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81 Lessons for Language Learners from 12 Years of Language Learning

Over a decade of experience compressed into one blog post

Photo by Cookie the Pom on Unsplash

I’ve been learning and teaching English as a foreign language for over a decade.

Here are 81 lessons I learned.

Lessons on mindset, goals, and motivation

1. You may not live in a country where people speak the language you want to learn. Use this to prove you can do it, not as an excuse not to do it.

2. You don’t have to “work hard” to learn a language. You need a life goal.

3. Notice your improvements and you’ll feel more motivated to keep improving.

4. Learning a language takes a long time so focus on the process more than the results. Be patient.

5. Learning a language is an endless process. You’ll never be done unless you say, “That’s it, I’m done.”

6. Ego is the enemy of learning.

7. “I want to learn this language” is too vague. It’s a goal that doesn’t drive action. “I want to be able to have small conversations about X in this language” gives you direction. Set specific goals.

8. “I want to improve my writing/speaking/reading/listening” is vague too.

9. Don’t ask, “What’s the best way to learn a language?” No one really knows that. You must discover what works for you. Once you find that, you’ll have found the best method to learn a language.

10. Practicing what you can already do is good. But working on what you can’t do is better.

11. Comparing yourself to others can help you improve.

12. Your success doesn’t depend on how great your teacher is.

13. Language levels (A2, B2, C1), grades, and scores can have a profound negative impact on yourself and your learning.

14. You’ll have good and bad teachers. Thank the good ones but don’t blame the bad ones.

15. Learn what “being fluent” means so you’ll know what “improving your fluency” requires.

16. Taking language exams can be a motivating challenge. But there are cheaper and more fun challenges in the real world.

17. Don’t waste your time worrying about things that won’t help you learn.

18. Humans have been learning languages for thousands of years — for free. Speaking and learning a language is and will always be free.

19. A private teacher, a coach, a language course, money, textbooks, language exams, a ticket to a country where the language is spoken— all these are helpful — not essential.

20. Keep a diary to hold yourself accountable.

21. Don’t wait for a teacher to give you homework. Be the driver, not the passenger.

22. If you’re struggling, ask for professional help and hire a teacher. Invest in yourself.

23. You don’t have to get to a very high level of proficiency. You have to get where you want to get.

24. Learn more by interacting with people than by using apps.

25. You don’t need to be talented or gifted. You need to want to learn.

26. Failing to learn a language in school doesn’t mean you’ll fail to learn outside school.

27. Balance and structure your learning.

28. Teaching what you learn helps you learn.

29. Visualise yourself speaking the language fluently. Then realize that the imaginary picture you created can become reality.

30. There will always be someone who speaks the language better and worse than you. You can learn something by interacting with both groups.

31. Communication is a 2-way street so you’re not 100% responsible for understanding everything they say to you. The person you’re speaking with should make adjustments too. If they don’t, they too need to improve their communication skills.

32. If you’re not having fun and don’t really need to learn a language, stop learning.

33. Speaking a language well doesn’t automatically mean you’re intelligent. Speaking a language poorly doesn’t automatically mean you’re stupid.

34. Choose a teacher because of their experience, qualifications, specializations, and beliefs on language learning. Don’t choose a teacher based on where they’re from or their first language.

35. “Learn this language fast!” “We have the best method for you!” “Get fluent quickly and effortlessly!” Don’t believe any of these.

36. Question all the language learning advice you get.

37. Language is not math so nothing is fixed. Sometimes 2+2=4, other times 2+2=5 or 3 or 6. Language is flexible. Be flexible too and embrace confusion.

38. There will be times when you’ll feel frustrated. Relax. You’re just learning a language, you’re not performing heart surgery.

39. You’ll never fail to learn a language if you view everything as an experiment.

40. Further progress = specific problems + focused practice

Lessons on making mistakes

41. You wish you didn’t make any language mistakes. But it’s impossible not to make mistakes when you’re in the process of learning a language. So don’t ask the impossible.

42. 99% of the people in the real world will never correct your mistakes. If you want to be corrected, you have to ask.

43. Most mistakes don’t matter. The ones that do are those that affect the meaning of the message you intended to express.

44. To make fewer mistakes you need to be aware of what mistakes you make. Recording yourself can help you with that.

45. Obsessing over mistakes undermines learning. Obsession creates negative emotions. Negative emotions work against learning.

46. Exposing your brain to large amounts of “correct” language can help you produce better language. So read and listen as much as you can.

47. The mistakes your make indicate there are gaps in your language. It’s your responsibility to fill those gaps.

48. Never correct other people’s mistakes unless they explicitly asked you for correction.

49. What’s considered correct today might be incorrect tomorrow and vice versa. Language is a living being — not a stone.

50. Paying attention to how people use language can help you improve the quality of your language.

Lessons on learning grammar

51. The grammar rules of the spoken language are different from the grammar rules of the written language. Learn both.

52. “Children learn their first language without studying grammar!” Don’t use this as an excuse to avoid studying grammar.

53. Only some grammar rules from your textbook can be broken. Most cannot.

54. Studying grammar rules helps you understand why you make the mistakes you make.

55. If you’re just starting out, don’t focus on grammar. Learn words, communicative phrases, and expressions instead. Get to the grammar later.

56. When you’re speaking in the real world, thinking about grammar rules will slow you down. Focus on communicating your message however imperfect it is. But reflect on the grammar you used later — when you’re alone.

57. Grammar isn’t just a group of boring rules but a tool for communication that helps you express meaning. Grammar is meaning. Improving your grammar will help you improve the clarity of your message.

58. Grammar is everywhere — not just in textbooks. It’s in podcasts, videos, books, articles, conversations, and any other place where you can find spoken and written language.

59. Learning vocabulary is more important than learning grammar rules. You can communicate using 10 words (e.g. Me go cinema yesterday. Like movie. Very good! Recommed you!) You can’t communicate anything if all you know is grammar rules.

60. Studying grammar makes you feel you’re doing something to improve. But you won’t improve if you never use the grammar you study.

Lessons on pronunciation

61. You might hate your foreign accent but most native speakers of the language you’re learning will love it.

62. Wanting to remove your foreign accent is perfectly OK as long as you have valid reasons for doing so.

63. Listening and trying to imitate sounds will help you improve your pronunciation more than studying pronunciation rules.

64. Your accent becomes a problem only when it prevents people from understanding you.

65. Your accent is strictly connected to your identity. It’s who you are. You may or may not want to change who you are. This is up to you, not up to your teachers.

66. Mispronouncing the same sound can affect communication in certain contexts but not in others. For example, pronouncing “thank you” as “tank you” is always OK. “I brush my tit every morning” instead of “I brush my teeth every morning” may not be OK.

67. Speaking with native-like pronunciation isn’t essential. But damn it’ll feel good when they tell you you sound like a native.

68. Sounding like a native doesn’t mean anything. Which native? From which country? Which region? Which town? Be specific.

69. You will never improve your pronunciation if you never speak.

70. Listen and repeat exercises are boring. But they’re useful. Find a way to make them fun for maximum benefits.

Lessons on learning vocabulary

71. Learning phrases and a group of words is better than learning single words.

72. Some words in your first language don’t exist in the language you’re learning and vice versa. You can’t find a direct translation of every word. Come to terms with this.

73. Learning how to use a dictionary and then using the dictionary will boost your vocabulary.

74. Don’t learn words just because they exist. Learn the words that you need to express yourself.

75. The 100 most common words in the English language have no real meaning.

76. The more emotionally attached you are to a word, the more likely you are to remember it.

77. Using the words you learn is a way to remember them.

78. When you’re speaking, you don’t need to know the exact word to express an idea. You can explain the idea using other words. Just don’t forget to then learn the word you needed.

79. You’ll get to a point where you have no more grammar to learn. You’ll never get to a point where you have no more vocabulary to learn.

80. Your receptive vocabulary (= the words you can understand when you see or hear them) will always be bigger than your active vocabulary (= the words you use in speaking and writing).

81.Don’t overuse linking words in your writing.

Happy learning!

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Fabio Cerpelloni is an English language teacher, writer, author, and podcaster from Italy. You can find out more about him and his work by clicking on his glass of beer in the photo.