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How Not To Learn A Language – Avoid These 8 Common Mistakes

How Not To Learn A Language – Avoid These 8 Common Mistakes

Maybe you have to learn a foreign language to get a new job, communicate with colleagues abroad or just need it because you want to travel and not feel helpless. In any case, you are part of an exclusive club as only about 17% of US citizens are able to speak a foreign language! But apart from the statistics, there is an even more worrying trend. The way foreign languages are taught is full of pitfalls and not many schools are doing it right. Here are 8 wrong ways to learn a foreign language. So if your teacher is insisting on any of these, it might be a good idea to find another school. We need to keep in mind that language study is not a one-size-fits-all exercise as learning styles will vary.

1. Learning grammar rules

The grammar of a foreign language is full of complicated uses, exceptions and fine distinctions. Teaching these rules might be useful when writing an academic essay but at beginner level, grammar will not help a student to understand or to communicate in the language.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency decided to abandon the grammar based approach when teaching their border agents Spanish. They prioritized the language tasks the agents needed such as communicating with immigrants, calming detained families and explaining legal rights in simple terms. You can see why knowledge of the subjunctive here would be pretty useless! They helped them develop the language skills for these tasks by using role play exercises and videos. At the end of the course, there was a dramatic improvement in their Spanish competence.

2. Learning lots of new vocabulary

Did you know that you only need a limited number of words in any language which are used over and over again? Yes, in English, you can get by for most purposes by just using 300 words. The same goes for most other languages.

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How do you get to know what these words are in your chosen language? Just download an app such as Anki app on your phone and you are ready to go. The system uses flashcard methods which shows you the new words at strategically spaced intervals to help you remember them. The visual element in helping to memorize new words has been stressed by Tim Ferris. He found that reading comics in Japanese was a turning point for his Japanese language skills.

3. Repeating meaningless sentences

If you find that you are asked to repeat meaningless sentences which have no context or even relevance to you personally, then it is unlikely that you will become proficient in the target language. Stephen Krashen, the distinguished linguist, has made it very clear that unless you can understand the messages from comprehensible input, then there is little chance that you will be able to learn the target language. This, he believes, is the most effective way to learn a language. He illustrates this very clearly in the video below.

4. Reading classics in the target language

Experts now agree that reading classics or even simplified versions of them is not the most efficient way to acquire a language. The language may be outdated and the vocabulary archaic. A better alternative is to read children’s books in the target language. This is a great way to get exposure to the language, its essential grammar and vocabulary. Everything is illustrated and the language is perfect for beginners. There is an added advantage in that if you know the story of a fairy tale then that is a great help to contextualize new words and be able to guess their meaning correctly.

5. Underestimating listening skills

The key to communication is understanding what people are saying in your target language. If you neglect this, then you are on the road to failure. Many schools make listening a rather boring exercise and insist on answering comprehension questions which are barely relevant. The result is that students’ listening skills are way below par and this is an obstacle to effective communication.

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Listening must be a daily exercise. With MP3 podcasts, TV shows, news broadcasts, radio, YouTube and a host of other resources, the choice is embarrassing. Students need to listen when they are jogging, commuting or eating alone. This is the easiest and cheapest way you can get to full immersion which would, of course, be ideal.

6. Learning a language the traditional way

Studying grammar and memorizing endless lists of words is not the best way at all. There are now apps which are widely available and I, personally, think that they can complement more traditional methods, so maybe a mixed approach is best.

Did you know that one free app called Duolingo has 50 million users? Experts have said that one college term of language tuition is equivalent to using this app for about 35 hours. But some learners yearn for more formal verb tables and a more structured approach, so find out what works best for you.

7. Not exploiting cognates

“Mastering the vocabulary of most European languages means simply learning to recognize a number of old friends under slight disguises.” – Henry Sweet

Cognates are words which are similar in English and other languages. For example, English and Spanish have lots of words which originally derive from Latin. Learning about cognates is often underestimated because people are obsessed with ‘false friends’. If you say ‘embarazada’ in Spanish, thinking that it may be the same as ‘embarrassed’, you are telling people that you are pregnant! This is an example of a ‘false friend’. But cognates are a great resource as well and language learners need to be aware of this, rather than obsessed with making mistakes.

For example, the following English words:

  • mechanical
  • historical
  • ideological
  • ethical
  • cultural

have almost identical equivalents in Dutch, German, Swedish and Norwegian.

8. Seeing learning a language as a task

Those students who regard the whole language learning process as a means to an end or to achieve a certain goal are going to find the task an uphill one, if they are not passionately involved

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The best way to approach it is to regard it as opening up a box of opportunities to learn about a new culture, to enjoy new literature, movies, computer games, and songs. All your favorite activities can be done in the language you are learning. Chat to new friends on Skype, update your status on social media and reply to emails. Organize a trip to the country to try out your new language skills. This will make the whole process so much more enjoyable and also make your learning really much easier.

Let us know in the comments how you overcame any obstacles when you studied a foreign language.

Featured photo credit: Jumbled wooden letters close up via shutterstock.com

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Robert Locke

Author of Ziger the Tiger Stories, a health enthusiast specializing in relationships, life improvement and mental health.

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Last Updated on July 17, 2019

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

What happens in our heads when we set goals?

Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

The Neurology of Ownership

Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

The Upshot for Goal-Setters

So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

Reference

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