How Do Talented People Learn Languages?

How talented people learn another language

Learn another languageMany people wonder what it is that separates a so called talented language learner from one that isn’t. There are a number of factors to be sure. One of the important differences relates to how learners approach the issue of feedback.

A key reason many language learners make slow progress is that they don’t understand the critical role of feedback in learning.  They expect to get feedback from their teachers or other well intended people.  When they don’t get the feedback they are looking for, they go back and study more and think that will solve the problem. It usually will not because they have not understood the role of feedback in learning.

The importance of feedback in learning cannot be over-rated. Feedback is what happens when recognize that something has changed (or not changed) as a result of something you did or said ( or didn’t do or say!). As soon as you recognize there has been that change there is feedback. If you don’t recognize the change that may have happened, there really has been no feedback for you.

It is impossible to learn without feedback. Feedback is what tells you that what you are doing is working or is not. We always get feedback to what we say or don’t say, do or don’t do, whether we see it or we don’t.

We use feedback to drive a car. How else could we negotiate the mountain roads and not go off the edge! We use feedback when we cook. How else do we know how much to salt our food, as a cook or as a diner?  We use feedback to adjust what we say as we say it, as we watch how people react to what we say. If we see a puzzled expression, a bored expression, an amazed expression we will respond (usually!)  differently in each case. In all these cases, we do not need to look to others to determine our reaction. We make our own conclusions and react accordingly.

We use feedback all the time. Feedback only works to guide us if we are attentive and pay attention to not only the reactions we get, but also to what we do to get that reaction. This is one of the mechanisms that we used to learn our first language. We were not taught. We used what we had to work out what we needed to from the environment, both the inner and the outer. Sometimes our carers put in some guiding words. Many times not. We just learnt our first language by listening to others and to ourselves.

Once we are attentive we can notice what we did to get the feedback we did. Noticing is a skill that too little attention is placed on. We all assume that it just happens. We all notice things, however we mainly only notice what we put our attention on. So to become an effective language learner, it  is necessary to place our attention on more things than we normally do, and to learn from what we notice.

Many language learners believe that feedback from a teacher or someone, else is essential for effective language learning. Maybe you don’t believe that, but I have seen so many language learners not only ask for teacher feedback but by their actions, I can tell they aren’t using feedback to guide their learning.  The way that feedback can guide your learning is by acknowledging that you have the capacity to improve what you do by becoming more sensitive and more attentive to what you do, say, hear and see.

Don’t get me wrong, teachers can have a critical role for those who want to learn another language As a teacher and as a student I have seen the positive influence and effect that a teacher can have.  However, if you want to be a really good language learner you must get past the point of believing that the teacher is the only person from whom you can get feedback.

Everyone uses their own feedback in learning to varying extents but many times it is incidental to everything else that happens. To recognize that you have the ability to consciously provide yourself feedback in every aspect of your learning, is one of the greatest gifts you can give yourself as a language learner. You do this by becoming more attentive to what you do and noticing what happens as a result. Once you learn to do this consistently, you will be on your way to becoming a talented language learner.