The joy of languages

10 things about learning languages I wish I’d known 10 years ago

I started learning languages as a serious hobby just over ten years ago. It started out as a slow and frustrating process, and I never truly believed that I would ever really be able to speak and understand any language as well as my native English.

Now I’ve studied more than fifteen languages, was named Britain’s most multilingual student in 2012, and have written a book called “How To Speak Any Language Fluently”. I am able to speak several languages very fluently, and at least get by in the many more.

If I had a time machine, here are ten things I’d tell myself ten years ago:

  1. Make mistakes, they are your friends

Sometimes just the thought of saying the wrong word would give me so much anxiety that I would just walk away, rather than risk looking stupid. Then I realised that running away was not helping the problem.

Mistakes are the best way to learn. Most of the time people will either just ignore you and say nothing about it, or politely tell you the correct form.

Those occasions when you’re corrected in the moment are then really memorable, which makes it unlikely that you’ll ever make that same mistake again.

  1. Nobody is judging your accent

I used to really obsess over getting my pronunciation perfect. What nobody told me, though, is that it never really would be perfect, and – unless I was going to work as a spy – it never needed to be.

Most people will be so happy to hear a native English speaker trying to speak their language that they will shower you with praise, even if they spotted your accent a mile off.

Besides, would you rather be able to say a few words very well or literally know thousands upon thousands of words, expressions and idioms that make you sound like a genius? I know which I would prefer.

  1. Fluency is a myth, let’s move on

There is no magic *fluency activated* moment while learning a foreign language. It just gradually gets easier to express your thoughts and feelings and understand others, but you will always have those same wobbles and moments of insecurity.

Plus, it’s not helpful to compare your new languages to the one you grew up speaking. Your native language will always be better, unless you literally go and live in another country for decades and never speak it again.

And even then, there are certain words, certain expressions and certain cultural references that you will certainly have missed.

  1. Languages don’t just learn themselves

Making real progress in learning languages requires years of regular study and dedication. If you forget to study for a week, that’s a whole week that you won’t be making progress.

I used to think that the best way to learn languages was just to speak them. Then I realised all that was happening was that I was getting better at using the things I’d already learned, but not making any real progress or learning new words at all.

A combination of regular practice plus fresh input is the sweet spot for really improving.

  1. Tests and exams can mean very little

In my first year of studying Russian, my average test score was between 17%-28%. I just couldn’t sit down and memorise pages and pages of vocabulary and reproduce them in tests, and I was bottom of the class.

But when we arrived in Russia, the students with the top marks suddenly all turned to me. They knew loads of words, but had no idea how to meaningfully deploy them in a conversation.

As a result, the ones that never really practised speaking never really got any good at speaking Russian. But they could probably tell you the word for a heap of snow piled up at the side of the road, a white picket fence, or all the different types of vegetation that appear in Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

  1. Life is long, why rush learning?

I’ve lost count of the number of blog posts I’ve read about “learning languages in a week”. I’ve never been interested.

To me, learning languages is a joy. It’s an exciting journey which takes time and gives me the chance to learn more about myself and the world around me. The only way to really learn a language is to love doing it, and if you love something then why would you want it to be over as quickly as possible?

I’ve been studying German for fourteen years now and am still learning new things all the time.

  1. Read, read and keep reading

I’ve always had a complicated relationship with reading. I loved books as a kid and could never put them down. Ironically, studying literature at university really put me off.

As an adult, I’ve come back to books and started reading things because I enjoy them again, not just because I feel I should as they are of some profound intellectual value.

Reading books that you enjoy in a foreign language is one of the best ways to learn new words. Books can take you to places that you’ll never visit in real life, and teach you words in a beautifully constructed context that you’d never otherwise experience.

Plus, the first time you finish reading a book in a foreign language from cover to cover is one of those immensely satisfying achievements that you will treasure for ever.

  1. Nobody is perfect

People always exaggerate their true abilities in a foreign language, and annoyingly are often encouraged by native speakers.

Any time you hear that someone speaks “perfectly” or “flawlessly” or “just like a native”, reach for the salt.

Listen carefully enough and you’ll hear that everybody makes mistakes, everybody gets rusty sometimes, and everybody has moments of self-doubt. Just like you do.

  1. Never listen to the nay-sayers

There are plenty of people out there ready to tell you learning languages is a waste of time, because everybody speaks English. Ignore them. Some people just can’t cope with the idea of somebody doing something different to them.

Learning a language is an immensely valuable and endlessly exciting adventure that will bring so much meaning and colour to your life. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.

Just politely translate for them next time you’re on holiday together and they can’t even order a coffee.

  1. Language learning never stops

I always imagined there’d be a moment where I’d learned enough to never have to learn again. How wrong I was.

Language learning never stops. No matter how much you learn there will always be more to tackle, and plenty to review.

One of my teachers in Russia once told me that learning a foreign language is like rowing against the current. The moment you stop rowing, you start drifting backwards again.

So bear in mind that to really make a success of it, learning a new language is something that will always be a part of your life.

Embrace that, and bring it on!


Alex Rawlings - Language Learner in Residence at Memrise

Memrise’s own Language Learner in Residence

Alex is Memrise’s Language Learner in Residence. He spends his time working with the Language Research Team, making fun videos about languages, and contributing to the Memrise blog. He tweets @rawlangs_alex.

In his free time he enjoys cooking, watching films, and walking his dog. He also writes books, like this one.

Interested in writing for us? Contact us here!

Feeling inspired to learn a new language? Check out Memrise!

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Discussion

30 responses to ‘10 things about learning languages I wish I’d known 10 years ago

  1. Beautifully said! “Learning a language is an immensely valuable and endlessly exciting adventure that will bring so much meaning and colour to your life. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.”

  2. A fantastic list – it’s so easy to get bogged down with ‘when I pass my HSK 3 I’ll be fluent’… ‘no, when I finish this video course I’ll be fluent’… ‘no, I’ll definitely be fluent if I get an A Level’ – there are words I don’t know in English. Fluency is just some words and a lot of confidence.

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  4. Hi Alex,

    I really enjoyed reading this blogpost and had a few hallelujah moments thrown in as well! Point number 4 is exactly what I try and get across to my students. There’s no magic fix, just a lot of hard work in the right places. There’s one blogger/Youtuber that really lives your point 1 mantra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fcwrHi6Cf_g. As a learner of Russian, I’m sure you know him already. I’ve taken inspiration from him. In the past, if I didn’t know a word or how to express something then I would just shy away from that sitatuation. Angelos taught me: just ask someone and create a valuable learning moment!!

  5. I learnt Japanese in my University and have attained quite some proficiency because now I live in Japan. But wasn’t really enthusiastic on learning a new language without enrolling in a school. Now I will 🤗 Thanks

  6. LOL@ reach for the salt! One time I heard a Korean lady telling a young girl that she spoke such “good Korean.” But I understood the conversation and she made some major mistakes so I knew it was just flattery. Then it made me wonder how many times I fell for that same line lol

    • Haha, yes! But whenever you get a compliment you get that tail-wagging feeling of sheer joy so I’d just let her enjoy it 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

      • Oh, far be it from me to steal anybody’s joy! I’ve been on cloud 9 for days when a native speaker compliments me – flattery or not lol. But now I know to take it with a grain of salt. It’s all part of the journey!

  7. Thanks for your article!
    I like your points!

    Would you mind that I translate it into Chinese?
    (I want to share with my friends who doesn’t understand English very well..)

    • Hi Alyson, of course that’s fine! Please just link back to here and state that this was originally published in English on https://blog.memrise.com/ and translated into Chinese with permission of the author 🙂 Glad you liked it!

  8. Thanks for this, Alex.

    I find the “Speak [target language] Perfectly in 3 Months” approach really irritating. Anyone with a bit of common sense knows it’s bobbins, but people still fall for it, and then get disappointed when it doesn’t happen.

    As for the fluency/accent thing: fluency every time! I’ll keep my cute English accent (which opens doors in France a German/Spanish/Italian accent wouldn’t!). I can’t remember the last time I heard someone foreign speak anything like unaccented English.

    And when I’m abroad, I’ve started considering any day in which I’ve not looked foolish/made a mistake as a wasted day!

    Now, I’m off to identify a couple of books to read. That’s how I improved my (native) English, after all!

    I look forward to more!

    • Thanks for commenting Stevie! Glad this was useful for you. All the best of luck with your languages, and happy reading! 🙂

  9. I saw an Italian forensic scientist on TV discussing how she uses insects to solve crime. Halfway through the interview I realised her pronunciation wasn’t perfect – almost every vowel was off- but I understood more or less everything she said. It might put some people off but her accent was charming and her sentences were quite grammatical. If she had thought her English wasn’t good enough the viewers would have missed a fascinating interview. (It’s not likely the TV execs would have allowed a ‘slow’ interview with all the back and forth of an interpreter)

    Just imagine how many interactions you and others are missing out on just because your new language isn’t perfectly pronounced.

    • That’s an excellent example, thanks for sharing! So many conversations, interactions, and friendships are being lost because people are too scared to open their mouths and speak, which I find really sad. There really is nothing to lose!

      Thanks for commenting 🙂

  10. After living overseas 12 years and working on two new languages I can affirm EVERYTHING you’re saying! Thank you for a healthy perspective. We often get stuck on feeling like we need to reach a certain “level” quickly and we lose our joy in the process.

    • Thanks Stacey! Glad this rang true with you too. And yes, let’s make learning a new language as enjoyable as we can so that we never want it to end!

  11. Really great article! I saw myself in through it especially at the one where people tell you that everyone speaks English anyways. Fave me taste to take back Chinese and Portuguese.

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