General Tips and Common Mistakes

We’ve all done it. “Oh, if I buy this pack to learn language x in 30 days, I’ll be ready for my holiday to country x”. Or “I’ll do these grammar exercises. Then I’ll be ready to communicate on my trip”. Cue disappointment.

I arrived in Spain 5 years ago, with a degree in Linguistics, a job teaching English, and not a clue about Spanish (or a similar language). Next school year I’ll be starting a masters course in sociology, all in Spanish.

People often asked me admiringly how I did that, and to be honest I made so many mistakes that I really thought I should write this article to help other people!

If you’re serious about learning a language, here’s a basic run down of “What I Talk About When I Talk About Language Learning”.


Modern language teaching methods use grammatical exercises as a test of what structures have been absorbed, but not as a way to teach. If you’re interested in the theory, google Krashen’s studies, which basically show that learners using “context based methods” (reading and listening, not doing grammar exercises) do 30% better than learners who follow grammatical methods.

Here are some analogies.

If you want to learn how to dance, do you:

A) study physics or

B) dance?

If you want to learn how to drive, do you:

A) learn how an engine works or

B) drive?

I’m now a strong believer in “functional learning”. Think about how you learned to use your phone. Did you read the entire manual cover to cover before turning it on? Chances are, you turned it on, fiddled about, using the knowledge you already had about phones in general, and “hey presto!”. Later, when there was a problem, like you didn’t know how to do something, you went back to the manual, or looked for the answer online.

The Silent Period

It’s quite a simple equation. The more you can understand, the more you can speak, and the brain absorbs structures by being exposed to them. So, how do you learn how to understand that blur of sound coming at you?

A. Listen, listen, and… listen some more!

If you’re serious about learning a language, you need to be able to understand it, so that means you need to train your brain to pick out words. When you listen to music, listen to a band that sings in the language. It will sound like gibberish at first but gradually you will start picking out words.

B. Read

One of the first steps in my language learning process is putting subs in the target language while watching in English (VLC player is great for that!). So, for example, I watched the whole of The Wire in English, reading the French subs.

Then, I like to read something easy every day. It’s no use trying to read The Guardian or The Times in the language, as they are too high level, but if The Washington Post comes in the language you’re trying to absorb, then incorporating reading that in to your day.

NOTE: If you’re actually living in the country already, pace yourself. I find that if I know I’m going to be hanging out with people in Spanish, then reading/listening all day might tire my poor little brain too much.


The best advice anyone ever gave me about reading in foreign languages? “Don’t use the dictionary”. I scoffed at the time, but 5 years later, I value that advice. When you are reading, even if you understand little, your brain is doing something crazy cool that you don’t even know about. It’s like you’re feeding it jigsaw puzzle pieces, and gradually, oh so gradually, the language center in your brain is assembling them. It’s frustrating, and it’s sometimes downright boring, but it’s 100% true.

You Can’t Hurry Love

Do not stress out about not understanding or about being “slow”. You are training a muscle (in your brain) and, if you don’t know a similar language to the one you’re learning, it will take at least 12 months before you are able to understand a basic program, like a kids cartoon for 11 year olds.

There are tonnes of people who “learn Spanish in just x amount of time”, and you know what? They are liars! Or at least not telling the whole truth. They might have grown up with French, or Portuguese, or saying they learned in a very short time in order to impress someone. Whatever their story is, don’t feel bad.

It’s a process, and (in my opinion) “intensives” are marketing gimmicks from language companies, and won’t help. 30 minutes a few times a week for 12 months is better than an hour a day for 2 months.


Motivation is the first step, but habit is key. Here are habits that I use in the first stages of learning a language.

A) On weekdays, I only listen to music on my mp3 in the target language. (Spotify is wonderful for this. Just type in “French playlist” and see what comes up!)

B) On airplanes or long bus journeys, I listen to language learning podcasts in the language (the Coffee Break series is great. I also like Michelle Thomas)

C) When I sit down to watch TV at night, the first show I watch is something in the target language, unless I’m really really tired. At first, I watch something super simple like Pocoyo, or Dora the Explorer. Then Spongebob. Then a show I already know, dubbed into the language (like Friends, or the Simpsons)

D) Flashcards. Anki is great, and you can download other people’s decks. Making vocab and structures a game is essential.

Listen to other Learners

At first, understanding natives might seem impossible, so have a look on a website like Meetup to see if there are a bunch of people meeting up in your area to chat in the language. Joining a class can be good, but if everyone speaks English, you might not speak that much of the target language in the class.

Language Exchanges

If you are an English speaker, you are in luck: there are tonnes of people who want to learn your language, so you can do an exchange with them! There are lots of websites to find language exchanges, so you can meet up with someone for coffee or, failing that, go online and use Skype.

Check out this great TED talk about language learning. While I don’t agree with his use of the word “native”, I have now adopted the “language parent” aspect in my own teaching and language learning.


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