Effective Language Learning

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 textbook 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 effective language learning can aid any learner at any level to become more effective in their language learning.