by Andrew Weiler

June 30, 2015

Does it really matter what I decide to learn next?

One of the key issues that many learners overlook or don’t adequately resolve is “What do I work on next?”. This question is more important than you may suppose as what you decide on may set you up for success, or maybe for a much harder road than you may be willing to undertake. There is no simple answer for this question, but there certainly are general guidelines that learners can use, no matter which level they are at.

Some learners leave it to a course book or a teacher to decide for them. They just follow the course book or the teachers advice. Of course if you attend a course there is not a great deal of option. You may be fortunate by finding a teacher that actually works with where you are at, rather than just implementing a course they have been asked to deliver, or one which they create for some “general student” at a particular level. You may even be more fortunate and have a teacher who understands that teaching is far more than just explaining and giving exercises.

Of course there are learners who can transform any material they come across for their own needs and learning. Most however just “study” what they are given or what they find and hope that in some way they will add to what they know and somehow put it all together. Of course that may happen. Given the generally poor rates of language learning, I believe this is relatively uncommon.

Then there are the learners who decide to learn a language by them self through activities such as:What do I learn next

  • studying grammar,
  • memorising phrases,
  • memorising lists of vocabulary,
  • doing reading comprehension exercises and
  • immersing themselves as much as they can in the new language,

hoping in some way their efforts will be transformed into fluency and skill in using the new language. Their choices of what to learn in any of the first 4 areas above can be determined by any number of criteria.  We’ll look at these below.

The immersion approach is more likely to produce fluency, if the immersion not only includes a lot of speaking, but the communication is of a kind in which people invest themselves fully.  However immersion of itself will not always produce a “good” command of the new language. That can be observed in any country which has a history of long term migration.

Key considerations learners need to take into account as they choose what they want to learn next.

  • Speaking is a key (unless your only need is to learn how to read and write). Concentrating on study, reading and writing will not, with VERY VERY few exceptions, produce fluency.
    Further to that, the more invested you are in what you are talking about, the more likely it is that you will improve and do so to a high level. Hence the advice by many is to “get a lover” ! 🙂
  • Follow the juice”  As has been noted by many people, it is important to feel energised by and passionate about what one is doing. If you find that is waning, then that is an indication that what you are doing needs to be amended in some way. Maybe a small adjustment can have your mo jo return. Or it might mean a substantial rethink and reorientation if you can’t recover the energy. Of course not all learning is going to be energised and passionate, but there is a quality you need to have in front of your learning. This is the attitude and approach that distinguishes effective learners. They are attentive, alert, curious and see learning a language as a game which they enjoy. They leave “the game” when they have had enough and return to it when they are ready to play again. Their motivation comes from their curiosity and desire to learn, rather than a feeling of “I should do XYZ”.
  • Build on what you have. Just think of building a house. A foundation is laid and we build a frame. We don’t put on random roof tiles without their being a frame to support it and we don’t install fittings without the walls being built. Bricks interconnect. We don’t put random bricks all over the building. Its impossible to build a house without working from the bottom up.
      • Of course this may appear a bit simplistic and this approach cannot be followed so easily in something like language learning. However venturing too far from this principle will make the task more difficult than it needs to be.So when you are wanting to know what to learn next, don’t look for “sexy” phrases, advanced grammar, random phrases (unless you really need them). 


      • Learning endless vocabulary might feel like you are achieving something, but without having the working knowledge of the language to use it, it is a misplaced effort.


    • Instead, if possible, work to build foundations and get those firm before you venture too far.If you are a beyond the beginner stage, going back and finding what you have missed is also valuable.

Especially, do look to:

  • learn the foundations of the language in ways that enable you to use what you learn. It is pointless learning “grammar”, vocabulary and sounds without using them in speech…fluent speech is the aim.
  • mastering the basics – in speech instead of forging ahead and “studying” advanced grammar.
    Expand the grammar side always being careful to expand what you know…in an organic way.. rather than attempting to learn “esoteric grammar points”
  • focus on the high frequency words in the new language. In all languages this is under 1000, sometimes a long way under. Again learn to use them in “normal speech”.  Memorisation of words does not mean you can use them. Aim is use, not memorisation. There may some exceptions, depending upon your situation, but work to minimise what you memorise. There are far more effective ways of learning vocabulary than memorisation.
  • expand your vocabulary, concentrate on words you come across and work to accommodate them within your working knowledge of the language.
  • learn smaller bits of the language. Trying to bite off large chunks can have you miss a lot. You get the overall meaning but then there can be a lot that has been over looked. Learning skills is all about mastering each of the skills, not bunching them together. Just think of learning to drive, cook or dance. Each part needs mastery.
    If you learn a language only through immersion, certain parts of the new language can be easily overlooked.

What we do in our learning is more important than it first seems, as the results we achieve can help us to build or lose belief in our self and our abilities. Making little or no progress can happen sometimes, however too much of that can cause, without us noticing, our beliefs about our ability to learn languages to be adversely affected. This can further undermine our progress. So choosing what we do next is something we need to look at a bit more carefully as we decide on what we do.

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.

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mistakes to avoid in learning languages

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