If You Want to Learn a Language, Stop Doing These Ten Things

Claire Handscombe


Did you mean to take the extra time quarantine might have given you to learn a language, but are now surprised that it’s June and you haven’t made any progress?

First of all, cut yourself some slack.

It’s been a weird time; even if you do have extra time, you may well have limited bandwidth as your body and mind try to process all that’s going on in the world. And now’s not the time to deny yourself the simple pleasures that keep you going, whether that’s curling up with a romance novel or bingeing the new season of whatever on Netflix.

But! If you do still want to get going on language learning, then here’s some advice, inspired by this post on 25 things writers should stop doing, and by the impending end of January.

Stop procrastinating

It’s not too late to get going and make considerable progress this year. How good would it feel to get to the end of 2020 and be able to say that despite the crappiness of the year, at least you have a newfound skill to show for it?

Stop expecting it to magically happen

Even if you live in, say, Germany, and want to learn German, you need to be intentional about your learning, particularly these days when it’s so easy to plug into TV, radio, podcasts and Facebook, all of which happen to be available in English. Yes, you’ll pick up some German words around you, at the supermarket or at the restaurant if those are open where you are, but picking up some words is not the same as language learning.

Stop thinking you’ll remember things without writing them down

Part of being intentional is writing things down: new words, verb endings, and also explanations of grammar concepts. The very process helps cement it in your mind. Plus, if you keep a pocket-sized vocab book (which you should!), you can pull it out when you have a spare few minutes waiting for the kettle to boil or the Zoom call to start and do some quick recapping, which will help you to remember words long-term.

Stop trying to set aside huge chunks of time

Little and often is the key, rather than trying to force your brain to absorb two hours’ worth of intensive Spanish. Build in a habit of ten minutes a few times a week if you’re a beginner (up to twenty if you’re further on), to look over some vocab or do some exercises. If you find yourself wanting to keep going, then do, but stop while you are still enjoying it -you’re more likely to want to come back to it next time that way.

Stop being unsystematic

Every little helps, when it comes to language learning: that much is true. But you will progress much faster if you find a system that works for you — a workbook to go through methodically, an app to use for revision once a week, a daily five-minute slot to read through your vocab book.

Stop trying to go it alone

Find other learners through meetup.com or get a friend to ask you regularly how it’s going. Another thing that will help immeasurably is a tutor — they’ll hold you accountable to doing your homework as well as help you understand grammar concepts and practice your accent.

Stop thinking your tutor will do the learning for you

One lesson a week is not enough. It’s just the starting point. It’s the learning you do outside of the lesson that will have the greatest effect, with the lessons and your personal work reinforcing each other

Your tutor leads you to the water every week. Whether you drink is up to you.

Stop setting unrealistic goals

At the beginning of each year, I see a few tweets saying things like: “My New Year’s Resolution is to be fluent in Italian.” That’s commendable, but doomed to failure, unless you already have a very good standard of the language. Moving to Italy may go a long way towards this goal, but a period of intensive learning before you go would be necessary, and even then — fluency is usually something that is built up over a long time, unless you are particularly talented.

Stop trying to run before you can walk

It’s exciting and energising when you meet a goal you have set yourself: a goal that is challenging but realistic.

Stop telling yourself you’re crap

To learn a language well, you need to lay good foundations. That means starting with learning how to form sentences, including correct verb endings. It means, when it comes to reading, starting with appropriate level Easy Readers, specially adapted for language learners. It means, to borrow a musical analogy, doing your scales before you try to play a concerto.

Be positive! Tell yourself you can do it. Of course you’re not very good at first: that’s why beginners are called beginners. They’re beginning. And even as you progress, there will be days when it’s harder work, and stretches of time when you don’t see yourself improving. That’s okay. Everyone has those.

How we talk to ourselves really does impact our motivation and therefore our learning. Tell yourself instead that you are determined to do this, that you can do it. You really can!

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Claire Handscombe is a British writer who moved to Washington, DC, in 2012, ostensibly to study for an MFA in Creative Writing, but really, let’s be honest, because of an obsession with The West Wing. She is the host of the Brit Lit Podcast, a monthly show about news and views from UK books and publishing; the author of Unscripted, a novel about a young woman with a celebrity crush and a determined plan; and the editor of Walk With Us: How The West Wing Changed Our Lives.

Washington, DC

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