One of the least talked about aspects about how to improve your English (or any other language) is the role of habits. Habits are powerful mechanisms which automate our prior learnings thus freeing us up to learn something else. Just think about how much energy you used when you learnt to drive a car. And then think about yourself as a driver now. Now you can drive, talk and eat all at the same time. Why? Because what you learnt about how to use the gears, the clutch, the accelerator etc has been relegated to your subconscious to look after. So you can now even drive a car and drive from A to B and not be fully aware that you drove there.
This is the power of habits. Humans are the master of creating habits. Its role in learning any language is critical. As language is a creative process, it might not appear that using a language is actually utilising the power of habits, but it most clearly is. Pause for a moment and consider the amount of effort that is involved in, for eg, learning a new sound in the language you are learning ( a sound that was not in your first language). There is full attention and heightened awareness about our oral apparatus required when we are working on creating a sound which is completely new to us. If we put enough attention into it and make the necessary adjustments to breath, muscle control of mouth, etc we may be able to make the new sound. To repeat it again also requires the same amount of full control. We have to keep paying that quality of attention and awareness to our production time and time again, and we may need to revisit this again and again as the linguistic environment of that sound changes if we are to improve our production to the desired quality.
Many times learners fall back on old habits because they fail to understand the amount of attention and control that is needed until they automate the production of the new sound. Once we automate it then we have what is called a habit. Then we can go about learning the next thing we have to. (Clearly, though, we can have quite a few things on the go at the same time ). There are however many other kinds of habits.
There are also habits of thinking that we have which we create at a young age. I will, in fact, suggest that it is these habits of thinking and doing which separate “talented” language learners from the rest. They created habits of learning that are different from the rest of the population.
I can see with many learners in my classes, for eg, that they are most comfortable when they are translating or looking up words in the dictionary. So immediately, as soon as they have a difficulty, they rush to a dictionary. This is a habit that they created, one in which they feel comfortable.
Compare this to a person who has habituated the thought pattern that it is most important to understand what the person is saying, so when they hear a word that is unknown to them, they will assess its importance in the meaning that is being conveyed before they decide to ask the person about it.
Or consider the person who has a habit of listening carefully to what s/he hears and makes sure of his/her understanding…so his listening keeps getting better. Compare this to the person who has got into of jumping to conclusions, without necessarily fully understanding what is being said. This may well have emotional or other overtones however a habit is a habit, no matter why it was created. Check out this exercise on how to create a habit of improving listening skills.
So if you are wondering why your language learning in English is not going as fast as you would have hoped have a look at your habits in learning, not only your study habits but also your thinking habits. To get a better understanding of what is required to change a habit, If you have never tried to change a physical habit like which hand you use to eat with, try it and you will then understand that to change a habit requires vigilance, care and attention, laced with heavy doses of perseverance.
Other areas to look at, which I have already talked about in other posts, are how changing your beliefs, your work with your mistakes, your practice with English, your work on your grammar, vocabulary and English Spelling can all improve your English, your work on improving how you stress syllables, and most importantly are you enjoying what you are doing! Because if you enjoy what you do, you will want to do more of it and better at it!
There are lots of aspects to improving English, however without a doubt, paying attention to the habits you have will give you ample rewards.