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The Biggest Mistake Language Learners Make

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The biggest mistake that prevents people from succeeding in their goal to become fluent in a new language is that they stay with beginner material for too long. This is quite unnecessary.

If you buy a beginner book, which I think is a good thing if you embark on learning a new language, you can use it for a year. But don't just stay with it, move on. You can keep on going back to your beginner book again and again, but don't try to master it. Go through it quickly. Force your way through it without worrying about what you remember or understand.

You don't have to learn or remember the dialogues, the vocabulary, the grammar rules, nothing. It's just an initial guide; something that you go back to regularly. You have to get away from the artificial environment of the beginner textbook, or whatever your teacher has you doing in class, as soon as possible. You have to get beyond it and into real language. Get something else happening in the language, something real to go with your easy, learner-oriented content.

Take my experience with learning Czech as an example. I also used beginner material, however, I started working my way through articles from Czech newspapers two weeks after I started studying. Fighting my way through these, of course, saving all the new words to my database. I didn't understand it all, I just plowed on, picking my way through the content, saving maybe 30-40% of the words.

Often the meaning was unclear to me, but I was excited to be dealing with authentic content so I kept on doing it. While doing this, I also went through my beginner book multiple times. I was exploring authentic content, pushing myself, seeing what I could achieve, and then touching base again with the beginner book to confirm some of the basic structures of the language.

I read something like 161 newspaper articles over the first three months. I started reading the famous novel The Good Soldier Švejk, for which I also had the audio book. Then I discovered Radio Prague, which was a treasure trove of podcasts with transcripts.

During this period, I read the equivalent of two books in Czech of authentic, adult material intended for native speakers. Did I understand it all? No. Did I learn all the words there? No. But I learned a lot because the new words percentage in each article was smaller than it was before.

The majority of people get a beginner book (I always keep mine handy somewhere) and they never leave it because they never feel comfortable away from it. They always feel that they haven't learned everything in it and they should before moving on. The beginner book is only the first step into the swimming pool, and then you've got to start swimming. You need to push yourself further into the water even when you don't feel so comfortable doing so. You will benefit in the long run.

So the biggest mistake people make in language learning is that they stay with just the beginner book for far too long. Within a month or two or maybe three, depending on the language, you've got to get into the real language, easing your way in with realistic expectations.

The objective can't be to fully understand everything right away. The objective should be to achieve a level in the language whereby you understand a lot after eight or 10 months. So without giving up the beginner book, and with frequent reference to it, get out and explore the language, and the world of good authentic content that comes with it.

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