if you can tolerate the loneliness and isolation that may breed, in the name of speaking fluently more quickly.

If you need the commodities and comforts of a larger city, then try to remember to make foreign friends too.

Try dating someone who speaks the local language.

Not only is it one of the fastest ways to learn, but it’s also one of the most fun…

It also makes those language learning mistakes seem somehow less important!


Sean Patrick Hopwood is a language polyglot and a language enthusiast. His goal in life is to bring world peace through education, tolerance and cultural awareness.

He is also the President and Founder at Day Translations, Inc., a global translation company.

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  • Sean Hopwood

    I got a good one that I have always used. Stop trying to make the rules of the language adhere to the paradigms you have of your own language. Many people say, “oh that doesn’t make sense”. Maybe it doesn’t make sense in English, but it makes sense in Spanish, or German, etc. This is when you really start to open your mind to different possibilities. Different meanings, different types of symbolism and more.

    • Right! It’s a really powerful mindset to say to yourself: “That phrase doesn’t make sense to me, but I’m happy to simply accept that’s how it’s said!” … it leaves your brain much more open to assimilate the new language.

  • Joan Bouttell

    Oh what you say is so right. I am in a “silent period” as I listen to my colleagues talk but now some of the words I can understand. I had a great moment yesterday when I heard them say “bo geng” and I knew I knew it but I couldn’t think what it meant. So I asked and they said “call the police” I thought “of course” ! now I know its a phrase I wont forget. I feel lonely and isolated not knowing the language of my colleagues but its so wonderful when you start to learn and recognise words.

  • Char Char Binks

    I disagree with most of these. (1) Fear of embarrassment is unavoidable unless you’ve given yourself up to being a laughingstock. (2) Failure to listen is not an issue if you’re actually trying to learn a language. You should probably read more. (3) It is a mountain; don’t take it lightly. (4) Trying to learn a language is being “open to the culture” enough. Eating sushi and listening to koto music isn’t going to help you learn Japanese in the slightest, nor will throwing tomatoes. (6) Immersion is a poor substitute for study.