Introduction: I wrote this article a few years ago for groups of Spanish and Italian students who were learning English with me as part of the European Union Erasmus scheme as well as any language learner. It contains many of my ideas on language learning.
Are you a ‘super’ language learner?
I am a tutor in languages but I’m also a keen learner of languages.
You never stop learning a language, not even your native language. What makes a good language learner? – and a not so good one? Here are a few thoughts.
Learning a language is not just a matter of learning from a book, attending a class, or being coached by a tutor. Learning a language is an all-embracing process that should go on in your head all the time. Reading, writing, doing exercises, they’re all important but what’s happening in your mind, that’s the important thing!
A ‘super’ language learner is motivated, single-minded and hungry to learn.
Learning a language is not easy. You’ve got to be determined. You’ve got to be single-minded and self-motivated. You’ve got to understand the reasons why you are learning the language. You’ve got to stay motivated and not be discouraged. Too many people lose heart. Find ways to maintain a positive attitude.
‘Super’ language learners find learning a language fun!
Learning a language can be hard, but it ought to be fun. Learning new words and phrases, getting your tongue around difficult words, discovering beautiful phrases and expressions, the joy of understanding, the satisfaction of using your newly-acquired language abilities to deal with a situation, they’re all part of language learning. Learning a language should be a fun and interesting process!
A ‘super’ language learner has a clear set of goals!
People give up too easily and one of the reasons is the lack of clear goals. For instance, covering a set number of topics and grammar points, achieving a basic level, passing an exam, finishing a coursebook. A ‘not so super’ language learner is unsure of where they want to go and what they want to achieve.
Set clear and achievable goals! Don’t compare yourself to a native speaker. Compare yourself to a successful learner!
A ‘super’ language learner reads, reads, reads! Processing the language through the written medium using material you find interesting that’s slightly above your level is one of the best ways to grow your knowledge of the language. In writing, unlike listening, everything is set out in front of you and you can read and re-read it and find out the meanings of unknown words. New words are like missing pieces of a jig-saw puzzle.
‘Super’ language learners listen whenever possible!
Listening is more challenging than reading but if it’s interesting and at the right level, i.e. slightly above your level, it’s a great way to learn. And you can listen while you work, or drive, or do other things. Finding appropriate listening material at lower and intermediate level can be a problem. One possibility: listen to the CDs from course books.
A ‘super’ language learner always listens and always repeats lots of times!
I’ve taught ‘not so super’ language learners who seem reluctant to repeat after me and just say ‘yes’ when I correct them. A ‘super’ language learner will repeat a new word or phrase and repeat it again and again. This helps to improve pronunciation and to burn it into your memory.
A ‘super’ language learner has access to a dictionary and grammar reference!
Meeting unknown words is an integral part of language learning but how are you going to find out what they mean? It’s only possible to deduce the meaning from the context in a minority of cases. If you don’t have a ‘human dictionary’ to hand (i.e. a teacher or tutor), then a reference dictionary, either bilingual or monolingual is essential.
I find bilingual is best. And what about grammar points? Unless you have an expert with you, you’ll need to look them up too. You could buy a dictionary that includes a grammar reference and keep it with you. Or you can use online dictionaries. Nowadays, an iPhone or other smartphone offers a fantastic language learning resource.
‘Super’ language learners practice by saying words and phrases aloud between lessons!
In between lessons, it’s possible to practice and reinforce the language you’ve already learnt by talking to yourself, either in your head or out loud. You can do this while driving or taking a bath! For no extra effort, time or expense, you can keep the language moving through your brain cells. Practice with others in the language too! If you’re in the country where the language is spoken you have a great advantage. Make use of it!
A ‘super’ language learner carries a notebook and writes things down!
When learning a language, the important stuff happens in your brain. But it needs a little help from time to time, and that’s when it’s useful to make notes. Not just in class but at other times. If you’re in the country where your target language is spoken, you’ll encounter many words and phrases during the course of the day. Write them down in your notebook and find out what they mean! Remember, taking notes is a very good exercise that helps you learn. Your iPhone or other smartphone can be useful for this! You could even record audio memos.
A ‘super’ language learner enjoys writing and likes the shapes of words!
The sort of person who races to the end of a language learning task, closes the book and thinks about something else is not going to be a ‘super’ language learner. Words and phrases are the building blocks of the language. Treasure them. They are like jewels, as in the German word ‘Wortschatz’, which means ‘word treasure’. Write them down again and again. That’s how Chinese children learn characters.
‘Super’ language learners are good at imitating how people speak!
Some people have the knack*, and some find it difficult… I’m talking about the ability to imitate or mimic how other people speak. It’s essential if you want to achieve a clear and accurate accent in the target language. Maybe it’s a gift rather than a skill – I think I have it – but it’s possible to develop a good ‘ear’ for pronunciation, and the ability to reproduce the sounds as clearly and accurately as possible. And if you understand a little about phonetics, i.e. how the sounds are made, that can help a lot.
A ‘super’ language learner is not afraid to try!
Many language learners are timid. It’s not surprising. If you’re speaking a foreign language in the presence of others, it can be intimidating. But you have to practice, even if you make a mistake. Sometimes people might laugh at you, but most of the time, they won’t bother to correct you. If you’re a perfectionist, you may find language learning a challenge. You just have to do your best and you’ll improve over time.
‘Super’ language learners learn from their mistakes!
How many times have I seen ‘not so super’ language learners give a quick glance over their corrections, put their homework away and move onto the next task, only to make the same mistakes all over again?
Mistakes are the key to improvement. Expect to make mistakes. They are an integral part of the cycle of language learning. Study each error carefully, try to understand why you made it, then try hard to get it right next time.
A ‘super’ language learner never stops learning!
You can never learn a language completely. There is always something new to discover. The idea of ‘mastering’ a language is in my opinion one of the great misconceptions of language learning. As my French teacher, Mr Halstead said at the end of our final class: ‘Well, that’s French mastered!’ He was joking of course!
I continue to learn new words and phrases both in my main foreign languages German and French as well as in my native language, English.
Learning a language is an adventure without end! At least, it is for ‘super’ language learners!
Here are a few questions to think about:
1) Are you a ‘super language learner’? Why do you think you are? Or are not?
2) How much do you read in the language in addition to your basic coursework?
3) Do you find listening difficult? How do you think it could be made easier?
4) Do you carry a notebook? How useful do you think it is to use a notebook?
5) Do you have easy access to a dictionary and grammar reference? How do you think these can be useful?
6) Do you use an iPhone or smartphone, or an electronic dictionary? How do you think these can be useful?
7) How good are you at imitating how people speak? How do you think you can
8) Do you study your errors and try hard to remember not to make them again? What errors have you made recently that you are now trying to correct?
9) What new words and phrases have you learned recently, both in your native
language and in the foreign languages(s) you are studying?
10) What language learning techniques do you recommend? Are there any techniques mentioned in this article that you don’t agree with?
An acquired or natural skill at doing something.
“He had a knack for communicating”
compare with Dutch knak ‘crack, snap’.
Definitions from Oxford Languages