by Elena Shvidko

9 Mistakes I Made as an English Language Learner

Girl in the desert

What does it mean to be a successful language learner?  Does it mean to have a good command of grammar and posses a wide range of vocabulary?  Or does it mean to be able to effectively communicate your ideas?  Or could it mean the ability to apply effective language-learning strategies?  Or perhaps all of it?

I consider myself a successful language learner.  But it didn’t come easily.  Believe me, in the process of learning English I made lots of mistakes, which I could divide into two categories: 1) ineffective learning strategies and 2) my attitude.  I want to share some of these mistakes with you, and I hope that my experience can help you avoid the same mistakes, as well as develop effective language-learning techniques and cultivate “the right kind” of attitude.

Focusing too much on grammar

Without a doubt, grammar is an important component of any language, and we certainly need to possess sufficient amount of grammatical knowledge to be able to use the language both in oral and in written forms.  However, when focusing exclusively on grammar, you are missing out the other important skills that are necessary for developing communicative competence.  For example, your ability to successfully operate with the resources that you already obtained is a great asset to have.  This is called strategic competence.  Let’s say, you don’t know the word “garage” but you still need to use it in a given context.  Instead of looking up this word in a bilingual dictionary, you can simply describe this word as “a building for housing a car”.  This is called paraphrasing, and it’s one of the many other techniques that you can develop to compensate for the lack of linguistic knowledge.  These strategies, however, don’t just come on their own; they need to be obtained and developed with lots of practice.

Another peril of focusing too much on grammar is the lack of ability to notice how the language is actually being used in real communication.  In fact, to be a successful language learner, you must understand how the linguistic features that you learn (e.g., words and phrases) function in real communication.  Let me give you a quick example.  If your friend cannot seem to find the book he borrowed from a library, you wouldn’t say to him, “I am sorry for your loss!” because this expression normally refers to the loss of a family member, a close friend, or a loved one.  In a word, being grammatically accurate does not automatically make you a successful language user.

Young student reading

Underestimating the power of reading 

Reading should be one of your best friends when you learn English!  First, it’s definitely one of the most effective ways of acquiring new vocabulary of various subjects and topics.  Try engaging yourself, for instance, in readings on legal systems, and soon enough you will increase your vocabulary arsenal with such words as verdict, bailiff, jury, and prosecuting attorney.  Or reading newsletter sections on business topics will give you the opportunity to learn such items as consolidation, commission, stock, and recession.  Second, reading exposes you to a whole variety of different genres, such as reports, memoirs, editorials, rhetorical analyses, position arguments, and reviews.  This can tremendously improve your writing skills!  In addition, reading provides you with interesting topics that you can discuss with friends or develop them in your writing.  Finally, reading will generally make you a more intelligent and well-rounded individual by enriching you with knowledge and confidence.

Learning words from vocabulary lists

And this one I did too! Not for a long time though, because I quickly realized that this technique lacked effectiveness and was essentially a huge waste of time.

Vocabulary lists seem quite easy to memorize, but this practice offers little productivity.  When you learn words from lists, there is no attachment to meaningful contexts that provide you with a better understanding of different word usages.  As a result, these words disappear from your memory as easily as they got there.

In my recent blog post about the meaning of words, I described several components of word knowledge that are helpful for the successful acquisition of new vocabulary items.  Applying these components to vocabulary learning will help you effectively acquire new words and know not just the meanings but also the contexts in which the words are used, the registers that correspond to these words, the word-family relationships related to these words, and the connotations that distinguish these words from their synonyms.

Being embarrassed by my accent

That’s right—for a long time I thought that my accent was one of the biggest flaws in my English.  I disliked the way I sounded (especially when I had a chance to hear myself recorded on a video or audio)! I was determined to get rid of my accent, so I put much effort into accomplishing this task.  It took me several years to realize that first, I would never be able to entirely eliminate my accent no matter how much I tried.  This is the fact—most adults cannot achieve native-like second language pronunciation even if they generally have a high level of proficiency.   The second—and perhaps the most important—lesson that I learned is that my accent is actually a positive feature!  I realized that it is part of who I am, and it reflects my Russian identity and even my personality.  To me it was an eye-opening realization!  And once I came to appreciate and like my accent for its uniqueness and distinctiveness, I started to believe people when they told me, “Oh your accent is so cute!”

Cheerful friends chatting while lunch

Avoiding non-native speakers 

I have to admit, I was guilty of this.  I was convinced—wrongly of course—that my language skills would improve if I communicated only with native English speakers.  The truth is, you practice your English regardless of whom you talk to—native speakers or non-native speakers.  In fact, with the increasing number of people learning English nowadays, chances that you will interact with English learners of various linguistic and cultural backgrounds are very high.  Nearly every sphere of our contemporary everyday life—whether it’s workforce, education, or social domains—offers a rich cultural diversity.

In addition to that, I now believe that communicating with non-native speakers exposes you to different varieties of English, which can also positively impact your language-learning experience.  A friend of mine told me, for example, that she likes to talk to people with “thick accents” because she can “train her ear” and eventually develop her language skills.

Not carrying around a notebook

I can’t tell you how many times I wish I had a small notebook with me so I could write down a new word or an interesting expression I heard in my daily interactions.   Do not repeat my mistake!  Of course you could make a note on a piece of paper, and then later transfer the information in the notebook.  But the truth is that these small pieces of paper tend to easily get lost!  My other problem was that I didn’t always remember to copy the word from that little paper to my notebook, so I had all of them collected in one place, but I didn’t seem to find time to organize the information in the notebook.

So I suggest that you get a small notebook that you can easily carry in your pocket or your bag.  Trust me, it comes in handy when you learn a foreign language!

young girl playing with a, b, c's

Being afraid of making mistakes 

One of my favorite quotes of all times says: “A person who never made a mistake never tried anything new” (A. Einstein).  Mistakes are a natural element of a learning process.  Any kind of learning!  Do you remember the day when you sat on a bicycle for the first time?  Were you able to ride it with a perfect sense of balance?  Or when you tried your first piano song?  Was it smooth and flawless?

People around you understand that English is not your native language, and most of the time they are supportive and sympathetic.  So there is no reason for you to be afraid of making mistakes.  Think of babies who learn how to talk.  They make lots of mistakes, but instead of laughing at them, we think they are cute and we adore them for their desire to learn.

Remember that no perfection can ever be achieved without trying, making mistakes, and trying again.  Learning a language is not an exception to this rule.

Not taking risks

Just because sometimes I was afraid of making mistakes and embarrassing myself, I didn’t dare try newly acquired idioms or grammatical structures.  Big mistake!  Only later, I learned how to establish reasonable challenges for my language use.

Taking risks is an important part of learning.  If you don’t take risks, you deprive yourself from the opportunity to try out new concepts and test the knowledge that you already acquired.  By the way, taking risks does not only relate to speaking.  It also means that you strive to put yourself in situations where you need to interpret the language that is a little bit beyond your current proficiency level.

Relying on translating habits

When I started to learn English, my biggest problem was that I didn’t know how to express myself exactly the way I did in my native language.  It happened because I was not able to think in English, and also because I did not know how to use other linguistic resources that I already possessed to avoid situations where translation was impossible.

A translation habit is a common obstacle when people start learning English.  Because of their habit of translating their native language directly into English, language learners may often come across situations when they do not know how to translate a certain word or an expression; in other words, when the translation is impossible due to their lack of vocabulary knowledge.  Unfortunately, instead of trying to look for alternatives (e.g., synonyms, paraphrases, or even gestures), they get stuck, which causes communication breakdown.

Once you develop a habit of thinking in English, you will be able to operate with the linguistic resources that you currently posses, and you will stop relying on translation from your native language into English.

And these are my mistakes! As I mentioned at the beginning, I consider myself a successful language learner.  But this achievement came as a result of a thorny process, full of trials, disappointments, and even frustrations.  I surely made lots of mistakes in my language-learning journey, but I don’t regret them, as they helped me better understand myself as a language learner and help others in their language-learning experiences.

I would be happy to learn about your language-learning experiences.  Please feel free to share your successes (or perhaps otherwise) and offer advice to other English learners.

About the author:

Elena is originally from Russia and is currently pursuing her doctoral degree in Second Language Studies in the U.S. She has taught various ESL classes in academic and community contexts. In her free time, she enjoys outdoor activities, especially hiking and fishing.

  • Arn

    Great article Lena! Very helpful insights.

    • Elena Shvidko

      Thank you! It helps to reflect on the language learning processes to monitor further development.