Effective Language Learning

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”
by ~William Butler Yeats~

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The following is an abridged and amended version of a talk I gave to some advanced level English language learners last year about effective language learning.

effective language learningToday, what I want to talk to you about is an aspect to effective language learning.

Understanding the distinction between active and passive learning will help you become more effective in your language learning.

Passive learning is where you told what to do, either by a teacher, a book or a friend. The responsibility for choosing what you do and for correcting your mistakes is taken out of your hands. So you as the learner do not take some of the responsibility for learning.

Active learning is very different. Active learning is where you find and decide what you are going to learn, and seek to correct your own mistakes. Active learning means taking on responsibility for all this and more.

Learning is passive in a classroom or in a school most of the time. But really if you think about it, this kind of learning assumes that the teacher knows what is best for you (not just the class) and it is best to follow his or her instructions.  So, if “I am told to do this, I will do that” and not really think about “what and how do I need to learn?”.

This kind of learning leaves you making few decisions. The teacher most times will tell you the answers and correct your work. Or in the case of a book, you look up the answers and correct your work yourself.

With passive learning you make limited decisions to do with the content you are learning NOT about how to correct something, what to learn, what order to learn it and so on. To become an effective language learner, you have to learn to be active about all these matters. If you are not active with these questions, your learning will eventually get stuck.

This is one reason why people get stuck at a level of language well below where they would like to be. Without being told what to do these kinds of learners have no idea what to do next .

Consider for a moment an infant learning their first language. No one tells babies what they are going to learn and how they are going to fix their mistakes, no one. They decide what they’re going to learn and what they are going to self correct.

They decide everything. Babies are great examples of active learners and of course are extremely effective. They use the input they get to decide what needs attention next.  For adults who wish to become great learners of language at some point they will have to learn to better use the input they have access to rather than seeking direction from outside..

If you don’t learn to look for how you can improve, if you keep waiting for somebody else to tell you what to learn and when, your learning will get stuck.  Effective language learning involves looking for shortcomings in your language so you can become an active learner. Even if I wanted to as a teacher, I could never know all the language problems you have. So to expect a teacher, book or language course to do everything for you is a flawed approach.

I’m not trying to overwhelm you but merely wanting you to understand that good language learners take on the responsibility for improving their own language skills.

After this class, for most of you here there’s going to be no teacher. So you will be the one who has to make a decision about what you are going to learn, unless you go to a text book and start working through that.  Does the textbook know what YOU need to learn. No! It’s a general book covering a range of language you may or may not already know.

Effective language learners keep looking to see what they need to learn. If you don’t look for deficiencies in your language or for differences between what you say and others say, you will not be able to keep progressing. 

Most school systems and university courses are based on the principle that the student needs to be told what to learn.  This fundamental understanding drives much of education but its end result is to make the learner passive. 

The ones who get to the top of any subject area, whether it’s language, whether it’s engineering or theatre or music are the ones who learn to ask questions, to become active in their learning. The other ones, the one who accept what they are told, usually make good employees, but will seldom rise to the top in their career.

The ones who really good at what they do, are the ones who learn to ask questions about what they are learning and so look for better ways of doing what they are involved in. They learn to look for areas that concern them and do not keep looking to others for direction. 

In language learning it’s no different. You have to learn to look for instances where your language does not measure up to your intentions, to look for differences in how you say or write things compared to native speakers. These are steps to becoming an effective language learner.

It doesn’t matter what the problem is, what matters is that YOU find something to work on, not from a book, not from a teacher but from becoming more watchful about your performance and what you hear, read or see.  As you learn to value this watchfulness and awareness, you will become more skilled in it, improving in what you find and what you can do.

Even though this talk was delivered to an advanced class of English language learners, I can assure you that the very same principles apply from day 1 of learning a new language. As a language teacher of a beginners class, I can tell who are the students who explore and look to expand what is taught to the ones who wait to be taught and do nothing else than what they are told to do. So recognition of this aspect of of effective language learning can aid any learner at any level to become more effective in their language learning.

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  • Thanks for the comments.
    The good news is that whenever we want to, we can turn this situation around for ourselves and for our students ( if you happen to be a teacher Luxmi).
    Once the importance of getting actively involved is understood we can take steps to change the situation. Teachers can start to set different kinds of homework that requires more and the classwork can start to change as well.  It initially requires commitment and perseverance as passive learning has become a habit ( see last few posts) and to change a habit takes a bit of time.  But the rewards will come.

  • Luxmi

    In most Asian countries, the Mother Tongue is taught by ROTE.
    Then again , English is not used frequently…. workwise, maybe …here again ,the National Language comes into play.
    The upshot of it all is …. my students can’t EXPAND on their own.
    Dare I say…they can’t THINK in English !!!!!
    Besides which , READING is minimal, to say the least…
    Here you have it… complete dependence on texts .
    Luxmi

  • Adel_amorado

    It’s really an eye opener to those who have been blinded by academic policies and university norms.More power to Andrew!!!

  • Thanks for the great comment. Yep, the building blocks are critical for beginners and for language learners. What is important though at any level is to take what is learnt to be active with it. Many language learners somehow want the learning to be done to them rather than get actively involved in the process. So instead of just doing the exercises, memorizing what is given etc the learner needs to try to extend what s/he is learning for themselves and try to see how to apply it in other situations etc that have not necessarily been mentioned yet. So if I was learning “take” for eg, I would apply it to things in my fridge, in my bedroom and work at putting sentences together with all that. Eg “Take the milk from the fridge and put it on the bench” or “I am going to take the pillow and give it to my mum”. Actually doing it physically would really help here as one starts out. This of course can be varied according to what is known etc.

  • Chatoussa

    I wholeheartedly agree with what you said here, but I would like to say that in my opinion some basic language has to have been learned before the learner becomes able to see what else could be useful and what should be worked on. So in a way the teacher and the beginner’s textbooks do know what the learner needs, it’s the building blocks he will have to play with on th way to improving his or her learning.

    • Andrew Weiler

      Thanks for the great comment. Yep, the building blocks are critical for beginners and for language learners. What is important though at any level is to take what is learnt to be active with it. Many language learners somehow want the learning to be done to them rather than get actively involved in the process. So instead of just doing the exercises, memorizing what is given etc the learner needs to try to extend what s/he is learning for themselves and try to see how to apply it in other situations etc that have not necessarily been mentioned yet. So if I was learning “take” for eg, I would apply it to things in my fridge, in my bedroom and work at putting sentences together with all that. Eg “Take the milk from the fridge and put it on the bench” or “I am going to take the pillow and give it to my mum”. Actually doing it physically would really help here as one starts out. This of course can be varied according to what is known etc.