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Language Learning Basics

Language Learning Basics, Tips

The Most Common Mistake People Make When Learning A Language

Many people start learning a language, however many people quickly lose their motivation after their enthusiastic start and

I myself have done this many times already. While I am fluent in 5 languages and are not new to the rodeo of language learning I still find myself making the same mistake when trying to learn a new one.

Learning a new language can feel like trying to climb a mountain, and it can be incredibly frustrating when you don’t know when the climb is going to end.

But how are you going to know you have reached the top when you haven’t actually defined your goal?

Most people start aimlessly repeating words on Duolingo and stop when they feel they are not making any progress anymore.

In order to achieve something you must first define what you want to achieve. Wanting to ‘learn’ a new language is an incredibly vague definition which means it’s hard to actually measure progress.



Define your goal

So, in order to start learning a language and actually continue you need to set a clear goal for yourself. 

Ask yourself why you are learning this language and what you would like to be able to do.

What is your ultimate goal in this language? Do you want to be able to actually speak this language or is reading/writing the goal?

Why it works

Researchers have found that people are able to withstand much higher degrees of pain when they know how long and how much they will have to endure.

The uncertainty of not knowing when your ‘suffering’ is going to end makes the experience much worse, and will make it more likely for you to quit.

Setting a long term goal will remind you of what the finish line is, while keeping short term goals makes it easier to know what to do from day to day, and will allow you to measure your progress and actually compare it to an end goal.

Knowing how many miles you have walked doesn’t tell you much unless you know how far the finish line is.

Determining your goal will suddenly put your efforts on a scale and will make it easier for you to make it to the finish line.


Having clear goals is one of the reasons why living abroad is often such an effective way to learn a new language.

People often think it is the exposure to the new language, but the truth is that you can live years in a foreign country without speaking the language.

Exposure alone won’t get you there.

However, living abroad suddenly gives people a more specific goal in their language learning: to be conversationally fluent.

That in combination with the exposure and the practice is what usually turns time abroad into a successful language learning experience.


Having a goal is one of the things that makes Duolingo so appealing as a language learning tool. It encourages you to spend at least 5 minutes every day trying to learn a new language.

However, Duolingo lacks an overall goal for language learning which is another reason why many people give up. The words they teach you seem impractical and while you might learn something new everyday it doesn’t feel like you are actually working towards a goal.

Besides that apart from the occasional written exercise it mostly focuses on the passive side of language learning, and fails to

So when you are learning a new language, try to set goals for yourself. Ask yourself why you are learning this language, and what you w


Long term goals

  • Three months from now I want to be able to read a book in French
  • One year from now I want to be able to have a 5 minute conversation with a native Mandarin speaker
  • Six months from now I want to be able to watch an English movie without subtitles
  • One year from now I want to be able to read a mystery thriller in Swedish
  • Six months from now I want to be able to have a chat with my in-laws in Portuguese
  • Four months from now I want to be able to ask for directions in Arabic when I am on vacation in Egypt
  • Two years from now I want to be mistaken for a native speaker of Swahili


One fun thing to do is to search a random text/video or to  purchase a book/movie in your target language and keep it somewhere for the amount of time you are giving yourself to learn this language.

Take a quick glance at it when you are starting out (potentially even write down how much of it you could understand so far) and put it away until you feel like you are ready.


When you have set a long term goal for yourself, try to break it up into smaller pieces with short time goals. This will make it easier to know what you have to do from day to day in order to achieve your long-term goals.

Short term goals are also a great way to be able to track your progress.

Here are some examples of short term goals you can set for yourself.

Short term goals

Time-based goals vs. Result-based goals

Setting time based goals such as on Duolingo can also be a great way to make sure you spend time on it every day. However your language learning efforts can not be measured in the amount of hours you put into it.

If you are learning in an ineffective way or keep repeating the same things you can work as long as you want but you won’t make much progress. Setting goals that are not time-based but result-based will force you to find out the most effective way of language learning

Language Learning Basics, Linguistics

The 4 Disciplines of Language Learning

We all want to learn new languages, but what does ‘learning‘ a language actually mean?

In order to successfully learn a new language it is important to understand that your overall language skills can be divided into four disciplines.

Language ability is often measured two parts – active and passive, and within those parts we can classify two other categories – written language and oral (spoken) language.

These categories give us the four disciplines of most languages – listening, reading, speaking and writing. 



Though this is how most languages work, not every language is the same.

Some languages only exist in one or two disciplines. For example, many dead languages such as Latin only exist in writing, while certain Native American or African languages might only exist as a spoken language.


Passive vs. Active

All four disciplines are interconnected, so when you are learning a new language it is important to strive for a balance between them. When you have reached a certain fluency when speaking a language your brain will automatically translate your linguistic knowledge to a different discipline.

Your passive abilities tend to come more easily than your active abilities. This is because (as the name probably gives away)  it simply takes less effort. Your brain is better at

However when you hear a word you know being used in a sentence together with the context your brain is much quicker in actually remembering the meaning of the word.

Even when you have never heard a word before the context can give away the meaning of the word.

People who speak languages that are related to each other (Spanish/Portuguese or Swedish/Norwegian) are often able to understand the other language passively, but might make more mistakes actively as they can easily confuse two similar sounding things.


Passive -> Active

Improving your passive skills will eventually lead to better active skills. To improve your active skills trying to learn grammatical rules is necessary, however if you spend enough time improving your passive skills you will end up getting a better feeling for the language.

Instead of having to think about which verb tense to use your passive skills might gift you with the abilities most native speakers of any language have – doing things right without knowing why. 


Active -> Passive

Passive language skills come in handy, but because your active abilities are often the most difficult to improve it is never a bad idea to focus on these. Reading a lot might help you in your writing but it won’t do the work for you.

In the end there is nothing that beats practise, so don’t be afraid to get out there and spend a little more time trying to improve your speaking and writing abilities.


How does this help you?

This information might not be new to you, but when learning a new language it is important to keep in mind which disciplines you are focussing on.

Knowing the four basic disciplines can help you make your language learning more efficient.

For example, watching movies and series in your target language is a well-known tool to improve your listening skills, but by also turning on subtitles in the language in question will not only support you in your listening abilities, but will also help you improve your reading skills.

Training both your listening and reading at the same time will make it easier for your brain to store this new information as it comes from not one but two sources.


Adapt to your goals

When learning a new language try and ask yourself what your goals are, and try to figure out what your weak points are.

If you want to learn a new language for the purpose of understanding what is being said around you, don’t focus all your efforts on trying to write.

Though in the end all disciplines are connected making sure your efforts are put into the right place.

How to improve

Here are some quick tools you can use to improve in each of the four disciplines.


  • Audiobooks
  • Movies spoken in target language
  • Listening to music


  • Books
  • Movies with subtitles
  • Reading newspapers


  • Chatting with native speakers
  • Finding pen pals


  • Speaking with native speakers
  • Reading out loud