21 Bad Language Learning Study Habits You Should Avoid

Article by Darren Kenny

21 Bad Language Learning Study Habits You Should Avoid

Let’s start by busting a common myth – you don’t need a special talent to speak a foreign language.

For sure, if you have a good memory, it might help, but it’s not essential, and anyone can learn a language if they know how.

That’s key, though – if they know how – and lots of people fail just because they don’t know the best techniques to employ.

There are many mistakes that novices make, but through experience, you learn to avoid them. However, to save you the time it takes to acquire this knowledge through trial and error, here are 21 bad study habits to avoid.

1. Don’t look up every word in a dictionary

One of the worst study habits you can develop is looking up every new word in a dictionary.

When you’re reading a text or listening to a podcast, there will be words you don’t know – and this happens even in your own language.

However, if you use a dictionary to search for every new word, studying will start to feel like wading through treacle.

Learning will become a dreaded ordeal rather than something you look forward to, and you will be much more likely to give up.

Instead, try to guess the meaning of unfamiliar words from the context. This is an important skill to develop since in the “real world”, you won’t have time to look up every word during a conversation anyway.

2. Don’t write every new word in a notebook

This is similar to looking up every word in a dictionary, and I’ve seen it so many times.

Many people seem to think that each new word must be recorded in a notebook, but you should avoid this for a couple of reasons.

First, you don’t need it in a book, you need it in your memory – and writing it down doesn’t mean you’ll remember it.

You don’t need to remember every new word, so why waste time recording them all? You’re at elementary level and you see the word for “pedestal” in a text. Do you need that word? If not, what’s the point of writing it down?

Third, what are you going to do with that long list of words you’re creating anyway? Do you plan to review them? Are you really going to go back and learn the long list of words you’ve created?

The fact is, after they’ve filled a notebook with words, people rarely go back and review them, and even if they do, it isn’t a natural way to learn – as we’ll see in a moment.

And I’ll let you in on a secret: you don’t need to create a long list of words because one already exists, and it’s much better organized than yours. It’s called a dictionary.

3. Don’t learn lists of words

This is another one that people seem reluctant to let go of, but for me, it epitomizes why people fail to learn languages.

Unsuccessful language learners – or those who have never tried – often imagine that learning a language involves memorizing long lists of words.

Maybe that’s something your teacher made you do at school – and maybe that’s why people still cling to this method – but this is not how we learn language.

We learn language by meeting it in different contexts and by practicing. Raw word lists don’t help with this.

This is also another reason why writing everything down in a notebook is a waste of time. Because that long list of words you create is not useful, even if you do go back and review it.

4. Don’t try to learn everything

One reason people like to write down every new word is that they think they have to remember everything.

This is a mistake, though, because it just isn’t possible, and at the beginning, you need to be selective about what you learn.

Choose vocabulary that will be most useful for you at your level – and let everything else go. For more tips on selecting the right words and how to retain them, check out my post on learning vocabulary here.

5. Don’t get hung up on grammar

One reason memories of French or Spanish classes in school may still give you nightmares is the amount of time you had to spend studying grammar rules.

So here’s some good news – if you want to learn a new language, torturing yourself with grammar shouldn’t be a part of it.

Just like vocab, we don’t learn to speak by memorizing grammar rules, we learn to speak by…speaking.

I’m not saying you don’t need grammar at all, and knowing a bit of grammar is essential. But if you are visualizing verb tables or thinking about masculine and feminine when you’re speaking, you’re not doing it right.

You can’t say anything with grammar, but you can say everything with words, even if it’s not completely correct. So when it comes to grammar, just relax – and it will come naturally with time and practice.

6. Don’t translate

In language learning, “translate” is a dirty word. Translation is a specific activity, but as language learners, it’s not our goal.

You shouldn’t think in English and translate in your head – you need to think directly in the target language.

You don’t have time to translate when you speak, and if you try, your speech will be slow, hesitant and broken.

Instead, learn complete phrases or chunks of language without breaking them down into individual words. It will be easier to understand things this way, and it will also give your fluency a boost.

7. Don’t project your language onto the new one

Different languages express concepts in different ways, so you shouldn’t project ideas from your own language onto the one you are learning.

Avoid making this mistake of projecting your language onto the one you are trying to learn. Instead, just accept things the way they are.

As it says in the introduction to the FSI Vietnamese Basic course, “expect differences, be surprised at similarities”.

8. Don’t ask “why?”

Related to this is learning not to ask “why?” but instead just to ask “how?”.

When we learn a language, we don’t need to know why something is said the way it is, we just need to know how to say it. If you find yourself asking “why?” all the time, you are asking the wrong question.

9. Don’t do speaking exercises in your head

A major part of language learning is speaking, and to learn a language, you need to practice this. So when you are doing exercises, you need to say sentences out loud and not just think them.

This doesn’t mean whispering them under your breath or muttering them to yourself, it means saying them in a loud, clear voice as if you were speaking to someone.

This is the only way to improve your pronunciation and build fluency.

Otherwise, when the time comes to speak to somebody, you will find you know the words but they won’t come out.

10. Don’t use one-word answers

This is another one I’ve seen lots of times before. When you learn a language, you need to practice, so develop the habit of always using full sentences.

In your native language, monosyllabic responses, grunts or nods of the head might be ok with your family and friends, but when you are trying to learn a language, this is no good. Instead, practice making full sentences.

Don’t allow yourself to be lazy and use the shortest utterances you can get away with. Yes, this will convey your meaning, but it won’t help you progress.

11. Don’t rely on only one study resource

One of the keys to successful language learning is being exposed to new language in as many contexts as possible. Seeing a word or expression used in different ways will help you understand it better and will also help fix it in your long-term memory.

Sometimes, you will be surprised by how many times a new word seems to pop up again and again after you learn it, and when that happens, it will be one more word you’ve successfully captured and made your own.

For this reason, try to make use of a wide range of materials to ensure this happens.

Another reason for using different resources is that some coursebooks are strong in some areas but weak in others, and by using two or more in tandem, you are giving yourself a better chance of understanding any given language point.

For example, when I learn a language, my go-to coursebook is Assimil because it is rich in authentic dialogs and language input.

However, sometimes Assimil is a little light on grammar explanations and drills – so I will usually back it up with a Teach Yourself coursebook. These contain far less language in the form of dialogs, but they contain good grammar explanations and plenty of drills.

I find that combining the two – plus anything else I can get my hands on, like the FSI materials – is far more effective than relying on just Assimil or Teach Yourself alone.

12. Don’t always do the same thing

Another part of this is to vary your activities each week. Don’t spend every day just reading, just listening to podcasts or just doing grammar exercises – try to find a balance of all these activities and more.

You don’t have to do something different every day, and you can spend two or three consecutive days working on the same thing. But make sure you change it up a bit. This will guarantee you are meeting plenty of new language and will also ensure you don’t get bored.

13. Don’t use study materials that are the wrong level

A trap that some people fall into is using materials that are either too hard or too easy – but a big part of making progress in a language is choosing materials that are just right.

If you read texts or listen to recordings that are too easy, you won’t learn anything new and your language ability will remain the same.

However, if you choose something that’s too hard, it will be heavy going. You will spend ages trying to understand or might not understand anything at all, and you will probably end up feeling quite disheartened.

Instead, find materials that push you but not too much. A text or dialog where you understand about 70% is perfect, and this is the kind of material you will benefit most from.

14. Don’t wait until you’re good enough to start talking

A huge mistake that many people make is waiting until they’re “good enough” to start talking.

If you do this, you will never be good enough because the only way you can improve is by opening your mouth and having a go.

So don’t wait, start speaking now!

15. Don’t be afraid of making mistakes

Understandably, people don’t like making mistakes, but this is something else that holds rookie language learners back.

Everyone makes mistakes, it’s natural and it’s an important part of the learning process. When you make a mistake, you can correct it and then get it right next time. But if you never make mistakes, you will never learn.

This means you need to stop being afraid of making mistakes, accept that it will happen, understand that people won’t laugh at you or think you’re stupid – and just try.

16. Don’t apologize

If you make a mistake, laugh. It doesn’t matter, it’s not an exam and you haven’t offended anyone, so don’t say sorry. What are you apologizing for?

17. Don’t speak English

Be strict with yourself about not speaking English, even if the person you are speaking to understands.

Instead, learn strategies to express your meaning in other ways using the language you have.

For example, learn to describe things. If you don’t know how to say “baker”, say “the shop where you buy bread”.

Learn how to say “what’s the opposite of…” so if you don’t know how to say “heavy”, you can say “it’s the opposite of light”.

A handy word to learn early on is the word for “thing” – then you can make sentences like “what’s the thing we use for…?”.

When you develop strategies like this, you take another step along your road to mastery. So don’t be lazy – don’t use English.

18. Don’t spend all your time studying

There’s a difference between “studying” a language and “learning” one. Studying is what you do with books, audio recordings and grammar exercises.

But you won’t be able to learn a language just by studying because a major part is practice.

This means you also need to use the language in real situations as much as you can.

Of course, at the beginning, you need to have a certain amount of language input to allow you to master the basics, but as soon as you can, you need to make speaking the language a part of your everyday life.

Try to divide the time you spend on the language into study time and practice time – if you can do about 50% of each, you will improve rapidly.

19. Don’t rely on a teacher

Good language learners are autonomous, even if they have a teacher. Your teacher is a facilitator, not the fountain of all linguistic knowledge, so don’t rely on your teacher too much.

Think of your teacher as just another of your study resources and look for other materials to use and opportunities to practice by yourself.

There’s a line I love from the introduction to the FSI Turkish Basic course: “nobody can teach you Turkish, you have to learn it by yourself”. This is something I believe in very strongly, and it could be a maxim for language learning in general.

You need to take charge of your own progress.

20. Don’t learn for the wrong reasons

I’ve met people before who were learning English and hated it. They were learning English for their jobs, for their careers, for their future prospects – but they had no interest in English and they took no pleasure from it.

For them, learning English was just a laborious but necessary chore.

I understand that sometimes people have to learn languages they’re not interested in, but if you enjoy it, it’s so much easier.

When I ask someone why they are learning a language and they reply, “just for fun”, I always think that is one of the best answers you can give.

So if you have to learn a language, try to find aspects you like. If not, it’s going to be a long, hard slog.

21. Don’t waste time on things that aren’t useful

Above all, when learning a new language, be efficient and don’t waste your time on things that don’t work.

Learning lists of vocab isn’t effective, spending hours doing grammar exercises won’t help, reading a novel that’s way above your level will take forever and will kill your enthusiasm.

Instead, make sure every activity you do has real value and that you are gaining something from doing it.

Otherwise, you need to stop doing it and try something else.

Evaluate your learning and improve

There are lots of things that new language learners do wrong, but by being aware of the most common mistakes, you can improve your skills quickly.

Look through my list and evaluate your learning to see which items you are guilty of, and then think about the changes you can make.

Learning a new language always takes time, dedication, and effort, and you won’t be fluent in three weeks or even three months. But by avoiding some of the pitfalls I’ve highlighted in this post, you will be able to become a more successful and proficient language learner.