The 7 bad habits of really successful language learners

14th March 2020

Tired of trying to be a good student? Give these 7 “bad” habits a try:‌ they’ll help you stay motivated and speak the language faster.

Let’s be honest.

You probably already know what you need to do to learn a foreign language:

1. Study regularly.

2. Learn the grammar and vocabulary.

3. Practice speaking a lot.

The tricky part is putting all that stuff into practice. Why do most people get stuck at this stage, while a select few steam ahead and manage to speak the language?

It’s not because they’re good students. In fact, a lot of the “good” habits you learned in school, like following the rules, trying to learn everything and wanting to get a high score on the test, could be the very things holding you back from learning a foreign language.

There’s a hidden set of skills that you might not have considered before, because they make you seem like a bad student. Yet most successful language learners have them in common.

Give these 7 “bad” habits a try:‌ they’ll help you stick with language learning and speak the language faster.

Ready to become a bad student?‌ ¡Vamos!


The 7 bad habits of really successful language learners

1. They don’t study (for long)

Learning a language is a bit like learning to swim or play the guitar. A bit of theory can help, but the only way to get good at the skill is to jump in the pool, or start playing.

Great language learners spend a lot of time using the language. They probably still study vocabulary and grammar, especially in the beginning, but they see it as a support for everything else, not their main focus.

And they start putting it into practice as quickly as possible.

What might this look like in your life?‌ If your goal is to have conversations, then it’s important to practice speaking. Here are some tips on how to do that:‌

Italki: the ultimate guide to learning a language with online tutors

4 unconventional ways to practice speaking without a native speaker

But it can also be anything where you’re working with the language in context (not just isolated words or grammar rules). Listening, reading and writing are all activities that will give you a big return on investment. The more you practice using the language in real ways, the faster you’ll learn.

So why don’t more people do it?‌

Because it’s slow and awkward at first! That’s normal, even for very experienced language learners. Which leads me to my next point…


2. They don’t care if they’re terrible

Swimming champion Michael Phelps holds the most olympic medals of all time. But he wasn’t exactly a natural when he started - he hated getting his face wet and would flap around around on his back. (1)

Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello has been named by Rolling Stone as one of the greatest guitarists of all time. But, as one of his peers said “Tom sucked at guitar when I first met him”. (2)

If you want to learn a new skill, you have to accept that you’re going to be really bad at it for a while. And you’re in good company - everyone, including the greatest athletes and musicians of all time, went through that phase too.

The difference between people who manage to learn a language and the ones who give up is this: successful language learners understand that being terrible is a normal part of learning a new skill. So if the grammar makes your brain hurt and remembering a word feels like pulling out a tooth, know that this is normal. It does NOT mean that you’re not cut out to learn a language.

Just accept that you’re not going to be very good at it for a while and practice as much as you can. After lots and lots and lots of practice, you’ll make it out the other side :)


3. They don’t apologise for their mistakes

If you’re too afraid to open your mouth for fear of looking silly, you’ll slow down your language learning.

Successful language learners know that making mistakes is an essential part of the process, that works like this:

  1. Have a go
  2. Make a mistake (even if you risk looking silly)
  3. Get a correction
  4. Learn

Tell people you’re learning and bring along a good sense of humour. If you can laugh at your own mistakes, you’ll have fun with native speakers and get them on your side, which will make the conversation run a lot smoother.

Along the same lines, effective language learners aren’t afraid to admit that they don’t know something. Be curious and ask questions. People are normally happy to answer and you’ll learn a lot!‌


4. They don’t go to school

Successful language learners are independent learners. They prefer to take charge of their own learning and often don’t join group classes.

Why? Here are some disadvantages of learning a language in the classroom:


1. You have to study what the teacher decides, which may not be the same as what you want to learn or talk about.

2. If you have to listen to long explanations of things (sometimes in the second language)‌ it’s easy to switch off and start wondering what you’re going to have for dinner.

3. Once or twice a week isn’t enough to make good progress in the language you’re learning. By the time the next lesson comes along, you’ve already forgotten everything you learned!‌

4. In groups the teaching often gets a bit diluted - it’s hard to get the personal attention you need to get error corrections and ask questions.

5. You don’t normally get enough speaking practice.


So what’s the alternative?‌ Learning languages via self study, with textbooks, online courses and conversation classes online is a great option.

You can:‌


1. Focus on words and grammar that are most useful for you (you probably don’t need a list of kitchen appliances for casual conversations - more on this soon).

2. Study regularly (a little every day is better than a lot once a week)

3. Choose activities you enjoy, so you’re more likely to stick with it

4. Find a comfortable space away from distractions so you can really take in what you’re learning.

5. Practice speaking, whenever you have time and an internet connection.


Some successful language learners also go to classes. But in between lessons, they’re self starters, looking for methods they like, prioritising the words and phrases that are the most useful for them and creating opportunities to practice outside of class.


5. They don’t force themselves to do things they dislike

Do you ever feel like you just “can’t be bothered” to study a language?‌ It can be tempting to think that if only you had more willpower, you’d be able to do it.

But successful language learners aren’t necessarily the ones with the most willpower. I’ve learned a few languages, but I’m terrible at most things that require willpower, like waking up early, going to the gym regularly or eating only one biscuit from the packet (if you know how, please share).

The reason that I’ve been able to keep it up long enough to end up speaking the languages is that I’m constantly looking for ways to learn that I enjoy. I learn vocabulary by playing games, practice speaking with tutors I like talking to and spend a lot of time using videos, films and TV.


6. They don’t care if they don’t understand everything

Have you ever tried listening to or reading in a foreign language and felt frustrated by all the things you didn’t understand?

Sometimes foreign languages are a bit like maths: getting frustrated by the things you can’t figure out puts up a barrier, which makes it very difficult to learn. If you take a calm, “problem solving” approach, it’s a lot easier to take in the information you need to move forward.

You won’t understand everything, and that’s ok. Instead, have fun putting on your detective hat. Focus on the words and phrases you do know, and try to figure things out from there. It won’t always be easy, but if you come to the language with an inquiring mind, you’ll enjoy it more and learn faster.


7. They don’t try to learn everything

Sports, kitchen appliances, stationary, animals…

When was the last time you talked about windsurfing, pencils, elephants or sinks in a casual conversation at the bar?‌ Lots of standard courses waste your time by teaching you a bunch of words that you don’t need yet. By focusing on the words you’re likely to use in casual conversations first, you’ll be able to start speaking sooner.

How do you know if a word is worth learning? Use the tomorrow test. Ask yourself:‌ at my current level, can I imagine myself using this word or phrase in a conversation tomorrow? If the answer is yes, it’s worth learning. If not, let it go for now. I’ll come back around again when you’re ready.


Last but not least…

Successful language learners are also a teeny bit presumptuous. Not in a “I’m great” kind of way, but in a “I know I can do this” kind of way. They trust that if they put in the work, throw in a lot of patience and keep doing what they’re doing, they’ll end up speaking the language.

And if you adopt these 7 “bad” habits, you can too!


What about you?‌

Do you have any of the habits in the list? Or any other “bad” habits that make you good at learning a language?‌ Let us know in the comment!

  1. Michael Phelps Relishes his Golden Exit from the Olympic Stage
  2. Tool’s Adam Jones:‌ Tom Morello sucked at guitar when I first met him - and now no-one can touch him


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