by Andrew Weiler

May 4, 2017

(The text below is an expanded and slightly different version of the video)

The 3 Keys to Successful Language Learning

No matter who you are, where you come or what have been your experiences, the reality is that there are certain key elements that will either make your learning proceed in a way that may even seem effortless or it will be one typified by struggles that lead you either to give away the learning or to come to a premature stop. The trouble for many learners is that they cannot even conceive what the first option would look like. And this is despite the fact that we all have experienced that many times in our lives.

The Success Triangle

What is important to remember is that our students ( in fact even we 🙂 )are all humans. This may seem absurdly obvious but all too often we ignore the obvious because it is SO obvious. There is a lot more that is common to us than we might believe. A lot could be said here but l better stay on topic! The reality is that we ALL learned our first language successfully AND in a very similar way (and here I am talking about speaking and listening). This is consistently overlooked and something that certainly should not be. Our first language is by far the most difficult language to learn. Just consider that to learn the language we as infants must also learn how to:

  • form and control sounds 
  • isolate sounds from the environment
  • give meaning to the sounds they hear from what they see
  • form concepts from very simple, naming objects, to quite complex ones relating to complex human communication and thoughts

and so much more.

I want you to take a moment and ponder on this. This is one of the most remarkable learnings we can do. We take it for granted because we all seem to do it effortlessly. We all do it like that because we were at that time incomparable learners, able to learn anything that we came across.

So how do you think we did this? We did it by using what we have been given. Amongst other things we have an extraordinary capacity to be present to what we are involved in, eyes to see with, ears to hear with, touch too feel with and a mind to process the information that comes our way. We also learned to focus our attention and to ignore what was not useful to us at any point in time. There is of course so much more that could be said here. I trust though that what I have said has caused you to start to reflect on this.

So no matter who we are, where we come from, all of us brought all of ourselves to whatever we were involved in and used what came our way to successfully learn what we had to. We organised our own learning and focussed on what we had to to learn a thing as complex as a language and ignored what was not relevant to us.

However, in school for the most part, teachers ignore the amazing abilities we demonstrated, and instead teach their pupils to:

  • Listen to the teacher, no matter what
  • Learn the rules of the grammar
  • Memorise vocabulary
  • Listen and repeat

Through all this we learn to become dependent upon the the teacher, and most lose their ability to learn for themselves. So what happens is the tools we so successfully used in our infancy are no longer called upon. Instead many become reliant on artificial learning devices that we know don’t work for for most students.

Drawing on the experience of first language learners and what we know of  successful adult learners, I have extracted 3 key corner stones to becoming effective and empowered learners. These are the ones that keep learning until they have mastered what they are learning. They might struggle at times but typically these learners are the ones who enjoy the process and come back to it from their own volition.

These corner stones apply no matter where you come from or who you are.

Success Triangle

These three cornerstones are: 

  1. Engagement – 
  2. Skill development – 
  3. Growth in Confidence – 

There are other factors, but I will suggest that if you work to thoroughly understand these three and all that they imply, you will be able to take control of and keep improving your learning. This does not mean you will not go to others for help. It just means you will over time come to know what to look and ask for.

 So let’s look at them, one by one.


Best way to describe it is to look at how it affects you. If you are engaged, you feel an energy that has you want to pay attention and get involved in the  activity. If you are engaged you are drawn to what you are doing as you are finding the experience rewarding and fulfilling. Typically there is some kind of challenge involved, something that activates you to look for a solution.

If you are not engaged your attention wanders, and you tend to drift away to other things, thoughts etc. Some people may think that the cause is laziness, inability to concentrate or lack of focus. It is none of those things. When you find an activity engaging, you are not lazy, you do focus and you have no trouble being present.

The more engaging the activity is, the more addictive the activity is. A good example  are computer or video games. Most of you have either experienced that or have seen others so absorbed in them that it is difficult to get their attention.

Interesting is not the same as engagement. If something is interesting it may hold your attention for a time, but it can’t sustain it. Interesting has you pay attention but the response is typically more a passive response, like watching a movie. However not always. Something interesting can come to engage engaging as you want to get actively involved or participate in some way.

One of the key observations we can make on engagement is that it is learner driven. If the learner is not driving it then it is hard to sustain it.

This does not mean the teacher does not have a role. They certainly can, but that discussion is not for here.


Skills are to do with whether we are able to do something.

Cooking, singing, writing, and driving are examples of skills. Learning to speak another language is another skill. Within that there are a whole range of skills, ranging from being able to say a sound as native speakers do, to being able to put together a sentence that others understand.

There are a number aspects to skill development which you need to understand if you are to understand how to use this understanding to your advantage.

I would like to focus on two here.


Just consider learning any skill, we start with the simplest and work up from there. It makes no sense to learn to dribble a basketball if you can’t bounce a ball; it makes no sense to learn to drive fast, if you can’t steer a car well; it makes no sense to learn algebra if we can’t add up. And so on… 

So if you want to maximise the results of what you learn, focus on finding and becoming skilful at using foundational elements.


Alongside the common sense reason for ordering what we learn there is another reason why we it makes sense to focus more on the building blocks of language and what can help us to progress more rapidly.

Common learning phrases like “How are you?”, “Where is the station?” maybe great if you are going overseas for a short trip. But as far as learning a language goes, they aren’t usually a good place to start.

They aren’t a great place to start as they only yield 1 benefit. In other words. Learn one thing and you gain 1 benefit. You can’t really do much with it, outside of its intended use.

Compare that to learning all the sounds of a language, for example. They (in English, 44) enable you to say any word in the English language. Wow!

So here, learn one, yields MANY. Hence focussing more on the foundational elements of language is an important consideration.

The same is true of language forms or structure and vocabulary. Spending a lot of time sorting out complex grammar and obscure words might be interesting but unless you have already developed the skills to be able to use them with confidence as part of your overall language they are wasting your time.

Much better to work on ensuring that you can use the simple forms you know with confidence, appropriacy and accuracy. Then build your language from there, rather than be seduced by the complex forms and flashy words

Key stages of skill development.

I will outline here the stages of skill development, as understanding how a skill develops can help you understand what you need to do to make the skill”natural” to you. Usually you can expect to feel a heightened level of confidence at a level as you pass to the next stage. Confidence is a hallmark of progress. 

Seeking to rush your learning without experiencing confidence spikes in your skills is going to cause you problems.

The stages here are approximations, but they can help you get a sense of the progress of learning. So here they are:

  1. BECOME AWARE of a new aspect of skill or a lack of
  2. NOTICE FEATURES of this skill, when , how, etc
  3. APPLY AND USE WHAT YOU HAVE NOTICED – use it under tightly controlled situations, with high levels of focus and attention required
  4. DO WHAT BEFORE YOU COULD NOT DO, in line with what you have become aware of, or go back to 1 or 2
  5. IMPROVE WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNED – continue to work on and improve performance, working on to less controlled situations, still with typically high levels of focus and attention required
  6. KEEP USING WHAT YOU HAVE LEARNED – applying what you are learning so you alter your performance. This IS critical. 
  7. BECOME AWARE OF OTHER FEATURES that appear as your awareness develops – continue to work in increasingly diverse situations and contexts with somewhat less levels of focus and attention
  8. KEEP IMPROVING BY BECOMING MORE AWARE OF YOUR PERFORMANCE AND THE DESIRED PERFORMANCE – you need to use this awareness to refine what you do. In the same way you would in learning a practical skill
  9. FREE ATTENTION FOR OTHER LEARNING – decreasing levels of attention and focus required to maintain same level of performance…that energy can be diverted to explore new features, refinements etc
  10. MASTERY – A degree of mastery is achieved when there is close to automatic use. There are of course differing levels of mastery in any skill. Hence people’s performance varies even when there is mastery.

If these stages appear hard to grasp in terms of learning a language, just think about a practical skill you learned to mastery – like playing a game, cooking, driving, etc

Understanding that learning skills goes through these stages can help you realize what you need to do to keep improving. The fact that you have not mastered a skill just because you have learned one facet of a skill is to be expected. There are stages you must pass through so your awareness deepens, the skill is rounded out and meshed with whatever else you can do. Without that mastery is not possible.


There are three kinds of confidence,

  1. Confidence as a person
  2. Confidence as a learner
  3. Confidence in using English. This can be happen even when you start learning and progresses till you have full automatic use of the language in the areas you normally function.  It comes from being able to do something with the skills you have. Without an increase in your confidence, learning can be there but typically the learning is based more on understanding, rather than on being able to do. 

Confidence can filter down, from 1 to 3, but without a growth in English skills that will be limited. Confidence is more likely to filter upwards once you gain the skills!

A different kind of confidence happens when you figure out how to seemingly effortlessly keep learning. That is when you experience a surge in confidence in you as a learner, 2 above.
This leads to empowerment, a growth of self belief. A belief in oneself as able to keep learning. Typically this affects your underlying confidence in yourself, 1.

So what we always need to look for is confidence . It is a key marker of whether what we have learned has impacted our skills.


Without working on all 3 keys, and actually seeking them out, inevitably your learning will come to feel frustrations with your progress and it will come to a premature end.

With engagement, you keep feel as you are being drawn back to the activity of learning.

Developing and growing skills will keep you engaged AND help you grow your confidence. Without skill growth, confidence and engagement suffer.

Growing your confidence in what you can actually do, is an essential part of being successful in learning a language.Without a growth in confidence in what you can do, the learning you are doing is ineffective and you will experience a feelings that drive engagement out.

So ensure you:

  1. Look for ways of learning that engage you and continue to engage you
  2. Look for growth in your ability to do things, in all areas
  3. Check to ensure that your confidence is growing in what you can do

If you discover how to do all this, you WILL be successful! 🙂

About the author 

Andrew Weiler

Andrew is passionate about doing what is necessary to enable language learners to not only improve BUT to keep improving.

  • Little do I find an interesting and a brief steps like the ones you’ve just mentioned. Thank you so much.I’m actually an English student, and I do believe that memorizing is a really bad thing. The reason is that children don’t do that while acquiring their language, and thay can produce an infinite number of sentences from a finite set of rules. My question to is how can I teach my students properly until they reach the stage of confidence. Do I have suggest some music with their lyrics for example? To conclude, I just need more clarification about the second stage.

    • So you are a student of English AND a teacher of English. Great!
      I understand your question is about skills. The best piece of advice I can give you is to focus on one skill only and then work out what are the steps to creating that skill. Start on a simple one.
      Each skill starts with one step… then another..then another..a bit like how I described it above. The important thing is to ensure you are focussing on a skill (doing) and NOT knowledge or understanding. Understanding may come at the before, same time as or after the skill! 🙂
      Have a go and let me know, if you wish, what you want to focus on and what you came to. I may be able to offer a little guidance (after you have a go! 🙂 )
      By having a go, I can see where you are at with your skills. 🙂

  • Thank you! I think those are very right thoughts.
    But it also requires discipline to develop skills regularly. This is not part of the triangle, but still a quality without which this triangle will not work.

    • Discipline is required when we are doing what we are not inspired. That is the reason it is important to find ways of learning that inspire us. Then discipline comes naturally.

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