5 Mistakes to Avoid When Learning a New Language

#3: Only Listening to Native Speakers

Photo by krakenimages on Unsplash

After 20 months of learning Hungarian, I finally reached level B1 and can have simple conversations with native speakers.

Does it seem like slow progress to you? It does for me too, but then I need to remind myself: Hungarian is one of the most difficult languages in the world.

Some days, I feel I am close to becoming fluent. Other days, all I want to say is “baszd meg” — that’s Hungarian for… you can imagine what.

But I keep going. Over these 20 months, I have improved my learning techniques but I have also noticed some mistakes I made that hindered my progress. Let me share them with you, just so you can avoid them in your own journey.

1. Being Impatient

It is common to have ambitious goals when you start learning a new language. Let’s be honest: if you thought you would have to study for three years before reaching fluency, probably you wouldn’t even start.

The Foreign Service Institute classifies languages according to their difficulty for a native English speaker. Those in category 1 are easier to learn and take between 600 and 750 hours. If you study for one hour a day, it will take you about two years to be fluent.

Unfortunately for me, Hungarian belongs to category 3. That means 1100 hours or three years of studying.

How To Fix It

It’s easy to get demotivated and stop learning altogether. To prevent this, create mechanisms that will not let you quit, such as booking and paying for several classes in advance.

And don’t forget to celebrate the little victories along the way. You don’t need to be fluent to be proud of yourself. Ask for a meal in a restaurant, talk to a friend for three minutes, or text someone in that language. Create room for little wins that will calm your impatience and keep you motivated.

2. Consuming Content That Is Not in Line With Your Level

This advice is everywhere: consume content in your target language. Watch shows, read books, listen to podcasts… What they often forget to mention is that this content needs to be aligned with your level. What is the point of watching a whole movie in your target language if you are just starting out? More than helpful, this will be demotivating.

How To Fix It

There is a reason this advice is mentioned so often though: it works. If you adapt the content you consume to your level, it will drastically help you.

But, especially at an early phase, adapting your content might mean watching children’s cartoons. Remember that you speak as little, or even less, than a 2-year old at this point. So why are you trying to watch movies for grown-ups?

3. Only Listening to Native Speakers

“Immerse yourself in the local language”, they say. “You will learn by listening to natives”, they say. After all, native speakers speak the language “perfectly”. Do you know what they also do? They speak too fast and use too many slang words.

You need to listen to native speakers to learn how to pronounce words correctly, but don’t restrict your exposure to the language to them.

How To Fix It

Find people who are also learning your target language and listen to them. These can be your classmates or people who have gone through this journey before. A good way to practice this is by watching videos on Youtube.

There was a point in my learning journey where I could barely understand native speakers but I understood 70–80% of Hungarian content created by foreigners.

While they might not speak perfectly, listening to them will develop your listening skills, that you can apply later to listen to native speakers.

4. Not Practicing

Practice makes perfect, everyone knows that. But everyone who studies a language also knows that, sometimes, it is hard to find opportunities to practice.

For a long while, I didn’t use Hungarian in my daily interactions. Imagine this situation: I would go to the bakery to buy bread. Before I entered, I would create a sentence in my head (“Kérek egy kenyeret” — that’s how you say “one bread, please” in Hungarian, in case you’re interested).

Sometimes, they would give me the bread, I would look at the cash register to see the price and pay. Success! But, other times, they would say something. It could be anything: “Would you like anything else?”, “Would you like to try our croissants?”, “There will be fresh bread coming out of the oven in 5 minutes”. And after a few sentences, I would have to resort back to English and say “I don’t speak Hungarian”. Boom, there go all the efforts and good intentions.

How To Fix It

I recently fixed this by finding a tutor on Preply. I don’t need him to teach me grammar or act as a traditional teacher, I just want to have a conversation. We have two 30-minute sessions each week where we talk about any topic we like. Today we talked about aliens, for example. It was fun, and I learned a lot of new vocabulary.

5. Not Knowing Your “Why”

Simon Sinek’s famous book, “Start With Why”, could be applied to language learning too. Why are you learning this new language? Is it a hobby? Are you moving to a country? Do you need to use it in a professional context?

Knowing why you are learning will do two things to your benefit: it will allow you to adjust your expectations and it will keep you motivated.

How To Fix It

Certainly, you know why you are learning a new language. But maybe you are not adjusting your learning methods to your why.

If you are learning French because you’ve always loved the language, but you won’t really need to use it, you can take your time and enjoy the process. But let’s say you will move to Berlin in 6 months and you don’t speak a word of German… in that case, you should intensify your learning. Your motivation levels will benefit if you keep your eyes on the “why”.


Learning a new language is like riding a rollercoaster. Sometimes you feel your motivation drop at high speed, other times you feel unstoppable on your way up. Know that it’s all part of the game and, as long as you keep going, you are safe and will reach your destination.

Inevitably, you will make mistakes on your journey. But, hopefully, not the ones we mentioned here. Are there any others that you did and can share with us today?

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Categories Articles, Expat Life

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