Habits in Language Learning

“You cannot control what happens to you, but if you can control your attitude toward what happens to you, you will be mastering change rather than allowing it to master you.”
by ~Brian Tracy~

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Habits are a powerful mechanism that can power our success or hinder it beyond measure. So it is imperative that we need to better understand in order to become better language learners.

I don’t know if you have ever tried to change a physical habit like eating with a different hand or holding your fork or chopsticks in a different way (as I suggested that you try in that post)  but there is a lot to learn from such a simple exercise.

habits in Language learningAnyone who has consciously gone about their learning will know that there are liberal doses of attention and self control required.  It is not enough just to find out about something new (about the language you are learning) from what we hear, from what we read or from a teacher; we need to implement what we discover in real life, not just in an artificial exercise. This is where many people talk about the importance of practice.  However the term “practice” and all that it implies hides all that needs to be done to transform what we found out about into an activity that we do naturally in life.  The creation of a habit is an integral part of that process.

Here is where I again would suggest for anyone who wants to better understand the learning process take on to change a physical habit to to gain valuable insights into what it takes to be successful in implementing change. Take it on as a game, something to have some fun with.  What you learn from doing this, you may be able to read about in some books but it is unlikely to become a part of your learning, rather it will just stay as knowledge which has not done anything to make you a better learner. Without the cauldron of real life experience, any knowledge you gain is far less likely to transform into something that can empower your learning.

One of the big differences between “playing” with a physical habit of the type I talked about and language learning is that language is much more complex.   So there is benefit in doing something not so complex (as the physical exercise) so there are far less complexities in what you are doing. The difficulties that then do arise can more easily be seen for what they are and hence they can help you more easily and pinpointedly understand why many people find language learning so challenging.

Apart from the issue of complexity, there is another issue which separates the two areas.  With language there is an added factor of having to keep looking for what we need to change.  Here lies one of the keys that separate the so called talented language learners form the ones that struggle.

The talented ones, amongst other things, look for and “hear” differences between what they say and what other say.  This has become a habit for them. Whereas the ones that struggle with learning a language don’t look for and can’t hear the differences or if they do it is intermittent and hence has not got the power that a habit has.  Instead they look for teachers to instruct them and for books to inform them and for tapes to train them. They don’t get that they can, if they start looking, notice differences and become aware of what may otherwise escape their attention. This then forms the necessary raw material for learning, the material which they could use as a basis for adjusting what they say and do. This is what they need to habituate so they too can become talented!

By being better able to understand the nature of habits and how they are created you will gain valuable insights into how you can transform this raw material, or any that you come across by any means, into learnings, learnings that will enable you to become a more successful language learner.

“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit” — Aristotle

  • Ben

    It is said, Chinese language is the most difficult one to learn. However, as a Chinese, whose mother language is Chinese, it has some difficult to learn English.
    The most difference between those 2 languages is the method of express and thinking. Every time when I try to speak English, I`ll translate it into my mother language Chinese first and then think about the question in Chinese then tell others in English.
    What would be your suggestion here?

    • Every language is difficult if one is going about the wrong way!

      As far as the problem you talk about, it is a very common problem for people who have learned the new language ( in your case English) in a predominantly intellectual manner using translation as a key way of learning. By intellectual I mean here, studying grammar and vocabulary-through the medium of the first language (in your case Chinese).

      Through learning this way you develop habits of thinking and speaking, etc which need to be let go if you are to achieve fluency. As I explained above, habits are powerful forces. Fundamentally you need to force yourself to stop thinking in Chinese. You need to do the same when you are writing or reading English. Work on all 4 skills!!

      In all 4 skills you just need to do more and don’t give yourself time to translate. Small steps with easy things first and then trust yourself to be able to understand even if you think you can’t.

      Good luck!!