How to be a successful language learner
Hi. I’m Mark Hellyer, and in the next five minutes I’ll explain the steps you need to take to become a successful language learner. Now learning a second language is actually not all that difficult, so why are most people unsuccessful?
Well before I answer that, I want you to think about getting fit and healthy for a moment. Getting fit and healthy isn’t all that difficult. All you have to do is eat the right kind of food, the right number of calories and take regular exercise – it’s no secret. So if it’s so easy, why are so many people overweight and unfit? The answer, of course, is motivation, or rather a lack of it. It’s easy to want to achieve something, but it’s much harder to actually make the effort and do it, particularly when it involves a fundamental change in your habits. And how do people try to overcome this lack of motivation? They go to the gym a few times a week, or they hire a personal trainer. And how successful is that? In most cases, not very. And why is that? Well, because what happens at the gym is only a small part of the story. What’s most important is what you do outside the gym - if you don’t change your habits regarding eating and exercise you won’t achieve your weight and fitness goals. Motivation is the key, and there is no way around that.
It’s exactly the same with language learning. The key elements are: motivation, exposure, memory and engagement. Now I’ve talked enough about motivation, so let’s move on to exposure. By that, of course, I mean exposure to the language. Without regular exposure you won’t make any improvement. And this is where most people go wrong. They go to a class once or twice a week and learn a few words and practise some basic grammar, but they forget most of it before the next class. They get frustrated with their lack of progress and usually stop going after a few months. They might tell themselves that this is because they’re just no good at languages, or that the teacher wasn’t very good, but the real reason is simply they’re not getting enough exposure to the language. The fact is that if you want to be successful you have to view your lessons as one of the things you are doing to learn the language, not the only thing. And this comes back to our old friend motivation – you have to have the motivation to read, write, listen and speak English outside class.
Next is memory. Without memory there is no learning, so it’s important that you understand how memory works. Research suggests that we forget a massive seventy-five per cent of what we learn after just forty-eight hours, so if you can’t memorize things a great deal of the time you spend studying will be wasted. So the question is how do we memorize things best? And this is where engagement comes in. We are much more likely to remember words if we read or hear them in some meaningful way, such as in a story, or in a joke, or in an interesting fact, or in the lyrics of a song; we need some kind of emotional connection to the content. And we are much more likely to remember words we hear frequently, so spaced repetition is also important.
So to be a successful language learner you need to:
- Motivate yourself to do as many things as possible in the target language outside class – make sure you’re getting enough exposure;
- Do things that will help your memory – that means reading and watching things that interest you and that you enjoy.
- Use class time to do the things you can’t easily do on your own. Interact with the teacher and the other students, listen to feedback on your language and follow advice about learning strategies.
Above all, take responsibility for you learning. Language cannot be taught, it has to be learnt, so your teacher is actually a trainer. He or she will provide useful exposure to the language through engaging activities, and can encourage, advise and help you, but they can’t do it for you.
Of course, there are millions of websites out there providing exposure to English, but for exposure to be useful it has to be understandable – what we call comprehensible input. All the links on this page are to sites which have content which is designed for English learners or to news media sites. If you’d like a checklist of things you can do outside the classroom to improve your English and a weekly email just put your email address in the box and click ‘send me my stuff’.