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When you think of 'mistakes people make when learning English', you might think of things like getting phrasal verbs wrong or not knowing enough vocabulary.
Yes, these are mistakes, but they are mistakes that you can fix with time and practice. You won't fix them reading a guide like this, and they aren't the mistakes that are really going to hold you back as an English learner.
In this guide we are going to reveal the biggest 'strategic' mistakes that people make when learning English - mistakes that people make no matter what their mother tongue is or how long they have been learning English.
Fixing some of these mistakes isn’t always easy, and learning English isn’t full of quick fixes and hacks, but if you can avoid making these mistakes then you’ll find yourself progressing a lot faster than before.
In this guide you may recognise things that you do. If so, you'll also discover what you can do to fix them.
And if you see mistakes that you know that you don’t make, well, you can give yourself a little pat on the back.
If you get through all of this guide and can say, with your hand on your heart, that you don't make any of these mistakes, then you should either consider yourself in the top 1% of English learners (congratulations!), or take a lie detector test.
With each mistake we’ll reveal what the mistake is, why it’s bad, and what you can do to fix it.
1. You don't choose things that interest you
Our first mistake is one that so many English students make, and that is to use materials that aren’t interesting to them, for example materials that are designed just for language schools, or to be used in the classroom.
You know what we mean - textbooks or audio with artificial, staged situations, which are about as interesting as watching paint dry.
The result of this is that you end up getting bored, you can’t motivate yourself, you can’t concentrate as well, and the study of language becomes a chore, not a pleasure.
If this doesn't sound familiar to you, then you probably either haven't spent much time in English class, or you have and you had an amazing teacher.
This one's easy, really. Just read, listen to, or watch content that hasn’t been dulled down specifically for language learners.
Films, books, series, podcasts about things that you’re actually interested in. If you are interested in Star Trek, watch Star Trek (try just with subtitles, then no subtitles). If you love gardening, read, listen to, consume content related to gardening. If you want to learn weird things about the world, listen to The English Learning for Curious Minds podcast.
Find things that interest you, where you are learning something over and above language, not just listening to staged conversations or boring small-talk where you aren’t actually learning anything.
If you surround yourself with ‘real English’, content that talks about things that you are interested in, and it suddenly won’t seem quite so much like learning anymore.
Motivation is one of the key factors in people’s progress, and the easier it is to keep yourself motivated, well then the easier it will be for you to concentrate and keep on moving forward.
2. You judge your progress against other people’s
Everyone learns at a different pace, using different techniques - and different things work for different people.
What do you really gain from spending time judging your progress against that of other people? Absolutely nothing.
It’s completely natural to want to engage with other learners and understand how your progress compares to theirs, but everyone is learning at their own pace, using things that work for them.
By all means you should try out different tactics, but you’ll find out what works for you, and you shouldn’t be comparing yourself constantly to the progress of others.
Learning English isn’t a competition, and trying to measure yourself against other learners (especially as they may come from different mother tongues, and will always learn at a different pace to you) is a pointless endeavour.
Stop measuring yourself against other people.
It's easier said than done, but just remember that every 15 minutes spent on a Facebook or WhatsApp group chatting about how other people are progressing is 15 minutes not spent learning.
If you are at an Intermediate level or above by now - and if you can read this article in English, you should be - then you should have a decent enough idea of the techniques and strategies that work for you, and endlessly comparing yourself to others means you’re not only distracting yourself from the core task of engaging with English content, but you are also more likely to be distracted, to be caught up by the next ‘shiny thing’ or new technique.
3. You choose the easy option & look for shortcuts
This is something that pains me to see, and it’s something that is becoming more and more common with English learners.
In the era of people thinking that there must be a ‘hack’ for everything, people are always looking for a quick solution that means that you don’t need to put in the hours.
And lots of people seem to spend hours searching for ‘hacks’ that will mean that they don’t actually have to put in the time learning the language.
Unfortunately just putting on English songs while you sleep won’t mean you’ll wake up miraculously 1 month later and find that you’re speaking with a British accent, and telling yourself to 'think in English' doesn't mean you're going to be able to give a TED talk in English after a few weeks of doing so.
Learning a language does take time, and the mistake that people make is to think of this time as a 'boring but necessary task’, so they want to minimise the amount of time they spend doing it.
Instead, you should embrace the actual process of learning English.
Remind yourself of why you are learning English in the first place, remind yourself of the goal that you have in mind. That might be to get a new job, to be able to talk about more than basic subjects with your colleagues, or to feel more at ease in an English speaking country.
When you do this you will find that you stop looking for hacks and shortcuts, and embrace the actual process of learning.
Thinking of needing a ‘hack’ makes language learning sound boring and tedious - but it should be the opposite. Relish it, and suddenly looking for elusive hacks won’t be so attractive anymore.
4. You are afraid of making mistakes
Alright, everyone suffers from this one to a certain degree, and just being told to 'not be afraid' is about as useful as being hit in the face with a wet fish, right?
It's not very useful at all, and being told to not be afraid isn't going to help you rid yourself of your fear of making mistakes.
It’s natural to feel afraid of speaking - it’s always easier to nod pleasantly rather than try out a new structure or word.
But without trying, you won’t learn.
And if your objective is to learn, which it has to be, then if you don’t try, you won’t learn.
A mistake that you make (related to having a fear of making mistakes - this is all quite meta) is to think that people care or are offended when you make a mistake in English. Here's a newsflash for you - people really don’t care when you make mistakes, and are completely understanding when you do.
In all probability, you make fewer mistakes than you think you do - people normally grossly overestimate how many mistakes they make, and this really inhibits them.
Instead of having this fear of making mistakes, think about the reasons why you are afraid, and the things that you can do to get over this.
It’s completely natural that you, assuming that you’re an adult who is a fluent, confident and literate person in your mother tongue, feels like you’re a different person when you start speaking English.
You can’t express yourself in the same way - even the most fluent English learners, people who have lived in English speaking countries for many years, often can’t express themselves in exactly the same way as they would in their mother tongue.
You often feel like a different person - unable to communicate in the same way as you can in your mother tongue.
But getting over this fear can lead to fantastic results.
I have a great friend, a Sicilian called Francesco, who is the godfather to my son.
He arrived in London in 2013, I think it was. Without speaking a word of English.
Fast forward a few years and he is now doing a PhD, his doctorate, at the University of Cambridge, on a full scholarship.
Now this might sound completely implausible to you, but the difference between many English learners and Francesco is that he had absolutely no fear.
He made hundreds of mistakes every day, but he always did so with a smile on his face, as well as a very large Sicilian moustache.
And the result was that he was able to get to a really decent level at English, decent enough to get into a PhD programme at one of the most prestigious universities in the world.
So what's the solution? Be more like Francesco.
People don’t care when you make mistakes, and the sooner you understand that every mistake you make is an opportunity to learn, the sooner you’ll get over this fear, and the faster you’ll learn.
5. You try to speak too fast
As a non-native speaker, you might see another non-native speaker speaking English very fast, and mistake this for fluency, or a high level of English, but actually it is often completely the opposite.
Lots of people try to speak too fast and end up making mistakes that they wouldn’t have made if they spoke more slowly.
People from some countries are particularly guilty of this - it's never nice to name names, but Spanish speakers might come to mind when one thinks of people who try to speak too fast in English - but it’s a mistake that people from almost every country make.
You might equate ‘fluency’ with the speed at which you can speak, but actually there’s nothing ‘fluent’ about this.
Do you think that people who speak in English are more accomplished English speakers? Sometimes they are, but often they aren't.
In fact, some of the most impressive orators in English speak very slowly, and with frequent pauses between words and sentences.
Barack Obama, for example, is acknowledged to be a great orator.
If you listen to Obama speaking, he speaks very slowly, and frequently pauses, almost as if he is searching for just the right word.
He also doesn’t hesitate and fall back into ‘um’, or ‘uhh’, filler words.
Finally, if you speak more slowly, especially as your pronunciation is likely still going to be different to that of a native speaker, you will be easier to understand, and you will make life easier for the person you’re speaking to.
If you're easier to understand, people will enjoy speaking with you more, so you'll get more opportunities to speak to people. Win win.
You've probably guessed it, but it's just to speak more slowly.
You'll be amazed at how much more time you get to think, and how much more freedom this gives you to choose more interesting words, phrases, and expressions.
People almost always think they speak more slowly than they actually do, so if in doubt, slow it down.
6. You focus on grammar
Mistake number 6 is a very common mistake that millions of English learners make, and that is to focus on grammar as a standalone discipline.
Grammar in English has its easy parts, but like anything, it has its hard parts too, and once you have covered the basics, the more complicated the grammar is, the harder and more never-ending it can seem.
Yes, it’s obviously a bonus that nouns don’t have genders, and most of our verb conjugations are relatively easy.
But phrasal verbs are obviously a nightmare, and English has lots of weird and wonderful grammar rules that take time to master.
As you have probably realised by now, native speakers make their fair share of them as well.
But if you just decide that the way to master them is by sitting down with a grammar book and working your way through, then you’re really not going to progress very fast at all.
You’ll also probably get pretty discouraged, and it’s easy to lose motivation if you are just heads-down in a grammar book.
You’ll remember from Mistake #1 that you should focus on interesting content to avoid getting discouraged, and you would have to be a bit of a masochist to classify ‘grammar books’ as ‘interesting content’.
Yes, of course it is useful to have a base understanding of English grammar - how various words are conjugated, when to use certain prepositions and so on - but once you have reached an Intermediate level (if you can understand this guide in English), then time spent on standalone grammar exercises is normally time - not quite wasted - but certainly not particularly well spent.
Instead of focusing on grammar-specific exercises, you should try to ‘acquire’ grammar through contact with ‘real materials’ - books, articles, podcasts, so that you understand and acquire grammar rules through real world practice, rather than just focusing on the rules themselves.
When you come across a strange piece of grammar in English, by all means try to figure out the rule behind it, and make sure you put it in your little black book, but don’t focus on grammar alone.
Remember from Mistake #4 that you should try to lose your fear of making mistakes.
Don’t worry about making grammar mistakes in English - even native speakers make mistakes as well.
If you embrace the weirdness of English grammar and stop worrying about learning it as a standalone discipline then you’ll be amazed at how quickly you ‘learn grammar’ without spending any time actively working on it.
7. You don't listen properly to native speakers
Listening properly is a skill that is underestimated by millions of English learners.
Listening is often discarded as the 'least important' of reading, writing, speaking and listening, but actually, when done properly, listening properly is a skill that is hugely helpful to anyone who is learning English.
So, this mistake is of not really listening to native speakers, of not really paying full attention to the sentence structures, the choice of words that they use, or the way that they pronounce a word.
When listening to native speakers - whether it’s podcasts, TV, films, or speaking to a native speaker in real life - so many people just put their entire focus on trying to understand the gist of what is being said, without focussing on the content.
All they try to do is absorb the overall meaning, rather than the words themselves.
There are those that have a completely different view to this, saying that you should just focus on comprehension, and that you should train your ears to listen out for a few core words to get the meaning of a sentence.
But this only really works if you’re just starting out with your English journey, and if you are at an Intermediate or above level, this doesn't cut the mustard. It's actually going to hold you back.
If you are thinking about listening as an opportunity to improve their own English abilities, not just as a survival thing, then you need to stop listening passively, and start focusing on every word.
If you didn’t understand a particular word or turn of phrase, ask someone what it means, or why they chose to use that particular word when you might have expected another.
If it’s something like a podcast, radio, or film, then make a note of it in your own little black book. Go back to it, and treat every time you listen to a native speaker as a time to learn from them, not just to go into survival mode and try to understand what they are saying.
The sooner you switch to doing this, the sooner you will start actually learning from every single interaction, as opposed to just understanding.
Related reading: How to use podcasts like a boss to learn English
8. You think you need to go to an English speaking country to improve your English
Do you think it's impossible to learn English without going to an English speaking country?
While there are some obvious advantages of being in an English speaking country, it isn't the only way.
Lots of English language schools will continue to push this message to people, as it’s evidently in their interest that people get on a plane and enroll in a school halfway across the world in order to improve their English.
But it’s a big mistake to think that you can only really make progress in an English speaking country, and that you have to go to an English school to do so.
It’s completely possible to become ‘fluent’, in the traditional sense of the word, while never setting foot in an English-speaking country.
There are all sorts of fantastic materials that exist all over the Internet that will allow you to create your own ‘immersive’ English experience, meaning that you can create a similar environment to one you might find in an English-speaking country, all from the comfort of your own home, phone, and computer.
From listening to podcasts in English, to finding an English conversation partner through things like italki ($10 free credit), Preply, or Cambly, to switching your phone to English, watching English films and TV series, you can create your own immersive English experience, while not only saving yourself a huge amount of money but also allowing you to fit in your learning around your schedule.
Perhaps you’re already doing this, and if so, kudos to you.
If you’re not, and you’re thinking that you absolutely need to get on a plane and spend time in an English speaking country, just remember, you don’t.
9. You don't make time for it
Don't assume that English learning can just be fit in around the rest of your schedule.
Unless you actually make time every day or every couple of days (much less than this and you won't make much progress) you are so much less likely to actually do it.
This is probably familiar to a lot of you - you decide that you are going to learn English, or focus on improving your English, but then you don't actually set aside the time to do it every day.
What happens then is that you end up just skipping it because there's always something else that is 'more fun' than working on improving your English.
And once you start skipping it, you lose your rhythm, and it’ll become a chore, and you’ll love motivation. It’s really a vicious circle.
It's easy to just say 'make time for it', but here are some actionable ideas that will mean that you actually make time for it.
If you’re the kind of person that puts everything in your calendar, put in that little ‘15 minute English practice’ session every morning at 7.30am. Set a reminder, and make sure you tick it off every single day.
Or if you’re not a calendar type of person, just make sure that you mentally set aside time every day, or every few days, to dedicate to your learning.
You might be a super organised person and just be able to fit in things at odd times of the day, but for most people, setting aside the same time every day is the best solution, as it means it’s a lot harder to postpone or ‘forget’ it.
There’s a terribly overused quote in English which is ‘failing to prepare is preparing to fail’, and this really is true in this case.
If you make time for it every day - it doesn’t have to be an hour a day, even just a 10 minute slot is fine - then it’ll just become part of your routine, it’ll become part of what you do.
Learning English little and often is better than setting yourself huge ambitious goals that you’ll never manage to achieve.
And everyone has 10 minutes free every day, they just need to make sure they remember to set it aside.
10. You don’t set (achievable) goals
And this brings us onto our penultimate mistake, which is really two mistakes wrapped up into one.
These mistakes are related to setting yourself goals.
The first mistake is not setting yourself any goals, and the second mistake is setting yourself goals that are too hard to achieve.
Why is not setting yourself a goal a mistake?
Because if you don’t have anything to aim for, it’s not only harder to measure your progress, but it’s harder to motivate yourself.
It's easier to lose focus, and if you have a target in mind, you are much less likely to give up or lose track of what you are aiming for.
Some people have huge, lofty goals that are too ambitious and unachievable, either because they just don’t have enough time to dedicate to them, or because they require results that are just so difficult to achieve that you’re setting yourself up for failure.
So this might be something like “I want to be fluent in English in 3 months”, or “I want to spend 3 hours every morning before work reading Jane Austen”.
It would of course be great if you could achieve these, but what's much more likely to happen is that you are so far off your goals that the effect is the same as not having set yourself a goal in the first place - you get disheartened.
Set yourself goals, and make them ambitious enough that you are motivated to achieve them, but not too ambitious that you are so unlikely to ever get there.
These goals shouldn't be huge, you don’t have to say that you want to become a professor of English or write a bestseller in English.
They can be something as simple as ‘this week I want to have 5 conversations with native speakers, or I want to listen to 5 podcasts and annotate the transcripts’.
Then you can have a bigger goal, which is your overall target, the thing you’re aiming for.
Perhaps that’s to be able to achieve a certain score in IELTS, or it’s to be able to have a natural, flowing, conversation with a neighbour or a relative, or to be able to watch an entire film in English without subtitles and for it to not feel like a chore.
11. You get disheartened
Our final mistake, a bonus ‘11th’ one, is one that is far easier to say than to actually avoid making.
It's to get disheartened and depressed with your progress.
Learning English, like learning any language, can be a roller coaster ride.
There will be days when you think you can’t do anything right, and that it’s such an uphill struggle that you may as well give up.
Every language learner has been there, and I can assure you that there are probably millions of English learners who are feeling like this right now. Perhaps you might even be now.
Getting disheartened is a slippery slope though - if you stop trying, you'll stop improving, and it's much harder to start again.
If you remember your goals and remember what you’re aiming for, this should help to give you the motivation to stay on track.
Remember, learning English isn't a journey that you start and you come to a final stop, an end point where you can say 'right, that's it. I've learned English'.
It's a constant journey, with ups and downs, and if you embrace the journey, not the destination, then this should help you to avoid getting too disheartened, or at least, when you do get disheartened it'll be easier to get back on track.