There are lots of things language learners do or don’t do that block the joy and success of their language-learning. But the single biggest and most widespread mistake I observe is this:
Spending too much time learning about the language and not enough time in the language.
Or, put in other terms, spending too much time studying the language itself, instead of interacting with interesting content or sympathetic speakers in the language.
This mistake usually manifests itself as studying textbooks or using language learning programs or apps that don’t convey meaningful information about something other than the language. Although autodidacts (self-teachers) may need to use sources of explicit information about the language to help them understand actual content, the priority should be to find and consume content that is already comprehensible or near-comprehensible.
Almost every major theory of Second Language Acquisition (SLA) emphasizes the central role of input, i.e., content in the target language that is intended to communicate meaning, in developing a mental representation of a language. Several influential researchers (Krashen, VanPatten, Wong, Leeser,…) go so far as to say that input, subconsciously processed by the brain, is the only way to develop a mental representation of the language. Either way, spending a majority of one’s language learning time on explicit study is, at best, an inefficient way to make progress. Again, feel free to look up a word or grammar point to help you understand what you read and hear, or to help yourself formulate a sentence in a situation that gives you time to edit. But don’t think of this as the way you are learning the language.
Let me put it starkly:
If you are a language learner and are relying on studying or ‘practicing’ the elements of a language–vocab, endings, word order, etc.–to make progress, you have no research-informed reason to think that you will acquire the language.
I’ll throw in a version for teachers:
If you are a teacher and are relying on your students’ studying or ‘practicing’ the elements of a language–vocab, endings, word order, etc.–to make progress, you have no research-informed reason to think that your students will acquire the language.
What’s the take-home point?
If you are a language learner, you need to (a) find, (b) store conveniently, and (c) consume large amounts of content in your target language.
If you are a language teacher, you need to help your students do (a), (b), and (c). In the early stages, you probably need to do (a) and (b) for them.
This is actually an exciting thing, because there’s so much sweet content out there for you or your students to enjoy!
I’ll continue to provide tips on this site for finding, storing, and consuming interesting, comprehensible content. In the meantime, check out the Savvy Language Learner infographic for an overview of tips related to content and content-consuming habits. And go find a story to read, a video to watch, or a song to listen to in your target language!
See also Tricks and Triggers for Opportunistic Language Learning, Why Your Reading Habit Works, Do What You Feel Like, What Is Your Favorite Thing To Do?, The Multilingual Reading Countdown, and The Inescapable Case for Extensive Reading.