5 Surprising Ways You’re Sabotaging Your Language Learning

language learning
Guest post by Ryan O’Rourke, the founder of Treksplorer.

If you’ve ever struggled with picking up a new language, you’re not alone. Learning a foreign language is never easy. But it doesn’t have to be hard either.


To the casually observing English speaker, Europeans seem to have it easy. Most speak one, two – even three or more! – foreign languages without so much as a bead of sweat.


Was an entire continent blessed with some innate linguistic ability that somehow skipped through the English-speaking gene pool?


Not likely.  But these successful language learners may know something we don’t.


If your progress in a foreign language has fallen short of your goals, you may be sabotaging your efforts without even knowing it.


Watch out for these five surprising language-learning pitfalls, and soon you’ll be saying adios to your problems and willkommen to your newly-energized linguistic abilities:


1) You’re afraid to make mistakes.


Perfectionists are great students, but terrible foreign language learners. Why?


Language learning requires mistakes. Knowing you’ve made an error and correcting yourself forms a massive part of the language acquisition process. Eventually, your mistakes will be replaced by successes and set you firmly on the road to fluency.


2) Your language learning materials don’t match your learning style.


All the courses in the world won’t help you learn a language if they aren’t geared towards your preferred learning style.


Most learners fall into three basic categories: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. And although most language learning materials attempt to cater to all of these styles in some way, they are usually skewed towards one of them.


Listening to Pimsleur or Michel Thomas audio courses won’t catapult your progress if you’re a strong visual learner, and likewise, reading through a Teach Yourself or Routledge Colloquial course will slow down your learning if auditory learning is your game.


Find your learning style and seek out suitable courses geared towards it: your language learning success depends on it.


3) Language learning causes you anxiety.


Remember all the grammar drills, oral tests, and pointless writing assignments from English class? Unfortunately, so do I.


It’s no wonder so many people have an aversion towards learning a foreign language!


Language learning should be fun, not a source of anxiety. Nothing hijacks your ability to learn a language more than stress, and by eliminating (or at least minimizing) it, your progress will almost instantly improve.


To reduce anxiety, forget those boring, stressful grammar exercises for now and find some fun and interesting ways to learn: read magazines about your favourite hobbies and interests, play games, complete crossword puzzles, or write a letter to a friend. Each of these will activate your foreign language abilities in different ways, helping to propel your progress.


4) You’re too inconsistent.


Ask any runner what it takes to finish a marathon. All will agree: consistent training is the key.


Language learning is no different. An entire Saturday spent buried in the books is far less effective than shorter daily bursts throughout the week.


Scrap those marathon weekend study sessions and aim for at least 30 minutes a day. Even if you have more time available, be sure to keep learning sessions short – absorbing a language requires some down time.


5) You’re approaching language learning with the wrong mindset.


There’s one thing that language-learning superstars have in common: a boatload of confidence. And if you don’t exude it in spades, you’ve got a Sisyphean task ahead of you.


Sure, we’re not all born as silver-tongued polyglots. But that shouldn’t stop us from thinking like one.


Imagining ourselves as competent future speakers in our target language can push our progress further than studying our butts off with doubt still in the back of our minds.


To drive future foreign language learning success, constantly affirm your linguistic skills with positive reinforcement and reviews of past successes. And if a lack of confidence becomes a lingering problem, pick up an inspiring self-help book – it may just be the most important addition to your language library!


How have you been sabotaging your foreign language learning?


Author Bio: Ryan O’Rourke is the founder of Treksplorer, a travel media site focused on offbeat destinations and unconventional travel planning, photography & language learning tips. An avid traveller and amateur travel photographer, Ryan truly believes that the greatest adventures are never planned, and that travel plans, no matter how perfect they seem, are meant to be broken. You can connect with Ryan on Twitter, or Facebook.



  1. thelazytravelers May 28, 2013 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    ugggh number three! there was NOTHING WORSE than being called on at random during a french class. i lived in absolute fear throughout every single class- even after i was considerably fluent! now that im out of school, im trying to re-train my brain that learning a language is fun. ive downloaded a bunch of french language games on my iphone to stay sharp! xo, the wino

    • Laurel May 28, 2013 at 6:32 pm - Reply

      @thelazytraverlers – I felt the same way in German class and am in the same position trying to convince myself that learning German is fun, but I still feel traumatized. I love playing games to learn a language, it should be fun.

      • Christian May 30, 2013 at 6:29 pm - Reply

        Hey Laurel,
        Maybe it is more fun when you use your favorite songs or movies for improving your German?! Just let me know if I can help?! Regards _tR

        • Laurel June 21, 2013 at 4:11 pm - Reply

          @Christian – Thanks for your offer. Learning a language through songs and movies is a great way to learn a language.

      • Ryan @Treksplorer May 31, 2013 at 10:54 am - Reply

        I can relate: my formal German learning experience in Germany was traumatizing too. I didn’t stick with that language school very long because one of the teachers was far too intense for my liking. She would practically scream “Why can’t you pronounce that perfectly?” Needless to say, her motivational tactics were not effective for my particular learning style, and her obnoxiousness lost the school some business. Language teachers need slightly more patience than that, and if that sounds like your experience, it might be time to try a new teacher – it can make all the difference in the world!

  2. Sofie @ Wonderful Wanderings May 29, 2013 at 10:16 am - Reply

    These are all good tips, that certainly apply to everyone.
    Fear is definitely a big factor. I’ve always beena fraid of speaking French and making mistakes, but then I got a job where I had to work together with someone who only spoke French. And so I learned. I don’t speak it perfectly, but I can have conversations and I’m not afraid anymore.

    One other thing:
    I’m sure when you made the remark about Europeans it was merely meant as an introduction, but I’d still like to point out that:
    – it really depends on what European country you’re in
    – language learning has a lot to do with circumstances as well.
    For exameple: Belgium has 3 official language: Dutch, German and French. In Flanders (Dutch speaking) we watch television programs and movies in the original language and we subtitle them to understand them. In the Walloon part (French speaking), they dub everything.
    Result: I’ve been speaking English since I was about 8 years old, purely from watching tv, listening to English music, seeing it everywhere around me. People coming from the French speaking part of Belgium often have to learn English at a much later age and thus have more difficulties learning it.

    I hope you don’t mind me adding this:)

    • Laurel June 21, 2013 at 4:15 pm - Reply

      @Sofie – Excellent point. Thanks for sharing your perspective and a very good reminder. I know some Germans feel self conscious about their English as they feel they are expected to speak it really well and while many do, not everyone does.

    • Ryan @Treksplorer June 21, 2013 at 8:07 pm - Reply

      Hi Sofie,
      You were right: I did mean it more as an introductory anecdote than as a hard fact. I realize that not all Europeans are multilingual and that circumstances make it easier for people in certain places to pick up new languages. But as a causal observer, Europe seems to do very well with second language acquisition, at least in comparison to North America. Even in my own supposedly bilingual country of Canada, unless you live in Quebec, there’s a good chance, as an anglophone, that you wouldn’t be exposed to enough French to pick it up without putting in a ton of effort beyond our compulsory schooling (I assume Laurel would agree with me there too). Part of the reason I’ve come to love Europe so much is the fact that there are so many opportunities for language learning!

  3. Cathy Sweeney May 29, 2013 at 7:23 pm - Reply

    #4 is my biggest problem — I’m so inconsistent and I let other things interrupt me and take priority. I’m trying to learn some Italian right now and will take your tips to heart!

    • Ryan @Treksplorer May 31, 2013 at 10:47 am - Reply

      That is always a tough one, Cathy, especially if you don’t have a lot of available time! I usually try to get 30 minutes in right before bed as a routine. It’s probably not the ideal studying time (30 minutes on the way to work in the morning is likely better), but it’s been working for me. Good luck with your quest to learn Italian!

  4. Christian May 30, 2013 at 6:23 pm - Reply

    I agree, all those 5 points are true! Unfortunately I was inconsistent with my own Spanish learning lately! So thanks for the reminder, I will start tomorrow … ahh, I will learn some Spanish now! 😉 _tR

    • Laurel June 21, 2013 at 4:12 pm - Reply

      @Christian – I’m inconsistent with my German as well which is why it’s not as good as I would like it to be.

    • Ryan @Treksplorer June 21, 2013 at 8:18 pm - Reply

      @Christian – Truthfully, maintaining consistency is one of the hardest aspects of picking up a language. There’s always something in the way: jobs, kids, vacation, blogs, writing etc. I find that if I’m struggling with managing my time, the two things that get cut first are reading and language learning (two things I really enjoy and find relaxing, unfortunately). I’m not sure if there’s anyway around this other than setting a block of time aside for it and refusing to budge from that. A little inflexible, I know, but if we want to make language learning a priority, it’s a must!

  5. Diane May 31, 2013 at 9:52 am - Reply

    These are all spot on! I think #1, afraid to make mistakes, is a biggie and one that derails even the most enthusiastic of us. We want to save face! I just wrote about language flubs (submitted by my readers) and I found it interesting that some people said “oh I don’t have anything to contribute. nothing comes to mind.” My take on that is, well if you haven’t made mistakes, you’re not talking enough! I think it helps to know we’re all not alone in a quest to speak a foreign language. A bunch of laughs along the way don’t hurt either!

    • Laurel June 21, 2013 at 4:10 pm - Reply

      @Diane – Very well said and I definitely could have used a few more laughs in my German classes.

    • Ryan @Treksplorer June 21, 2013 at 8:27 pm - Reply

      Excellent advice, Diane. I feel the same way as Laurel: my German classes could have used more laughs too. Most often, we want to learn a language for fun not because we’re being forced to. And nothing can ruin that fun more than an overly serious teacher screaming at you because you can’t pronounce something with the perfect accent. Perhaps it works for some, but most probably prefer a softer approach. Who wants to try to utter a sentence in foreign language if a surge of verbal abuse is likely to ensue? I’d guess no one!

  6. Beth June 1, 2013 at 2:49 pm - Reply

    I think a big one is not meeting people. If you travel with people who speak your native language or a language you already know well, you won’t be forced to get out there and talk to people in the language you want to learn. So join a language exchange! That’s how I’ve learned Portuguese and French.

    • Laurel June 21, 2013 at 4:05 pm - Reply

      @Beth – Excellent advice, thanks for sharing.

    • Ryan @Treksplorer June 21, 2013 at 8:34 pm - Reply

      Very true, Beth! Language exchanges are an awesome way to improve your language skills. Even finding other learners works well if you set some strict boundaries like refusing to revert back to your native tongue. I actually learned quite a bit of German just stumbling through sentences with other German learners. Although you don’t necessarily get the most valuable feedback, it helps you to work out sentences in your head and will improve your ability to converse with native speakers when the time comes.

  7. Hitch-Hikers Handbook January 25, 2014 at 12:19 pm - Reply

    Very true!
    Lovely blog, Laurel! Thanks for connecting with us on Twitter! Keep up the great work and travel safe! Oh… and all the best in the New Year! 🙂

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