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10 Terrible Language Learning Tips (Don’t Follow These)


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A few years back I was feeling annoyed with all the bad language learning tips that are out there.

I'd also got frustrated with people asking me what the “secret” is to learning a new language, yet never seeming satisfied with my answer of “There is no secret; you need to work hard, speak often and early with people, make many mistakes and use it for real.”

So I put together a light-hearted article of really, really bad language learning advice.

Anyway, I recently asked the Fluent in 3 Months community about the worst language learning tips they've ever received.

And I got some fantastic answers. Here's what you told me.

1. “Old Parrots Can't Learn to Speak”

Lidys Garcia shared the Spanish phrase “Loro viejo no aprende a hablar” – “old parrots can't learn to speak”. The English equivalent is “You can't teach an old dog new tricks.”

Scott Willett said he's heard similar bad advice:

You're getting started too late in life. You'll never be able to perfect an accent if starting to learn a language as an adult. – Scott Willett

And Thames Loris said he's been told:

If you are past early teens, there's no point in learning languages, that you'll never be fluent.

I know this advice is bogus. Until I was in my early 20's, I only speak English. In my view, adults can be better language learners than kids.

If you're struggling with the idea of “I'm too old to learn a language,” you may find this article from Lisa Hoashi helpful: How Getting Older (and Wiser) Improved My Language Learning Skills. Lisa started travelling and language learning in her 30's.

2. Only Adults Can Learn a Second Language

David C. Maness said the worst advice he's heard is:

You need to wait until 9th grade before you'll be ready to start a foreign language.

This advice is totally ridiculous. It's so silly I'm not even going to comment.

If you'd like to know more about raising bilingual children, check out these Fluent in 3 Months articles:

3. School is the Only Place to Learn a Language

Elenaria Gydemo Östbom said the worst language advice they've heard is:

You must go to school to learn a language. You need to study languages at school, how're you supposed to learn otherwise?

I've heard this one a lot. It's a common myth — there are plenty of people in the world who believe you have to go to school to learn a new skill.

My take is that while school can be helpful for some language learners, it's not right for everyone. The first foreign language I learned was Spanish. And I really struggled taking Spanish classes – it was only when I put myself out there and started speaking Spanish in the real world that my language skills really took off.

School is also really expensive. There are much more cost effective ways to learn a new language. I'd always recommend that you start by speaking a language.

4. Just Watch Movies

Just watch the TV or movies.

Jonross Swaby explains why this is bad advice: “Maybe you'll learn something from that, but it's going to take a REALLY long time to get anywhere in the language without doing any actual study.”

In my view, watching movies can be a good way of learning a language, as long as it's not the only thing you do, and if you go about it the right way – which I explain here.

5. Choose an “Easy” Language

Nikko Nolasco, who is learning Mandarin, has been told:

That language is too difficult! Study an easier one like Spanish.

My view is that all languages (including Chinese) can be easy – it's more about your mindset than your language.

The easiest language to learn is the one that you want to learn. Staying motivated is the key to learning a language – not whether the language has complicated grammar, tricky pronunciation or a different alphabet.

6. Start With Grammar

Here's the bad language learning tip J. D. Nedge shared:

Start with grammar.

J. D. says: “I love grammar, I'd say it's one of my favourite aspects about a language. But that's just cruel advice.”

How is it cruel? Because it's frustrating to learn about grammar when you have no vocabulary you can apply the grammar to.

From my point of view, grammar is best for intermediate learners. Start by getting confident at using the language in real world situations (even if you're making a lot of mistakes). Then polish up your grammar later.

When you study grammar after you've been learning a language for a while, it makes a lot more sense.

7. Memorise Word Lists

Linda Noman says the advice she's heard (which is “so bad”) is:

Pick some words randomly and memorise them.

Linda points out that this is often what happens at school. You're given a word list and expected to memorise every word on that list. Even if you're never likely to use that word in a real world situation.

Here's my take: Focus on learning vocabulary you'll actually use. That way, you're more interested in learning it, so it's more likely to stick in your mind.

8. There's No Logic to Grammar

David Peder Willumsen gave the following as an example of the bad language advice he's received:

There are no patterns or reasons for a lot of the grammar, you just need to learn it.

David adds: “This was advice given many times by people when I asked questions. But as I learnt, and suspected, there are many many familiar rules and patterns that can help you to hack and expedite your languages learning!”

This is so true. In most languages there are simple hacks you can use to get your head around the language and pick it up much faster.

9. Immersion is the ONLY Way to Learn a Language

Shawntelle-Juwarriyya Azzouz says the worst language advice is:

You will never ever learn your target language, without packing up and going to the place it is spoken and learn it there.

I know from experience that travel and immersion can be helpful. But I've also learned Arabic by speaking in Brasil.

The truth is, there's plenty you can do to immerse yourself in a language without leaving the comfort of your own home.

10. Get “Perfect” At a Language Before You Speak It

Dominick O'Dierno shared the following example of bad language advice:

“It's better to speak slowly and perfectly than to speak quickly and let a few mistakes slip through”.

I've written a lot about the dangers of perfection here, here and here. My approach when learning a language is to make as many mistakes as possible – 200 mistakes a day is my aim.

And I've learned from experience that the best way to learn a language is to speak from the very first day you start learning.

Bonus: Learning a Language is Pointless

This isn't so much bad language advice as pure discouragement — but lots of people brought it up as something they hear from others when they mention they're learning a language.

Debs Bensaul she says people give her “incredulous” looks and “laugh” at her for learning a language. She adds: “Sometimes I get the ‘why on earth do you bother' comment.”

Maria Padilha said people ask her: “But when are you ever going to use THAT?”

I'll only say this: If you've got the spark inside you to learn a language, then go ahead and learn a language. Don't let the naysayers hold you back!

author headshot

Benny Lewis

Founder, Fluent in 3 Months

Fun-loving Irish guy, full-time globe trotter and international bestselling author. Benny believes the best approach to language learning is to speak from day one.

Speaks: Spanish, French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Esperanto, Mandarin Chinese, American Sign Language, Dutch, Irish

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