How To Learn A Language Effectively

“You must empty out the dirty water before you fill the pitcher with clean.”
by ~Idries Shah~

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There are a variety of factors that can affect the question of how to learn a language effectively. One of the critical factors is the role of awareness in language learning and how noticing (an outcome of awareness) plays a crucial. I want to explore now how you can actually turn something you have noticed into a learning! Sometimes, what you noticed ends up being learned without you knowing what you did to learn that. Much of the time learning may happen like that. Many people are not really aware of how they actually learned something, especially when it is informal learning, the kind of learning that may happen when you are engaged in using the language.

How to learn a languageA lot of the time though what we notice may, for one reason or another, nor result in learning. Rather it stays as something we notice or recognise but we can’t seem to manage to move it through the route to have it become a part of ourselves. Talented language learners master this skill. The rest of this post will look at how you too can learn this skill by consciously learning something that you have noticed.

I will detail below a scenario based on noticing that some aspect of “my” pronunciation is not as it should be.

  • I become more watchful, once I recognise that people have difficulty understanding me.
    • Recognising that “I” need to be watchful of what I do is a necessary realisation
  • I become aware ( by one way or the other) that native speakers are saying “t” at the end of words…but I seem to swallow mine 
    • This specific realisation is a precondition for change. Sometimes you might need an expert to point out a  problem for you. Or if you work at becoming increasingly attentive, you can discover specific differences for yourself. 
  • If I put a lot of attention into what I say, I can somehow manage to put /t/ at the end of words but it requires a lot of effort. The reality is that I forget the vast majority of times.

    • This is not unusual at all. Once a learner has difficulty in remembering to monitor themselves, it is easy to segue into the belief that “I am a bad language learner”. This either confirms a pre-existing belief or sets up a new one. Beliefs are a powerful force that cannot be ignored.
  • I’ll find a whole bunch of words and write them out one under the other,  following different vowel sounds and different consonants – eg
    # bet, fat, cart, hit, nought, mate, pot, fight, seat, hurt….
    # watched, fault, left, bent, backed….

    • This is a necessary step for most learners, that is to break down the learning to its most basic elements. 
    • It’s important to go through all the possible vowel sounds and consonants that can precede the /t/ as there are different demands put upon the muscles in the mouth to get to the /t/. It’s a good idea to get a few examples of each.
    • It is crucial to be very attentive to what you are trying to achieve. Just remember for example, the amount of focus you put into learning to master the gears when you learned to drive a car!
    • Continue this exercise until your attention and energy seems to wane. Then go back to it a bit later.
    • This stage may take a few minutes OR a few days…no matter. The critical thing is getting to your desired result, being able to say each word ( with the /t/ sound at the end) without a great deal of effort.
  • Now I’ll take a sentence from a book with some easy words and ideas and I will say the sentences slowly making sure I clearly articulate each word which has a /t/ at the end. I find that I need to put a lot of effort in to even to this…I do this as many times as I need to get the sound right AND sound natural

    • Here you are moving up the level of difficulty ( the most difficult being able to sound the /t/ in normal conversation)
    • This all may seem slow and laborious but what you are doing here is not just learning this sound but learning to train yourself to be attentive. If you do this well, you will be able to transfer this learning to all other sounds, so the next problem you encounter, your work on it may well require less conscious effort as you are automating the actual learning process of being attentive and self monitoring. (That is why it is hard to tell what talented language learners are doing….it’s all automated.)
  • Next day I repeat the same exercise with the same sentence and maybe a different one as well. If it is going smoothly. It seems to come a little easier.
  • Next day, depending on my progress, I may work on a few sentences. I then repeat them and with time I can say the sentences a little faster and still retain the clarity of /t/ at the end of the words.
  • This seems a big step forward…
  • Next day I can say them more naturally, with less effort.
  • Now I change the sentences again, maybe make them longer. All of a sudden it may seem like I have returned to the beginning…but this time I recover much faster and find that with a bit of effort I can say everything, with an even speed, sounding natural.
  • I am now finding that when I am speaking normally, I am more aware of my t’s and am automatically fixing my speech.
This whole process is not that dissimilar to when you learned to drive a car, for example, or any other skill.  Studied concentration to monitor and control your behaviour, so it meets your criteria of what is acceptable. Then as the skills develops, we devote less conscious energy to the task and slowly the task becomes automated and we can then spend our energy elsewhere.
Now some people may take longer than others to get to the desired result. There are a lot of variables at work. However you will find that once you do this kind of work you are actually retraining yourself and it will transform your understanding of how to learn a language and you will find that your learning skills will improve to the point that after a while all this will happen automatically.