7 “Deadly Sins” of Language Learning

In today’s guest post, Ray Blakney shares his thoughts on language learning.

Why do people fail when trying to learn another language? And let’s be honest most people do. And I include myself in this list. I have spent close to 25 years living overseas and have learned a number of languages, but have also failed to learn many more. So, what was different? What do unsuccessful language learners do that successful language learners don’t? These are the 7 “Deadly Sins” of language learning I have seen and committed over the years. Any one of them is enough to derail a language learning effort.

Not Starting

Seems obvious, but this is probably the most common “sin” committed by people who have always wanted to learn another language. They never actually take any steps to learn another language. There is always an excuse. I am too busy and don’t have the time. It is raining, so I will go to language class another day. My dog ate my grammar book! If you never take the first step it will never happen. Unfortunately, language learning via osmosis is still only in science fiction.

Too Much Pressure

Language learning should be fun. It does not matter if you are learning the language because you need it for work or if you just want to learn survival Italian to enjoy your upcoming vacation. Scientific evidence shows clearly that a person having fun is able to better learn the subject they are studying. Fun increases the production of dopamine, endorphins and oxygen flow to the brain. Many studies show that these chemicals are critical for long-term memory.

Tunnel Vision

We can blame advertising companies for this one. Every day we are inundated with advertisements about how X product will teach you Y language in 30 days guaranteed. We see happy people giving testimonials that Z product is the only way to really learn a language. None of it is true. In 25 years of travel I have never meet anybody who learned a language from just one thing. Language learning is a holistic process that requires multiple tools, and above all interaction with other speakers. So don’t get tunnel vision and keep trying different things on every step of the language learning process.


I know I have committed this one before (as my French teacher in high school can attest to). We simply don’t do the work. A phrase I have always liked with regards to language learning is that “language learning is not hard, but it is hard work”. The common rule of thumb is that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything (about 5 years of full time work). The same applies to language learning. We have to put in the work. Luckily, for most of us, we don’t need to master the language. Getting up to just communicative levels can be achieved in just a few months of hard work.


We have all been in class with that guy or girl who seems to pick up all the information much more quickly than us. We compare ourselves to them, and if feel that we are not as good many of us just decide to quit. This is no different for language learning, and we need to avoid doing this. Everybody learns at a different pace, but the end goal is the same. Once you are fluent and French, Japanese or Zulu nobody will be comparing you to that other person.

Wanting Perfection

This one tends to be the hardest one. Especially as you get older and gain more experience you are normally used to being able to articulate what you want in a way that people will understand. But when you learn another language you sound like a small child, or worse. So, many people don’t want to speak until… they know how to speak. Don’t let this happen. Give in to the fact that you WILL make a fool of yourself and sound like a child when you are learning another language. And contrary to what we believe, most people who speak that other language will actually appreciate us trying and not care about the mistakes we make. Until you start using the language – even incorrectly – you will never actually learn it.

Giving Up

It is not easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. Many people who are learning a language just give up when they hit a wall. The key is to fight through those times. In my experience language learning tends to happen not so much in gradual increases each day, but in giant leaps that come suddenly every few weeks or months. For weeks you feel like you are not getting better, then suddenly you have a full conversation – with mistakes of course – with a native speaker. Trust me, it always happens. If you need motivation to continuing, think of this. Language learning can improve actually improve your health and has specific benefits like fighting Alzheimer. It also can increase you lifetime earnings. A bilingual employee on average makes $7000.00 U.S. more annually than a monolingual one. So know that you know the largest pitfalls, you can take steps to avoid them. When it comes to learning another language you are your own best ally… and worst enemy.

Ray Blakney from LiveLingua.com is an avid world traveler and has lived and worked in U.S., Turkey, China, Philippines and now resides in Mexico with his Mexican wife. By training he is a software engineer, and by choice he is a serial language and social entrepreneur.