The #1 pitfall of teaching yourself (a language)

By | May 23, 2023

Here on Self Taught Japanese I write about not only learning Japanese language and culture, but sometimes I also like to take a step back and write about the act of learning itself. In this post, I want to cover what I feel is one of the biggest pitfalls of learning a language (or anything for that matter) on your own.

The main thing that defines being self-taught is not having a primary teacher who will guide and check your learning, such as a professor in a college course or a teacher in a high school class. In reality this is usually not all or nothing since you may do some learning on your own and some from a teacher or tutor. But regardless, there are some important differences between being mostly self-taught and mostly taught by an experienced teacher.

Selection is an important element, in the sense that it takes effort and knowledge (not to mention time) to find the right resources to learn a language. It isn’t simply correct resources, it is those that are easy to understand, and those that teach you things that are actually useful to meet your language goals (speaking fluency, etc.).

But I would argue the biggest thing missing for self-taught students is how and whether the information learned is actually used. A major part of learning any language is inputting information into your head, whether it is grammar rules, vocabulary, culture, or even how certain words sound. But the difference between learning a language and something almost purely fact-based like history is that the information is learned primarily to put to use, in the form of reading, writing, listening, and speaking. Ultimately you are learning a process to communicate in a language, not a set dry facts.

I think it’s human nature to get a degree of satisfaction out of reading a book or article online, listening to a podcast, or watching a YouTube video targeting language learners. And it can be very helpful. But unless you are one of those lucky people with a photographic memory, if you don’t use what you have learned in some form, you will quickly forget it. Not only that, but until you try to use (for example) a grammar pattern, you won’t know if your understanding is actually correct or not. Doing things like formal exercises in a textbook do count as putting knowledge to use, but the closer the activity is to actual language use (i.e actually writing an email to a friend in that language to convey something important), the more productive it will be.

I hesitate to make hard-and-fast rules, but I think you should devote at least a third of your time to actually using that foreign language (even just reading is very helpful to check your understanding––though it’s important to not skip over difficult sections). Even for those who have sharp memories, knowing facts without how to use them properly in context isn’t enough to become fluent in a language.

Figuring out how to effectively practice what you learned is part of the challenge (and the fun) of being self-taught. But if you get creative (read blogs, talk to a friend over chat, read discord, podcasts, newspapers, speak in a restaurant, even try translation, etc.) you can surely find something that helps you actually put what you learned into practice.

Besides actually using the language in everyday life (a final goal of many language learners), you can also eventually become a language teacher, which really tests your understanding. Sometimes just trying to explain something will cause you to think deeply about it, enriching your own understanding.

I would argue this discussion applies to learning almost anything, and in fact I was inspired to write this post by listening to a self-help book and thinking about inputting knowledge versus actually using it.

If you would like to read some more of my tips for language learning, I suggest checking out my book “Language Motivation: Tips and inspirations for language learning” available on Amazon.

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