Top 10 Ways NOT to Start Learning a New Language

In an effort to assist any learner of any language get started in their exploration of said language, here is a list of the top 10 ways not to go about beginning your studies.   This list has been formed out of 10 ways that I tried to learn new languages but then failed epically.  May you not make the same mistakes that I did.

Easy Language?

Easy Language?

10) Easy Phrase Books. Unless you intend to kill your desire to learn any language right from the start, I suggest you steer clear of such books as these.  Books that offer 101 easy phrases in ____________ (insert language here) are sure ways to get frustrated and give up.  The content is often scattered and colloquial, filled with phrases that are at a level far beyond that of the beginner or even intermediate learner.  I have picked up books in Japanese and even Spanish and been befuddled as to the content.  Oftentimes, such everyday phrases are so wrapped in complex grammar structures and vernacular that there is no way that any learner could actually learn any of the individual parts.  For example, in Spanish

Could you speak more slowly? Puedes hablar más despacio, por favor?

If you speak Spanish already, you don’t count.  Please take a minute to imagine yourself completely incapable of any expression in Spanish, and your pronunciation is horrible.  How can you be expected to learn anything (as a beginner) from such a phrase?  The book this was from has no explanation on what any of the words mean, nor is there an explanation on conjugation of verbs etc.  It is a dead-end for language learning.


Language Absorbtion

Language Absorbtion

9) Repetitive Drama/Cartoon Viewing. I once had a friend who, in his attempt to learn Japanese, watched anime…a lot of anime.  In fact, he had so convinced himself that he could learn Japanese simply by listening and absorbing the language that he watched over 100 episodes of Naruto or One Piece before he decided to call it quits.  What was his result?  Very basic listening skills at best, and right next to zero comprehension when it came to grammar and building his own unique sentences.  Though, admittedly, his vocabulary was okay (unfortunately limited to such phrases as found in cartoons, however.)

Computers can be Confusing

Computers can be Confusing

8 ) Any Language learning CD except for Rosetta Stone. Just like the Not-So-Easy phrasebooks, language learning CDs are typically geared towards intermediate and advanced-level speakers and will generally baffle any beginner.  Often with very little introduction and next to no feedback on progress, such programs will only drive you insane from frustration at the overall easy of use (which is nil).  I have has experience with both Japanese and Spanish and though the Spanish language CD was a bit better, I found that my little sister quickly became bored with it.

This being said, the Rosetta Stone CDs are spectacular.  They offer the most basic level of language learning as well as instant pronunciation feedback (a must for languages like Chinese) that I find particularly useful.  They move in very easy and gradual steps that are effortless to understand and not to mention full of dialogue and imagery that keep the learning process fresh and engaging.


7) From Just Any Language Learning Textbook. Never, and I mean NEVER, dive into a new language without doing research and getting some hands-on time with the text prior to its purchase.  At the beginning of your language learning endeavors, which book is most appropriate to your learning style will be just about as easy to determine as how many times you will sneeze tomorrow.  That being said, here are two basic tips to follow as you get started, keeping in mind that as you continue your study that you must not be afraid to scrap the first book you picked up and purchase a different and better one.

Speaking Korean for Beginners

Speaking Korean for Beginners

Tip 1: Look for a book that has a steady but manageable introduction of grammar and vocabulary.  You do not want a book that throws overwhelming amounts of either at you when you first start because this is discouraging.  In the same vein I say “steady” introduction because learning a language is about getting into a rhythm and the textbook is where you get your beat.

Tip 2: Dialogues.  Always do you best to use a textbook that has some actual dialogue in it.  One of the best ways to learn how to speak a language is through the breakdown of regular speech.  One of the best ways to do that is for your beginner’s textbook to do that for you in easy to digest pieces.

For Korean, I found that the best book on the market for beginners is this book:

6) Native Speakers with Little to No Grasp of Your Language. This is a terrible way to try to start learning a language.  Even as babies–ultra absorbent human beings–learning a language simply by listening to fluent speakers converse in it is extremely time-consuming, often taking years before we utter our first attempts at communication in it.  For adults this is no different.  The assistance of a native speaker is not required at all until you have reached a level of mastery in the target language that does not require a dictionary at every other word in the conversation.

Not the first guy you should go to for language learning...

Not the first guy you should go to for language learning...

5) Native Speakers who are Learning Your Language and are Actually Better at Your Language than You are at Theirs.

Let's Speak My Language Instead

Let's Speak My Language Instead

This kind of scenario, rather than a fruitful learning experience for you in another language will actually just turn into a fruitful learning experience for your friend.  You see, they may be at a level (upper-intermediate/advanced) that demands the qualities of a native speaker (i.e. YOU) and so they will get much from the experience in terms of actual conversation time and speaking practice.  You on the other hand, oh beginner, will find yourself being the tool of their learning experience.  Your skills at speaking whatever language you speak best are what your native speaker is seeking and, though you may resist at first, you will find that communication is easier an much more pleasant if you just give up and speak the language you always speak rather than hurting yourself trying to express even the most basic emotions.

4) From a Late Night TV Program. There just doesn’t seem to be much good that can come out of this.  Like the “Easy Phrases for Beginners” book, these kinds of programs only offer set phrases that are extremely limited in use.  Don’t believe me?  In Japan and Korea at the very least, I have had several opportunities to watch such programs and I have never seen one that stood out as particularly useful.  Once, while with my host family in Japan, my host mother was watching one such program at about 11 pm.  Innocent enough and a noble effort on her part, yes, but I began to doubt the actual usefulness of such programs when on one occasion they spent 15 minutes going over such phrases as “I would like to buy a dry white wine.” and I thought…there is just so much that a phrase like that can ever do for you.

Maybe it’s like listening to a language tape on your way to work but usually the atmosphere and the timing do not contribute well to the language learner.  Language tapes during your morning commute get lost in the traffic and everything you are worried about for the day.  Late night language programs are only so useful because you are trying to learn something you may never use again within 30 minutes at a time of the day when all you want to do is sleep.  Not very effective.

3) By Procrastinating. Language learning is like gardening: You must constantly tend to your garden to make sure that it is not overcome with weeds and pests.  Gardens can not be ignored and neither can the language that you are trying to learn.  From personal experience, leave a language alone –that is, do not learn anything new or practice anything you acquired–for more than two weeks and you will see noticeable differences in spoken, written, and listening ability.  Your language will suffer and suffer fast if you chose to procrastinate and do other things.  Study every day for at least 30 minutes even if it’s only vocabulary.  Exposure is key and the only way to the eventual mastery of your language dreams.

2) Without Any Goals. On the heels of #3 is #2.  The only way to prevent procrastination is to establish and maintain a language goal.  Start learning a language without one and you are sure to fail and fail fast.  So if you havn’t already, do yourself a favor now and set a goal for your language journey.  Why do you want to learn the language that you are trying to learn?  Here are my goals:

For Japanese: Pass the highest level (1-kyuu) of Japanese proficiency as recognized by the Japanese government and do it this July.

For Korean: Impress her parents.

For Spanish: Communicate with my grandparents and cousins and all my family on my dad’s side of the family.

And the number 1 Way Not to Start Learning a New Language is to

1) Do Any of These Things in Another Language You Don’t Know. Sometimes learning a third  language through a 2nd language can be helpful…not if you don’t know the second language.  Point: if you are learning French and you want to learn German, don’t pick up a book in French on German.  This is devastating and pointless at best to a beginner.  One language at a time, rookie.  Master that, then move to the next one.

No doubt you have more things to say.  Please add your comments tot he bottom of this blog and we will all learn how you tried to learn a language once and then failed, just like we did.

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2 thoughts on “Top 10 Ways NOT to Start Learning a New Language

  1. Pingback: Top10 Ways NOT Start Learning a New Language « lyrynne's delight

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