17 Destructive Habits That Are Killing Your Progress Dead!

bad language learning habitsWhat would you say if I told you: “You already know everything you need to know about language learning”?

Would you believe me?

The thing is, this might just be true.

You know that language learning isn’t rocket science. You know that the most important thing is just doing a little bit every single day.

You know this…and yet you’re not progressing as much as you should.

Something’s not quite right.

But here’s the thing: you probably already know everything you need to know. The first thing you should do is turn the spotlight on what you’re already doing!

There are some bad habits out there that are so serious that they can kill your progress dead.

Here are 17 of them.

If you recognise any of these in your own learning, then you should focus on eliminating them right away, before you even think about trying any other methods.


1. Not writing down new words and phrases that you learn

You know how it goes. You come across a new word that you really want to remember… except you’ve forgotten it by the next day. Stop wasting all this new language and start writing everything down. I input new language directly into my SRS app immediately so it’s safely recorded and ready to study.

2. Believing you need a fixed time everyday for language study

If you’re using this as the excuse for not doing the work – stop! For every month that passes whilst you’re still trying to “find the time”, you’re missing out on countless hours of potential bite-sized learning on the move. Click here to find out how to do this.

3. Deciding fresh what to study each day

You risk wasting huge amounts of time and focus deciding what you “feel like” studying each day. That time spent making decisions is detracting from your reserves of concentration that should be spend studying.

Barack Obama knows this – he only wears two colours of suit in order to cut down on decision making in the morning.

A smarter approach to language learning is to use what I call Sprints – going deep into one particular activity for an extended period of time. Click here for my article on that.

learn japanese vocabulary SRS4. Listening to audio without reading along

Listening is great, but you’re missing out on so much potential learning, especially learning to deal with connected speech,  if you don’t read the text at the same time. Don’t have the text? Hire someone to transcribe it for you cheaply. 

5. Doing language exchanges mostly in English

If your partner keeps slipping back into English, you’re as good as wasting your time. Worse, you risk building resentment against them and damaging your self-confidence. Yes, they’re only trying to help, but in fact they’re making it worse. Tackle the problem head-on and run your language exchanges the right way.

6. “I’ll start soon, when _____ has finished”

Motivation in language learning is cumulative. Don’t wait. Start now. Start small, but start now. 

7. Thinking you’re not talented at languages

Language learning is 5% talent, 95% hard work. The stories you tell yourself define your success. Change the stories. Instead of: “I can’t, because I’m…”, try: “I can, because I’m…”

8. Not speaking

Learning takes place when you find a gap in your knowledge of the language. Once you’ve noticed the gap, you can become more aware of it and begin to figure out how to close it.

Speaking gives you the quickest, most direct feedback possible on your knowledge of the language, and by not speaking regularly you’re depriving yourself of this potential to notice and to grow.

9. Not listening to the same audio enough times

The major benefits of listening to audio in a foreign language come from repeat listening. You might learn a few new words with the first few listenings, but it’s not just about the vocabulary.

By stopping and moving on to the next track you miss out on the more intangible learning that comes from listening to something multiple times and getting really comfortable with it.

10. Blaming grammar

study grammarStop it! You’re avoiding facing the real issue.

95% of meaning is thought to be communicated through lexis (i.e. words), and only 5% through grammar. Grammar is an easy target, but if communication is your aim, then you need to spend time speaking with real people, and concerning yourself with getting the message across one way or another.

This time, Uncle Sam is wrong…

I’m not saying grammar isn’t important, but the most perfect grammar in the world isn’t going to help you out when you’re looking to establish a genuine connection with another human being.

For that you need a big smile and a friendly attitude. Screw the future perfect and the relative pronoun.

11. Feeling foolish for speaking with natives before you’re fluent

I suffer from this badly. The danger is, this feeling often doesn’t disappear, even when you actually are fluent. By avoiding speaking with native speakers you risk missing out on a lifetime of opportunities to practice and improve.

Remember that people (even strangers) are concerned with your message first, and your language skills second.

Be confident, remember you’re talking to another human being who wants to connect with people just as much as you do, and just tell them what you want to say.

12. Listening/reading to material that’s too hard for you

Biting off more than you can chew can be demoralising and counter-productive. Tackling material intended for native speakers can seem like a great idea, but you’re most likely to give up half-way through, having not really grasped most of the language within.

The optimal level for study material for most people, is for it to be pitched slightly above your current level. I try to find things where I understand 90% of it already, and 10% is unknown. That way I can focus all my attention on a small, manageable amount of new language. (Note: if you’re looking for immersion material, this doesn’t apply)

13. Not doing something every single day

By not doing something everyday, you’re missing out on the benefits that come with regular study. But more importantly, the lack of a regular study schedule makes it more likely you will fall of the log and not study regularly at all.

That’s the biggest danger of all. Commit to doing something everyday, however small.

14. “And then Facebook happened!”

This great comment from Cedric on my Facebook page sums up the troubles of an entire generation. Use this tool to estimate the amount of time you have wasted on Facebook this year…Then get disturbed, and banish it forever with the Self-Control App for Mac. This tool has saved my life.

15. Watching too many movies

If you start to tell yourself that your penchant for movie-watching is a good alternative to studying… think again! By all means watch foreign language movies in your down-time, but don’t kid yourself that they’re playing a big part in raising your level. Study is study, and there aren’t many good alternatives. Click here for making the most out of foreign language movies.


16. Reading language blogs

I’m a big advocate of educating yourself about whatever you’re trying to learn, but you risk succumbing to paralysis by analysis. Make a resolution to stop reading and take action today.

17. Hoarding materials

“Shiny new object” syndrome can lead to spending more time preparing yourself to study, than actually sitting down and getting on with it. Make yourself a cup of tea, pick a book, sit down, and get on with it. Do that everyday for 3 weeks and decide whether it’s working.

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So, do any of these sound familiar? 🙂

If you recognise any of these, then why not just pick one and commit to eliminating it from your language learning this week?

Leave me a comment to say which habit you’ll be kicking! If you have any tips for beating any of them, let me know too!

If you found this useful, please Like it on Facebook, or click here to send a tweet.

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Image 2: dwair; Image 2: scnal

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This article was written by Olly Richards.

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  • This all sounds extremely familiar. The problem when you start wondering what the best way to learn a language is, is that you stop learning.
    At one point I realized I was spending more time looking for ways to “optimize” my learning, than actually learning.

    • Hi Benjamin, that’s it! Do a little bit everyday, do it well, stay away from Facebook, and you’ll do just fine! 🙂

  • Chris Broholm

    Haha, I totally suffer from all of the above 😉 Oh well, live and learn (to learn) is what makes me excited about waking up in the morning.

    • Ha… it wouldn’t be any fun otherwise, would it? 🙂

  • I am soooo guilty of #17. Great list. I definitely agree that doing *something* everyday makes a big difference.

    • Hi Shannon… you’re not the only one guilty of #17! 🙂

      I think the “a little bit everyday” thing can be huge for most people.

  • Jolanda Caterina

    Most of languages learning blogs are written in English! 😉 so I hope one day my English will improve! 😉 to spend all day some time in learning isn’t the problem. but to choose the language makes it more difficult! 😉 I like your blog! j;-)

    • Keep reading, Jolanda – your English is already great! 🙂

      • Jolanda Caterina

        😉

  • Richard Woods

    I think it’s 4 and 12 for me. I always had a problem with 4 as –
    a) they [the audio] speak faster than I can read.
    b) I find it hard to do both; I’m either reading and not focusing on the listening, or listening and not focusing on the reading.
    I can still try right?

    I think with 12 I was thinking “I’m listening to improve my abilty to listen, so it shouldn’t matter what I’m listening to right? As long as it’s the same language.” It doesn’t do well for confidence; however it has helped with some more natural forms of speech. I’m talking about listening to the radio mainly.

    Progress is hard…

    • Hi Richard! On your first point, the trick is to just work on one paragraph, or even one sentence, at a time. Work with short amounts of text on repeat rather than long amounts that are too much to deal with.

      As for the second point, I think radio etc is all good exposure, providing you don’t consider it “study time”. As you say, it’s mostly going to be above your head. Listen a lot, for sure, but use your dedicated study time to do things that are at your level – you’ll learn much more tangible stuff that way.

      Hope that helps!

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  • Brad Stokes

    I’d say 1, 4 & 9 would be my weaknesses from the list. I’m back after a little burnout due to an overly busy life. Definitely need to work in some reading whilst listening into my weekly routine…