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Guest Post: The 3 Worst Mistakes I Made as a Language Student


When I was 18, I studied Modern Standard Arabic for a year and a half. I attended class seven hours a day and then studied at night for another one to three hours. It was exhausting. But at the end of the program, I finished second in my class and passed my proficiency exams with no problems. More importantly, I could read Arabic newspapers and listen to Arabic news broadcasts, and I had no problem talking about a variety of topics.

Yet I still didn't do nearly as well as I could have. Why? I didn't always do the right things as a language student. It's not that I wasn't working hard. It's that I wasn't working smart. Had I made some tweaks, I would've done even better, and I might've even been able to finish first in my class. Here are the three worst mistakes I made.

1. Looking at grammar the wrong way

My school's curriculum was heavy in grammar instruction. Students were taught sentence constructions and then encouraged to create sentences using those constructions. That was fine, but here was where I went wrong: I began paying way too much attention to grammatical "rules" and not so much on how grammar was actually being used. I should have been reading and listening to authentic texts as soon as possible. This would've helped me get a feel for how the language was actually being used, rather than learning how a language was supposed to be used. Had I done so, I would've developed a deeper, visceral sense of the language earlier much earlier.

2. Not listening enough

I got well-rounded instruction in class, which included listening, reading, speaking, and a little bit of writing. I should have been listening to a lot more, though. In fact, I should've been listening to a half hour of Arabic radio in the morning, and watching a half hour of Arabic TV at night. Doing so would've been like adding a turbocharger to my efforts.

Listening comprehension is the most underrated language skill. Human languages have been spoken for at least 100,000 years, while writing has only been around for the last 8,000 years or so. That alone should clue you in on the fundamental, central role of listening in language. Our brains are simply hardwired to handle spoken information. When you listen to the new sounds of a foreign language, your brain creates neural pathways to help you handle those sounds, even if you don't understand a word. Furthermore, the aural qualities of language--prosody, rhythm, intonation, etc.--are vital in helping our brains process the mountains of information wrapped up in even the shortest sentence. Those qualities help us understand the language as language, and not as code or dry facts.

3. Not reviewing the basics

My Arabic program was pretty fast-paced. We were always going forward and learning new words and increasingly complex grammatical structures. One of the side effects of such a fast program was that we didn't get a lot of time to go over old material. And I didn't want to go back over the old material on my own because I felt like that was below me. That was a mistake. I should've made time to review the basics again. And again. And again. Of course, some words and phrases would pop up repeatedly on their own. For example, once you learn the word for "man," a very common word, then you're going to see it time and time again in a variety of texts. Other words, not so much. And those are the words you're not going to remember without effort. That's natural. The brain is always trying to forget things. To really help a language sink in, you have to expose yourself to words over a span of weeks and months. There are several ways I could review the basics: 
  • Study early lessons from the textbook 
  • Review pages from my language journal 
  • Read or listen to easy texts, such as children's books, which use basic language—exactly the kind of language that will help you review old words and concepts. 

Wrapping Up 

Hopefully, you can learn from my mistakes. Don't get caught in any of those traps in your own language studies. 

Ron is a technical writer and translator from Orlando, Florida. In addition to his native English, he has studied Arabic, German, and Spanish. He writes about language learning at his website

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