Read this and see for yourself that there is a best way to learn a language!
By far the best way to learn a language is to become a better language learner, simple as that! Well, ok, it might not be that simple to do that, but we need to look no further than that for an answer. What remains, of course, is how can we do that.
Many people advocate this method or that technique or some book or other. They all can be effective in teaching you something about the language you are learning. The question is will they enable you to learn what you need to AND keep learning once you have put that book down or finished the course? Talking about criteria like the fastest way, the most efficient way or the most economical way confuses the issue. The fundamental question to look at for most people is, “How can I improve my language learning skills so I can learn a language to the level I desire?”
Without improving your language learning prowess, your progress will be limited to the level of your current language learning skills. I would say that most language learners experience getting stuck on a level without being able to move further. This is one of the most common complaints I hear about and see. You can try different methods or courses but until you learn what you have to do differently to move on, progress can be slow and may lead you to a place from which you can’t move on.
You have a number of options facing you here if you wish to reach something coming close to native like proficiency:
- Take responsibility for your learning, and start finding and taking on some effective principles in language learning. This may require letting go of some beliefs you hold and doing things you may not be so comfortable with. Face it, you have got to where you are now with what you feel comfortable with.
- Go to an expert (not just a language teacher. Most language teachers advise you to do more of the same, or something similar. They see their job as to teach you a language, not help you to become a better learner). This person will need to have more than just skills in teaching. They will also need to have skills in understanding people and what they need to do with themselves to become successful. Typically these people are language learning coaches, not teachers.
- Continue with what you have been doing and almost certainly not get to where you want to go.
That’s pretty harsh I know, but I have not seen cases, as yet, which has me see it differently.
There are many factors involved in becoming an effective language learner. Many of these have been addressed in posts on this site. Taking even some of these on board will surely change your learning for the better. I will have a look at a few of the key factors here that can help you become a better language learner. Not just better, but keep you on the road of improvement.
Awareness and noticing
What sits at the heart of all language learning is awareness and noticing. It is necessary to become aware of many facets, including:
- the subtlety of meanings, of different sounds,
- the ways sentences are put together,
- the way tones are used to adjust meaning,
- the way pauses can be used for emphasis.
If you don’t you become severely limited in what you can learn and how you learn. You can go to books or teachers to instruct, but if you leave it to that, your new language may well forever sound like it was book learned, devoid of real meaning, feeling and care.
Finding classes and teachers who teach with these finer understandings sets you up for great habits in learning languages. Alternatively, you are set up with poor strategies in learning languages that can follow you around until you find a way to move on.
Focussing on learning from situations, from conversations to movies helps you to hone your listening and attention skills as well. Studying from set courses, grammar books and bilingual dictionaries usually lead you in the opposite direction. These means have their uses but using them too much can be crippling. They can hobble you because they can take away the need to be eternally attentive to what is going around you. Instead, you may think for example, “I can look it up and learn it that way”, or “my teacher will teach me”. Being able to deal with frustration and confusion in a positive way is the hallmark of an accomplished language learner.
By relying excessively on dictionaries (especially bilingual ones) and grammar books, it is far less likely you will become laser focussed about the issues in front of you and learning to grapple with frustration. These more formal tools are useful as short term fixes ( occasionally necessary) but they ingrain poor habits for the long term.
Beliefs and attitudes
A second critical area that every language learner who wishes to become an unstoppable language learner needs to pay, at least some, attention to are their beliefs and attitudes. Your beliefs can limit you if you allow them to control what you think is acceptable or doable. We all have beliefs but by being less committed to the ways of learning may open up that before were invisible. An example of that is to believe that bilingual dictionaries are a great way to learn a language!
Another ingrained belief that many people have is that it is imitation which drives language learning. Imitation, I would suggest, hides a lot about what really happens. There is a lot that word “imitation” hides. Here is a great article on exposing just what infants do to learn as well as they do, and that is not imitation. In adults, of course, there are differences, but not as many as you would think.
By opening to yourself that there is more to imitation than what meets the eye, you, in fact, may start looking for what else there is. Isn’t that a vastly superior stance than blindly imitating, hoping that somehow magically your performance will improve.
Attitudes are much the same. Some attitudes may reduce our ability to entertain options, actions and thoughts that really are critical to becoming the language learner you hope to be. One example of that may be to do with not readily accepting people who are too different from you. One does not have to agree with what people do and say, but that is very different from rejecting them and not talking with them.
Maximising the opportunities you have to talk to people in the language you are learning is essential. Excluding some people, because their thoughts or actions are not in accord with yours is counterproductive to your efforts. Becoming more accepting of others is not as straightforward of course as learning some new vocabulary! 🙂 But for many people, equally as necessary!
Skills and confidence
It is not the number of words you know nor how well you understand the grammar that will determine your success. It is the skills with which you use them and the confidence you have in doing that.
Every language learner knows that it is the confidence with which they speak a new language which is the real test of their success. Of course, that is complicated by whether we are talking about (in tennis parlance) club tennis, professional tennis or a seeded rank. Going from one level of skill to another takes not just improved skills but usually new approaches, beliefs and attitudes. This is why all high level sportsman, business people or actors ( to name a few professions) employ coaches.
If progress is not happening as we would like, it is important to review virtually every aspect of our approach to learning the skills that enable to improve our level. It is not easy to do that by oneself. Of course, there are the very few who manage to do it by themselves. Do note though, it is the very few!
Games and habits
We enjoy games when they are a little challenging, but not too challenging. So we would rather play with people at our own level than world masters of a game. With games as we master one skill, we pay less and less attention to it. This frees up some of our attention which we can use to master other skills. Once we can perform a skill without paying much attention to it at all, we can say we have habituated it. Skills are best learned by seeing them as games, something we can approach with as much anticipation and enjoyment as playing a game of Monopoly, chess or basketball. With each game, there are some basic skills to learn, but then with each, there are endless variations that give us a chance to practice our skills in an endlessly creative and non repetitive way.
Learning languages is not that dissimilar. The first few sounds or phrases we learned in a new language, took some energy and attention to master. If we stuck with it, soon we don’t pay much attention to them any more as we can utter them with ease. The game then becomes to find the permutations and combinations to explore what we learned rather than endlessly adding to what we have already learned. Skills become habituated if we give them enough of a workout.
There are a few keys to becoming a better language learner. At the top of the list would be to become more attentive to whatever you see, hear or do. Every great language learner you will find is very switched on, fully engaged in and attentive to whatever they are doing. Becoming an active learner is right up there to ensure this happens.
One way to do this is to adopt ways of learning that require you to be pro-active with what you do. (Scattered throughout this site you will find numerous examples of this.) One suggestion I have here is to not write translated meanings of vocabulary into your workbook. Instead write full, meaning packed sentences using the word you are learning in the target language. Make these sentences as personal as you can, as that way you are more invested.
Work at it for a while and see what changes. Changes don’t usually come easily, so expect some resistance as there is more effort required and the rewards are not readily visible. Stick with it for a while and you will see that your thinking will change, as the way you confront new vocabulary. There will be many benefits to this, just changing one way you work
After you have tried one such change for a while, and start to find it doing it easier, try another change. Only do the changes one at a time and then you will be clearly able to see the improvements you have experienced and the source of them.
Everyone wants to learn faster or better, but how many people like you are willing to take the time to find out about the best way to learn a language. Not many. How do I know? All I need to do is to look at the poor rates of language learning success world wide and I can easily see. The reality is that sometimes not much change needs to be made and at other times many changes need to be made in many areas to find the way that works for a person. What holds it all together is the determination to become a better language learner. The path to such a result is not usually instantaneous but if you believe you can find ways to get there, are results oriented and persist, you surely will!
Check out this video clip where I have talked about some more ideas to get you on the road. Enjoy!